I have been so very fortunate to be involved with bodywork – making a living through touching people with the intent to create progressive change toward balance – since 1974, now 43 years ago. After so long, I’m grateful to be invited to share a few of its lessons.

(Actually, it reaches back further in my life: when I was in summer camp in the 1950’s I used to give my counsellors ‘back rubs’ – that is, until another boy called me ‘queer’ for doing it. I was nine years old and had no idea what ‘queer’ meant but it sounded bad, so I stopped. The things we do to each other, all unwitting! I am so grateful I had the good fortune to return to this native talent as an adult. I remembered those early back rubs during a hypnotic regression a few years into my career.)

Performing manual therapy professionally is an art and a craft and a science, as well as a business, let’s be honest. It is hard to sustain a practice if it is not giving you a good living so let us look at one practitioner’s journey in all three sides of that triangle.

As a young adult I had likely heard of massage but in those days the separation between legitimate therapy and adult entertainment had yet to be delineated. So if massage was brought up I likely tittered like the rest of the populace at that time. In 1973, however, I quit the path my parents and university had set me on and set out to, as the saying went, ‘find myself’.

America was tilted at the time so, like many seekers of that era, I rolled west toward California. Also, as with many, I happened onto meditation and Gestalt psychology and what was then called the ‘Human Potential’ Movement (a term I have always preferred to ‘New Age’ or ‘alternative medicine’. As far as I am concerned, I am still in the human potential camp and I continue to be astounded at what humans can do.)

I was in a meditation ‘boot camp’ and some of the members were sneaking away from their focus for a couple of hours and coming back with welts on their bodies. “What are you doing?”, I enquired. “Oh, we’re getting rolfed” came the answer, to which I raised a quizzical eyebrow.

One member of the group said, “I’ll show you”. He placed both hands on my chest and flayed the skin off my breastbone. It hurt like hell but my teeth started to tingle and I could definitely feel my breath change. “Far out” – as ‘Awesome!’ was expressed back then.

When, a few months later, I heard that Ida Rolf was giving a talk I tootled down Santa Monica Boulevard to a down-at-heels motel conference room to have a listen. Within that banal setting, a little white-haired old lady commanded the room and my full attention with a riveting talk (fully academic with a New York accent) on the human condition, at least with regard to body use.

Another member of my spiritual ‘sect’ had taken a ride down with me and, after Dr Rolf’s opening lecture, he volunteered to be the model for her demo. In 45 minutes of precise, definite (to the point of pain) probing and prodding tissue, releasing the guy-wires and the secret places of tension, he stood up, visibly changed. His chest was deeper, his voice was deeper, and (I knew him) his emotional affect was deeper as well – even to my untrained eye.

I had been headed for a career in promoting a form of highly verbal ‘American zen’ but at this moment my eyes were opened to another form of intervention. She had not psychologised my friend – indeed, she seemed remarkably unsympathetic, attentive but remote, as she practiced her craft on his body. If there was a placebo, she wasn’t giving it a chance. (That said, her focus truly was awesome but it was focus in her hands and in his body, not much sympathy in evidence.) And yet the effects of this single treatment lived on in his body for weeks after the session.

I signed up for the series of sessions that constitute rolfing. (She herself hated that name; her name for her work was ‘structural integration’ but we hippies tagged it as ‘rolfing.’ Structural Integration now names the profession that has stemmed from her work.) I signed up to be a model in one of her classes which meant I got the sessions cheaper – hey, I was 23 and running on a shoestring.

Turned out I was the one-too-many class model but that meant I got lucky; I was worked on after class by her assistant, with some of the students staying on to see the session and ask questions they didn’t dare ask in Ida’s presence. (She did not suffer fools gladly, nor did anyone call her ‘Ida’ to her face but it was a term of endearment among us when she was not around.) Thus I got to experience my first serious foray into structural bodywork and at the same time hear some of the intellectual and strategic logic behind what I was experiencing.

What I experienced was a lot of pain being released from my body – from around traumatic areas such as where my fibula had broken, my repressed and unmoving pelvis and generally from my tight muscles – and I was an uptight New England twit in need of having my tree shaken.

