Is Rolfing® Painful?

Rolfing® Structural Integration is a bodywork technique developed by Dr. Ida Rolf in the mid-20th century. Despite its growing popularity as a method for relieving pain, improving posture and mobility, as well as enhancing general well-being, there is still a misunderstanding about the degree of discomfort during the Rolfing process. Some people ask themselves: Is Rolfing painful? 

The answer is “No”. 


Releasing Tension 

It is important to understand the principles of Rolfing® Structural Integration, which seeks to optimise the structure and function of the body. 

Rolfers® realign and rebalance the body by manipulating the connective tissue also called ‘fascia’ - an interconnected network of tissues that that runs through the entire body and connects different body parts with each other. If certain regions of the body are under tension or out of balance, this influences other parts of the body. 

To release tension, realign fascia, and correct imbalances in the body, Rolfers use special and targeted touch to systematically work through the myofascial system. Certified Advanced Rolfer® John Wilson explains it like this: “When addressing muscle restriction, we sink down to the layer of restriction and challenge it there, and no further. If the layer of restriction is superficial, we work superficial, if the layer of restriction is deep, we sink in deep but no farther than necessary, without excessive force.”  

This can sometimes lead to feelings of pressure, stretching or discomfort, particularly in areas where tension has built up or movement is restricted. However, this experienced intensity is transitory and quickly leads to a decrease in sensation and ultimately to a profound release of long-standing blockages: 

“Some of the areas that are contacted in a Rolfing session have been held in tension for many years. Releasing this type of chronic tension can sometimes feel uncomfortable, although this feeling can be minimised by working with breath and relaxation, for example breathing into the area being touched. But it is the kind of “pain” that feels useful, that it is resolving something deep in your body that rarely gets touched – the kind of touch that we Rolfers say “hurts good’.“

- Certified Advanced Rolfer® Alan Richardson.  


Pain is Counterproductive 

Rolfers have long understood that they do not need to use excessive force to achieve results. Certified Rolfer® Calie Cutler stresses, " too much pressure will also cause the body to tense up. The goal is not to create more trauma but to release it. Creating excessive pain does not create a good environment for the body to let go." On the contrary, effective intervention is only possible when the body is free from excessive tension, which means that the subjective well-being of the client plays a decisive role for the success of the process.  

If you feel pain, your natural response would be to withdraw from the stimulus and to contract your muscles. And we don’t want that to happen. We do want to reduce pain.”

– Alan Richardson  

As Certified Advanced Rolfer® John Wilson explains it: “It is important to understand that if a practitioner goes overboard with pressure, goes too deep too fast, or just over works a client in general, the sympathetic nervous system can be triggered and go into a state of fight or flight.”  This would result in a subconscious resistance to change. 


Pain Versus Intensity 

It is important to distinguish between intensity and pain.  

While some clients may experience moments of intensity during sessions, Rolfing should never cause undue pain. Intensity signifies a deep engagement with the body's tissues, signalling the potential for healing and transformation. In contrast, pain signifies discomfort and resistance that hinders the therapeutic process.  

Rolfing feels very deeply relaxing, as it releases and balances tension and compensations that have built up over a lifetime. In places, the sensation can be very intense. Intensity is fine as long as the client can relax with it. If at any point the pressure feels too much or too fast, there are always other ways to achieve the goals of the session. I ask clients to let me know immediately if their discomfort is beyond what they can relax with.”

- Certified Advanced Rolfer® Libby Eason 

The ultimate goal is to facilitate profound and transformative changes in the body. Intensity experienced during Rolfing is temporary and can be attributed to the body's response to the release of deep-seated tension and realignment of structures. Over the course of the session, as the body begins to adapt to the changes introduced by the Rolfer, many clients report a sense of relief, relaxation, and improved mobility. 

It is all about trying to be attentive and sensitive to the changes taking place. If the use of force is excessive, the practitioner is working with violence, but the appropriate use of force is not violence.”

- Certified Advanced Rolfer® John Wilson 


The Rolfer-Client Relationship 

It is worth noting that individual experiences of Rolfing can vary greatly. Factors such as the client's sensitivity to touch, the degree of tension or trauma present in the body and the practitioner's skills can influence the perception of discomfort during sessions. The number of sessions and the pace at which the work is performed can also affect the overall experience. 

Rolfing sessions are not mechanical processes that are forced upon the client, but rather a collaborative experience between therapist and client. Rolfers endeavour to create a safe environment in which clients can relax and engage with the work on their bodies. They are trained to work within the client's tolerance level and adapt their approach to ensure that the experience remains manageable and beneficial. 

At the heart of Rolfing lies the relationship between the Rolfer and the client — a partnership built on trust, communication, and mutual respect. As Alan Richardson states, “pain tolerance boundaries may occasionally be challenged but so long as a safe therapeutic environment has been established, this should be no problem. Trust is paramount and foundational to the Rolfer-client therapeutic relationship.”  

Dialogue is crucial in ensuring that the intensity of touch is appropriate, and that the client feels empowered throughout the process. Rolfers encourage clients to voice any discomfort or concerns, ensuring that sessions are tailored to individual needs and preferences. According to Certified Rolfer® Calie Cutler, a “good Rolfer will have a conversation with an individual about how and when to tell them the pressure is too much and not beneficial.”  


Unique Rolfing® Experience 

In conclusion, Rolfing needs and should not be a painful experience. While some intensity may be felt during sessions, it should be within the clients’ comfort zone and ultimately contribute to their well-being. By fostering open communication, sensitivity, and collaboration, Rolfing practitioners guide clients towards profound healing and transformation. 

Countless people have found Rolfing to be a profoundly transformative and beneficial experience. In addition to the physical benefits such as improved posture and reduced pain, many clients report feeling more connected to their bodies, developing greater body awareness, and gaining insight into habitual patterns of movement and tension. 

If you're considering Rolfing, remember that your experience will be unique, and finding the right practitioner who aligns with your needs and preferences is essential.  


“Rolfing and Pain” – by Certified Advanced Rolfer® Alan Richardson

“Is Rolfing Painful?” – video by Certified Advanced Rolfer® Alan Richardson

“Is Rolfing Painful?” – by Certified Advanced Rolfer® John Wilson

“Is Rolfing Painful?” – by Certified Rolfer® Calie Cutler

“Is Rolfing Painful?” – by Certified Advanced Rolfer® Libby Eason

Learn more about Rolfing® Structural Integration.      

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