To complement the MASSAGE Magazine article, “Expert Advice: Is Fascia Alive?” by Thomas Myers, in the July 2011 issue. Article summary: Fascia is part of our living body, for sure, on a day-to-day basis. But if we had a vat of cell solvent, we could dip a body in it, dissolve away all the systems of cells and be left with our inner shell of fascia, our three-dimensional cobweb of extracellular matrix, fibers and glue that would show us the exact shape of the body, inside and out.

by Anne Hoff

For most of the time Ida Rolf, Ph.D., was teaching, the U.S. public would have said bodywork was for cars and massage meant Swedish massage. Rolf’s work led not just to Rolfing® Structural Integration—and through her students to other forms of structural integration, such as Hellerwork® and Soma—it also profoundly influenced and broadened the practice of massage therapy.

This can blur some very real distinctions between how Rolfers™ and massage therapists practice fascial work.

Rolfing work is not a technique so much as a modality embedded in and dependent upon a specific view of the body. Practicing it is inseparable from thinking and perceiving in terms of Rolf’s comprehensive view of the body in gravity, which runs the gamut from specific understanding of the hallmarks of structural integration, in terms of anatomical relationships and movement, to a broader philosophical notion of the role of the work in the evolutionary optimization of the human form. Studying at the Rolf Institute® is as much about becoming steeped in this conceptual and perceptual framework as it is about learning technique.

It seems fair to say most fascial work in the broad world of massage is geared toward other goals, including relieving pain, increasing range of motion and reducing adhesions, without the overriding goal of structural integration. Thus, just as “The map is not the territory,” which was a favorite Rolf aphorism, the technique is not the modality.

In the terminology of Rolfing instructor Jeff Maitland, Rolfing Structural Integration is a third-paradigm modality, serving a goal of wholism. In contrast, typical fascial work in massage is working in the second paradigm, that of corrective action and fixing things.

Imagine two therapists each working in the same room, side by side. The massage therapist may feel a restriction of the client’s adductor fascia bound against the quadriceps fascia and approach freeing those fascial bags, greatly aiding economy of movement, reducing adhesion and assisting myofascial length. The Rolfer at the next table might be doing the same thing, with the same benefits, but he has decided to do it as part of a strategy in the context of aligning the body in gravity, and is thinking about the relationship of these fascias to others in the body with the goal of changing the organization and alignment of the biggest bag of all, the body as a whole.

Therefore,  even when doing identical fascial techniques, we cannot say the massage therapist is doing Rolfing work unless she is also trained and certified as a Rolfer and has learned to employ this understanding and reasoning in the greater holistic framework.

In some ways, it’s a question of macro and micro. The Rolfer’s macro view of fascial sheets sculpting the whole body determines where and how he works. He will often work “where the pain ain’t” (another Ida Rolf aphorism), because his training helps him see how the pain pattern relates to a larger structural pattern necessitating change elsewhere.

Without structural training, most fascial work in massage is more localized and guided by symptomology, but of course highly effective in achieving its own goals. Both approaches work wonders for our clients, who will only benefit as we all continue to develop our work and appreciate our differences.

Anne Hoff is a Certified Advanced Rolfer in Seattle, Washington, practicing Rolfing Structural Integration, craniosacral work and visceral work. She taught a fascial approach to deep-tissue massage for many years at the Maui Academy of Healing Arts. For more information, visit