The Role of Consciousness in Transformational Rolfing® SI

By Pedro Prado, PhD, Rolfing and Rolf Movement® Instructor, and Heidi Massa, JD, Certified Advanced Rolfer®, Rolf Movement Practitioner. Illustrations by Gil Soares de Mello
April 2024

“It’s amazing! Since last session, I’m not sure why but I’ve been sensing myself in a totally different way. Things feel rounder, with more dimension, more color. Even the light seems brighter. I notice a better feeling socially, too. I’m more comfortable in my interactions with co-workers, more secure with my decisions. I feel more centered, calmer, and somehow more ‘myself’ . . .”

Each of us from time to time receives testimonies like this from clients – and how profound is our shared sense of wonder when we do? We ask ourselves, “How did that happen?” How does our work bring about these transformations – and how can we facilitate them?

The defining insights of our work are 1) the role of connective tissue as the organ of structure and 2) the importance of gravity in our structural arrangement. Structural integration (SI), which addresses connective tissue, organizes the body in gravity. Movement integration, which addresses patterns of perception and coordination, organizes function in gravity. And yet – it is apparent that while our work approaches the person’s physical aspects, it also involves the spiritual, emotional, psychobiological, and socio-environmental layers of being.

Reflecting on this phenomenon, we must acknowledge two awkward realities. First, we affect realms of being beyond our defining competence — and for many of us, beyond our own training and expertise. Second, shifts in these existential realms are inevitably, at least to some degree, outside the conscious awareness of both the practitioner and the client. We cannot ever be fully conscious of the whole being. Still, the more of the being that comes within the practitioner’s and client’s conscious awareness, the more refined, masterful and profound the work can be. And each of us has tools available to bring us toward mastery, whatever one’s level of expertise.

I. Framework

Rolfing SI is a multidimensional event. Coming from a holistic viewpoint but working from a somatic2 perspective, we recognize that the body both hosts and manifests the many layers of the being, layers that continually bridge each to the others. Of course, these layers are didactic constructs — not descriptions of reality. They are perspectives that emphasize different aspects of a unified  human phenomenon.

What’s more, we humans experience all of our behavior – even the most abstract – through our somatic biological nature. A biomechanical disorganization or fixation affects movement, which alters emotional experience, which colors the meanings derived from any situation. Conversely, a person’s impressions about the body, as well as the language used to describe its structure and function, will influence the person’s functional mechanics. This flows automatically from the fact of interconnection among the layers of human experience. However, for the layers to become not just interconnected but integrated, the client must go from being unaware of a circumstance in a particular layer, to becoming aware of it in the sense of perceiving it, and finally to grasping its effects on other layers and its significance to the person as a whole. Here, we will call this last kind of understanding consciousness.

Integrating the masculine and feminine.

II. The Transformative Potential of SI

Identity, or sense of self, is influenced by everything that shapes one’s affinities and aversions, emotional orientation, sense of place in the world, and beliefs about the nature and meaning of one’s physical structure and movement patterns. The sense of self is the ever-present backdrop to one’s experience, both consciously and unconsciously. It is a complex structure the constituents of which range from sensory associations based in the brainstem, to limbic affective associations, to cognitively derived meanings.3

Sensory and proprioceptive inputs form the brain’s map of the physical body, which we call the body schema. The brain’s registration of the body’s parts and their relationship is directly linked with a person’s self-sensing. Any time we touch the client, we provide sensory information that adds detail and refinement to the body schema, and we thereby influence the client’s sense of self. Every time we guide a client’s proprioception by teaching new relationships within the body – e.g., with tracking exercises – we refine identity at the level of the body schema.

