Expanding Our Connections
2018 International Association of Structural Integration Yearbook
Expanding our Connections
Judith Aston shares stories and reflections from her career, including how she came to meet Ida Rolf and be invited
by Dr. Rolf to design the first movement program for structural integration. This is an abridged transcript of Judith
Aston’s keynote presentation at the IASI Symposium on April 27, 2018, in Vancouver, WA.
Hello! [Audience: “Hello.”] Good idea. Let’s say “hello” several times. I will say “hello,” and you say it back to me in the same way. Helloooooo. [Audience repeats.] That was Seinfeld, right? Hello. [Audience repeats.] Hello? [Audience repeats.] Hello, as if a child is walking up to you to give you something. Hello. [Audience repeats.]
We agree that we just said “hello” five times, but they were all slightly different. We changed in speed, volume, force, inflection, and possible interpretation. I think this experience is like our work: We’ve all trained from the lineage of Dr. Ida Rolf ’s structural integration, and yet there are so many variations to our different works, probably as many as there are practitioners. Probably because, in the office, we’re the ones trying to problem-solve the questions that come from the client and their body pattern which takes us in different directions to figure out answers.
Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here. I was thrilled to receive this IASI 2017 Yearbook. Kirstin [Fossum], this is incredible. It had all the schools, teachers, students. It was terrific, and I felt that all of this, in here, connects all of us round the world.
Problem-solving and the Recipe
I want to talk about problem-solving a little bit. Have you ever seen this slide [see Figure 1]? This is the “nine dot challenge.” You’re supposed to connect the dots with four continuous lines. What’s interesting is that you can only do it if you think outside the box [see Figure 2].
I feel that this represents us in our office. When we are problem-solving for a client and out of the blue they say they forgot to tell you when skydiving their parachute didn’t open and they fell down 10,000 feet, and by the way that was 20 years ago, so surely it has nothing to do with their body pattern now.
I met Dr. Rolf and trained with her, starting in 1968, to 1977. She did my first ten sessions, and then she did my advanced work. During one of my advanced sessions I said, “Dr. Rolf, you are not using the recipe.”
She continued to work. “Correct.”
I said, “But you tell all the practitioners that they should stay with the recipe.”
She said, “I tell all the practitioners to only use the ten session recipe for five years, so they will know how not to use the recipe.”
And I said, “Well, you should tell them.”
And she said, “You tell them.” So I am.
Dr. Rolf’s influences
When Dr. Rolf went to Europe to study math and atomic physics she was there for a while. I’m sure she was exposed to many of the movement and bodywork systems there at the time: Alexander work, Laban work, Amy Cochran’s work, Jennifer Lee’s work, perhaps even connective tissue massage. People have asked me throughout the years, “Do you think Dr. Rolf trained in connective tissue massage? It was very popular in Europe at that time.” And I say, “I don’t know.”
But Dr. Juana de Laban, a daughter of Rudolf Laban, was one chairperson for my master’s at UCLA. When Dr. Rolf came to teach a class in L.A., I asked Dr. Laban to visit. She observed and thought that Dr. Rolf had earned this technique in Europe from connective tissue massage. I don’t know if any of us know that to be true, and I don’t really know if it’s important because we are all inspired by things that motivate us to learn more, to dig in, to understand better.
Meeting Dr. Rolf
I was teaching at a college in Long Beach; I started teaching there in 1963. I was hired to create movement programs for the Physical Education department, Theater department, Music department, and for the community services. I created and taught classes for the baseball team, the golf team, the football team. Then, in 1967, I was in a pretty serious car accident where someone going faster than 50 mph hit me while I had stopped which left me compromised.
During the weekends at that time I was the “Movement Lady” for a growth center similar to Esalen called Kairos in La Jolla, California — and Fritz Perls, and Alan Watts, and many other trainers — and, like Esalen, they would want someone to teach movement to their participants.
One of those people was a psychiatrist. He asked me to create a movement program for his patients that would take workshops, because it seemed as though the person in the Gestalt “hot seat” might be the last person to know what their body was revealing. Other people in the group might say, “It’s obviously a problem with her father,” and comments like that. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so I created some things for the person in the hot seat to become more aware of their body language.
