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Treating the Body as a Self Regulatory Process

Brazilian Rolfing Conference 1996
Excerpt of Keynote Lecture by R.Schleip

It has been pointed out that even in deep tissue work, any structural change in the body relies on the involvement of the client’s nervous system. Short term plasticity of the body to manual pressure is mainly a neuromuscular tonus change. But this immediate neuromuscular change will be feeding - especially in a state of "high behavioral plasticity"[1] of habit formation - into long term plasticity changes of collagen density and arrangement in the body.

Therefore I don’t treat my client’s body as a piece of clay or a stack of mechanical dead blocks. I suggest to treat it rather as an alive organism or - to say it in more modern or cybernetic terms - as a self regulatory system.

My own actions and perceptions are in constant interaction with minute responses of my client’s nervous system. Any tonus changes that my hands detect (even if it is only from a few motorunits) will influence my hands how they continue with subtle changes in their pressure and direction.


Chart 1 emphasizes this "being in dialog"-quality of our work. I consider it important to see oneself as interacting with the dynamics of a selfregulatory system rather than working in a linear repair mode of fixing this or that in a mechanical system. Of course non-linear system dynamics are currently fashionable in almost any field of science, ecology or art. One famous example for its necessity was the big Exxon Valdez disaster. When this huge oil spill disaster happened near Alaska, the responsible company Exxon immediately employed the best specialists internationally to give them advice in how to repair the ecological damage. According to their advice they cleaned the spilled beaches with hot water steam in order to remove the oil. Years later scientists discovered a big surprise: the beaches which had not been ‘rescued’ with this treatment (e.g. because they had been too remote) were much better off than the cleaned ones. They then learned, that this ecological system had a self regulatory ability via some microbes which was unknown before and which the well-meaning helpers had damaged with their intervention.

It is almost certain that there are many self regulatory dynamics in the human organism of which we are currently not aware yet. Could it be that some of our clients end up with much more problems years later - after our well meant repair work - than if we had not worked with them so well? I believe that this is easily possible. But how to avoid it? I suggest that the best answer is to operate in a mental mode of interacting with a highly complex self regulatory system which demands more non-linear systems thinking instead of the logically and hierarchically oriented `linear cause and effect thinking’ in which most of us have still been trained in school and university. That’s why I have become now much more careful with the application of "structural logic" or any other linear concepts in our work.


Chart 1:

Interdependencies instead of ‘structural logic’

Example of relationships among some relevant components for a specific client. Instead of hierarchical cause-effect dynamics, most self regulatory systems involve several interdependencies and feedback loops.

To give an example for non-linear systems thinking in our field Chart 2 demonstrates an application to a specific case. This client of mine came in with a chronic headache as presenting symptom. It was clear that the headache was influenced by the high degree of neck tension, which again was influenced in the gravity field by the amount of thorax flexion (bent forward posture). The thorax flexion was interdependent with her shallow breathing, and the more headache she had the more her shallow breathing pattern would increase. She also complained of indigestion which seemed to be influenced by her shallow breathing as well as by her thorax flexion. Some traditional linear cause-and-effect thinkers would probably want to stop now in the analysis because already it becomes rather complex. But if we want to avoid doing shortsighted repair damage like the helpers of the Exxon Valdez accident we have to become comfortable at managing much more complex pictures.


Chart 3:

Where is the ‘trimtap’?

Example of a systems diagram. Only after careful study of the complex interrelations among many, many different components one should start searching for the highest leverage point (“trimtap”). A small modification of the right variable can then elicit an effective longterm shift of the whole person.

Chart 3 shows an expanded version of the complex interdependencies. Of course, even this picture is much too simple, and one could easily argue that many more factors need to be included. In my understanding of her situation, those were nevertheless the main relevant factors. The uninterrupted arrows indicate amplifying influence (the more neck tension the more headache) and the dotted arrows oppositional influence (the more thorax flexion the less good her breathing will be). Sometimes the style of influence can change at certain threshold values (when she started looking too attractive the relationship with her partner disimproved again).

The question now is "Where are the high leverage points?". From where can I best influence the whole system? Or in Buckminster Fuller’s terms: Where is the "trimtap" at which one can most easily adjust the course of the whole big ship? A systems analyst like Peter Senge[2] at M.I.T. could work with this model on a computer and give all the different arrows different mathematical correlations (usually with specific non-linear equations) until the model behaves very similar like reality. In working with thousands of such non-linear systems dynamics his research group found that the highest leverage point tends to be quite far away in space and time from the presenting symptom. Meaning that whenever you get an immediate improvement with your intervention, it is quite likely that you haven’t hit the main leverage point. If one hits the trimtap in such complicated systems, it usually involves some "lag". (This reminds me of my "learning experiences" about lag or of the value of small adjustments together with patience that I had with some Italian showers and their temperature regulation, after I had jumped between freezing and burning myself several times).

So in the above described client of mine, I found the main leverage point in her thorax flexion. Helping her to open up in the front of the thorax took some time, and it didn’t solve her headache, her financial and marriage problems immediately. But in the long run it seemed to have been a main key factor for changing the whole system towards the better. (Of course additional work with other elements like with her visceral organs, her psychology and neck tension were also helpful.) The main point is that thinking in non-linear system models can be trained, and we need to train our intuition to operate with those complexities.

Table 1 demonstrates some of the aspects of this current shift in our field from a biomechanical focus towards a more neurobiological orientation which includes the self regulatory dynamics of the clients organism.

Table 1:







Image of perfect/imperfect machine.

(with linear cause – effect relationships)


Self regulating biological organism.

(with nonlinear system dynamics, complexity, autopoiesis)

Typical ‘industrial age’ viewpoint


Typical ‘information age’ viewpoint

Clear distinction

between structure & function

No clear distinction betw. structure & function

Subject/object separation

("principles of intervention")

Subject-object connection

("interaction" instead of intervention))

Limited number of variables.

Inner sense of absolute certainty in practitioner is achievable & desirable

High degree of complexity with almost unlimited variables. Practitioner needs to be comfortable operating within uncertainty principles.


Problem solving attitude


Goal: enhancing already existing self regulation

Local "precision" admired

Good timing and gradation (doses) getting very important


"Technician" as idol

(E.g. story of technician who specified his $1000 bill for repairing the steam engine of a huge boat: "1 hit with a hammer $0.01. Knowing where $999.99")

"Facilitator" as idol

(Chinese proverb "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime")

Typical work example:

Mobilization of a precise ‘spinal fixation’ or sacral torsion.

Typical work example:

Inclusion of facilitated active micro-movements of the client during hands-on work.


I don’t think that the inclusion of the self regulatory dynamics of the nervous system in our view of human structure, is far away from Dr. Rolf’s intention. She started the very first chapter of her book with a quote of Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics:

"We are not stuff that abides.

But patterns that perpetuate themselves."


[1] See Bruno D’Udine: Biological considerations on Rolfing,

[2] Peter Senge: The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday 1994