Beyond that, improvement in the body’s organization in gravity can enhance the client’s repertoire of expression by bringing new sensations and relationships to be integrated. In humans, sensations produce emotional experiences that contribute to identity, and sensations we evoke in our clients are no exception. The client might like or dislike the touch, like or dislike the new possibilities, and will build a body image congruent with personal, individual experiences. Adding to the complexity, our interpretation of new experiences is colored by the filter of our memories and associations with past experiences. The client’s body image, along with the body schema, is central to the formation and maintenance of the ‘who I am’ idea. At a more elaborated level, the client’s experiences of the body and associated emotions acquire meaning by being named; and the client’s system of beliefs and  values evolves.

SI transforms identity as the client unlocks patterns, experiences new possibilities, and generates new emotions and meanings. On the sensory level, the work builds the body schema. On the affective level, it creates possibilities for new emotional experiences and can release and help reintegrate emotions held in the body. Finally, on the cognitive level, the process has the potential to address existing beliefs and meanings, and also to evoke new meanings. The client’s self-sense changes,4 but it is within the client’s consciousness only to the same degree as its myriad influences, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive. While identity will shift and develop somewhat in any Rolfing process (whether the client and practitioner are conscious of it or not), the work will integrate better and more fully in proportion to the degree of consciousness both parties bring to the process.

III. The Conundrum of Consciousness

Identity, in the psychological and ontological sense, partakes of both what is conscious and what is not. It is a challenge to admit that we have both conscious and unconscious realms operating at all times. Be the phenomena sensory, emotional, or cognitive, consciousness of it requires presence for and recognition of an event, an experience, or a fact of life.

The dialogue among the physical, functional, emotional, spiritual, and perhaps other dimensions of our nature comes into our practices when we want to help clients find their ‘Lines’ and their presence in the world, to address their patterns of behavior and expression — and, ultimately, their manifestation as human beings. The client may know a goal for the work – perhaps symptom reduction or pain relief – and even relate the goal to a specific structural arrangement or an emotional pattern, or to a worldview or belief system, any of which the client might even recognize as both diminishing quality of life and constraining his or her expression as a human being.

But many clients do not know. Like a blind man feeling the tail of the elephant, they do not grasp the breadth and extent of the pattern that manifests as the symptoms for which they seek help. Some have minimal sensory awareness of their bodies, and little comprehension of where their body parts are or how they relate to each other. Arrangement in gravity? Few of us even come close to a full perception of this.

Some clients might register the concomitants of physical changes only later – e.g., by noticing a correlation between fuller breathing and reduced anxiety. Others might get a silent Rolfing experience: months after the series, the transformed structure gives the person better body awareness, which leads to improved coordination and a better self image, as the person enjoys activity more and no longer feels clumsy. And yet – the client might never make the connection between the structural change and the sense of greater well-being.

Other clients are conscious in one or more dimensions, but lack consciousness of how any one dimension bridges to others. Though they might be conscious of the structural causes of their symptoms, they might also be locked into the related patterns of perception and body use, and not relate at all to different possibilities of being in the world. Or, the client might not be conscious of the emotional or social benefits of a pattern that is dysfunctional from a structural or movement perspective.
What’s more, it is not only the client whose consciousness is partial. The practitioner is not fully conscious of all that is happening, either. Our knowledge is insufficient; our presence inadequate; or our maturity and receptivity wanting. We are not necessarily mindful of the emotions we ourselves are experiencing, and perhaps we dissociate. Limited as we are even with respect to our own experience, we can never assume that we perceive correctly the client’s. This is humbling, and brings to the therapeutic relationship an equality born of shared imperfection.

IV. The Task of Evoking Consciousness

Because experience is always organized by both conscious and unconscious associations, our professional orientation and demeanor can and should reflect that reality. In part, it is a matter of attitude: do we provide a welcoming environment that fosters curiosity and invites the client to a larger view of the process? It is also a matter of tools and techniques, of building a repertoire of means to evoke the client’s imagination and awareness. Inviting and hosting moments of consciousness is an art. How do we enhance our capacity to practice it?

