Rolfer brings alternative healing technique to Flathead

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Certified Rolfer John Barton works on Cor Colbert of Whitefish at his Whitefish office. Rolfing sessions typically last around 75 minutes and Rolfers recommend patients undergo a series of 10 treatments, each of which targets one area of the body, for best results. (Mackenzie Reiss/Flathead Journal)

lay face-up on a massage table in John Barton’s Whitefish office. The dull hum of traffic on Spokane Avenue is barely audible from inside the room, which has been brought to a cozy warmth by a heater chugging away in the corner.

After a couple quick passes over my neck, back and shoulders, Barton has determined that my left side is slightly anterior — with tissues trending frontward, instead of in the ideal neutral alignment.

He applies a salve to his hands and presses his palms on my left arm, twisting the muscles to the inside in an attempt to resolve the asymmetry. The pressure is firm, but far from painful. It feels, in a lot of ways like a massage, but the intent behind his movements is markedly different.

Barton is a certified Rolfer, a bodywork therapist whose primary focus is the manipulation of fascia — the fibrous material found between bone and muscle, suspending the respective parts in space. Rolfing was founded by Dr. Ida P. Rolf, a biochemist who worked for the Rockefeller Institute in the early 20th century. Rolf believed that the body functions best when all its pieces are in proper alignment and that irregularities in composition can cause other systems to compensate, hampering them in the process.

Barton, a former personal trainer and massage therapist, discovered Rolfing by pure happenstance 13 years ago. He ran a furniture store in Dallas at the time, but was contemplating a career move into the chiropractic field. But one day, everything changed.

A man walked into his store and offered to trade his services as a Rolfer for a piece of furniture. Barton, who was experiencing back problems courtesy of all the heavy lifting he was doing, decided to take him up on his offer.

“About five treatments into it, I was convinced that I wanted to be a Rolfer and not a chiropractor,” Barton said. “As soon as I got this kind of work, it was like somebody turned a light on — I’ve never felt this way... It was a paradigm shift for me.”

His back problems were eliminated and Barton felt he’d finally stumbled on a means of true healing.

“Your bones are suspended in space by connective tissue and so that was the real lightbulb — there’s whole other world inside of me that I didn’t even know about,” he said.

Barton attended the Rolfing Institute of Structural Integration to earn his certification and runs practices in Kalispell on Main Street and in Whitefish at 511 Spokane Ave.

Rolfing sessions can be done individually, but the institute recommends a package known as the 10 Series — as the name suggests, a series of 10 treatments, each of which target a different zone of the body. Rolfing sessions typically last for 75 minutes and include an assessment, bodywork and discussion. Barton will first gather information about a client’s history — such as any injuries or surgeries they’ve had, and what their goals are for the treatments before identifying structural imbalances and then applying pressured movements to correct them.

“I would say nine out of 10 people, after they do one, know they need the whole series,” Barton said. “Resolving somebody’s structure toward what’s natural for them has exponential health benefits.”

The Rolfing Institute professes that treatment can improve posture, relieve chronic pain and reduce stress.

Cor Colbert, of Whitefish, who at more than halfway through her 10 Series, has noticed tangible benefits from Rolfing. The tweaks in her lower back and shoulders have gone away, and she’s come away with a greater awareness of body mechanics.

“Rolfing has changed everything I thought I knew about my body and mind,” Colbert said. “You start to pay really close attention — what am I doing that’s causing that? Because it’s probably something in your daily movement that’s causing it.”

Colbert said that while Rolfing has a reputation for being painful, the reality is far from it.

“If it’s painful then they’re not good Rolfers. You can feel the manipulation, but it’s not painful,” she said. “You definitely feel different…. It’s an investment in yourself. It really is.”

The research behind Rolfing isn’t 100 percent conclusive. The method hasn’t been studied as extensively as more mainstream alternative medicine techniques, such as massage or acupuncture.

A 2011 article in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found that some studies demonstrated preliminary evidence of improvement in movement, posture and a reduction in anxiety following Rolfing treatments.

However, the articles states that concrete evidence for clinical effectiveness is “severely limited by small sample sizes and the absence of placebo or other comparison control arms in most studies.”

While the medical jury may be out on the precise effects of Rolfing, Barton said the vast majority of his clients report benefiting from treatments.

“Very few people come in here and say they don’t get results out of the work,” he noted.

One of Barton’s most memorable cases was a woman in her 20s who had survived back-to-back car accidents that left her in so much pain, she was couch-ridden for a year.

“After her first treatment she was like ‘I can’t believe this, this is the first reduction in pain I’ve had over a year.’ It completely saved her life, according to her,” Barton said. “It’s not about how many treatments you may do or how much money you make — the pure pleasure is seeing somebody transformed.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or

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