One weekend down at Kairos, I got ahold of the psychiatrist and said, “I received a final report from Memorial Hospital from all the physicians who’ve seen me, and the Physical Therapy department, and the psychologist. Their conclusion is there’s no real reason I would be feeling pain, and it must be in my head. I didn’t think I was imagining this pain and this limitation, but that was their conclusion. You know me, and you’re a psychiatrist. Is this in my head?”
He said, “Oh no, it’s not in your head. They just don’t understand soft tissue injuries.”
“Soft tissue injuries? What is that? Do you have an idea of what I should do?”
He said, “Well, yes. I do. There’s a woman I’ve heard of, Dr. Ida Rolf. She’s a white witch, I guess.
She seems to understand how to get people out of their troubles.”
I said, “Well, I’m on board.”
He said, “She’s coming to Big Sur soon.”
I said, “I’m on my way.”
I called my friends at Esalen and said, “Hi! Dr. Ida Rolf ’s coming, right?”
“I want to come up and get a session with her.”
They said, “She’s booked.”
I said, “She’s booked? Doesn’t she know how difficult this is for me?” We are all so funny when we are in pain. Perhaps this is a familiar scenario with some of your clients. “What? You’re taking a vacation just when I need you? How could you do this to me?” Anyway, I said, “That’s alright. I’ll just come.”
Dr. Rolf was giving her sessions in a small office just off the baths at the Esalen Institute. I sat myself on her doorstep. She’d open the door for a client to come in, then close the door. Finally, she opened the door and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m just waiting for a cancellation.” I was trying not to be too obvious.
She closed the door. Then the next day she opened the door briefly to say, “Two o’clock tomorrow, I have an opening. Be here.” She closed the door, and I ran off.
I came back for the session. What is bodywork? I had never had a massage, I had only experienced exercises at physical therapy. I was very surprised by this work that, I’m sorry to say, hurt my “wussy self,” but then my pain threshold was probably at a .0001. When she stopped it did not hurt. The discomfort did not continue, and I could immediately feel the change.
After a little while of getting into it, I realized this woman has contacted with what I imagine to be the magic of the body to heal. It needs help, it needs people, it needs philosophy, it needs touch, it needs care, it needs emotion. It needs all these things to help it recognize what it knows and how to help, or continue, the healing process. It was an amazing transformation, as you all know. I had an incredible experience.
Then at the end of the session, to my amazement, she said, “I understand you create movement programs for people.”
I said, “Yes.”
She said, “Do you think you could create a movement program for my work, structural integration?”
I said, “Sure,” not knowing anything.
She said, “Well, I’d have to train you.”
I said, “Why?”
She said, “Train you so you’ll know what to create.”
Sounded logical, but I said, “No one else has trained me. They just have me come watch. I ask questions, I write down their answers, I go off, I put something together, I come back, we test it, try it out, I refine it, and then they go.”
She said, “No, I will have to train you, and the class starts in six weeks. Mid-June.”
I said, “Oh no, I can’t.” She looked at me, not so subtly. I said, “I’m finally going to Europe; I’m so excited.”
And she said, “The class starts in six weeks.”
And I said, “I just don’t know. Everything is planned and I’d have to change it.”
And with the look from a triple Taurus, she said, “Change it.”
And in a tiny voice I said, “Okay.” I did. And it’s changed my life. I’m really glad she did, and I did, and we did.
I love that she sent this autographed photo to me in July 1977. Signed by her “To Judith Aston – spirit of movement”
Training with Dr. Rolf
In the auditing, [my fellow] students in the class started asking me to help them with their ability to see body relationships and patterns. I started putting together ideas for a future class based on observing Dr. Rolf and her model. Her postural model was to have the feet facing straight forward, somewhat close together, the knees were soft so they could move, the palms faced to the back while the elbows pointed out to the side. The waistline back was to correct the many people who had hyperextension there, the chest was up, chin in, top of the head up towards the skyhook. The walk that accompanied this pattern used the psoas to swing the knee straight forward.
