Asheville rolfer Kate Wilson tells the story of one of her most memorable clients. Montford resident Sarah Patten was training for a marathon when she ran into trouble. Her stamina was fine, but she had to stop at 16 miles, unable to finish the race, because of pain in her knee.
The race was only a week away. Pulling out of the competition was a very real and daunting possibility. Having exhausted all other options, she decided to try rolfing, a body-centered modality that releases connective tissue, as a last resort.
“A week later, she completed the race totally pain-free and has not had any knee pain since that session,” says Wilson. “As a result of that success, she decided to complete the ’10 series,’ [a sequence of 10 sessions] after she returned home. That’s when the real work started.”
Wilson says she frequently encounters people who don’t know what rolfing is. “I often get a blank stare … to my saying, ‘I’m a rolfer,'” she says. “I say it’s a type of manual therapy that targets fascia, or connective tissue, and helps people feel better. … It makes all the parts of the body work well together again.
“Some folks find they can get better range of motion and less pain after an injury or surgery,” continues Wilson. “Others can improve their posture and move better. I have clients who find relief from anything from headaches and neck tension, to shoulder and rotator-cuff pain, to sciatica and plantar fasciitis. My clients include yogis, cyclists, dancers, runners, musicians and surgeons. Others are new moms, waitresses, folks who sit at desks all day, others who drive all day. Everyone can benefit. My youngest client was 3, and my oldest was 87.”
Wilson says the number and frequency of treatments depend on the patient. Some injuries or issues take only a few sessions, she explains, whereas some involve more. The 10 series helps to establish “more systemic balance and relief in their body,” she notes. The average frequency of sessions is every two to three weeks.
Casey Kiernan, a rolfer who moved to Asheville in August after 20 years of practicing in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., explains how rolfing works: “When the body is tight, it is held in misalignment, which can create pain and poor function. Rolfing frees restrictions in the tissue, allowing better alignment and easier movement, which in turn promote flexibility, reduced pain and more joy.”
Kiernan recalls a dramatic experience in treating a 64-year-old man who had been blind since the age of 9. “He was very independent and would walk through the streets of Washington, D.C. But he had a way of holding tension in his body as he moved to determine where he was in space,” she says. “When we were able to free up the connective tissue … he felt that he could walk with his cane much more fluidly, trusting that his body could respond more softly and less rigidly to something in his path.”
But is rolfing painful? “Intense” is the way Wilson describes it instead.
“Most clients come in having heard stories about how much it hurts,” she explains. “They quickly realize that I’m not going to take people out of their comfort zone. They also realize that when it is that intense, it is also a relief, because that area I’m working on is the tight area the client has been wanting relief from. Most say that rolfing ‘hurts so good.’”
She adds that clients are in control of how deep the work goes and need to communicate with their rolfer. “Honestly, with a little focus on your breathing, you can experience release, relief and ultimately renewal,” she says.
Kiernan agrees that rolfing does not have to be painful, although she adds that “sometimes when restrictions are released, there is a freedom that some people experience as pain. This is similar to the soreness that can occur during and after a workout or yoga. I like to think about it the way a bird is experiencing discomfort cracking the egg to start a new life. Transitions can be wonderful … or painful … or both.”
Wilson says one of the main differences between rolfing and massage is that rolfing seeks to uncover the root of the problem — not just physically, but also emotionally. She notes that one of her patients had post-traumatic stress disorder due to childhood trauma, which caused tension in her body. Rolfing changed her emotional experience as well as her movement, she explains, by affecting body alignment, posture and structure.
Stacey Brewer, who commutes to Wilson’s office from northern Georgia, turned to rolfing after being hit by a car while biking 30 years before. The accident had left her with lingering pain, she says, and she was looking for hope that her pain would finally be eased and movement restored to areas that had developed scar tissue.
“Lots of styles can break down scar tissue, but that’s all they do,” she notes. “The difference with rolfing is that it resolves issues at the source, and the rolfer essentially ‘weaves’ your body back together again.”
Asheville resident Paul Huemiller sought out Wilson as a result of concerns about the worsening of his shoulder and knee issues.
“I had tried regular massage and only found temporary relief,” says Huemiller. “Several friends and colleagues recommended Kate and rolfing, as they had had success.”
Heumiller testifies to the benefit he has received: “Aside from the obvious relief I receive, I’ve gained a very deep insight into my own body. By discussing and paying attention to the areas Kate chooses to work on, I can see that something far away from the pain is often the culprit. This helps me to adjust how I use my body off the table, during yoga classes, for instance. I can see the whole picture of how my practice affects my health very clearly.”
Brewer agrees: “Thanks to skillful and sensitive rolfers like Kate, my body is a better version of itself — more balanced, more mobile, more relaxed,” she says. “Both my husband and I continue to use rolfing as a primary therapy anytime we get injured or have nagging pain from physical activity. It’s made a profound difference in both our lives.”
Kiernan underscores the wide range of benefits from rolfing: “We all have complicated life stories, and I find rolfing helps ease the path one follows with greater ease, less fear and more joy on a physical, emotional and spiritual level.”
To be a certified rolfer (a trademarked term), a practitioner must have been trained at the Rolf Institute for Structural Integration in Boulder, Colo. In North Carolina, all rolfers must also be licensed as massage therapists. Wilson notes that some practitioners with training at the Guild for Structural Integration, also in Boulder, may offer rolfing services but are not technically certified rolfers unless they graduated from the Rolf Institute.
Wilson says she was inspired to become a rolfer at age 10 as a result of witnessing her mother’s rolfing treatment. To deal with chronic back pain, her mother did the 10 series, and the results were successful. This prompted Kate, her father and brother to try it. “I just thought it was cool, what my rolfer knew how to do,” she says.
Kiernan also came to rolfing through personal experience. “I had a bicycle accident where I was hit by a car, and rolfing was able to bring me back from injury,” she recounts. “All those problems went away for good. … So were some long-held postural patterns that I had carried for my entire life. I was hooked. I could not wait to study rolfing and expand my awareness of how I could help people.”
“People in Asheville care about their health,” says Wilson. “No matter how they use their bodies, Asheville folks get it. They have decided to live life to the fulllest, and that includes feeling good in their bodies. And it never gets boring. There are too many interesting and exciting clients. I benefit as much from knowing them as them as they do knowing me. It’s the best part of my job.”
Kate the Rolfer
564 Haywood Road, Asheville
Undercurrents Rolfing Structural Integration
29 Ravenscroft Drive, Suite 309, Asheville