First, let’s recognize that we have choices as to the orientation we bring to the work. We can work quite effectively from an unconscious perspective by organizing connective tissue in gravity and allowing the client’s process to take whatever course it will in other layers of being. Things will take their course, and the process will indeed work. Or, we can begin to raise our own consciousness of the client’s process by paying attention – e.g., by monitoring the effects of our touch on the client’s nervous system and physiology, and modulating the touch accordingly. We can broaden the client’s consciousness in many ways, such as by inviting contrasts between old and new patterns – contrasts that can include the client’s affective or emotional experience of each. Whatever the style in which we work, we should indeed choose it – not just default to a habit.

Next, let’s recognize the need to tailor our interventions to what each client can accept in any particular moment. Choices among interventions are always available, but choosing well requires sensing the level at which the work is actually happening – and where it could happen in that moment. That requires attention, a condition for which is presence. We need to listen continuously to the experience of both clients and ourselves.

Listening to the Client

An artful practitioner is constantly attentive to the client’s goals and layers of availability and alert to opportunities to enlarge the scope of the client’s experience and awareness. The client’s reports can guide the process. If we are listening, the client will tell us what has happened and what should happen next. Whether conscious of it or not, the client has the information we need.

The Client’s Goals

The client’s stated goals are a starting point. Because goals can be articulated with reference to various layers of experience, they are clues for identifying the layers in which the client is conscious and available. Goals also suggest a vocabulary of both language and technique, be it touch, movement, or something else. Keeping the stated goals as part of the background also protects the practitioner from making untoward inferences and interpretations.

He was feeling confused, wanting to improve the quality of his relationships and self-connection.

Observing the trajectory of the client’s goals helps the practitioner to adjust language and attitude, and to choose the best tools. The original goal might be physical and move toward the existential; e.g., “my knee hurts, which makes me wobble when I walk, which leaves me feeling clumsy and embarrassed, like I can’t do anything.” Conversely, the goal might first be stated in existential terms (e.g., “I don’t know what I’m about”), and then progress toward resolving a mechanical dysfunction (e.g., I’m not sure what to say, or how to be with others, so I’ve walked as quietly as I can, with rigid feet, and now I have  plantar fasciitis).

As the process unfolds during a session, a series, or even a long-term process, the scope and direction of the client’s goals evolve. With that evolution, the client’s experience becomes richer and more layers of being become consciously available.

The Client’s Layer of Availability

The initial interview offers an excellent opportunity to gauge the client’s orientation and layers of availability and to sense where the client navigates comfortably. Though the goals might be expressed in one layer, the client might very well be open to exploring others. For example, a client who presents seeking relief from low back pain and observes that his hips are asymmetrical (structural layer) might be receptive to noticing how his postural habits in sitting (functional layer) leave his back with little support. Similarly, exploring the utility or meaning of a functional pattern can reveal new layers of availability. A client encouraged to perceive a pattern of walking with the head down can be asked to elucidate the contrast between the felt sense of this habitual pattern and the felt sense of walking with the head upright. The client’s response will reveal the layers of immediate availability.

We must tread lightly when inviting the client beyond territory that is familiar and comfortable. Just as the body rejects sensory input that is too fast, too soon, or too much, the client will not necessarily be receptive to the Rolfer’s invitation to make correlations between structural or functional patterns, on the one hand, and other layers of experience, on the other. An open-ended and layer-neutral question about an acknowledged change in the client’s somatic pattern – e.g., “How is it for you to be here [in this pattern]?” – often elicits a report stated in surprisingly rich emotional or energetic terms. However, it also often elicits an observation like, “Fine.” And that is fine. It is the client’s experience, on which the client is the only and ultimate authority. It is up to the practitioner not only to evoke what the client can access and own at the time, but also to respect what he or she cannot – as well as to accept the possibility that in the particular moment, significant correlates in other layers might very well be absent.

Layers of availability will shift during the SI process – and even during a single session. The practitioner who stays attuned to this will sense 1) where the client is immediately present, and 2) what levels of the client’s process can be brought to consciousness at the moment.

