With only two of the world's 1,850 Rolfing practitioners working in Hong Kong, chances are you have not heard of this system of intense, deep-tissue massage. Named after its architect, Dr Ida Pauline Rolf, the therapy method has developed a following in the United States, and in Colorado in particular, where the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration is based.
The Phoenix Suns National Basketball Association (NBA) team was an early adopter in 1994, and the list of Olympic medal winners who endorse Rolfing is long.
In Hong Kong, recreational athlete Alexander van Praag has also been a beneficiary. Arriving from London, Van Praag spent some time looking for a Rolfer. 'I have always been heavily involved in sports and athletic activities, particularly martial arts, but I also accumulated many injuries. As I entered my mid-30s, I started to feel the mileage,' he says.
Van Praag got more than he expected when he went to see Rolf therapist Steven Bremner to treat his long-term neck, knee and back pains. 'The aches and pains have gone, but I've also noticed a very marked improvement in performance at the gym. It feels like I have been driving with my parking brake on for years, and now it's released,' he says.
Another patient in her late 40s, whose name has been withheld for patient confidentiality reasons, describes how treatment for a persistent and nagging shoulder pain helped her whole body feel more fluid, lighter and released. She says: 'Not only has the pain gone, but I also saw my marathon speed shift noticeably. I am looking forward to my next marathon to see how I perform.'
Rolf, who died in 1979, aged 83, was an innovator. She was awarded her PhD in biochemistry in 1920, virtually the dark ages for women's education. Then, driven by family health problems and influenced by her interest in osteopathy, chiropractic, homeopathy and yoga, she came to the belief that if the body's components were free to move optimally with gravity, the body would heal itself.
Rather than working on bone (like a chiropractor) or muscle (like a massage therapist), she discovered that she could achieve remarkable changes in posture and structure by manipulating and freeing the body's myofascial system, made up of connective tissue (fascia) that surrounds and supports our muscles, tendons, bones and organs in an intricate 3-D network.
With repetitive use, abuse and trauma, these tissues can become scarred and inflexible, causing distortion and rigidity where there should be balance and fluidity. This in turn can lead to chronic pain. Rolf called her system of freeing the body 'structural integration'.
Other practitioners may do deep tissue massage or even some form of structural integration, but Rolf set her system apart by establishing the Ten Series. Over 10 hour-long sessions, the whole body gets worked on - important from a Rolfing perspective because everything is interconnected. Patients get gouged with knuckles and kneaded with fists, limbs contorted, and tendons and ligaments loosened with elbows. They often get treated for one complaint but find that at the end of the series, other niggling pains have also been dealt with.
'Take the knee as an example,' says Ea Holm, a Hong Kong-based Rolf therapist. 'Too many knee injuries are 'cured' with surgery. A doctor looks at the knee as a body part, whereas a Rolfer will look for the cause above and below the point of pain. The causal problem may be as far away as the jaw.'
While some patients accept the concept of a structured, thorough approach with an end in sight, others don't, says Holm. In such cases, Holm will fall back on her massage therapy background and introduce some Rolfing techniques, explaining to the patient how the process works. 'It's very difficult not to use Rolfing techniques when you can feel the problem and know that the solution is only through Rolfing. Without a doubt, the Ten Series is the best approach,' she says.
Patients are persuaded when they feel an immediate benefit. 'In the first session, we work to free the ribcage so that people can use the full capacity of their lungs as and when needed. I might work to release one side of the ribcage and the patient will immediately feel the difference in their breathing in just that side of their body,' says Holm.
When asked about the therapy's reputation for being painful, Holm said that Rolfing had evolved since Rolf first established her series. 'Pain only causes the body to seize up in response to the perceived violation. The aim is pain free treatment. The therapist reaches the deeper tissue with slow manipulation, allowing the body time to relax into it.'
Van Praag describes his treatment as an 'education for the body', saying his body learned and adapted to new ways of movement and alignment.
'Each lesson was delivered through Steve's hands, elbows, and even feet, directly to the tissue of the body, and also through movements that he taught me to take home to use.'
While popular amongst athletes, Bremner says that he has never met anyone whose body wouldn't benefit from Rolfing.
While the name might not be appealing, the thought of a structurally integrated body is. As I hunch over my laptop, I couldn't agree more.