A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: rolfing

24 May 2004
I was actually a Certified Rolfer in Sacramento for 1 year. Thank you for placing Rolfing in your "Skeptics Dictionary". However, you have several misconceptions of the therapy. In your website you state, "Has this claim of the muscular/emotional connection been demonstrated by any scientific studies? No, but the proof is that it works! There are tons of anecdotes and testimonials verifying Rolfing." You seem to equate the validation of a muscular/emotional connection as the only possible proof that Rolfing works.

Further when you state, "The expression 'tends to improve' may sound like weaseling to you, but apparently it is crystal clear and scientific enough for Rolfers." This sentence implies that there is no further scientific evidence supporting Rolfing. And furthermore the sarcastic overtone implies that Rolfers are somehow less credible or logical people because of this "fact".

In the aforementioned statements you are incorrect; there are several scientific studies supporting Rolfing -- you can see them for yourself at the Rolf Institute website:


I hope you can update your webpage to reflect this evidence. Thanks for your consideration.

Gregory Brynelson, BA Certified Rolfer®

reply: Please see my responses below to the claim that there are scientific studies supporting Rolfing. In short, there are and can be no scientific studies proving anything about "balancing" and "integrating" or "aligning" bodily parts so that "gravity" can enhance personal "energy" to restore physical and emotional health. On the other hand, of course you can change some postures or the angles of various body parts by manipulation and exercise. You can also do so sometimes by surgery. So what? And of course you can make some people feel better by soft tissue manipulation. Why not just say: Rolfing can reduce spinal curvature? Why all the mumbo jumbo about integration, alignment, and balancing? Why the "holistic" adjective? Look, I don't have anything against Tai Chi either, as an exercise in graceful, balanced movement, or as a way to relax. But whenever anyone claims that they've proved scientifically that balancing chi leads to longevity, etc., I cringe.

03 May 2002

Please update your section on Rolfing® to correct the following errors. You will notice that these errors could have been avoided had you obtained your information about Rolfing directly from the Rolf Institute, the organization founded by Dr. Rolf which is the sole certifying body for Rolfers worldwide, and the sole owner of the service mark "Rolfing®". The definition of Rolfing® is legally owned by the Rolf Institute. To base your article about Rolfing® on a handful of illegitimate sources -- or worse yet, on the diluted hearsay and popular misconception that sadly passes for authoritative information on the Internet these days -- is irresponsible, misleading and weakens the noble cause of skepticism. The address of the Rolf Institute web site is www.Rolf.org, not http://guide.boulder.net/Rolf/as you indicate in your article.

And now, the errors:

"Rolfing is a kind of deep massage developed by Ida P. Rolf (1896-1979), a biochemist and physical therapist."

-- Rolfing® is not "a kind of deep massage". The methods and goals of massage are inconsistent with those of Rolfing®. The only thing massage and Rolfing® have in common is that both involve a practitioner touching the body. If this condition were sufficient to define massage, then dentists and hairdressers could be considered massage therapists (and boxers could be said to perform "a kind of deep massage.") See www.rolf.org/about/index.html and also http://www.rolf.org/about/facets.html for an authoritative description of Rolfing®.

reply: According to the FAQ on the official Rolf Institute site

When most people think of Rolfing, one of the first words that come to their mind is pain. Often, this perception is based on anecdotal accounts of sessions performed during Rolfing's infancy, when it tended to be often a less subtle and more intense discipline, frequently linked to popular emotionally intense types of therapies in the late 1960's and early 70's. Part of this reputation can be attributed to an often-quoted complaint of Dr. Rolf during her training classes that her students failed to work deep enough. Apparently, many assumed that what she meant was that they needed to work harder and deeper. However, we now realize that deep work is not necessarily synonymous with physical intensity.

I note in the entry that this early approach has been replaced by an emphasis on gentler methods. On their homepage, the Rolf Institute describes Rolfing as "a holistic system of soft tissue manipulation and movement education." While I don't go into detail, I do indicate that Rolfing is more than massage when I note that the goal is "integration" and "alignment" and quote the local Rolfer's focus on Rolfing's "gentle deep muscle balancing process that structurally aligns your body."

-- Ida Rolf was not a physical therapist. See http://www.rolf.org/about/history.html for an accurate history of Dr. Ida P. Rolf.

reply: You're right. Physical therapists receive extensive training in physiology and anatomy and science-based therapy. They don't use intuition about gravity, nor make magical connections between physical alignment and emotional stability. Hence, I've removed the adjective 'physical' in describing her type of therapy.

"Rolfing is the name given to Dr. Rolf's method of massage ..."

-- Rolfing® is the name given to Dr. Rolf's principles and methods of structural integration of the human body.

"Rolfing ... transcends chiropractic in that it is based on the notion that emotional as well as physical health depends upon being properly aligned."

