Re-Orienting to Change

Once when working on a particularly tough and braced spot in a client’s ribs, it occurred to me that often I am working with muscles and fascia that are compensating in a way that was once a dynamic and intelligent response to a difficult and perhaps irresolvable situation. It may not from the outside seem like a mature and well-adapted response, but in their situation (or their view of it), it may have been the “least worst” of the choices available. The problem is that if repeated often enough, it becomes habitual and chronic, and may become their only way of responding. So, even though other options are available, they cannot even see them. Rational arguments for change may be of little use.

As Rolfers we are probably all guilty at times of working in the way that gave us a bad reputation, which is to force the issue, breaking a holding pattern open, and then standing back to allow the client (once she can breathe again) to gasp at the amazing change she feels in her breathing, posture, shoulder pain, etc. Much of my first Rolfing® was like that – it was quite painful but the results were so astonishing that I thought this Rolfer was an amazing healer. I only realized later how unnecessarily disorienting it was. It was very dramatic and effective in creating change but so brutal that I could not in any way participate in the discovery and learning process. So, I felt like, “This is amazing, but where am I and… how did I get here?”

My work has evolved of course since those early days and although a significant part of my work is very gentle, I still do work that can be intense and somewhat forceful (although sometimes with very little pressure) but there is a difference. When faced with a chronic bracing pattern that I cannot “reason with” (and perhaps others, more skilled than I could…), I feel it is useful to challenge it in a way that closes off the option they are used to, or at least makes it uncomfortable and patiently stay there until they start to try other options, one of which is to give in and not fight my pressure. When that happens, I try to encourage that strategy, not by taking advantage of the opening to push in deeper, but by easing up slightly and allowing them the time to explore a new space and a new option.

When I am skilled at this, they stand up at the end of the session, not feeling how amazing my work is, but savoring a whole new range of possibilities. If I am also smart enough to hold my questions and commentaries back and allow them to stay with it, their exploration will continue at this deep level for a while. There can be a sense of disorientation because it is so new, but if I give them a little time I usually see them settle down and realize that this “new” place is actually very familiar somehow, kind of like coming home somehow…

A simple image came to mind recently. In our house, we have a large sliding glass door leading out into the backyard. Sometimes a bee will come in and in trying to get out will bang into the glass door next to the opening because nothing in its experience allows it to understand a barrier in what looks like air, so in panic or anger it keeps banging into it. If I want to help the bee find its way out with the least stress and fear (and without getting stung), I place a transparent container over it and slide it slowly, so as not to smash it, towards the opening, effectively closing off the option that is no longer working and moving until the only option available is the right one and he flies away. In this case, I am not sure the bee has figured out what a window is, but when working with clients, I think they can recognize that they have been through that window before and it only felt new because they had forgotten it was even there.

I often think of something one of my teachers, Jan Sultan, said in a class: he didn’t think our job is to make people comfortable or “feel better…” People come to us because the things they have done for years to get comfortable are no longer working. In fact they are at best in a rut and at worst, these things are causing them more pain, not less. When someone comes down a road stuck in a rut, the best thing I can do for him is to give him a shove to get him out of it. After that, it is up to him what he wants to do with all the options open to him. If he sees life like a train, he will want to get right back on track but if he finally realizes he has an all-terrain vehicle at his disposal, he will be off to explore…

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