Changing the Shape of the Past with Structural Integration

by Ruth Davis for the Hauraki Herald, Thames NZ, 2000

I'm undressing in front of a man I met less than five minutes ago. I feel immensely self-conscious standing in my underwear while he takes my photo.

"He" is Structural Integration practitioner and trainer Sol Petersen who is also a trustee of Mana Retreat centre in Manaia, Coromandel.

I, who usually refuse to have my photo taken or go to male doctors, am suddenly wondering why I'm doing this Structural Integration thing.

Sol reassures me slightly by saying I get to keep the Polaroids. And consciousness of myself is growing as the images develop.

For someone who thinks they know and accept their body well, I'm shocked by what I see. I'm twisted. Yip, even my untrained eye can suss that out. My right shoulder slopes downwards, while my right hip is higher than the left. Sol, points out that my knees are knocked together, while my feet point outwards. My head also juts out awkwardly to one side and upwards. From a side view, my upper body leans forward.

I can't wait till the end of the story to say that 90 minutes later, I feel like a little kid who's just learned to stand and sit properly. My posture isn't quite perfect, but my shoulders are more even, my legs straighter and generally my body feels more balanced. My body feels light, but inside I'm tired, as though I've been listening to a friend's innermost fears, miseries and passions for the past couple of hours. And I guess I have been.

Sol has been working mainly on my hips, ribcage, shoulders and arms ??? stretching, rubbing and prodding to try to enable me to breathe more deeply. A tough task, given the amount I smoke.

As he works Sol asks me about my body awareness and related issues such as my breathing and how I feel about my body.

Integrative Bodywork recognises that in each part of the body there are emotions and experiences stored and these effect our whole being says Sol.

He is careful, making sure he doesn't hurt me or make me feel unsafe as he works. I'm beginning to relax and trust him, quite a lot ???.for a man.

He says most of what we do, say and think happens unconsciously through our conditioning "so for change to happen, outside of our automatic responses, there has to be some kind of leap".

I think healing requires the creation of a safe space where the individual will open and get in touch with unconscious parts of themselves, deeply see and know the way they are and create a bridge to something new, he continues.

Sol explains that when there is resilient movement and balance in the body, the connective tissue, fascia, stays flexible and mobile. What we think of as muscles is really myofascia (myo=muscle fascia= a type of connective tissue) a kind of clear film tube that surrounds every muscle fibre, bundle and body of the muscle. Fascial tubes also surround bone, organs and nerve fibres.
With stress and lack of movement, fascia becomes rigid and layers of fascia begin to glue to one another within and between muscles. So through repeated actions, physical accidents or emotional trauma, our bodies get stuck in certain positions.
For example, depression is often characterised by a sunken chest and, if this feeling and stance continues, the body becomes glued in this posture.

Structural Integration, through a series of sessions, aims to restore the body's balance, explore the reasons it has taken a particular shape and awaken a new sense of aliveness.

I'm doing a very physical thing in lengthening and straightening the body, and that's important. But physical therapy isn't enough because we're not machines.
We need to be able to understand the integration of emotions and thoughts in our body and the way we move and use our bodies in the world.

"Simply becoming aware of the attitudinal and emotional forces that impact on the body begins the process of change", says Sol.

Structural Integration also includes movement education, offering suggestions and visualisations to help bring more ease to everyday movements such as sitting and walking.

Sol originally did a Bachelors degree in Physical Education and Psychology, intending to become a schoolteacher. However, t???i ji, which he also teaches, soon took over his interest. From there, in 1983, he studied Structural Integration in Denmark and in 1985, in California with Joseph Heller. He went on to become a lead trainer for Hellerwork Structural Integration organising trainings in NZ and Europe for many years and also trained in Advanced Structural Integration with the Guild for Structural Integration in the USA.

Sol says his interest in teaching attracted him to the field of integrative bodywork. The 51 year-old sees people as "spiritual beings" and says Integrative bodywork can assist individuals to a deeper awareness of themselves.

Although Structural Integration isn't connected with any spiritual belief system the principles acknowledge that we are part of an integrated living system and that the body has innate wisdom. In discovering more about ourselves and how we operate in our local and global environment we can begin to create another kind of alignment.

He believes touch is an important food for humans and is concerned by the medical trend towards putting people under machines rather than under the practitioner's hands.
When we're touched, our consciousness goes to that place and helps us release any trauma in the area. Without touch we're in danger of becoming dysfunctional.

For Sol, assisting people to find more options is the best part of his work. If someone comes in and they're immobilised or limited in some way, I consider myself successful in my work if they leave feeling more freedom, lightness and happiness and have the tools to carry this on in life.

My body does feel light. Over the next couple of days, my body also feels oddly loose, as though the knots have been untied and it's not sure how to position itself. It's slightly discomforting to have lost my old twists, but an amazing chance to create my posture the way I want to be.

And, as Sol says, as I laugh at him demonstrating a macho posture, I am aware that our effect in the world is very different when we have a different shape.