Interviewer’s Note: This interview took place late Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C. on September 20, 2015 at end of the third day of the Fourth International Fascia Research Congress (FRC). I was fortunate to get Robert to agree to this short interview though he had many roles, duties, and demands during the FRC and little time. I want to once more thank the Rolf Institute® Research Committee for the scholarship that enabled me to attend the conference.
Szaja Gottlieb: Robert, we are going to be doing an issue focusing on research and Rolfers who are also scientists, so naturally we wanted to include you. How is that, being a Rolfer and also a scientist?
Robert Schleip: It’s not easy but very inspiring.
SG: Is it schizophrenic in a way? How did it happen? As I remember at one time you were just a Rolfer and not in academics at all?
RS: Not exactly. I started studying psychology on an academic level before, then I very quickly climbed to bodywork as a deeper way to treat humans. I then became the first German Rolfer at the very young age of twenty-four, back in 1978.
SG: You also studied The Feldenkra Method® of somatic education too, yes?
RS: Yes, I also completed the Feldenkra training and I became a Rolfing® Structural Integration (SI) instructor a few years after that.
SG: For the European Rolfing Association?
RS: For the European Rolfing Association but also teaching in Boulder, Colorado for many years for the Rolf Institute, I enjoyed that very much and learned a lot from it. However, after almost twenty years of teaching I asked for a sabbatical where I could stop teaching to have more time for research. I thought that would be one year.
SG: What year was that?
SG: And then?
RS: I never came back from that sabbatical. I became so intrigued with research that I never came back from it.
SG: It must have been a strange and unexpected feeling.
RS: I felt like Alice in Wonderland who was going down to visit the scientists ...
SG: Down the rabbit hole!
RS: Yes, yes, down the rabbit hole. I actually published in Structural Integration in that first year (Klingler, Schleip, and Zorn 2004) and reported about my adventures. I interviewed scientists. I locked myself in scientific libraries and came back to my peers later to tell them what strange findings I had found in that new territory. Now, I spend more time down that rabbit hole than in my original tribe of Rolfers.
SG: I was watching you during the Fascia Research Conference and all the talks and activities that you participated in and I was wondering how you saw yourself. I was thinking, “When he projects his persona is he thinking of himself as a Rolfer or is he now a scientist?”
RS: Yes, sometimes I forget, honestly, but I have to say what when I come back to my Rolfing tribe, I feel like this is my real home. But when I do my scientific work, especially for longer periods of time, weeks and months, I feel like a true scientist trying to unravel the hidden secrets of nature – and I forget where I came from and why I started this journey in the first place.
SG: Is it crazy-making? I mean, science is just a heady experience while Rolfing SI is such a body experience.
RS: No, for me both have their values and respective excitements. It actually seems to fulfill one of my childhood dreams. In my childhood fantasies I would jump in a tunnel in our home garden in Germany and then arrive in Australia on the other side of the planet and then pretend to be an Australian. Then, once in a while, I would jump back to Germany and switch backwards and forwards between these two worlds, always pretending to be completely in one of them. Seems to be a funny idea now!
SG: I have to laugh a bit here. I recently interviewed Michael Salveson, and he told me he had a childhood dream that he could vibrate and transport himself to various locations. Perhaps you guys should talk!
RS: That would be great. Maybe I could learn something about teleportation . . .
SG: So once you got into the scientific area, I imagine your practice started to diminish, or . . . ?
RS: No, I intensified it into two very long days per week, which allowed me to finance the remaining five days and nights of research work. Then I decided to do a PhD, a needed context for my work, not so much for the academic title but for the institutional framework to do laboratory research myself.
SG: You needed to reposition.