-- this statement betrays an unfamiliarity with both Rolfing® and chiropractic. While there is some area of overlap between these two disciplines in so far as their subjective effects can be appraised by the untutored masses, their aims and methods are different, rendering any comparison about as profitable as comparing apples to oranges. Furthermore, any statement asserting that "apples transcend oranges" is so weakly conceived as to yield no meaningful information.

reply: What has Rolfing done to your sense of humor?

-- Rolfing® is not based on a notion that emotional as well as physical health "depends" upon being properly aligned. This statement commits the logistic fallacy of asserting that proper alignment is prerequisite to emotional and physical health. This is nowhere stated in the Rolfing® literature, nor is this idea taught in the Rolfing® training curriculum. What has borne out conclusively in published research is that both emotional and physical health can improve as a consequence of Rolfing® structural integration. (See cited references below).

reply: There certainly is an effort on the Rolf Institute FAQ page to dissociate Rolfing from emotional release. However, Ida Rolf seems to have had other ideas, according to The Toronto Rolf Structural Integration Center:

She determined that the human structure is a "plastic medium", and that by applying pressure, energy and intention, the muscular structure can be altered and freed from long-held aberration, the result of physical and/or emotional traumas. By working to free the myofascial network which encases and relates each muscle and each group of muscles, the body returns to its natural organization, and accordingly functions in a more efficient, graceful and comfortable way. She observed that when human structure becomes more vertical, more balanced, more upright, a whole series of other significant changes occur in the person. Further, she noticed that a body which becomes more structurally upright, provides greater emotional, psychological and spiritual uprightness. [emphasis added]

"To be healthy, according to rolfers, you must align your head, ankles, hips, thorax, pelvis, knees, shoulders, ears, etc., in just the right way or else the evils of gravity will be felt."

-- similar to the last error, this statement claims that Rolfers believe that alignment is a necessary ("must") prerequisite to be "healthy." Furthermore, the word "healthy" here is a weak and meaningless generalization. The published research proves only that certain specific factors contributing to health can, in fact, improve as a result of Rolfing®.

reply: ?

"... according to rolfers ... the evils of gravity will be felt."

-- perhaps you can explain exactly how the concept of "evil" can be attributed to gravity. Your use of this term is flippant poetic license - no doubt conceived with a self-satisfied smirk - designed to characterize Rolfers in an absurd light. Such thinly veiled Ad hominem arguments do not serve the cause of skepticism. You would do better to remain objective and refrain from dramatic bias.

reply: I think you need to have your humor fascia adjusted.

"Has this claim of the muscular/emotional connection been demonstrated by any scientific studies? No..."

-- it is a popular misconception that the goal of Rolfing® is to induce emotional well-being. This probably stems from the fact that a great many people who have experienced Rolfing® report improvement in their emotional state. The goal of Rolfing® is simply to take advantage of the greater mechanical efficiency afforded a structure that is balanced in the field of gravity. This is simple engineering physics. However, such balance occurring in a living structure has been shown to have beneficial consequences for many systems of the body (See cited references below). While there is no arguing the perceived value or validity of one's subjective emotional experience, it must be noted that such effects constitute a class of unpredictable epiphenomena which MAY manifest as a byproduct of achieving a more stable, resilient and efficient structure.

reply: You may be right that Rolfing is now simply about "engineering physics" and aims only at "mechanical efficiency," but until the Rolf Institute stops claiming to be "holistic" I will assume that its practitioners think Rolfing is not just about the body, but about the mind and soul as well.

-- even a cursory scan of the scientific literature yields an enormous body of conclusive research demonstrating the role of the neuromuscular system in mediating the functional connection between the activity of the brain and its emotional expression in the rest of the body.

reply: Well, either you are proud of the fact that Rolfing enhances the emotional well-being of people or you deny that emotional well-being is even a goal (didn't you say it was an 'epiphenomenon'?). I would be the last person to deny that a well-tuned body is very important to a healthy emotional life. I would not even deny that Rolfing is effective in teaching people to use their muscles in a more efficient way. What I object to are the metaphysical overlays and the seeming contradictions such as these from the Rolfing Institute's FAQ.

What the Rolfing method does is create a higher level of integration in the body, balancing and educating the body and the psyche. As the body approaches balance, it is more comfortable in the gravitational field. As the body becomes more comfortable, physical and emotional stress diminish.

What most potential clients fail to understand is that Rolfing is not a method which focuses on stress reduction....All clients experience benefits from Rolfing, an important one for most is that they are less stressed and more at ease in their bodies.


