What is structural integration (SI)?
Structural integration (SI) was developed by Ida P. Rolf, and is a form of manual therapy based on the principle of holism, the idea that each part of a person—from the muscles, bones, and organs all the way down to the cells—contributes to one’s well-being and the ability to live better in our bodies. Structural integration uses fascial release techniques to stretch, differentiate, and open adhered, knotted tissues—releasing excess tension and restoring proper span, tone, and function to the myofascia (the muscles and fascia). SI also uses movement education and cueing to help facilitate better body awareness and movement possibilities. It is “system”-oriented rather than “symptom”-oriented. It seeks to resolve symptoms by addressing the underlying dysfunction in the global structure of the body instead of simply working on the part that hurts. Therapy that addresses the root cause of pain can have much more profound and lasting results than therapy that focuses solely on relieving symptoms.
What is fascia?
Fascia is the connective tissue that envelops, supports, and suspends our body in gravity. Fascia takes many different forms, and has the ability to be highly pliable and elastic or quite fibrous and rigid, depending where it’s found in the body and what its function is. The fascial system or connective tissue matrix, as it is often called, could be considered its own bodywide system, much like the digestive or circulatory system. Fascia is an integral component of all our other organ systems. It is an aqueous membranous tissue made up of collagen, elastin, and other molecules. It’s found as the packaging of our muscles, organs, ligaments, neurovasculature, and tendon sheaths. When working at its best, it is able to glide and fold in on itself and promotes smooth, efficient movement throughout the entire body.
What are the benefits of structural integration?
On the most basic level, structural integration can enhance your internal and external experience of your body. It can offer numerous benefits:
- Greater support in your posture
- Increased freedom from pain
- Increased ability to adapt to and recover from stress
- Increased strength, agility, and ease in standing and movement
- Improved concentration and mental acuity
- More restful sleep
- Healthier immune system functioning
- Decreased depression and anxiety
- An enhanced sense of integrated wholeness
Most importantly, the structural integration I practice assists you in becoming more fully embodied. What does it mean to be embodied? Because embodiment is ultimately a subjective experience, here is how I would define it for myself: Embodiment moves beyond a simple internal and external awareness of our bodies. You can think of embodiment as feeling at home inside your own body. l experience it as a deep internal contact with my core, and a full experience of my aliveness, in which I’m able to inhabit myself throughout my whole body and feel myself living within my feet, legs, pelvis, heart, head, hands, and so on. I feel rooted into the ground, and enjoy a sense of support from my feet and pelvis. I’m aware of my breath and how it acts on my system. I have a felt sense of my substantialness; I feel a unified wholeness throughout my body, while also being conscious of the relationships inside me so there is no separation between my body and my self. One could think of it as whole-body, whole-being integration.
Being embodied helps me stay in touch with the physicality of my emotions, which in turn lends itself to a greater capacity for authentic interpersonal connection. I’m able to feel what’s true for me at any given moment.
Who is structural integration for?
You don’t have to be in pain or have the posture of a neanderthal to benefit from structural integration. SI is for anyone who wants to feel better in their body. All that is needed is an investment in yourself and a willingness to allow change. Perhaps there are activities such as hiking, running, gardening, or dancing that you used to enjoy, but now avoid because they cause you pain or discomfort. Perhaps you have always wanted to try something like yoga or rolling skating, but you hesitate to try because you think of yourself as lacking the flexibility, strength, or coordination required. SI can help with those challenges.
What does a typical session with me feel like?
In your first session, we will have a thorough conversation about your health history and any injuries you may have sustained in the past. We will also discuss how you are feeling in your body currently, and come up with realistic goals within the context of the series.
I begin every session with a postural analysis or body reading, in which you stand while I assess the structure of your body and how it arranges itself in gravity. I may ask you to do basic movements such as walking, bending, or squatting.