Enlarging the Client’s Envelope of Awareness

We can help to enhance the client’s consciousness across layers of being by enlarging the client’s envelope of awareness in many ways, such as education; noticing what the client likes or dislikes; and encouraging contrasts between habitual and newly available patterns.

Because how the client’s body behaves is influenced by how the client imagines it to be, education to structural and functional reality is a powerful intervention. It allows the client to entertain new possibilities of being, and often reveals cognitive errors or biases that have been playing havoc with the client’s system. As this happens, clients often begin to build bridges among the layers, which enlarges their consciousness.

For example, we often see clients who breathe into their bellies while the ribs and thorax seem collapsed and uninvolved. If we explain the basics of breath mechanics, letting the client know that the ribs and clavicles should participate in the movement, the client is often surprised. “But I thought that breathing into my chest was ‘shallow’ and breathing into my belly was good! That’s what I was told. . .”

Many of our clients long ago adopted dysfunctional patterns because of what they once heard was ‘correct’. But education can empower them to decide for themselves what is correct for them. And those decisions can be guided by interpretations of sensations.

With any instance of pattern shift, it helps to ask the client to describe both the new and habitual patterns. Clients can articulate the contrast with reference to any layer, and we can help the client to notice different layers with suggestive but still open questions: Does it affect how his weight transmits through his feet? Does it change his sense of relationship to the surrounding space? Is it comfortable? Does it bring with it emotions the client can describe? Perhaps the most open question to compare patterns would be, “Which do you prefer, and why?” Whatever the answer, the next question could be, “What is it that prevents or discourages you from being all the time in the pattern that you prefer?” This question can elicit the client’s awareness of how the seemingly dysfunctional pattern is actually quite functional, actually yielding advantages to the client in some layer  or another.

For example, one might ask the client who believes it is correct to breathe by pushing his belly out how it feels to restrict his ribs and push his belly forward. He might say, “It feels bad – and pulls my head forward.” His sensory awareness has given him a good reason to abandon a dysfunctional pattern self-imposed on the basis of misinformation.

But, the client might also report a sense of emotional security with belly breathing – and an uncomfortable vulnerability in a newly possible and more functional configuration. Should the client be encouraged to adopt a better functional pattern at the cost of some degree of emotional or social discomfort? Not necessarily. If the client does no more than to become conscious of a psychobiological need and its postural and functional correlates, the client is empowered to make a choice. Because the Rolfer’s role is to facilitate the client’s process, the client should feel free to set his or her own priorities among the layers of experience, and to choose accordingly among the available functional options.

Whenever we enable change, we induce new experiences, which will be perceived as good or bad, threatening or safe, comfortable or not. The client will react to the affective or emotional quality of the new experience either consciously or unconsciously. A client who enjoys the new experience will automatically associate with it a positive affect, which in turn will accompany the mental representation of the experience and create an interpretive filter for the client to use going forward.

To harness this process consciously in our work, we need to track the client’s experience. It helps to look for those ah-ha! moments when the client has a surprising and meaningful experience. We can recognize these when the client uses a new word to describe something, or appears to be surprised or pleased. These moments are precious windows into the client’s subjective experience, and allow the dance of Rolfing SI to flow.

Listening to Ourselves

In the therapeutic context, masterful practitioners continually monitor their own attitudes, impressions, and perceptions. This both reinforces our own boundaries and offers clues to what the client might be experiencing. Yet to understand the client’s experience, we cannot rely definitively on either our subjective sensations or our objective observations. Because the things we observe and sense in the client are no more than shadows of reality, we must treat our impressions as hypotheses and not as facts. We should test them against the client’s subjective experience. In addition, we should strive to be as neutral and balanced in our own systems as we can be, so that we do not transmit inappropriate patterns to our clients. Finally, we must respect and acknowledge our own limits when a client’s process moves into layers beyond our expertise, training, or comfort.

