Owen Marcus is a Certified Advanced Rolfer with more than 30 years of experience. Trained at the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, he is currently practicing in Sandpoint, Idaho, where he is an active member of the local community. As an authority in the world of Rolfing, he has taken a leading role in increasing awareness, community education, and stretching the boundaries of Rolfing. Some of his latest projects include writing a book about Rolfing, and a recent study looking at the effects of Rolfing on reducing cellulite. He also operates his own web site on Rolfing and he is a frequent contributor to the Rolfing professional website at RolfHub.com.
Hi Owen, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your experience and expertise about Rolfing with us. I found your latest article about Rolfing while researching different treatments for chronic back pain, and as I investigated the world of Rolfing I was impressed to find that your name is everywhere.
You are a leading authority and spokesperson for Rolfing and you mention that the most common reason people see you is for back pain. Can you explain your approach?
Most acute back pain is actually caused by chronic tension. Men have virtually crawled into my office hunched over in pain. The majority of the time they say, “I didn’t do anything. I just…” tied my shoe, picked up a piece of paper, or some mundane act. I always ask, “Have you been under stress recently?” Their response is almost always, “How did you know?”
I knew because that last innocent act was the final straw. For years, that man had been getting tenser, shorter and more misaligned. A few days of stress and one simple movement did him in. It’s not the recent stress or movement; it is years of chronic tension.
At this point, for the acute condition to heal, the chronic tension needs to be dealt with. That is where Rolfing excels. We treat what accumulates over decades of stress, misuse and abuse.
Structurally the low back (the lumbar spine) compresses. Stand up. Feel your pelvis, the crest of your hip where your waist is. Then feel for your 12th rib, the lowest rib of your rib cage – it is a floating rib that comes around from your back and ends just in front of your side. Well, that rib ideally should be the distance of width of three of your fingers from the side of your pelvis.
Three fingers are rare. Two is good. For most back patients it is one to negative one or two. Yes, those ribs can be compressed inside your pelvis. If you have a “short waist” this space is short. Not only does this compression affect your organs, it compresses your back, and, more specifically your discs. These discs are like jelly donuts. They are meant to be soft, flexible and not weight bearing. As your waist compresses they become more like dried out pancakes bulging or rupturing.
We will never get a “zero finger” patient to the point where he could fit three fingers in that space. But that’s not necessary. Just one finger-width of improvement will alleviate your problem.
Many of my back-pain clients have had surgery. Those patients, and even a surgeon, have told me that the surgery might fix the disc, but it doesn’t address the cause. Inevitably, a couple years after the surgery, the problem is back. But now the bulging disk is the one above or below the one that was “fixed” in surgery.
Rolfing doesn’t just work the back muscles, though. The muscles of your back are tight mainly because they are countering the tension and shortening in other muscles. We release these other muscles and fascia, then the back stays relaxed. For instance, I have one patient with chronic neck and shoulder tension whose calves were so tight, it was pulling her whole pelvis out of alignment—and, consequently, her back, too. It’s probably a chicken-and-egg question as to what tightened up first, her calves or her back. But without releasing her calves, her back would never have released.
Rolfing is not a panacea, but it can significantly reduce the tension that causes most back problems.
In reading your articles about Rolfing the term "fascial release" keeps appearing. Exactly what does that mean? And, is that the essence of Rolfing?
Fascia is the connective tissue, or the soft tissue, the holds us together. Under stress or trauma, the fascia tightens, hardens, and becomes scar tissue. Fascial release is a term that started with the cranial-sacral osteopaths many decades ago when they developed a very subtle manipulative therapy that released the bones of the body.
Fascial release is an indirect manipulation of the soft tissue of the body. Most bodywork, including boney manipulation of chiropractors, is direct manipulation – moving the tissue or the bone to where you want it. Indirect is applying pressure, often light pressure, to start a release, then follow or assist the tissue in releasing. I prefer this approach because it is easier for both the client and the practitioner. It teaches the tissue to release, rather than forcing it. You “teach” the tissue what “relaxed” feels like, and that relaxed position will hold. Most importantly, because of the release, the results are longer lasting. What distinguishes Rolfing from traditional fascial release is that the pressure is firm, which is why the effect is deeper and the result longer lasting.
Is Rolfing limited to just soft tissue manipulation? Or do you also work with the bones and joints? How effective is Rolfing for treating the pain of arthritic joints?
Rolfing directly treats the soft tissue – yet every bone and joint is held and moved by the soft tissue. The soft tissue caused bones to misalign. Most joint pain starts from the progression of increasing misalignment due to the soft tissue pulling on it. You release, lengthen and straighten the soft tissue, and in most cases the bones and joints improve their alignment, thereby decreasing their pain.