Besides the lightness and freedom, I have to say that the most telling (and motivating) result for me was an expansion of my emotional range. My poor roommates experienced some sonic booms as I passed through one feeling state to another.

By the time the series was over, however, I had entered a new world of sensitivity to feelings my parents never contemplated. Whatever emotional deficits remain within me, I have never retreated from the honesty and authenticity those sessions – again, without any overt psychologising – instilled within me. Or I might better say ‘revealed’ in me.

I remain unsure to this day as to whether we can truly ‘add’ anything to a person. It’s debatable. We add information, we add sensation, we encourage experimentation in movement, but in fact the best structural bodywork is more of a process of elimination – a taking away of the tensions and holding that have been imposed by their accidents, traumas, training, and the heroes they emulated. We don’t want to ‘impose’ good posture on top of that accumulation of compensations but rather progressively decompensate them to ‘expose’ the essential individual within.

“Sculpture is easy,” said Michaelangelo, “just start with a block of marble and take away everything that doesn’t look like David.”

Structural Integration is much the same.We look for those places or patterns that have imposed limitations on the person’s movement and work to lift them off. How can we ‘lighten the load’ people impose on themselves? What is revealed is not some robotic ‘perfect posture’ but a return to the person’s original intent, less hobbled by the slings and arrows they have encountered.

Somewhere around the third session, I asked the guy working on me, “How do you get to do this work?” His immediate response was “Don’t even think about it, you’re not suited for this” – a comment we have had cause to laugh about in the ensuing decades as colleagues.

In spite of his opinion, within a couple of months I had disengaged from my other pursuits and enrolled in massage school and an anatomy course with a dissection lab, and immersed myself in kinesiology books in an attempt to meet Ida Rolf’s demanding prerequisites. Although in reality I could probably have got into her school with less study, I am very glad that I took the time to get a firm foundation of anatomical and kinesiological vocabulary under my belt before I began training in the craft.

(The Johnson-O’Connor Research group, after extensive testing of human aptitudes, found that those who advanced the most within any given profession were those with the highest vocabulary – whether you were testing architects, musicians, or pharmacists, whichever. As a practitioner of bodywork, you can get away with a lower vocabulary. Once I became a teacher and a writer, an extensive and versatile vocabulary became a must.)

Massage school was my beginning in this craft. However much my prior education had crafted my verbal facility, my ‘vocabulary’ of touch was abysmal. My family was loving but not demonstrative and certainly not in a touchy way. I shook hands with my father and called him ‘sir’ until I ran into all this stuff. From then on I stepped past his outstretched hand to give him a hug, which he first resisted and then welcomed.

The power of touch was the first lesson I learned in massage school. We live in a culture dominated by the other two major modes of learning – visual and auditory. The third, kinesthetic learning, is sadly undervalued; in my family and in Western society in general. Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, imagined the ‘feelies’, an entertainment of the future where you can not only see and hear the action but also feel it. Today, sadly, haptic technology is still in its infancy and seeing and hearing wins out over bodily sensing – in our entertainment, our education, and in the social investment allotted to that sense.

But in this small upstairs room in Berkeley, California, I learned how touch could be used as an educational tool; and a deeply healing one. The training was short on science but good on craft.

Here one learns – I learned – about contact, the essential of touch communication. Presence. How to feel what’s under your hand and how to stay in contact with the person that tissue belongs to. Without it – and I have been under the hands of practitioners who do not have it – no skill or technical expertise will penetrate the client. Without that essence of contact and presence, even deep, sustained touch can bounce off your tissue, and your consciousness, without effect.

I also learned the first rudiments about ‘energy’, a term that is too often used as an excuse when we do not know the ‘why’ of what is going on but is nevertheless a real phenomenon. One evening, I finished the massage I was doing and in my satisfaction clapped my hands loudly. The teacher, a transplanted Swede named Gunvar, snapped at me. She lost her usual dulcet Scandinavian tones to rebuke me for breaking the ‘energy’ of the room. At first I protested but then I could feel what she said was true – the clap had broken something ethereal but palpable, a net of energy, in the room. I never forgot that lesson. No matter how much you ‘know’, there is something sacred beyond that.