Dr. Rolf wore Birkenstocks. We all wore Birkenstocks, so outside the classroom door were twelve pairs of Birkenstocks. At the end of the day we would get in our Birkenstocks with bag or purse over the shoulder and walk while we thought Dr. Rolf was watching us. Then we would get to the tree, and as soon as we passed the tree where one could not be seen from the house, everybody would go, “Oh jeez,” and go back to their normal pattern of walking. I remember thinking, “Hmm, shouldn’t we have a walk that people will continue to do for the rest of the mileage? I’m going to work on this.” But we were definitely comical.
Teaching and Seeing
When I started teaching classes for Dr. Rolf, I was made the head of the newly formed Movement Education department and a board member. This was exciting. Up until 1977, I had the privilege of training about 200 Rolfers™ and 50 movement teachers in my classes. My content for the first classes had three main areas of focus.
Number one: Seeing posture. One of the things I think dancers and choreographers have to learn is how to see bodies. Some people can see according to a grid, and that may work for their particular system, but really being able to see the whole body three dimensionally is so useful for practitioners like us.
Learning to and teaching “seeing” came about because I was teaching acting students in a stage movement class. One [acting] student said to me, “I don’t know if I want to join this class, because yesterday I auditioned for a Shakespearean play and all the students in the audience laughed at me.”
I said, “Okay,” and filed that away. We started and I said, “Do you mind showing me what you were doing yesterday when you did this audition?”
He said, “Yeah,” described doing a rather serious role for the play, and showed us his version of a “powerful” entrance. He walked on stage in an extreme slouched-over pattern, yet with a “cool” walk like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He walks in, and everyone bursts out laughing.
I asked, “Do you know how you walk?”
He said, “No, I just walked in.”
I said, “I know, but do you know where your body is in space or what it looks like? Are you aware how flexed, almost stooped over your chest is?”
He said, “No,” and at that moment I decided these students need to learn how to see bodies if they’re going to build to a specific characterization in an acting role. This is what trained me and allowed me to add the “seeing classes” for Rolfing.
Number two was a focus on body mechanics, in terms of: How do you use your body in this work? How can you work deeply? How can you work while the client is moving? How can you save your body to last for many years of work? Body mechanics became an important piece.
Teaching clients to sustain the work
Number three, then it became important to figure out how to teach practitioners how to teach their clients to sustain the work. These were the three categories for those early classes.
I realized that there were a lot of people who were exercising at that time: Lifting weights, doing various kinds of muscle building. The issue and focus became the way the person was using their body when they did the weights. Doing bicep curls while the chest is overly flexed is not good for the back. Even if they wear a belt the same movement is creating some compromise for the back. These different awarenesses, watching the way people exercise that would not sustain the work, became one more focus. While running may be very good for their heart, when someone runs with the neck in extension and the chest flexed down it can create strong whiplash effects for the head and neck.
The concept I teach is: It’s how you do the what you do that makes the difference.
Connecting with Dr. Rolf
I want to tell you a funny story. I had the chance, as an auditor in that first summer in June, to be Dr. Rolf ’s “Girl Friday.” I’m not sure if some of you know what a Girl Friday is, but a Girl Friday is a person that runs all the errands, picks up the cleaning, makes phone calls... I got to be that. I probably could have done a better job at this now, as I have had a few years to learn how to do things better. I loved it, because it gave us a lot of time to spend together. I would drive us from Big Sur to Monterey to do errands and go shopping. We would have to stop at the market first and buy some Breyer’s ice cream, maple pecan, with two spoons. We’d sit on the bench outside the market and go through that carton of ice cream. I was digging for the candied pecans and she was eating the ice cream, and then we’d go about our errands. We were funny. We’d finish that off, no problem.
The sequence determines the result
Here was my first chemistry challenge from Dr. Rolf: On the first or second day of auditing she said, “Judith, would you get me a cup of coffee with cream?”
I said, “Okay.” I saw a nice china cup. I put the coffee in. I poured the cream in. I brought it over to her, brought her some sugar. I gave it to her. I waited.
She took a sip. “You put the cream in second?”
And I’m going, second? Oh yes, two ingredients: coffee, cream. “Yes, I did.”
She said, “Let me tell you something. You want to put the cream in first, because the first ingredient allows the second ingredient to break down very differently in chemistry. And the third ingredient, and so on and so forth. So, the cream will make the coffee less bitter and smoother.”