Every mammal is a resonant system. Whether through the polyvagal system, eye contact, chest tracking, or something else, we mammals register the experiences and states of others in and through our own bodies, sensing the others’ affective states and reacting with our own autonomic responses, emotions, and energetic shifts. In short, what a practitioner senses in his own body is a clue to what is happening in the client’s. The same is true of emotions or energetic shifts. These phenomena are real, and should be honored and taken seriously.

During a conversation with his father, the perception of internal space allowed him to feel safe emotionally

Our body dialogue with others is enhanced by the fact that pre-movement signals intentions and affective states as these organize in movement. The practitioner’s own body use conveys to the client the practitioner’s emotional state and patterns. Staying centered in one’s own Line enables greater clarity regarding the ongoing emotional and energetic dialogue. Because the client will indeed gather information from the practitioner’s body – whether consciously or only through the autonomic nervous system – the more the practitioner can be conscious of his own functional, emotional, and energetic state, the more he can be a ‘clean slate’, the better he can reflect what is happening for the client.

But the practitioner remains a subjective being, one who filters and interprets input – including input from the client – under the influence of his own prior experience, emotional state, and worldview. And the practitioner can observe only the client’s behaviors and his own reactions – not the client’s subjective experience. For example, the practitioner can observe a client retract the chest posterior during conversation. If the practitioner were to comment to the client, “You are afraid of me, defending yourself from what I’m trying to say, don’t worry . . . ,” he would be superimposing on the client his own impressions – impressions that might very well be entirely wrong.
The practitioner’s belief regarding what is happening for the client can be no more than a hypothesis – one that should be stated as such and tested by asking the client questions such as, “It seems to me that you might be more comfortable here. Is that your experience – or not?” Or, “I’m sensing some sadness here. Am I sensing correctly?” Even if the practitioner’s hypothesis is correct, it might be beyond the client’s immediate layer of availability.

We respect the client’s limits by positing our hypotheses as possibilities rather than facts.

Just as we strive to respect our clients’ limits, we must respect our own even as we keep the holistic perspective. Given the multidimensionality of the work and the limits of our individual backgrounds, each of us will have strengths and weaknesses in respect to various layers of being. For example, one might be keen at sensing the emotional state suggested by a client’s gait pattern, but less able to evaluate its biomechanical shortcomings. Even if we do not feel comfortable working in one or more layers, we will best serve our clients by keeping all layers within our consciousness and referring clients to other practitioners when their needs appear to be beyond our own limits.

Therapeutic Orientation

Acknowledging that the effects of SI are to some degree outside conscious awareness clarifies the importance of the practitioner’s keeping a receptive attitude toward the client. We must create a context for new information to come into the awareness of both practitioner and client and to be articulated in a way that supports the client’s ownership of it. In this regard, language is primary.

Language is another way of touching the client. Just as there are various physical touches – such as broad, specific, direct, and indirect – there are many styles of touching the client with language. Which to employ is in part a matter of personal choice and ability, but also depends on what the practitioner is trying to accomplish, and what layer or layers are to be addressed  or accessed.

For example, a practitioner needing the physical facts about a client’s old meniscus injury must ask direct, specific, factual questions. Questions such as, “How was the injury for you?” or “How do you feel about your knees?” perhaps have some place in the process – but not in the particular place where the practitioner needs to know which knee was injured and whether it was surgically repaired. Likewise, if the aim is to give the client anatomical information, the language will be specific. It might be either anatomical (e.g., your vertebrae articulate at their facet joints into flexion or extension) or metaphorical (e.g., imagine your vertebrae like pearls on a string, or links of a bicycle chain), but it will be quite specific to a particular physical or functional reality.

When, however, the client is asked for a report following work, the language of the question should be tailored to the practitioner’s intention. If the practitioner wants to know whether table work affected the pain in the client’s knee, the question is direct and specific: “Is your knee better, worse, or about the same?” However, if the point is to invite the client to identify structural or functional changes, or deepen the level of the client’s awareness of the changes, open-ended inquiries are appropriate. To ask “How do your feet feel now?” tends to constrain the client’s exploration and report to just that: the feeling in the feet. By contrast, asking, “What, if anything, do you notice?” or “How is it to be here?” opens the possible responses to all layers of being.