Another big lesson in energy is: What is ‘yours’ versus what is ‘theirs’? You come to the table with your talents and your faults and your attitude and they come to the table with their talents and faults and attitude. During the work you create another arc that is ‘ours’. This is called transference and counter-transference in psychology but it is made a bit more complicated and tricky in bodywork because of the added complications of touch, where non-verbal communication streams in both directions. Learning to tease out that energetic intertwining is a lifelong lesson.

I was a massage therapist for only about nine months as I prepared for my Rolfing training. I never was, nor am I now a good masseur. I was poor and needed to make a living at it, so I had a practice where I did home visits, mostly with upper-middle class housewives in the Bay Area. I became competent but I am not a good soother, which is a necessary component of the successful massage therapist.


Aside from improving my skills in simply handling the details of a practice – calling back, showing up reliably, paying attention – I wish to focus here on the touch skills, not the ancillary business ones. As necessary as they are, I learned one great lesson during this time. It was the early 70’s and IUDs were a popular form of birth control. I started noticing as I worked on the feet of these women that the inside top of the heel was always a triggering point, capable of sending them through the roof with not very deep touch.

Looking in the reflexology book, I noticed that this was the reflex point for the uterus. Now these were the old ‘copper 7’ IUDs that worked not by releasing hormones but by irritating the lining of the uterus so that the egg would not implant. This irritation was consistently creating a sore reflex at the corresponding point of the heel.

Over many years, again and again, I have been impressed with the specificity of reflex points on the feet. It was not there on women who did not use this device and was consistently there on those who did or those who were pre-menstrual. And yet there is no medically credible explanation for these reflex points to date. The explanation offered by the reflexologists – there are 70,000 nerve endings on the feet and these nerve endings connect directly to the corresponding organs – is on its face ridiculous, with the most rudimentary knowledge of neurology.

Yet there it is. Alcoholics (even former alcoholics) will have a zinger on the pituitary point and kidney, heart, or breathing restriction will reliably show up at their corresponding points. To this day I have no explanation for how these reflexes work but I can see that they do relate nevertheless. Since then I have seen maps of corresponding points for the whole body not only on the foot, but on the hand, the ear (auricular acupuncture), the eye (iridology), the face, the lips, and even the genital organs.


Whether you observe the same phenomenon (which I have named imago, an image of the entire body laid out on a single part, a bit like the brain’s homonculus), I urge upon you the lesson I took from this: You need some faith in what you feel and find, even if a scientifically sustainable explanation for it is not available at the time. No one knows how aspirin

works, or why angina pectoralis precedes a heart attack, or what powers the cranio-sacral pulse, yet it is reliable information just the same.

Of course, I have also held beliefs about the body that I’ve had to let go of – beautiful theories that were destroyed by ugly facts. We must be prepared at all times for our knowledge to overcome our superstitions. At the same time, a feeling that is reliable may not have a ready explanation right now but that does not mean it is not useful, or that someday there will not be a suitable explanation for what you have experienced. This dance between the intuitive experience and the available evidence is a familiar one but I learned early on that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.

Once involved in Structural Integration (SI) training with Dr Rolf, the lessons came too thick and fast to detail them all. My own anatomy training was actually better than some of my fellow students and I have been an anatomy enthusiast for the rest of my career. To give credit where it is due, my first real anatomy teacher was Dr. R Louis Schultz, a student of Ida’s and the author of The Endless Web and Out in the Open.

As an embryologist, he gave me the appreciation of the fascia as a system and the intriguing idea that we are all still embryonic, all still ‘becoming’, all of us with a supply of pluri- and toti-potential mesenchymal cells waiting for the demands we create.

This idea of ‘continual becoming’ has been a central tenet of our school for years – again harkening back to the idea that we are not forcing development or imposing good biomechanics but simply removing the blocks where someone has gone down some somatic cul-de-sac, where they need to be backed up a little to find another way with the self-imposed blocks relieved.


Speaking of biomechanics, I was also fortunate to learn good body use in this work from Judith Aston, a master of the art. Ida Rolf herself was bent in her old age from many years of working on her knees on the floor. By the time I got to train with her we were working on tables that were only 17” (40 cm) from the floor. These were still too low for most but such was the ‘law’ laid down by Ida – she wanted us leaning into the tissue, not namby-pambying around on the surface.

