How to build a strong and elastic fascial body;
and how to guide your empathy with the CAKE technique
From the column: Ask the Faculty
"I've been practicing Rolfing for several years now, and was wondering if you could give me some advice regarding self-care. Areas that have come up for me include: minor aches and pains in my arms and hands that seem to be progressing a bit, taking on clients's engergy during sessions, and feeling drained at the end of a long workday. Any guidance you can offer in these or other areas of self-care are weollcome. "
On physical aspects:
In my first couple of years as a Rolfer I did not take any systematic approach in supporting my own body for the demands of giving many Rolfing sessions. Inspired by my review of the literature on connective tissue remodelling, that attitude has changed. With the half-life cycle of collagen being approx. 12 months, I know that it is easily possible to build a strong and elastic fascial body, provided that one regularly stimulates the fascial fibroblasts over a period of 6 to 36 months. The key being gradual load increases, at very small increments, with appropriate rest in between. Good examples are martial artists which have developed an amazing fascial strength, usually by training and loading their fascia 2 to 3 times a week over many months and years.
With my fingers having been the weekest parts in my body during strenous Rolfing sessions, I therefore started to do modified push-ups on my fingertips. First putting only a small portion of my body weight on them, and then increasing the loading every few months. Same with doing pull-ups on a door frame, beginning again with only a small portion of the body weight. As tactile sensitivity is diminished for a few minutes afterwards, I usually practice these one-minute exercises at the very end of a Rolfing day, yet only 2 times a week.
Same philosophy in scheduling my session slots over the years: It found that it's best for my body to work two longer days per week, with one or two easy days (with no sessions or only very few sessions) in between. I remember having had painful body responses after increasing my maximum session load erratically from one month to the next. Following the martial arts philosophy of gradual load increases, I then planned this more systematically and went on to adding just one more session to my maximum daily load every couple a years. Today, after more than 30 yrs of giving Rolfing sessions, I am treating clients at two days a week only, yet with ten sessions of an hour length on each of those days, and with one day of rest in between those two days, as well as a long 4-day rest over the weekend. The remaining days of the week are then free for my research work at the fascia lab, which is very different body usage than during my session days. I am convinced, that had I followed a more erratic development of my session load, my hands would have acquired some aging 'wear and tear' symptoms by now, and I would probably have bouts of wishing for 'Rolfing retirement' once a while. Yet fascia is not like a car tire that gets used up over time. It is an amazingly responsive biological tissue: depending on how we load it, we can wear it down, or we can built it up. I have profitted from that insight tremendously.
On energetic aspects:
I must confess, that I find the concept of a certain quantity of negative energy being taken over from one person (who is subsequently 'relieved') to another person (who subsequently feels burdened) not at all convincing. Particularly in the light of modern scientific insights on the function of mirror neurons and their role in human empathy, the 'energy transmission analogy' is no longer suitable for me. Like many other therapists, I tend to have very active mirror neurons when being with another person. When watching a James Bond movie for example, my skeletal trunk muscles tend to shiver out of excitement to such a degree, that I often feel like supressing it or hiding it to the person next to me. A less dramatic yet similar empathetic process happens in my sesions: My breathing, my vitality, and emotional state change from one client to the next. And the phyisological changes in my body may be as significant as if watching first a horror movie, then a great clown comedy, and finally a heart throbbing historical love drama. What happens in my body has little to do with the 'energy' of the physical cinema screen in front of me. And the feelings in my body when seeing James Bond hanging over a cliff, are probably also different from those of the real movie actor (who may have stood on a wooden post in a Hollywood studio, pretending to hang miles above a canyon).
Reading the excellent book 'The body has a mind of its own' by Blakeslee & Blakeslee has been very inspiring for me. It helped me to understand that it is my neo-mammalian cortex, that actively tries to guess what the functional and emotional quality of a perceived posture or movement are for that person (and filling in many blank spots in order to arrive at a 'congruent picture'). And then my brain actively anticipates how I would feel, if I were in this person's skin, yet with my own body history and with my personal life story as a background. I am sure, that my own visceral reactions in response to a client's expressions may often be shaped by distorted projections and interpretations simular to their function in a movie theatre. And yet, they also can give me very valuable input for what the great neurologist Antonio Damasio calls the 'somatic markers' in my own sensorial advisory system, in order to refine my intuition.
Reading a few recent research papers concerning empathy and mirror neurons convinced me, that the degree and direction of somatic empathy can be drastically shaped by clever circumstances and conditioning. Given the right setup, most people can be seduced to have 'out of body perceptions' or to project to 'live' in somebody else's limbs (see e.g.: Petkova VI et al.: If I were you: perceptual illusion of body swapping. PLoS One 3:12, 2008.). That fascinating background inspired me to experiment more creatively with my own mirror neurons during sessions. Over the last two years this lead to what I now call the CAKE technique: "Constructive Anticipatory Kinesthetic Empathy". Let me briefly explain: Rather than emotionally merging with my clients, or on 'keeping my distance', I now focus on a specific combination of self-sensing and kinesthetic empathy. Before touching my client on a new place I ask myself " Where is this same place in my own body? How can I be more present there? And: am I able to anticipate kinesthetically in my own body the particular state of release (or warmth, letting go, vitality, postural integration, connectedness, wellness, etc.) that I hope to induce in my client in this area.
Being slightly dyslectic, it took me initially a second or two to locate 'my left knee' before touching my client's left knee, as an example. Yet now it takes me less than a second to locate it, followed by another 1-3 seconds for 'connecting' with that region internally and to induce a positive anticipated kinesthetic sensation. The side effects of this practice for my own posture and wellbeing are very beneficial. If I have a day with many leg oriented sessions, then I end up with very happy legs and feet in my own body at the end of the day. Similarly with my shoulders, lower back, neck; you name it. I also believe that this helps the mirror neurons of my clients, in taking over some of the beneficial tissue and body changes that they subconsciously perceive in my body and in our physical communication.
What motivated me to sit down and contribute these impressions for this journal column, is the vivid report of a Rolfer colleague sharing her experience with the CAKE technique yesterday. Having learned this technique in a workshop a few months ago, she reported that she now feels energized and 'well' at the end of her session days. Yet in addition she also got a full practice for the first time; which she is convinced is due to how differently her clients perceive her and her touch in their sessions. Needless to say, that I am very happy to hear that, as practicing the CAKE technique also continues to be of great value in my personal Rolfing practice.
Robert Schleip PhD, Rolfing Instructor
Munich, June 2009
Excerpt taken from: Structural Integration 2009; Vol.37, No. 3, p.2-3