This particular event changed my life. I told everyone. Whenever I could, we would have two cups of coffee: one with the cream first, one with the cream second. People would join the table to taste, trying to figure out – what is this difference? It was magical. I know chefs understand this, because you take the same ingredients of onions, tomatoes, and peppers, you put them in any different order, it gives a different flavor to the dish. They understand the chemistry, but I did not – and now you know, too.
A few years later, this concept for movement became clear to me: The sequence of different movements determines the result. I want you to experience this. Turn so you can just touch the top of your foot with your index finger by bending forward. Change the angle of your chair so you can do that easily. From here will you flex your spine, then hinge at your hip to come forward to touch your foot, and come back?
Will you reverse the sequence? First, will you hinge from your hip forward, then flex your spine to touch your foot? Did you feel the difference?
Many times, what happens when people are thinking about picking up a shoe, they think down first, and they go into flexion. They go into flexion, and then they reach. This implodes the pressure into the back. If the person keeps their center of gravity higher and more forward it maintains length in the hip joint; the hinging is quite easy and makes the flexion of the spine next easier, too. Then do it one more time to contrast it, just so it makes sense.
The concept is the sequence determines the result. I find this really useful when problem solving for people and their activities of interest. Now, when anyone asks, “Judith, do you want the good news first, or the bad news first?” I say, “The good news first; I’ll be in a better place to hear and deal with the bad news.” So, remember the cream when these moments happen.
A Few “Aha” Moments
Supported vs. unsupported sitting
Please sit back on your chair like you are comfortable and relaxed. While you’re sitting there, will you turn your head to the right, then turn your head to the left, and mark on the wall how far you’re seeing and how far you can turn your head? From there, will you go ahead and take a breath and feel how that is?
Now, as though you’re playing the piano – even if you don’t, you’re playing the piano or you’re exercising your fingers – will you do this with your fingers, and feel this? Three things: feel the breath, range of motion, dexterity of the hands.
Scoot forward so you are only sitting on your pelvis, and not the back of your legs. Turn your head to the right … and left. Feel your breath. Play the piano.
Now, keep playing the piano, scoot back to where you were sitting before, and feel what happens to your dexterity. Do you feel like you’re in mud? So, do people that work on a computer all day, and they can add to the problem with some of the wrist supports where the wrist is anchored and has even less help from the forearm. What’s important about that is that the seats are designed — and most of them are designed — to tilt us back, which puts us in flexion.
Ground reaction force
Dr. Rolf ’s theory was focused on the body in relationship to gravity. I agreed with that idea and wanted to find ways of getting the earth to support motion. For years I worked with a push-off: pushing off the ground, pushing off to lift the arm. I was teaching in Seattle and the head of the Physical Therapy department, Darlene Hertling, was taking trainings with me. She said, “Judith, you know that push-off you keep telling us about has a name. “
I said, “It does?”
She said, “Yes. It’s called ground reaction force.”
I said, “Really? That’s great,” and immediately started calling it “GRF,” or “GRF-ing.” Ground reaction force.
A lot of people know about gravity. We’re drawn to the earth, and gravity is pulling us down to the center of the earth. But many people are unfamiliar with the opposite force, ground reaction force. This is the force that gives things shape. Many times people hold “good” posture against the pull of gravity; they do not know, perhaps, how to use GRF to lift the body from sinking into the ground. The body does best when these two forces are engaged alternately: letting go into gravity (the down), and pushing off the earth gently (for the up). Gravity has a moment, and ground reaction has a moment.
Will you come to standing, please? [Audience stands.] Will you just be centered in the fact that you feel weight on your feet more evenly, front to back, right to left, through the feet? Will you settle without collapsing, just feel your body let go, head into neck, neck into chest, chest and so on, until you envision the apertures — segments — of your body are getting wider and deeper, just a bit?
From here, soften your knees just a bit, press down on your feet to engage the ground reaction force, now straighten your legs to lift and feel how the force that you are now utilizing and maximizing — push-off — feel how it goes up to the knee, the hip, the chest, the shoulder, the neck, and the head. When it gets to the top of the head, go ahead and let down into gravity. I can see the whole audience rising and falling — that’s fun.
When you get down again, just push-off. Very nice.