Judith taught us that getting inside the other person was less a matter of force and more a matter of correct body use by the practitioner. Too many massage therapists pay little to no attention to how they are using themselves, preferring to focus their attention on the client instead.

An admirable attitude but, when carried to extremes, the lack of attention to self-care and self-use will lead to burn-out, breakdown and a short career.

To speak far too generally, personal trainers and yoga teachers mostly start self-absorbed and have to shed that attitude to become more other-centred as they begin to teach. It’s fine to be self-absorbed in your own practice or discipline but as soon as you begin to charge you must drop that to focus your full attention on the person in front of you.

Massage therapists – again, I speak in generalities – tend to be other-centred to begin with and must learn to be attentive enough to themselves to be effective and enduring in the craft. Too many drop out after fewer than ten years because they do not know how to attend fruitfully to their own needs, and so they end up in pain.

As with pottery, woodworking, painting, or any other craft, one is honestly just getting good after 5-8 years of practice. Even with the best will in the world it takes time in the field to mould a good practitioner. Efficient ‘use of the self’, as F.M. Alexander called it, is not only career-extending, it is key to the conundrum of ‘How do I get deep and still stay sensitive?’ Overuse of the arm and shoulder muscles is not only a recipe for neck pain and back trouble after a few years (even in the strong), it is also a recipe for insensitive work that drives many clients away.

Conversely, working from the floor – i.e. through responsive ankles, hips, and thoracic spine – with your own body weight is a recipe for a happy body at the end of the day and the end of the decade.

In our flagship training classes we are assiduous about teaching good body use – mostly still based on Judith Aston’s insights with a few of our own added and a healthy dose of Tai Chi mixed in as well – for both these reasons. It makes the practitioner more sensitively ‘literate’ in terms of delivering deep work with minimum pain and disturbance, while at the same time allowing the practitioner to finish even a full day of sessions with enough energy left over to devote to family or other pursuits of happiness. If you are so consistently tired at night that you are incapable of doing anything but binge-watching (name your favourite series here), you are likely not using yourself well during your practice.



While in massage school, one learned to disturb the client as little as possible with the idea that the time spent in massage was time off from the usual demands of modern life. Ida Rolf, however, had an integrating intention; her sessions were not a vacation. She always had her clients moving, small but purposeful movements that again served two purposes:

On the one hand, it keeps the client engaged with the process. In some forms of bodywork, and SI in particular, you do not want the client ‘sleeping on the job’. While I am happy to drool into the sheet and float about metaphorically on pink clouds when I am getting a massage, I want to be actively engaged with the process in other somatic work, including SI. Keeping the client moving increases the amount of new proprioceptive information the brain is processing during the session, which enhances the integration of the work into their movement pattern. Client movement also reduces the ‘sensationfulness’ of your interventions.

On the other hand, having the client move is good for the practitioner. It is the best way to highly specifically feel the actual functional anatomy. When the client moves, the fascial layers, specific structures and recruitment patterns come alive under your hands in a way they cannot if the client is still.

Client movement is the secret way to know exactly where you are in their body (of course, the more accurate picture you have of anatomy in general, the more precise your body GPS will be). When in doubt about where you are and what you are doing, ask them to move. Even small movements – i.e. knee back and forth a few centimetres as you work with the gluteals – just turns the lights on and shows you where the tissue needs release.


Now, my training with Ida Rolf had a lot to do with fascia and much has been written on fascia, including by me, so let us leave those details out of this discussion. Also on display for emulation were Ida Rolf’s passion and compassion, intellectual rigour and personal failings, utter dedication and (there is no other word for it) disdain for those who would try to get away lightly without reaching the depths she called us toward. I was in awe, glad I had found a worthy teacher, and I was an eager student – way too eager, probably, for any objectivity.

But objectivity is not the attribute of the beginner – we are all called to this work by a subjective, personal experience – whatever drew you to it in the first place. In my case, as in most cases, it was the personal experience of how much I had received from the work and wanting to convey that experience to others.

