Your Tensegrity Body

Ida P. Rolf, PhD.

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Dr. Rolf was the inspiration for pretty much my entire career.  She taught me that gravity organized bodies and that fascial adhesions glued imbalanced human structures together, producing chronically poor posture and ungraceful movement.  She showed me how I could help people reverse the seemingly inexorable process of year-by-year becoming more compressed and bent.

Rolf’s model, as exemplified in the logo for the bodywork she called “Structural Integration,” was a little boy superimposed against a stack of blocks.  As a model, this was simplistic, but it got the message across.  The body’s relationship to gravity mattered.  This was a new idea at the time.


But a stack of blocks is held in place through means of compression.  Balanced or unbalanced, the block above presses down on the one below, keeping it stable.  This idea went only so far, and Rolf knew it. 


(Excerpted from Your Body Mandala, Chapter 7.) In the 1960s Rolf became familiar with the concept of tensegrity, a term coined by Buckminster Fuller, American architect, systems theorist, and inventor of the geodesic dome. Fuller’s term refers to the tensional integrity achieved through balance between tension and compression. In a tensegrity structure, rigid struts are suspended between tensioned cables or, in the case of the body, tensioned soft tissue. Tensegrity was a helpful metaphor for Rolf because it allowed the body to be conceived as spacious rather than solid. But the tensile characteristic of fascia wasn’t consistent with the compressive model of structure. In a block model, fascia was seen as a kind of glue that hardened when the stack of blocks was out of alignment. Tensegrity was a better fit for Rolf’s theory because it understood fascia as a changeable and responsive element in structural organization.

A structure similar to the one here inspired Fuller’s coinage of the word tensegrity. This large structure, called “Needle Tower,” by artist Kenneth Snelson, can be seen at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Snelson called such structures “floating compression.”

Developing her work in the period prior to significant fascia research, Rolf had it both ways: the body was a stack of blocks and a tensegrity structure. Thanks to her genius as a manual therapist, she was able to communicate her vision despite its theoretical inconsistencies and to inspire several generations of practitioners.

But she left us with many questions too.  Adjusting the tensions between the struts (think bones and soft tissue) doesn't guarantee that the new alignment will be sustainable.  Sustainability depends on integrating the new sensations and perceptions brought about by the changed structural organization and translating them into new coordination, new behaviors, outlooks, beliefs, lifestyle and meaning. That integration has to take place in the brain.

Fascia and bio-tensegrity are the current buzzwords in the field of somatic education. But whether the means of structural reordering is Rolfing®, Pilates, yoga or some other somatic practice, the essential ingredient for sustainable change is perception.  My next several posts follow this theme.

© 2018 Mary Bond