The short answer is no.
The long answer is that it can involve intense sensations, but today’s Rolfers never want that intensity to turn into grimaces and protective tightening in clients. Such physical responses are viewed as counterproductive to bringing about lasting change.
The Rolfing of yesteryear, however, operated under different assumptions, and it was the way in which it was practiced in its first decades that gave Rolfing a reputation for being excruciating.
One of the key tenets of Rolfing was the idea that fascia, the connective tissue of the human body, was made of a material that would respond to intense pressure and heat by changing from a more solid “gel” state to a more fluid “sol” state, thereby allowing fascia to change its positioning. It was believed that the fascia could undergo this phase change in the same way an ice cube turns into water when temperature or pressure are applied.
This explanation, known as the gel-sol theory or thixotropy model, implied that more pressure made for more change, so Rolfers used as much pressure as possible wherever they worked to create more change.
New theories, new techniques
Times have changed, and so has the practice of Rolfing.
Recent laboratory research on fascia has shown that the gel-sol theory is not a plausible explanation either for the effects of Rolfing or for the speed with which changes can be made with limited pressure.
A mounting body of evidence shows that Rolfing works on a neurobiological level, effecting changes in the human body’s self-regulating systems (collectively known as the autonomic nervous system) by contacting extremely sensitive mechanoreceptors residing in the fascia.
Since mechanoreceptors have been shown to react to far less pressure than was used under the gel-sol theory school of thought, Rolfers have been able to adapt their techniques to be simultaneously more comfortable and effective.
When old patterns of holding in fascia are contacted, though, clients can sometimes feel intense sensory input that is often described as “good pain.” Contrary to what was formerly believed, this “good pain” can be modulated down to the comfort levels of individual clients without sacrificing the effectiveness of treatment. In fact, strong reactions like clenching of fists or suppressing cries of pain very much interfere with the body’s ability to reorganize itself and integrate the changes that are made through Rolfing sessions, so it is in the client’s and practitioner’s best interests to work without going past the limits of “good pain.”
For today’s Rolfers, Rolfing has become an art of allowing for new sensations, the occasional bout of “good pain,” and staying away from the gnashing of teeth and groans of suffering that marked the practice of Rolfing in the past.
For more on the current neurobiological theories behind Rolfing, see structuralintegration.info’s How does Rolfing really work? and Fascial Plasticity – A New Neurobiological Explanation by Dr. Robert Schleip.