Though the exact chronology of Ida Rolf’s life is unclear from available sources, it is clear that the Rolf Method of Structural Integration can trace its roots from osteopathy, Hatha yoga, homeopathy, and naturopathy.*^+
Rolfing’s wholistic perspective is a clear product of Ida Rolf’s experience with Hatha, homeopathy, and naturopathy, and the manipulative techniques she used to make effective whole body changes all bear striking resemblance to osteopathic techniques (that are still taught but are largely underutilized in today’s treatment programs due to a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this post).
As for her biography, Ida Rolf was born in 1896 in New York, where she grew up in the Bronx. Her father was an electrical engineer and her mother was a Victorian housewife.^ In 1916, Ida Rolf graduated from Barnard College. In 1917, she began officially working for the prestigious Rockefeller Institute, though she had had some connection with the Rockefeller family of organizations in NYC while an undergraduate at Barnard. In 1920, Ida Rolf earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University and in 1922 was promoted to the position of Associate. Though it was common for women to be working at the Rockefeller Institute at the time at administrative and technician positions, it may have been rare for women to move up the ladder to attain the level that Dr. Rolf attained.+ (The first woman to attain full membership at the Rockefeller Institute was Florence Sabin in 1925 as head of the Department of Cellular Studies)%.
In 1926, Ida Rolf began a leave of absence from the institute and traveled to Europe where she is believed to have studied physics, naturopathy, and homeopathy among other things. It is not known exactly when she returned from Europe, but she did make plans to resign from the Rockefeller Institute while she was abroad.+
Current references are not clear on when the following event occurred, but her being kicked by a horse in Colorado is largely referred to as the spark that set off Ida Rolf’s burning interest in alternative medicine. After the incident, she developed pneumonia-like symptoms that medical physicians could not alleviate.
As she made her way back home to New York, she saw an osteopath in Montana, and, after his “ministrations,” was able to breathe again. When she returned home to the east coast, her mother took her to a blind osteopath by the name of Thomas Morrison whom she ended up befriending. Through him, she became “interested in the theory of osteopathy – that structure determines function.”*
Ida Rolf’s first forays into bodywork were based on what she’d learned about her own body through the 1920s and 1930s as a member of a yoga group in New York and as a patient and student of several osteopaths around the country. In addition to her time with Dr. Morrison, she spent a year in California training with Dr. Amy Cochran, an osteopath who made the rather eccentric claim that she had received her knowledge by psychic perception from a man who had signed the declaration of independence and had obviously been long dead before Dr. Amy Cochran had ever been born.
When Ida Rolf returned to New York from her intensive studies with Dr. Cochran in California, she began using the techniques she’d learned on individuals who were unable to get help elsewhere for their debilitating conditions.
Her reputation grew, and she eventually made her way west to the Esalen Institute in California where the term “getting Rolfed over” became a popular way to refer to the process that Ida Rolf herself referred to as Structural Integration.
^Knaster, Mirka. Discovering the Body’s Wisdom. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.
+Johnson, Sam. “Ida Rolf and the Two Paradigms.” First published in International Association of Structural Integrators Yearbook, 2006. Accessed December 27, 2007.
*Rolf, Ida. Rolfing and Physical Reality. Ed. Rosemary Feitis. Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1990.
%”The Florence R. Sabin Papers.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/RR/Views/Exhibit/narrative/biographical.html Accessed February 23, 2008.
Sise, Betsy. The Rolfing Experience. Arizona: Hohm Press, 2005.