During the session, my therapy is guided by global listening, an assessment where I gently place my hand on top of your head and send a micro-force through your system. The pressure creates a subtle collapse or listing in the area that is presently needing support or care. This is named the primary restriction in the body, and is continually changing depending on the moment and the organic forces at play. I will proceed with further investigation to be as precise as possible before applying manual therapy techniques that are performed with the use of my fingers, hands, knuckles, or forearms. I perform most of the work while you are on a massage table, but I do some while you are seated at a bench or standing. You may be asked to breath into or slowly move a particular body part to enhance the technique and aid in release.
What should I wear during a session?
I ask that you wear minimal clothing that shows as much skin as possible while still maintaining your modesty. You should feel comfortable getting onto and off the table and standing in front of me in this attire.
For women: A plain, unrevealing bra and underwear or two-piece bathing suit works just fine. If you want more coverage, stretchy yoga shorts and a tank top can also work. The important thing is that I’m able to get a good sense of your structure and access the places on your body that I need to work on. (Clothing that does not work well are bras with overly stiff strapping or rigid underwires. Some sports bras may fall into this category but others work well.) Anything you wear should be comfortable and easily stretched or moved to the side to allow access.
For men: Boxer briefs work best for ease and comfort during a session. Briefs also work well. Boxers are not as good because they tend to be less stretchy and more prone to accidental exposure.
What is the difference between structural integration and massage?
The difference has more to do with the context that is set by the practitioner. Structural integration approaches the body as a whole organism rather than as a collection of parts. Fascial release techniques without the use of oils or lotion is standard practice for a structural integrator. This allows the therapist to get a better handle on the tissue and effect greater change without sliding around as they would if they were using oil. The tissues emphasized in my practice go far beyond just the myofascia (the muscle and fascia) and the musculoskeletal system. A series could be thought of as a cohesive project you and I are collaborating on, in which we work together to find greater ease and function within your body. It’s an interactive experience that requires presence and engagement from both client and practitioner.
In a typical massage, by contrast, the client is often more passive. The emphasis is on treating muscles, and massage therapists tend to use lubricants when they are working so there is less capacity for precise treatment of tissues. The treatment is more symptom-oriented and done in an ongoing fashion, without the theory of holism or the framework of structural integration.
How is my structural integration practice different from that of other practitioners?
Classical structural integration is organized around the 10 series, in which the client is taken through a series of ten sessions that cover a set anatomical geography for each session. The emphasis tends to be limited to the myofascia and the musculoskeletal system of the body. The 10 series was developed by Ida P. Rolf as a way to teach the art and science of structural integration to her students, and it is still taught to students at the Rolf Institute today. This protocol has stuck around as the map or recipe that traditionalists adhere to. How the tissue is approached is largely informed by the posture of the client and what is on the agenda for that particular session according to its number in the series. This method may produce results, but it often reduces people and their bodies to machines made of flesh. While such a mechanistic understanding may be helpful, it is not the whole picture, and it relies on the false narrative that the practitioner always knows best.
The structural integration I provide is based more fully on the principle of holism—the idea that every part of you and your environment contributes to your well-being. Each session is guided by the internal wisdom of your body and is tailored to your needs. Because our human form and psyche are infinite in their variation, no two sessions ever look the same. I employ global listening and a series of highly specialized assessment techniques to reveal the primary intrinsic need of your body at any given moment. This approach allows us to move beyond classical protocols into a series of sessions that unfold organically, establishing a new baseline for resilience and agility. I work with all the tissues of the body, with an emphasis on the central nervous system, peripheral nerves, arteries, and internal organs. While I do use visual posture assessment to collect information, it is only one of many bits of data that inform my picture of the human being before me. I gain so much more insight from observing body language, facial expression and compassionately listening to my clients.
Does this form of hands-on therapy hurt?
For the most part, structural bodywork should feel good. People often describe the sensations of release as a sense of opening, ease, and warmth, of letting go or of weight lifting from the body. There may be a sensation of slight burning, like the feeling you get from a satisfying yoga stretch. Some techniques provide more sensation than others, but at no point should the work cross the threshold into discomfort or create a sense of apprehension in your body. It is paramount that you are able to stay relaxed and breathe easily throughout the application of all techniques. Everyone is different, so it is important for you and I to communicate clearly, in order to find the appropriate depth and pressure.