RS: Yes, if I wanted to do original measurements with fresh fascial tissues. If I went to the slaughterhouse to get animal tissue early in the morning, they would of course ask me why I needed it. And if you say, “I am a connective-tissue scientist doing a PhD study,” they say, “Okay, we will help you.” If I had said, “I am a self-financed enthusiastic spiritual scientist wanting to understand the nature of the universe,” they would have been far less cooperative. In comparison, helping a poor doctoral student was more familiar and less threatening to them. Same with other professionals that I needed to cooperate with on that journey,
SG: At this point, are you thinking, “Okay, so here I am and this is where I am going,” or, “Okay, I have done enough of this and now I am going to jump back to Rolfing practice.”
RS: No, I got totally hooked. When I started this journey I thought I’m doing this project to find out about how the contractile cells and fascia are linked with the sympathetic nervous system. Although I was convinced that such a connection would exist as a simple synaptic connection and that I would find this connection, I eventually I had to admit that I could not.
SG: Must have been disappointing since you were tying to figure out why and how things work.
RS: Yes, I didn’t find what I expected; but then what nature showed me was even more fascinating than what I was originally looking for.
SG: Creative tension driving you forward.
RS: Yes, sometimes we don’t find what we deeply believe in and what we expect, but the tension pushes us forward. Rather than me using science to prove something that I believed . . .
SG: . . . Science used you for its own purposes . . .
RS: I had to lean back, and listen to what science and nature were showing me through measurement data right in front of me, and that turned out to be more interesting. Many of the clinicians in our field are using science to prove something that they already think they know, through their hands, their eyes, or intuition. That was how I started too. But now I have changed my attitude and believe that good scientists do not ‘trust’ their hands or eyes. Instead, they must look, with a questioning mind and a sharp pencil in their hand, at the data and try to understand.
SG: That must be a bit jarring. I am sure you still check your results against what your body experience tells you.
RS: Yes, it’s true, but the most important thing is that any theory that you make up, particularly one you get attached to, you have to be prepared that someone, another scientist for example, or the data right in front of you, will destroy your beautiful concept to pieces. Then, you have to start all over again. And then you once again look at the mosaic of data right in front of you with new eyes and look for a picture, a pattern, that the data is trying to tell you. So, I got hooked because it is really like detective work, and you don’t know what you will find around the corner.
SG: Sounds challenging but also gratifying.
RS: This all happened before we had the First International Fascia Research Congress at Harvard Medical School in 2007, which was a great way to link up with other researchers.
SG: First fascial connectivity and then, an amplification, people connectivity. I am very curious, how has the fascia research that you have done and been exposed to all these years changed your work, your practice of Rolfing SI?
RS: For a while my manual work seemed to change every couple of months, all depending on what I was paying attention to in terms of my own scientific exploration and collegial exchanges. But lately I have started to pay more attention not to how strong I work or what angle I work at; instead, I pay attention to the speed of the fluid shear happening in the tissue in response to the pressure, shear, and the sliding of my hands. Now I educate my hands to slide across the scar tissue, for example, with the slowest possible continuous speed.
RS: Yes, a few millimeters per breathing cycle, or perhaps a half an inch or an inch within a minute. That is based on some PDF articles I came across.
SG: What do they say?
RS: In cell culture with human fibroblasts, if you work at the slowest possible speed, not pressure but speed, the cells start producing specific enzymes 4-8 hours afterwards. In other words, this response happens not during the treatment, but a few hours afterwards. Assuming we may trigger a similar response in living tissue, your hands may not feel any response during the work but it may start to happen half a day later. The enzymes produced by these fibroblasts then start to break down excessive collagen such as with chronic scar tissue or tissue adhesions between adjacent layers as in frozen shoulder. I and several colleagues have experimented with this ‘new super-slow fluid shear’ method and we are seeing very encouraging results so far.
SG: Do you still do the Ten Series?
RS: Much less now, unfortunately, as I have so few days left in the month in whichI work with normal [clients].
SG: How do you look at the Ten Series now?
RS: It can be a very powerful tool. It is a great invention, mostly for the transformational aspect for clients – how they start to reconnect with their body, their whole self-perception, body schema, and body-image reorganization. If used that way, the Ten Series can be a stroke of genius.