There are hundreds – thousands – of trainings out there in the realm of ‘bodywork’, from dance to osteopathy, from acupressure to body-centred psychotherapy. Whatever your chosen field, embody that training. There is no substitute for this. No matter how much you paid for your training or how highly rated it is, or how long it took, or what letters go after your name, it will only take root in you if you practice it.


In my own case, I went to a new town, culturally different from my upbringing, where I had no friends or contacts and started fresh. I was fortunate to have a full practice in short order. (Here is a tip: when you are first starting out, look for the social innovators in your chosen target audience. They are usually a bit crazy or desperate because they have not found help elsewhere. Artists, others eager to change their conditions, those who are a little nuts – they will often be the first ones through your door. Do a good job with them and the others, the opinion leaders who watch them, will follow.)

Make your training sing in your own life. Test your work on as many different kinds of people as you can muster. Take all comers. Work long and hard to bring the work, whatever it is, from the outside to your inside. Get lots of training and work from practitioners within your field, most of whom you will like, though you can learn a great deal from those you do not. Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours of practice to master a craft. It depends upon the craft of course, but five years is another benchmark people use. If you have been practicing steadily for five years, you have likely embodied your training.

At that point it becomes a little boring but do not let boredom stop you. Innovation and authenticity lie on the far shore of the sea of boredom.


So after the five years (however long your five years is), you will want to expand your training. I studied with Ida Rolf and returned to take Advanced Training from her two years later. For the first five years, although I took other classes from other ‘rolfers’, I stuck to the straight and narrow. Beware of trying to take in too many modalities too soon. Few people who try to combine, say, acupuncture, massage, and PNF do so successfully (and the few who do are great synthesists). More often,

trying to combine too many things too soon ends up making dishwater rather than soup.

Five years in, I got the chance to study with the great Moshe Feldenkrais. In doing so, I thought I would give up my rolfing practice and take up Feldenkrais as a full-time job but as it happened all the knowledge I gained flowed back into my SI practice, which continued to flourish.

A couple of years later, I delved into osteopathy, especially cranial osteopathy. I had been dealing in my SI practice with what is called the parietal myofasciae, the muscles and surrounding fabric. Studying osteopathy took me into the ‘ligamentous bed’ (the fascia close to the bones, what I have termed the ‘inner bag’). Cranial osteopathy took me into the meningeal fascia that spans the dorsal cavity.

A few years later, I was drawn into the world of visceral osteopathy of Jean-Pierre Barrall, which gave me a fresh and expanded perspective on the fascial connections and intrinsic movements in the ventral cavity.

An intensive study of the movement meditation called Continuum further informed my work. In my own case, all I learned got plowed back into the fertile field of my SI practice but by now my SI practice bore only some resemblance to what I had received from Ida Rolf. I still genuflect to her in gratitude and her basis is definitely still there, but each outside training I do changes my work toward something I can genuinely call my own.

By now, teaching is my primary way of learning – my days of being able to stop and take other people’s long trainings are over. Teaching teaches me a great deal. I learn from my faculty, from my student’s questions, from challenging students and colleagues and mostly from the practice of trying to articulate what it is I do now, which sometimes seems magical, even to me. But many formerly ‘magical’ things I can now convey to others with words and touch – it has made my work better to be a teacher.

Now my students are beginning to surpass me and I am learning from them – like James Earls, Karin Gurtner, Wojciech Cackowski, and Ari-Pekka Lindberg.

As I passed the 12 year mark – and now to more than 40 years – I achieved a state I call ‘mastery’, but I mean nothing egotistical in that. It is a state where the work lives within you and you are its source, or at the very least its clear channel. You will know it when you are there and then you can call yourself a master too. Technique and method give way to intuitive ease and invention. Everyone wants to hurry themselves to that state; ironically it will take longer if you try to hurry.


One pitfall that should raise a red flag in you is when all your sessions start to look the same. After some years, we get our ‘favourite hits’ we keep going back to because they are effective and we are comfortable with them. Yes, but they can get us stuck in a rut when we are too comfortable with them. Do not believe your ‘tricks.’ Keep working with them, even plowing them under sometimes to fertilise the soil, until they show up, in subtler form, from within your work, not imposed on top of it.

When this happens, you need a new training, something to shake you out of the rut.