Stress, Stimulus Intensity Control, and the Structural Integration Technique, Silverman, Rappaport & Hopkins, (abstract : Confinia Psychiatrica, Karger Publisher, Switzerland, 1973)

Effects of Structural Integration On Strait-Trait Anxiety, Robert Wagner and Valerie Hunt, UCLA, 1976, (abstract : Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 35, No.2, USA, April 1979)

A Study of Structural Integration from Neuromuscular, Energy Field & Emotional Approaches, (abstract: Dr. Valerie Hunt and Wayne Massey, UCLA Dept. of Kinesiology, 1977)

Electromyographic Evaluation of Structural Integration Techniques, Dr. Valerie Hunt and Wayne Massey, UCLA, (abstract : Psychoenergetic Systems, Gordon & Breach Science Pub., U.K., 1977)

Functional Evaluation of Rolfing in Cerebral Palsy, Perry, Jones & Thomas, (abstract : Developmental Med. Child. Neurol. 1981, 23)

Children With Cerebral Palsy, Cindy Potter, 1986

Effects Of Soft Tissue Mobilization on Parasympathetic Tone in Two Age Groups, J. Cottingham, Frances Nelson Health Center, Illinois, 1987, (abstract : The Journal of American Physical Therapy Assn., Vol. 68, 352-356, 1988)

Shifts in Pelvic Inclination Angle and Parasympathetic Tone Produced by Rolfing Soft Tissue Manipulation, J. Cottingham, Frances Nelson Health Center, Illinois, (abstract : The Journal of American Physical Therapy Assn., Vol. 68, 1364-1370, 1988)

Biomechanical Structuring For Figure Skating, preliminary pilot study report for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, Helen James, Katharine Robertson, and Neal Powers, Olympic Training Center Camp, CO, 1988

Effects of Soft Tissue Mobilization On Pelvic Inclination Angle, Lumbar lordisis, and Parasympathetic Tone: Implications for Treatment of Disabilities Associated with Lumbar Degenerative Joint Disease, Cottingham JT. Public testimony presentation to the National Center of Medical Rehabilitation Research of the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD; March 19,1992. Rolf Lines 20 (2) : 42-45, 1992

A Three-Paradigm Treatment Model Using Soft Tissue Mobilization and Guided Movement-Awareness Techniques For Patients With Chronic Back Pain: A Case Study, J. Cottingham and J. Maitland, The Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, Vol.26, No.3, Sept.1997

Integrating Manual and Movement Therapy With Philosophical Counseling For Treatment of A Patient With Amyptrophic Lateral Sclerosis: A Case Study That Explores The Principles Of Holistic Intervention J. Cottingham, M.S., P.T. and J. Maitland, Ph.D., Alternative Therapies In Health and Medicine, Winter/Spring 2000


Scott Cantrell, Certified Rolfer

10 May 1998
I understand where you are coming from with "The Skeptic's Dictionary." There are undoubtedly many quacks out there, although I suspect many you would define as such are quite sincere - which of course doesn't legitimize their methods.

I do take some umbrage with your snide - to me - comments re Rolfing.  From a biomechanical standpoint, I would think it quite obvious that structure has an impact on function.  I speak from personal experience, as I was born with a clubfoot.  I have experiential evidence (which of course cannot be scientific as there is no possibility of replicability or control) of the changes Rolfing has wrought on my body.  I suspect you would concur if you saw the photographs.  At the same time, my eyesight has improved from diopters of -10 in both eyes to -4, with continuing improvement.  (This has occurred contemporaneously with use of The Bates Method, which I am somewhat surprised is not in your work as it has generated much scorn from the medical community over the last 70+ years.)  These are real structural changes which have taken place.

reply: I don't know of too many people, medical doctors or not, who would disagree with the notion that structure has an impact on function. The Bates Method has generated scorn in the medical and optometric communities, but I, too, am fallible and incomplete.

Again, my greater ease and efficiency of movement, which also have emotional correlates, are not the type of thing scientists look for in validating a "system" of healing.  To be quite frank, I really don't care a whit!  The important thing from my standpoint is that I know Rolfing has been of benefit to me.  I realize that you undoubtedly haven't had this personal experience, and can therefore easily be skeptical, and perhaps that's appropriate.

However, I think you should perhaps be a little more selective in what you include in your work.  Does lack of scientific evidence alone merit inclusion, or should, perhaps, only affirmative evidence of lack of scientific merit be the benchmark for inclusion?  Admittedly, as a practical matter, no mainstream scientist would be caught dead studying alternative therapies; therefore, affirmative evidence is unlikely to appear.  Remember there are orthodoxies and heresies and fashions in the scientific world, just as in any form of human endeavor.  To ignore this is to most assuredly engage in self-deception.  The human ego is a frail thing.

John Hicks

reply: Customer satisfaction is obviously a good thing, but it cannot substitute for scientific testing. For every happy customer of a quack remedy, there are many who are not helped and some who are harmed because they did not seek a traditional therapy known to work for their ailment. Contrary to your claim, there are often good reasons to examine alternative therapies and mainstream scientists are usually the ones to do the examination, e.g., magnetic therapy and therapeutic touch.



larrow.gif (1051 bytes)All Reader Comments


This page was designed by Cristian Popa.