SG: I agree.
RS: With every session you have a different focus, also on the relationship between sessions, how the beginning, middle, and end align. And then goodbye, even it is not a final goodbye, a temporary goodbye at the end. It’s really nice.
SG: How does the Rolfing SI carry over into your scientific work?
RS: My practice has been very inspired by science, but also because of my clinical background I have been able to inspire laboratory scientists who have never done therapeutic treatment themselves.
SG: I am curious, how much have you done Rolfing SI on these guys?
RS: [On] a lot of them.
SG: What do they say?
RS: Each of them responds differently. Sometimes they don’t stop talking and sharing exciting explanations afterwards, and sometimes they are deeply moved in a silent way. But they are usually very impressed.
SG: Your role seems almost like a mediator?
RS: Yes, jumping back and forth, between body therapies, movement, etc. What has changed now, in contrast to my life a decade ago, is that I am not identified with any explanatory model. I do not need to prove that Rolfing SI is better than osteopathy or chiropractic or whatever. Instead, I am attached to the value of true science, as a journey of constant surprises and learning.
SG: I wanted to ask you about movement and the point of view, which I am sympathetic to, that movement work is not sufficiently integrated with our structural work.
RS: Well, I was involved with the international Rolfing faculty as a Rolfing instructor for fifteen years through all sorts of discussions and debates. My point of view still is that if you are interested in long, long-term improvement, you need to also address movement usage in day-to-day life. You need to change movement-related neuronal habits. If you don’t succeed in changing them, you will have the old patterns reasserting themselves. I was certainly not alone with this concept back in the 90s. But now almost everyone in the faculty agrees on that. If you are only a very gifted manual therapist but have no movement education skill, or no allies [to send clients to] for congruent movement coaching, chances are you will not have a long-lasting sustainability in your work.
SG: Does a lot of your movement work include elements based on Fascial Fitness? [Editor’s note: Fascial Fitness is a modality created by Schleip and DivoMüller.]
RS: It includes that but other things as well – don’t forget I am a Rolf Movement® practitioner and also a teacher of Feldenkrais work, so these and other work approaches tend to sneak into my practical work quite often.
SG: What is going on with Fascial Fitness?
RS: Oh, it has become really big recently here in Germany. The media love it.
SG: In Germany! What’s wrong with us?
RS: No, it will be in other countries [too], once the local media folks realize the potential. The journalists love the story of fascia as the organ that everyone forgot and now scientists bring it into the limelight. It is like a beautiful fairy tale, and above all it’s true. Additionally, it comes with beautiful pictures and video clips, always important for modern media, as it sheds new light on such topics as fitness, acupuncture, or back pain. But mostly the media folks love the story of the formerly ugly Cinderella tissue, which now appears as a shining new star in science conference halls.
SG: Cinderella, but when it comes to pain perhaps a bit of David and Goliath as well.
RS: Yes, they love it. In the fitness world it has become a new major trend. In fact, if you ask anybody engaged in the fitness world in central Europe today what they would put as the most important new trend in their field, chances are that at least 50% would reply, “Fascia.”
SG: At the gym I go to I always tell the trainers, “Fascial fitness, it’s coming.”
RS: Yes, exactly. In Germany, if you go to the gym and you hear a personal trainer teaching somebody in a private session next to you, there is a high chance that he or she will be lecturing about fascia. Some of that could be straight out of Ida Rolf’s book or more often out of Tom Myers’ book. However, you will also hear things that make you cringe as they take things way too far or apply them incorrectly. What should I do, walk over and correct them? I now prefer to wear earphones in such environments instead.
SG: That’s the price of popularization.
RS: In Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, due to the media hype in recent years, now your average hairdresser, your average car mechanic, 60%-70% of these non-academic members in the society have heard the word ‘fascia’. And among academics, more of course. That was not so even three years ago!
SG: Wow, amazing.
RS: They know that it can be a source of pain and that they can do something for it.
