The Wheeler Method of Structural Integration


The originator of the field of human Structural Integration, Dr. Ida P. Rolf, used myofascial manipulation to change human postural balance, contours and structural patterns.  Dr. Rolf achieved her impressive results through direct physical application of pressure by using her fingers, knuckles, palms, forearms and elbows.  Dr. Rolf's direct contact techniques

require considerable physical strength and structural integrity on the part of the practitioner.  But most adults are fairly tough and true structural change is not evoked easily.  Dr. Rolf had hands like tool-boxes but not all potentially talented practitioners are so blessed.  Rolf selected people with adequate structure as students, compassionately excluding a good number of talented people from her trainings whose structures she felt could not sustain the physical demands of the work. 

While Dr. Rolf utilized a wide range of manipulative techniques to change structure, she did not go into details on how the work was to be done.  She described Structural Integration as a method of producing the kinds of changes she got with clients.  Her seminal book, Rolfing, the Integration of Human Structure, is a statement of philosophy, principles, observations and results but very intentionally and specifically does not specify or show techniques.  Dr. Rolf said in her classes “This is the way I do it.  If you can find a better way, show me!”. 

Thus, Dr. Rolf left us with an implicit challenge: to discover how to deliver the work most effectively.  Both her remarkable ability to make structural change in her clients as well as this challenge have served as an ongoing inspiration to me in my efforts to develop effective tools and techniques that will support both practitioners and clients of Structural Integration.

The Wheeler Method of Structural Integration changes the way practitioners deliver their work in several ways:

(1)  by supporting the human body’s contours using a curved-surface treatment table, the "Butterfly Bed", which creates a wide variety of supportive surfaces and positioning choices for the client, while also enabling the practitioner to use gravity more effectively

(2)  by use of custom-fitted hand grips that protect and solidify the practitioner's hands and expand the choices of available contact surfaces

(3)  by use of straps that enable the practitioner to gain much more leverage and grip with far less stress

I am confident that these tools and the advantages they offer over traditional methods will, with time, be adopted throughout the profession for the following reasons:

  1. -practitioners can work with relaxed shoulders and arms

- practitioners obtain more efficient, stabilized leverage and a wider range of working positions

- practitioners gain ability to change very hard, dense connective tissue beds

- contact quality and comfort is improved for both client and practitioner

- working time is increased

- comfortable work can be accomplished at deeper working depths

  1. -the Butterfly Bed's curves help pre-stretch hardened myofascia and relax chronic reflex activation, allowing greater comfort for client and increased rates of tissue change

- straps and grips secure the practitioner’s body in its relationship to the  client

The goals of Dr. Rolf's 10-session teaching sequence—the "Recipe"—and all manner of advanced work are well supported by the Butterfly Bed, the grips and the straps.  These tools enable graduates of any school of Structural Integration to explore new ways of delivering familiar techniques, as well as to experiment with a range of new approaches and work strategies. 

"Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on

which to place it and I will move the world."

— Archimedes, 230 B.C.

Structural Integration requires the use of more sustained force than massage, physical therapy or osteopathic cranio-sacral techniques. 

The biomechanically supportive portion of the body's connective tissue is very tough and dense and does not change quickly like muscles.  Current schools of Structural Integration teach students to employ unassisted manual contact, relying solely on arm strength, hand strength and body integrity to get the job done.  This approach has intrinsic limitations that include inefficient self-use leverages, time limited contact and, as the limits of muscular strength are approached, loss of manipulative precision as fatigue vibration sets in. 

Arms provide sufficient leverage to exert appropriate levels of force.  The problem is one of fulcrum design, stability and placement.  I have designed a two-component set of tools, the Integrator's Tool Set, to solve this problem.

-WristStraps are variable-length loops that function as low-volume portable fulcrums that fit around the practitioner's hands, forearms or elbows to improve contact quality and relieve excess working tensions. 

-HandGrips are custom-cast silicon rubber grips that stabilize and support the closed-fist configuration of the practitioner's hands. 

Used together and separately, these tools support a practitioner's direct manual contact with the body.  When in use they do not touch the recipients body and, unlike other tools designed for massage, WristStraps and HandGrips greatly improve the quality of direct manual contact.


