Ida Rolf Biography

Ida Rolf graduating
Ida Rolf (front row, second from left) graduating

Ida Pauline Rolf was born in the Bronx in 1896. Graduating from an Ivy League university and earning a PhD in Biochemistry in a period when higher education among women was unusual was a great testimony to the strength of Ida’s intellect and her pioneering spirit. Ever since an osteopathic treatment helped her to recover from a horse kick in her childhood, Ida Rolf remained interested in the things of the body. She avidly studied hatha yoga, homeopathy, osteopathy and other manipulatory techniques, and was very active in applying her findings to those who were open to her insights.

Rolfing was born in the late 1930s when Dr Rolf was looking for a music teacher for her children. She found out that Ethel – the best possible candidate – was beset by a chronic arm injury which made any teaching impossible. Dr Rolf insisted on working with her, and by applying yoga postures mixed with manipulation managed to bring Ethel back to functionality and to teaching music.

Of course Ethel had friends with similar problems – who had friends – and before long there were queues in front of Ida Rolf’s house. In the process of working with her clients, Ida Rolf began to realise that human bodies have the capacity to heal themselves, but for this to happen they need to be in alignment with gravity. By using insights from the natural sciences, she discovered that human posture when carefully examined reveals the physiological, emotional and psychological state of an individual, and that any state can be much improved when the body is “structurally integrated” – a term coined by Rolf.

To achieve structural integration, Ida Rolf devised a series of 10 distinct body work sessions that she put into practise from the forties onwards.

Ida Rolf giving Rolfing to a baby
Ida P Rolf giving Rolfing to a baby

In the early fifties Rolfing made its first appearance in Britain. Ida Rolf invited a few osteopaths and chiropractors to Tunbridge Wells to learn her pioneering approach to the human body. Unfortunately the osteopaths and chiropractors were mainly interested in her techniques but not in the philosophy, and Dr Rolf left the British Isles rather unimpressed. Rolfing would not be taught in the UK until 2011.

In the swinging sixties Ida Rolf found herself in the middle of the Human Potential Movement, giving Rolfing sessions to Fritz Perls, Moshe Feldenkrais and a whole bunch of alternative figures in the legendary Esalen Institute. And it was in the sixties that Rolfing really took off. Structural Integration became popular, and the first research on the effects of Rolfing was carried out (and confirmed the efficacy of Dr Rolf’s philosophy).

In the seventies the Rolf institute was established and with it the certification programme. Dr Rolf’s book “Rolfing: Re-establishing the Natural Alignment and Structural Integration of the Human Body for Vitality and Well-Being” was published and people began to look for certified Rolfers. Ida Rolf, already in her mid-seventies, set up very strict entry requirements for all the applicants, which are still in force. She said that she had no time teaching people maturity and so all the candidates needed to have a degree or a successful career, be over 25, have a sound knowledge of the body’s functioning, and have life experience. Once, Ida Rolf advised a prospective Rolfer and young medical student to work on a farm for a year to get some real life experience before applying again. Evidently she really wanted quality people to carry on with her message.

Ida Rolf passed away at the age of 83. Her legacy includes approximately 2,000 Certified Rolfing practitioners, the Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colorado, the European Rolfing Association in Munich, and a number of Rolfing institutes dotted around Europe and Brasil. Rolfing is now taught in Britain and there are 32 Rolfers here.

Here is a video of Ida Rolf explaining the foundations of Rolfing Structural Integration: