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what is rolfing. is it painful?

Los Altos Town Crier

Jul 05th
Home arrow Home arrow Business & Real Estate arrow Loosening up Los Altos’ aches and pains
Loosening up Los Altos’ aches and painsPrintE-mail
Written by Eliza Ridgeway - Staff Writer/   
Ellie Van Houtte/town crier
Photo Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

Rolfer Steph Thurman, left, sees patients at her newly opened office at 164 Main St. in Los Altos.
In a second-story cubby on Main Street, Steph Thurman has established a haven for the work-wizened, hunch-shouldered refugees of Silicon Valley desk culture. A newly trained Rolfer raised in Los Altos, Thurman prods and smoothes limbs tight from stress or injury.
Rolfing looks like a mash-up of chiropractic practice and deep-tissue massage and can feel like a cousin of yoga or Pilates. Founded by biochemist Ida Rolf in the 1970s, the discipline targets the fascial tissue that weds skin to muscle and muscle to bone. Fasciae allow body parts to slide smoothly against each other, flexibly connecting and supporting moving pieces.
“Fasciae are like a web – it wraps around all your bones and all your muscles. If I work in one place, you might feel it radiating elsewhere,” Thurman said. “It’s giving the body more length and space, with the end goal of feeling taller, longer, more spacious and easy.”
Thurman, a familiar face locally from her years working at Hidden Villa and Bumble, trained in massage, where she encountered a teacher who was also a Rolfer.
“I got Rolfed and it changed the way I felt about being in my body – I wanted to learn more,” she said. After completing a course of study at the Rolf Institute in Colorado, the only school of its kind, Thurman started up her practice.
For a mentor, she connected with Michael Murphy, Los Altos’ only other Rolfer, who practices at Loyola Corners. Opening a new practice requires extensive community education to introduce a procedure commonly assumed to be a particularly intense (that is, painful) form of deep massage.
Demonstrating her craft on this reporter, Thurman made a point of checking throughout the session about levels of pressure and comfort. For the patient being plied with sensations of stroking, prodding, stretching and smoothing, the experience can be mysterious (Is that an elbow working my knotted shoulder? A thumb?) but never became painful.
Clients often seek an appointment after experiencing neck or back pain, “things we have because of way our jobs situate us,” Thurman said. In addition to touching her clients, she encourages behavioral changes that will continue outside her office.
“The Rolfing is great,” Thurman said, “but ultimately the shift is what’s happening in your body.”
Thurman’s subjects remain clothed in shorts and sports bras. An appointment involves moving and walking to assess balance, mobility and posture habits. She assesses parts of the body that are moving off kilter and seeks to loosen and relax them manually.
“More space is more ease,” she said. “Ida would say, go around the problem and the problem will fix itself.”
Rolf studied how physical structure affects function and became convinced that attention to connective tissues would help people restore flexibility and alleviate discomfort. She referred to her work as Structural Integration, a therapy that combines touching the body and encouraging behavior to improve posture and alignment. The term “Rolfing,” initially a moniker adopted by clients and students, eventually became the trademarked word for practitioners trained at the school Rolf founded in 1971.
Formal medical research has not deeply explored the theories underlying Rolfing. In recent years, some studies have investigated specific subjects such as whether treating the plantar fascia can relieve plantar fasciitis. The Rolf Institute cites patient outcomes when discussing its results. In her own writing, Rolf drew a metaphysical connection between physical problems – a painful back or a fatigued body – and a more spiritual sense of misalignment that puts the body at war with itself and gravity. She believed that an aligned body could work to heal itself, rather than perpetuating the movements and postures that cause discomfort.
After physically manipulating stiff or tight spots on a patient’s body last week, Thurman sent her across the room to walk back and forth and assess how her body felt: What had changed? What felt comfortable or uneven? Dealing with physical discomfort or lack of mobility addresses mechanical problems but also the feelings pinned to behavior and work lives.
“You fit the work to fit the person, whether that’s what’s going on in someone’s body or how they come in that day,” Thurman said. “You just meet them where they are.”
Thurman practices at 164 Main St., Suite 212. For more information, call 521-6706 or visit
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