Click on the tool images to learn more about the Integrator's Tool Set

There are no straight lines or horizontal planes in human anatomy, the body is built from curves.  Why then do bodyworkers use massage tables or work surfaces with flat reference surfaces?  Curves with regular contours, such as circles or spheres, are not appropriate for human support because the body's shape is not built of regular curves or spherical elements.  Jewelry, metal craft-workers and sculptors use appropriately shaped anvils when working to shape their materials.  Where is the anvil for body-workers?   What shape should the body-worker's anvil be, given that people are all differently shaped? 

The degree of curvature of the Butterfly Bed is different everywhere along its working surface.  This enables the use of a yogic variety of positioning strategies to optimally fit many bodies of widely differing sizes and proportions to the curves.  The Butterfly Bed provides improved positioning, comfort and support while enabling the delivery of more structural change per unit effort with improved comfort and efficiency. 

Structural vs Functional Anatomy

Dr. Rolf was by training a biochemist and originally developed her ideas about Structural Integration without having formally studied anatomy.  This was good because the study of anatomy, with its traditional focus on dissection and microscopy, involves paying attention to structural details that more often than not lead a person down the pathway of analytic regression and scale reduction.  This approach rarely leads to a mature understanding of whole-system morphology, transformation dynamics and structural integration. 

Dr. Rolf dealt explicitly with "what there is that you can see and get your hands on."  In her classes she emphasized creating visually obvious changes in the body's biomechanical functions.  She was not concerned with making subtle differences and instead taught her students to explore making the biggest changes possible.  Rolf's scientific and functional approach deals with changing relationships among anatomical regions and areas and uses comparison and observation of contrasting behaviors to understand how to optimize form and function.  

Paying attention to functions frees us from micromanaging  structural specificities...   In the mathematical sense, focusing on functions enables us to generate our understanding of numbers from equations, rather than puzzling over vast arrays of numbers and wondering what the relationships among them all must be. 

Here is a question from the functional anatomy point of view:  How does the thigh-bone (femur) function in different body plans?  For example in birds, cats and humans, what is the relationship between the femur and the creature's center of gravity?  How does the femur, or a humerus,  fulfill its role as a function? 

Click on the logo to learn more about the Butterfly Bed.

Click on the humerus for more interesting ideas about functional morphology.

Dr. Rolf lectured at length in the early '70's about creating higher levels of order in the human body.  Recent advances in modern "open-system" thermodynamics help us to understand that her point of view was very advanced for her time.  Disorganized chaos is order.  Setting up a pressure gradient allows material to undergo a phase-shift, from gel to sol, and flow along the lines of established forces.  Rolf's recipe may be seen as a map for learning to sequentially applying many pressure gradients in a patterned, systematic manner to the body's connective tissue network in the service of transforming human physical structure.

Professional Identity

The use of the Wheeler Method technology will help to differentiate the practice of Structural Integration from its two most closely related fields, Massage and Medicine.  

Structural Integration practitioners do not practice massage because they do not focus on stress relief, circulation promotion or pleasurable contact.  Merely because we routinely touch the body is no reason to legalistically mis-classify our work as massage.   Inclusion in massage ordinances involves exposure to law-enforcement prejudice and invasive, inappropriate anti-prostitution policing.  

Structural Integration practitioners are also not healthcare professionals with responsibility for symptom identification, treatment, management or healing.  The purpose of Structural Integration is to change human structure in such a way as to create age-appropriate normal form, optimal proportion and biomechanical function in the body.  There is a very real need for professionally appropriate recognition, categorization and licensing, separate from both the healthcare and massage professions.  

Dr. Rolf explicitly defined her work as a unique field of inquiry, separate from but complimentary to both massage and medicine.  She emphatically specified that her work was designed to be received by healthy, normal individuals, that it was not to be understood as a treatment for any sort of symptom or disease and that any symptomatic relief was to be understood as purely unintentional spin-off.  For Rolf, Gravity was the Therapist.  

My hope is that the adoption of my techniques and tools will help to clearly identify Structural Integration as its own field of inquiry and practice.  

Richard F. Wheeler

Copyright August 6th., 2007 by Richard F. Wheeler

Dr. Ida P. Rolf