Rolfing, and What Your Down Dog Says About You

For the past few months, I’ve been working on bringing my recovering knee back to pre-surgery shape. I went back to my favorite physical therapist, Tom Hendrikx; when I maxed him out, he recommended that I try Rolfing.

I chose Russ Pfeiffer. This turned out to be a fortuitous choice. Russ is a former student of Richard Freeman and Tim Miller. He knows the demands the practice puts on our bodies.

If you’re not aware of what Rolfing is, it’s really difficult to describe in a way that makes sense until you’ve had a Rolfer work on you. You can Google it if you want the standard definitions (or read Russ’s description on his website), but I’m going to tell you what I think it is, based on the work I’ve been doing with Russ.

Russ has been overhauling the relationship my skeletal system has with my muscles by trying to change the way I think about the way I move. He does this by changing the way I walk, sit, breathe and practice by directing my attention in different directions. For example: I have a ton of external rotation in my hips. This makes lotus, kurmasana, etc. fairly easy for me. But I have almost no internal rotation. This makes tirang mukh, bhekasana, and backbending extremely difficult and probably led to the degenerated meniscus in my knee.

Russ observed me walk, asked me a bunch of questions, and then pointed out that I don’t really use the internal rotators to walk, stand, or drive. I tend to walk and stand on the outside edges of my feet, shortening some muscles and over-working the I-T band. He taught me how to correct this, and then goes in and shifts the fascia (the connective tissue between the muscles and organs) until the muscle alignment will allow me to correct the problem with more facility.

(As a side note, you may have heard that Rolfing is very painful. Maybe it’s Russ’s skill, but I don’t think it’s that bad. It does feel very. . .odd, like the skin itself is adjusting, which, I suppose, it is.)

So, why am I telling you this? During my last appointment, I was relating to Russ something that Nancy Gilgoff said in her adjustment workshop about down dog. She told us she never moves the student’s hands in down dog. “You can tell everything about their practice by where their hands go,” she said. And I told Russ that when you ask Tim about a problem you’re having with a pose, he often says, “Let’s see your down dog.”

Russ lit up right away. He said that all movement involves constant prediction: We have to foresee where our bodies will go in space. This involves the nervous system, and that predicting is so complex that 95% of the neural activity involved in movement happens before you make the motion. So, says Russ, the hand placement in down dog doesn’t just tell you about someone’s alignment, but about they way they’re thinking about the pose.

Now, I found this fascinating. Aside from what it might tell me as a practitioner, it seems to me this reveals a difference in teaching philosophy between Nancy and Tim. Tim messes around with people’s down dogs all the time. He moves the body to change the thinking. Nancy encourages more mental control over the practice, so in a sense changes the thinking to move the body.

I thought that some Confluence readers might be interested. Russ is full of these gems, and provides me with a wealth of anatomy information. And, my knee feels great!

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

3 thoughts on “Rolfing, and What Your Down Dog Says About You”

  1. Hi, more than a comment, this is a question.
    I recognize myself in how you describe your body, easiness in lotus, stiffness in back bending, poor inner rotation. So, I thought you’d be the right person to ask
    I’m facing a knee problem as well, after an MRI my doctor tells me I have a torn meniscus (something small) and I’ll need surgery. I will see another doctor and an osteopath to get a second and third opinion… But I was wondering if after meniscus surgery you can fully recover, do lotus, etc. How is your experience?

    1. Hi Martin–

      I asked a ton of people before my surgery about knees, and my decision to have “the tear” repaired came because I didn’t want to practice for years and years with pain. “The tear” turned out to be three, and severe degeneration–I’ve also had shoulder surgery, so I’ve learned that they can’t tell a whole lot from the MRI. They have to get in there. Post-surgery, there’s much less pain then before. Lotus came about eight months later. It’s slow recovery, but I am actually more open now. I wish I’d known about and addressed the internal rotation issue before the tears, but now that I know about it, I can honestly say my practice is better than before, a little more than one year out from the surgery. Should you decide to go ahead, a really good PT is KEY. Don’t go to someone who doesn’t know what Ashtanga is, or is unwilling to learn. Hope that helps you!


      1. Thanks so much Bobbie. This is really helpful. I’ll find out more about Rolfing, definitely, and keep in mind what you say about the PT and Ashtanga.

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