Our inherent asymmetry
Now, come to your right foot, just lean – tilt – to the right. Push off the right foot, feel the uplifting. Perhaps you can feel the left side relax. Come to your left. Lean into the left foot and push on the ground gently. See if you can feel your right foot relaxing.
Now, push off on the right foot again – feel the lengthening through your leg, up. Come to the middle. Come to your right. Push off, and let your right arm come up and check the range of motion, and let it down. Come to your left foot, push down, let your left arm come up and feel the range of motion.
Now, feel how the range of motion changes when you stand on both feet, or on the opposite foot. Can you feel the shoulder joint close a bit?
Let’s do the other side. Lean onto your left foot, push off, allow your left arm to come up. Feel the range of motion. Come to both feet, come to your right foot and feel what happens. Because you’re no longer centered over the same foot as hand, the joint isn’t as open as it could be.
Go ahead and sit for now. [Audience sits.]
People are aware that the two sides of the body are quite different. Here is one of our practitioners [see Figure 4, left]. You can see that his weight is centered from the foot up, a little more to the left. Somewhere around the xiphoid, he shifts to the right with his chest. His head and neck shift to the left again. You can see that the hair on his right side is high. It was just sticking up for the photo. You see his hair on his left side. You see his left hand palm facing back, and right hand facing his body.
I’m showing you this because many times practitioners work like this [demonstrates both hands contacting the client at the same moment]. Your body is asymmetrical, and you know it’s asymmetrical because the organs are asymmetrical, in numbers, size, weight, and shape. As the body develops around these systems it still has this natural asymmetry.
Most people would look at him [gesturing towards slide] if they’re not a trained professional in this, and say, “He looks pretty close to center, just a little off maybe.” But let me show you the reality of how different his right and left sides are from each other. First, I bisected the body and put together two right sides. There he is, looking like a totally different person. These two photos look like two different people. Now look at his right and left sides together, again [see Figure 4, left].
You may be aware that your right and left sides have slight asymmetries – we all do – but when you place your hands at the same moment on a body you lock in the differences, and somewhere in the middle – the core and/or spine – has to negotiate those differences. Whereas if you push on the right foot, then place the right hand, then same with the left foot, and then hand, each side has the support for its difference and they can cooperate with each other instead of compromise each other. It takes two seconds — to go from one-foot, one-hand one second to other-foot, other-hand the next second — to save your body.
Connections and Consequences
Matching what is
An important part of Dr. Rolf ’s vision was that her work be known for its manipulation as well as education. In 1968, I knew nothing about manual therapy and then I met Dr. Rolf. I had been teaching movement and exercise, and still do, but learning and teaching bodywork changed my life, and I’m so grateful.
I want to thank Mary Bond for the article she did with the ATSI e-magazine, because years ago I was in a dilemma — as I often am — because something unusual gets my attention and I want to figure it out. I’ve always wanted to “figure it out.” I’m one of those people that – like probably most of you – want it to make sense. I was teaching these movement ideas to people and working with the bodywork, and seeing all the people get their sessions, and I could see movement go through from the superficial layer to the bone, but when it hit the skeleton it looked like it stopped. I didn’t know why that should happen. The question was, shouldn’t the influence of movement look like it’s going through the body and out the other side to the impulse? Whatever the impulse is, if I push off this, you’ll see it come out the other side, right? But I would see the movement stop. I want to figure out how to do bodywork at the periosteum layer. I have to figure out how to do that. So, this is probably ‘71–’73. Julie Hammond, editor for the ATSI e-magazine, did an article with Mary. I then read how this opportunity came along in 1974. Mary Bond invited me to work with a boy named Donald Musić.
Mary Bond [from her seat in the audience]: “As a three-year-old, the family left on vacation and left their four children in the care of a caregiver, and this little boy fell into the pool and drowned. He was left severely brain damaged and contorted, and his body would experience these kinds of spasms.”
Mary invited me to come to meet him. I walked in, and the first moment I saw him I started [bolstering him by] grabbing towels, and pillows, and clothes, and putting them in what in dance is called the negative space. I stuffed them in all those places. I may have made this up, but I did that and I felt as though his body relaxed just a bit. He was looking in my direction and his eyelids closed, and then opened. He seemed to be looking at me and then his eyelids would close slowly and open again.
