Aging Gracefully

When clients ask me whether their problems are just part of getting older I reply that my guess is that the problems we associate with getting older are perhaps 40% due to physiological changes and that 60% are due to the accumulation of years of compensations, binding and habitual use patterns. In my opinion, this is a very optimistic view because even though there is only so much we can do about the former, there is a lot we can do about the latter and Rolfing is particularly effective for this.

I have been seeing Carola for 14 years and when she first came in, she had many problems that were quite distressing. She had frequent and severe migraines. She would periodically be jolted out of bed by terrible leg cramps, she would often get so tight in her chest that she would have trouble breathing. She often felt tight and sore around an old surgical scar in her belly and her doctor had told her that she needed surgery on her left knee as it made it very difficult for her to climb steps. She also had traumatic memories of growing up in Germany during and after World War II, nearly losing a leg to infection, etc. Recently she came in for a session and as she spoke about several things she felt she needed work on, she said, “Well, I guess I’m just falling apart…”

I knew she was joking because these were minor problems but it suddenly occurred to me that between the ages of 65 and 75 she had actually become far more comfortable in her body. Her migraines were a thing of the past, she never needed the knee surgery and stairs are no longer a problem. She can still dance up a storm but no longer pays for it the next day. Even her relationship to her memories of childhood during and after the war had changed. When I first met her, if any memories of the war came up, she would feel so overwhelmed with sadness that she would literally be gasping for breath – nowadays she is much more able to distance her present life from that trauma of that time. I remember pointing all of this out to her and saying, “How many people do you know who have gone from 65 to 75 years old and feel dramatically better – how cool is that…?” We both laughed at the idea but I thought about it a lot during that session. It was one of those moments of clarity that seemed to exemplify one of Ida Rolf’s basic ideas, that Rolfing would allow people to age gracefully and would take much of the fear out of the aging process.

As I have gotten older, my clientele has aged along with me. At least half of my clients are now on the far side of their 40th birthday, so the issue of aging is often on the agenda in my office. Of course, they are dealing with it in many different ways. For some it feels like a relentless buildup of stress that always finds its way to their neck or back, for others it is their creaking knees or an inability to train hard for the race that they want to do without getting hurt. From my point of view it often looks like a coping pattern of some sort that may once have made sense in the short term but in the long term has essentially lead them to paint themselves into a corner. Our reaction to many difficulties in life is to brace – we brace when we feel like we are on thin ice; when we are recoiling from or preparing to meet the next confrontation, we hold our breath… Over time, this bracing stops being something we do and becomes something we are, a state of being rather than a conscious choice and action. In the first case, we have the option of not doing it, in the second, we have neither the awareness nor the option of doing otherwise.

The strategy too many people seem to adopt as they grow old is one of cutting their losses, trying to slow down the rate of loss of the things they cherish. The story people tell me in this situation is one of how they have learned to deal with their physical problems because they perceive them as something that they don’t seem to be able to change (and perhaps never will), so they work around them. They usually come in to see me when the things they are doing to get comfortable are no longer making them comfortable; they may in fact be causing more strain than they are relieving. Thus, what perhaps began as a dynamic compensation (an appropriate, effective and temporary response to strain or pain) has become a chronic compensation (one that has become semi-permanent and rigidified). The phrase “fighting the last war” comes to mind.

I truly enjoy working people in their 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s. I love to see the smile on their face when they stand up after their first session and realize that problems that seemed to continually be getting worse, actually feel better. For some, being able to feel steady on their feet, to get out of their car with ease, to sleep through the night without pain feels like such a gift. Others realize that they just may be able to go on that bike trip to France, or run that marathon again. Of course, there are no guarantees in life – we could get run over by a car (or our genetics) tomorrow, but Rolfing is one of the best ways I know of to tilt the odds a little more in your favor…

“Some individuals may experience their losing fight with gravity as a sharp pain in their back, others as the unflattering contour of their body, others as a constant fatigue, yet others as an unrelenting environment. Those over 40 may call it old age. And yet all these signals may be pointing to a single problem, so prominent in their own structure, and in the structure of others, that it has been ignored; they are off balance. They are at war with gravity.” Ida Rolf

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