The other way to expand your experience is to take all comers. The exception is, of course, if you do not feel safe with the person but otherwise it is a practical benefit in your practice to be able to deal with a wide variety of people – athletic ones, obese ones, the elderly and children, body aware and numb, hardheaded professional and etheric airhead, all the doshas – how many types of people can you field, build rapport with and deliver lasting positive information to?

A corollary of this idea is to allow your practice to teach you. In a long practice, you will get ‘runs’ of people. I had two years where the majority of my practice was pre- and post-partum women. One year, for no reason I could determine, I had five cases of spasmodic dystonia. It was as if God wanted me to learn about it.

Another year I had a ton of London’s top musicians, for a while I had a run of dancers from Saddlers Wells and one of the most interesting was a year of British sex-workers. Each of these groups dominated my practice for a while and taught me lessons I could bring to bear with others.

Or reach outside: Is there a way to donate your work in your community to some population unlikely to make it to your professional door? Those volunteer experiences have taught me as much useful and practical information as expensive (and not nearly so emotionally satisfying) training experiences.

In hindsight, it was a magical choice for me to choose bodywork as a profession. In my early years it provided the ability to travel and to get to know cultures through my work with individuals in them. It always kept me in funds, though few get rich in such service. But I have always valued the portability and low equipment costs associated with the somatic profession.

Somatics is anything but dull. All therapists have to answer the questions: ‘How did we get here?’ and ‘How do we get out of here to someplace better?’ My studies to support my practice led me into anatomy, of course, but also medicine, psychology, anthropology, sociology, embryology, cellular structure and tensegrity engineering, as well as all the insights derived from yoga, Continuum, personal training, martial arts, dance, etc. You can attach all kinds of points-of-view to bodywork and successfully find a niche.

I found myself progressively attracted to first one part of the body and then another: “Oh, oh, it’s the feet! Get the feet right and everything on top gets fixed”. Sure, explore that idea for a few months or a year. Another year it might be the pelvis or the breath or the neck (and there are equally convincing arguments for each of these). Go ahead and delve into your passions, secure in the knowledge that, like all storms, they will pass, but you will move on with more knowledge about the feet, or spine, or cranium, whatever you let take your fancy for a while.

So, looking at our triangle – the art, the science, and the craft – like any triangle each side determines and fixes the angle

between the other two sides. Neglect any one of these and your journey becomes more linear, one-dimensional. They are all necessary for a solid practice and career.

Concerning the science, you may or may not be as conversant with fascial research, or with the anatomy or chemistry, as the bodyworker beside you but your intuition will be better the more science you know – not all the Latin names, necessarily, but an accurate picture of what is actually under your hand. Let your hand become more ‘knowing’ and the pictures in the books will suddenly come alive for you. Steal from the best but steal accurately!


To master the craft there is no substitute for a daily practice for several years. Let yourself have the foundation of a few years in the trenches, churning out daily professional healing. Let it become you without, hopefully, consuming you. I know musicians who can get up every afternoon, go to smoky bars or raucous clubs and deliver cracking good music reliably every night. They can also be healers but they are going to lay on hands (or whatever they do) when they want to, how they want, and on whom they choose.

I am the opposite – I can get up, dress appropriately and deliver professional healing on cue for ten hours but when I go to play music, it is when I want and for whom I want. Which type of person are you? An artist healer is one thing (and valuable) but a professional healer is another.

The art of healing, the third side of that triangle, begins from the beginning. “What brought you in?” is a crucial question and key to your art and the art only becomes richer and richer with the ensuing years.

No one can tell you what will contribute to your art. Fleeting moments – as when a teacher replaced my ‘intentional’ touch with ‘invitational’ touch – can have profound effects for years. Being a sailor contributes to my bodywork art, an appreciation of nature and my encounters with animals of all kinds. Altogether though, my clients, especially the difficult ones, have taught me more about this art than anything else.

I have been dragged, kicking and screaming, into my future. There was no grand plan. I followed intuitive opportunity. It worked out better than if I had planned it and in perfect hindsight I could make no better choice. A profession that fully engages the senses, the physical self, requires emotional maturity, admits of so many luscious theoretical implications and at the same time leaves your clients in a more empowered stance. It is hard to beat.