I started to press, to rotate, stretch, massage, do myofascial work. I wondered if I was just making him tighter. I was asking for help to be able to listen to Donald Musić. Then I just placed my hands on his, in the same shape, and matched his contraction. I was matching and somewhat increasing the contraction a bit. I noticed that when I un-spiraled it relaxed a little bit, and his fingers opened a tiny bit more. He closed and opened his eyes again. So, I did more and so on. It could have been complete coincidence, but it felt as though he was giving me permission to continue. I always ask for permission when I’m working with clients, even with babies.
After that experience, I took off and ran with the idea of matching — matching what is — to know how to “unhook” it in order for it to release. Those discoveries grew into many more, and then to the form Arthro-Kinetics, and Arthro-Kinetics grew into many self-care techniques as well. I’m just grateful for that, Mary, thank you so much.
May the road rise to meet you
One of the things I wanted to share here is — you know this wonderful saying — the Irish Blessing. I want to focus on the first two sentences of that blessing: “May the road rise to meet you. May the wind always be at your back.”
I wonder if you see this example often: Your client is standing still and you say, “Let’s take a few steps,” and as they pick up the foot, something goes back. They kick up the foot, pelvis goes back, the chest goes back, the head goes back with the chest and the pelvis, something goes back and they pull themselves forward by reaching out with the foot.
I had an “a-ha” moment one day when I asked, “Why are we, in a sense, walking up hill? Why don’t we lean forward instead, so the whole body can lean across the ankle?” The body leans, you take a step, you arrive at the ground more over your foot [demonstrating the forward lean, and then the contrast of pulling the body forward by reaching out with the foot]. Watch the distance of where my heel is to my hip joint when I walk [demonstrating gait]. It’s quite a distance, yeah? Instead, I just easily lean forward and walk.
When you do this [demonstrating] you hit the road sooner as though it comes up to meet you which was the image I wanted you to think about. When I lean forward there’s more surface area for gravity to pull which helps me stay in perpetual motion. In a sense, you reach the road sooner — like the road rises up to meet you and therefore, because you’re being gently pulled forward, it’s as though the wind is behind your back. I like the image.
I wrote this book in 1998, the Aston® Postural Assessment Workbook – Handspring is doing the second edition. After being inspired by the IASI Yearbook and being invited by Kirstin [Fossum] to do this presentation, and feeling the connection that — even though it seems like we’re all on our own sometimes, somehow we are not. I’m going to dedicate this second edition to all who have trained in structural integration and have perpetuated and expanded Dr. Rolf ’s work.
Okay, it is time to say goodbye. I want to use the Hawaiian word for “hello,” or “goodbye,” or “with love,” and so I say goodbye for now with “aloha.” Thank you, very much. Aloha!
Here is a list of the Rolfers who trained with Dr. Ida Rolf between 1960-1979. I will list them on the dedication page of the second edition of the “Aston Postural Assessment Workbook” from Handspring Publishing. If you have any corrections or additional names, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Asher, Judith Aston, Bob Ball, Mary Bond, Jeff Burch, Seymore Carter, Pat Clough, Matthew Cohen, Norman Cohn, Andy Crow, Erik Dalton, David Davis, Giovanna DeAngelo, Giovanna’s husband, Jack Downing, Al Drucker, Jack Favius, Rosemary Feitis, Hadija Fielding, Joseph Heller, Emmett Hutchins, Owen James, Eddie Jehber, Don Johnson, Stan Johnson, Will Johnson, Lloyd Kaechele, Jason Kane, George Kassebaum, Ron Kirby, Walter Krier, Peter Levine, John Lodge, Randy Mantz, Ed Maupin, Ron McComb, Michael McIver, Peter Melchior, Stacey Mills, Michael Murphy, Tom Myers, Dorothy Nolte, Neil Powers, Veronique Raskin, Harvey Ruderian, Michael Salveson, Louis Schultz, Will Schutz, Don Setty, Michael Shea, Fritz Smith, Jan Sultan, Ed Taylor, Sidney Villin, Sharon Wheeler, Caroline Widmer, Chet Wilson, and Tom Wing.