SG: At this conference I have been blown away by the proliferation of all the fascia techniques and modalities out there.
RS: Yes, you will see Fascial Pilates, Fascial Yoga, Fascial Taping, and what not. Now many of these techniques have changed their original packaging and describe their work as fascial therapy.
SG: I read the book you recently edited, Fascia in Sport and Movement [see review on page 39], in preparation to review it for the Journal. I was hoping to go through it quickly, but after reading the first few published articles, I realized this is too important, I am going to have to take my time. I thought Adjo Zorn’s article was fantastic.
RS: I agree. The scientific and movement work of my Rolfer colleague Adjo Zorn from Berlin is a real jewel in my opinion. It’s also one of my favorite chapters in that new book. There are more and more exciting new aspects on fascia coming out, and also lots of valuable opportunities for self-employed manual therapists with this media wave of attention to fascia. If Rolfers are smart, they will use this wave. Now fascia is a novel topic. In five years, however, fascia will not be forgotten, but it will have become an accepted and important perspective. It will no longer be a novelty.
SG: Sometimes I am afraid we are going to be left behind.
RS: The fitness people are the most rapid [on the uptake], that is their nature. No need to compete with them. But we don’t want the trigger-point folks or the osteopaths to bypass us, as Rolfers, in this wave of public attention to fascia. That would be really stupid if we allowed that to happen.
SG: One last question. When all is said and done, do you now consider Rolfing SI to have scientific validity?
RS: Yes, on many levels. Many of the claims that Ida Rolf made about fascia are now supported by evidence, based on ultrasound measurements, histological examinations, etc. That fascial tissue properties play essential roles in muscular force transmission, as an example in spastic contractures, or in low-back stability, is no longer a wild idea. Thanks to the new field of fascia research we now have concrete data to back these concepts up. Even a decade ago, many, including educated professionals, doubted the claim of Rolfers that we could change fascial properties in a sustainable manner by a single stroke of our elbow; [this thinking was] based on their perception of the difficulty of changing the stiffness of fibrous connective tissue. Now we know, however, that fascia is densely innervated by different kinds of sensory nerve endings which are mechano sensitive and which can easily trigger downstream physiological responses in local tissue hydration, in muscle tonicity, in autonomic regulation, or in local biochemistry. Although we do not have final proof yet that we are affecting these levels, it is now very plausible and very easy to believe that our manual work may in fact involve such profound responses.
SG:Thank you for your time. I know you must be very tired from the last three days of the conference.
RS: My pleasure.
Robert Schleip, PhD, MA, is Research Director of the European Rolfing Association, and also Director of the Fascia Research Group of Ulm University, Germany. Together with Thomas Findley, Eric Jacobsen, Stephen Evanko, and others, he was instrumental in setting up the first FRC (Boston 2007) as well as the subsequent congresses. He has been a Certified Rolfer since 1978, a certified Feldenkrais teacher since 1978, and served on the international Rolfing faculty as a Rolfing Instructor since 1992. Following a research sabbatical in 2004, he switched careers and became an enthusiastic scientist, exploring fascial tissue properties in his own laboratory at Ulm University. His findings on the active contractility of fascia have been honored with the Vladimir Janda Award forMusculoskeletal Medicine. He is author of numerous popular books as well as scientific publications. More at www.somatics.de or www.fasciaresearch.de
Szaja Charles Gottlieb MA was once an aspiring academic, having received his master’s degree in European intellectual history in the early 1970s. Fortunately, a series of unexpected events, especially getting Rolfing sessions in 1978, set him on a transformational course that included becoming an artist and then a Certified Rolfer in 2001 and a Certified Advanced Rolfer in 2008.
Klingler, W., R. Schleip, and A. Zorn, Dec 2004. “European Fascia Research Project Report.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 32(4):4-10.
Müller, D. and R. Schleip Dec 2011.“Fascial Fitness.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the RolfInstitute® 39(2):7-13. ■
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