When the aim is to evoke sensation or function, our use of language must be fluid. Because the practitioner’s and client’s interpretations of words are not necessarily congruent, the clients do not do what we ask; instead, they do what they think we are asking. Active or passive phrasing of requests for action – e.g., “touch the floor with your feet” versus “allow the floor to touch your feet” – can yield quite different client responses and experiences, and the differences will vary among clients. Though our instincts and experience will guide how we choose the right words for each client, we must be ready to keep offering different ones until we get what we’re looking for.

Metaphors help bring consciousness of alignment.

Finally, because the client’s own images and metaphors are both clues to the client’s layers of availability and passages to the client’s consciousness, when we use language to track and advance the client’s process, using the client’s own words is key. It would be a mistake for the practitioner to use words that, in his own mind, are synonyms for the words the client uses. Whether terms are synonymous is largely subjective, and the client and practitioner might not agree.


Whatever the client’s journey, wherever the process leads, we as structural integrators must maintain our perspective as such, and bring the discussion back to the benefits of structure and function integrated in gravity. Still, the more of the whole we can consciously engage, while still respecting that which we cannot, the better we can serve our clients’ processes of personal transformation. Honing our abilities in this direction not only makes us better practitioners, but also makes us more conscious human beings.

Pedro Prado, PhD, a clinical psychologist, in 1981 founded the Brazilian Rolfing community, now over 160  strong. He was also central to bringing Somatic Experiencing® (SE) to Brazil and has dedicated himself to exploring the relationships among Rolfing SI, autonomics and psychosomatics. At the forefront of academic and clinical research on Rolfing SI, Pedro has developed clinical research protocols and databases and established an SI postgraduate research program, and he built and maintains the Ida P. Rolf Library of Structural Integration ( He promotes and teaches Advanced Rolfing and Advanced SE worldwide, and practices in São Paulo.

Heidi Massa, JD, trained in Brazil and for years has collaborated with her colleagues there – including Pedro Prado, Lucia Merlino, and Fernando Bertolucci, among many others — to publish their work to English-speaking audiences. She has been a Journal editor since 2000 and has served on the Rolf Institute®’s Ethics & Business Practices Committee since 1997. She and Monica Caspari co-authored the chapter on Rolfing SI in the book Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body (Schleip, Findley, Chaitow, and Huijing, Eds.; Churchill Livingstone Elsevier 2015). Her practice in Chicago (www.windycityrolfing. com) emphasizes the transformative aspects of Rolfing SI.


  1. Pedro Prado’s client Gil Soares de Mello, of São Paulo, Brazil, kept a journal of his Rolfing® process. The journal included his illustrations, some of which are presented here with his kind permission.
  2. The Greek word soma refers to the living body. According to philosopher and phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, a living body is not only an object, but also a subject imbued with consciousness.
  3. The triune brain model, adapted from the work of Paul MacLean, is a simple and helpful way to conceptualize brain function. According to this model, the reptilian brain controls the basic autonomic functions of life, such as digestion, reproduction, circulation, breathing; the limbic brain regulates the expression and mediation of instincts, drives, and emotions; and the neocortex governs language, cognition, and reasoning.
  4. The Santiago Theory of cognition emphasizes autopoeisis; i.e., the role of self-recognition in the development of biological forms. See F. Varela and S. Frenk “The Organ of Form: Towards a Theory of Biological Shape,” Rolf Lines July 1988, 16(1): 32-42; also H. Maturana “Autopoiesis, Structural Coupling and Cognition: A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition,” Cybernetics & Human Knowing 2002, 9(3-4): 5-34. ■
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July 2015 / Vol. 43, No. 2
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