With arthritic joint pain, it can be complicated. Arthritis is a broad diagnosis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, and Rolfing would not directly affect the disease. With the more generic osteoarthritis, Rolfing can assist through releasing the strain that often starts the process.
You have written on the importance of finding a Rolfer who was trained at the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration. How does Rolfing differ from other techniques, such as deep tissue massage, or myofascial release?
Rolfers are the architects and engineers of the human structure. As a Rolfer, I work with an eye towards organizing the client’s structure. We look for what is causing or could cause a problem. We don’t want to just fix the problem, though; we want to fix the underlying cause by releasing the tension and tightness in the body.
I love bodywork. I am a hedonist when it comes to good bodywork. Every form has it niche of effectiveness. Rolfing’s is stress, chronic soft tissue strain and structure.
To verify if a Rolfer is truly a Rolfer, go to The Rolf Institute® of Structural Integration
In your recent article, A Holistic Approach to Rolfing, you mention Rolf Movements. Can you tell us a little more about what these are, and what they can do?
Many of our problems arise from how we use our bodies. Ergonomics applies this concept to how we use furniture. As Rolfers, we look at everything from how you breathe to how you perform your Olympic event to see how you could be more efficient.
Your recent work involving the use of Rolfing to reduce cellulite in women is very interesting. How have the Rolfing techniques and methods that you use evolved over the years? Has the training at the Rolf Institute changed from Ida Rolf's initial teaching?
Ida Rolf was a genius because she took a few basic principles, such as gravity’s effect on the human body, and developed a science and art to improve people’s lives. She did it because she was scientist who looked beyond her training. Rolfing as profession continues to grow because as Rolfers, and some of us as physicians and scientists, are looking at ways to deepen Rolfing’s effect. The core principles are still the same. How we achieve the results continue to evolve.
My study and work around cellulite started years ago when I operated my holistic medical clinic in Scottsdale, AZ. Without any intention, we started having women come to us for Rolfing because their friends had seen us and their entire figures transformed. It became a joke. Women would say, “I want what you did for Sally. I want to lose my hips.”
The fascia becomes tight and restrictive, thereby limiting circulation, which, in part, causes cellulite. It is as if cellulite is the result of the blockage. You remove the blockage, and over time the cellulite often dissolves away.
Are there any contraindications to Rolfing? Or, any conditions that Rolfing might make worse?
Generally, if a client’s goals or problems are related to a condition other than stress, soft tissue or structural concerns, or they do not get better from the body releasing, I will refer them to someone else. More specifically, if a person has cancer or another illness that can spread with increased circulation, I will not Rolf them.
For example, Rolfing cannot directly affect polio. Yet I have been able to help clients who were experiencing post-polio syndrome, a condition that evolves from years of compensation and stress from polio.
If, during the course of the series of sessions, I have not produced the level of change I desire, I might suggest taking more time to complete the series. I might also suggest using other adjunct therapies with—or without—Rolfing.
From Clean Rivers, to The Sandpoint Men's Group, to The Whole Revolution, I see that you are interested in many different community service organizations. What are some of your favorite current projects?
Three years ago, when I helped form Sandpoint Wellness Council, I began to see how our community had a wealth of people and interest in holistic health and green living. Out of that, I recently formed Whole Sandpoint as a way for businesses, organizations and people to come together.
My work with the men’s groups got me moving into writing my book – Grow the F Up, Men. I never had a guide to how be a man. I had to learn on the job by trial and error. I could have used some guidance.
I read that you are also involved in body-centered psychotherapy and helping people as a relationship coach with your website at unwrappedlove.com. How interesting that must be. Is that related to your Rolfing practice? Or, is that just another side of Owen Marcus?
Both. When I started studying Rolfing in the late 70’s I also had the honor to study with the men and women who were developing the field of body-centered psychotherapy. My undergraduate degree was in psychology. It did nothing for me. When I began learning about not just the concept of the mind and body being connected, but a way to facilitate change through that connection, I was blown away. I am still blown away with those simple principles.
I apply much of what I learned in studying and practicing body-centered therapies, Rolfing, and men’s work to working with couples. Robert Bly did a poem on the third body, our relationship. As a unique body, it too can be supported using many of the same concepts I used in the other areas.
Thank you Owen, for the background and information on Rolfing, over the years I am sure that you have helped many people using these techniques. Combining Rolfing with your psychotherapy work all sounds very interesting. We look forward to learning more as your work with cellulite progresses and when your book is ready, please keep us updated.
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We want to thank Owen Marcus for sharing his time and giving us some insight into the world of Rolfing. It certainly sounds like something that can help people who are living with back pain. I would encourage everyone to find a certified Rolfer near you and give it a try, and if you get a chance to make it into the great Pacific Northwest, give Owen a call to set up an appointment.