Talking to Fascia

Changing the Brain, 20 Years Later: A Conversation with Robert Schleip

By Til Luchau
[The Somatic Edge]

Our field is in the midst of a slow and sometimes tumultuous sea-change, and many of us are collectively reexamining the conventional narratives and assumptions about how hands-on work produces its beneficial effects. Fascia frequently takes a highly polarized role in these discussions—depending on which social media forum or professional subculture you follow, fascia can be portrayed either in an almost-heroic role (Tensegrity tensioner! Plasticity provider! Sensory strata!) or as a quasi-villain (Inert! Irrelevant! Overhyped!). These symmetrically emphatic polarizations and paradigm clashes echo debates that have been going on in our field for decades now: How much of manual therapy’s effects do we owe to the mechanical properties of the tissues? How much to the nervous system? And is there a more useful answer than just leaving it at “both”?

Though probably best known as a fascial researcher, networker, and teacher, Robert Schleip, PhD, has been questioning our field’s conventional assumptions for much of his distinguished professional career. Earlier this year, I spoke with him at length.

In this first of several planned excerpts (which have been lightly edited for clarity and context), Dr. Schleip talks about raising questions as a teacher at the Rolf Institute (now the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute of Structural Integration), his surprising findings during his early work with clients under anesthesia, and more.

Til Luchau: Robert, thanks for joining me. You’ve been a mentor, an inspiration, a fact-checker, and a friend for many years. Your various internet biographies describe you as a “human biologist and psychologist with an area of expertise in fascia.” And you are the director of the Fascia Research Group at Ulm University and also research director of the European Rolfing Association.

So people know you as a fascial writer, thinker, and networker. Some people also know that you have a background as a hands-on practitioner. You’ve put many impressive people together and catalyzed some influential work over the years. What did I leave out, or else what would you like people to know about you?

Robert Schleip: Well, first of all, I’ve been a mutual inspiration-exchange partner of you, Til Luchau. So, I wouldn’t say I have been your mentor. If so, we have been mutual mentors, and both of us have been associated with somatic bodywork for several decades. And that’s how we know each other.

I came from psychology originally, but then I went into what was called “bodywork” very early on. I was the first German Rolfer in 1978; I stayed with Rolfing mostly for three decades, but also became a Feldenkrais practitioner. And then, after 30 years of enthusiastic hands-on practice, I turned to laboratory science.

Questioning Fascia’s Role

TL: So my first contact with you was probably the late ’80s at the Rolf Institute. And my memory is that you were already questioning our existing ideas as Rolfers, especially about the role of tissue and the role of the nervous system. Is that accurate?

RS: Yeah, I think it was in the late ’80s. I started writing about it in a provocative style, mostly in the Rolf Institute’s internal publications. And my reasoning at that time, because I didn’t know how to do experiments, was based on Peter Levine, who many of our colleagues know as the founder of Somatic Experiencing, a body-oriented psychotherapy.

Levine used to be a Rolfing colleague of ours. He was invited to one of the Rolf Institute faculty meetings, and there he told us that he did some mathematical calculations—how many kilograms per square centimeter would be necessary for the gel-to-sol thixotropy explanation that we had taken over from Dr. Ida Rolf, the founder of the Rolf Institute. And he came to the conclusion that it is beyond the forces that we have available to us in bodywork—it would be like 80 kilograms per square centimeter, or more.

And that led me to ask, “Maybe we are doing something more?” I chased him for several years, telling him, “Please give me the mathematics. If you just tell us that you did the mathematics that is not reliable, we need to get them.” But he never managed to get them. They were in a drawer, in a box, et cetera. And then, years later, I did the mathematics myself with colleagues. I was not alone, but I was probably most prominent within the faculty to question the old plasticity model of Rolfing and say, “We need additional models that include the nervous system.”

TL: Yes, that’s my memory too. I remember you raising those questions. I was probably a student at the time that you were becoming a full faculty member there at the Rolfing Institute.

RS: I was assisting when I was staying at your house, Til.

TL: OK, that’s when it was. But I remember [senior Rolfing instructor] Peter Melchior telling me about how there was some pushback—you had these ideas, and some teachers on the Rolf Institute faculty were saying, “I don’t know if that’s the right thing.”

RS: Oh, that. They were not open at that time. Yeah. I don’t blame them. I can understand it.

TL: What do you think the objections were? What do you think their hesitation was?

RS: First of all, if you have a model that makes you superior to other competing manual therapies—for example, that Rolfers work stronger and therefore they work deeper, or more profoundly—other therapists might change the body schema as one of the brain’s representation; for example, Feldenkrais. Other therapies are better at relaxing muscle tonus, but Rolfers change collagen tissues. So, I could understand that if you take that unique selling proposition away, that it was not so well and enthusiastically greeted.

TL: You were questioning our identity as being unique, but also our basic explanations for what we were doing.

RS: Yeah. But now I think they are very thankful to me, and that’s what I get. Because another emphasis that Ida Rolf had—more than anybody else, even more than osteopathy’s founder Andrew Taylor Still—was that fascia is the most important and most powerful tissue as a focus for the attention of the myofascial therapist for bodywork, rather than the skin, or the muscles, or the lymphatic flow, or anything else.
And now I have been very involved in research, and I’ve been together with researcher and Rolfer Tom Findlay and others. Fascia research has taken a big prime-time development in scientific research, and Rolfing is profiting from that.

TL: Yes, that’s right. I mentioned Peter Melchior, but to be fair, at that time he also said, “He’s the kind of guy I want on the faculty. I want him there. I want him helping us think these things through.”

Talking to Fascia, Changing the Brain

RS: I published a paper called “Talking to Fascia, Changing the Brain” in the late ’90s.1 I wrote to all the faculty members and [asked], “What is your response?” to the little experiments I had done in Australia, where I tried to Rolf people under anesthesia [and] discovered something that should not be possible based on the Rolfing model. So, I questioned my colleagues. Peter Melchior and one other person were the only positive responses to that.

TL: What did you discover that shouldn’t be possible?

RS: The first thing was the range of motion restriction in the shoulder joint. In many people, if they lie on their back and you put the upper arm next to the ear in a straight upward direction—say, in a flexible dancer—you can extend or elevate the arm all the way to 180 degrees, so that the upper arm is next to the ear. But with many more restricted people, the arm is hanging there in the air.

So if you check whether the muscles are relaxed with a little wobble, and if you think they are relaxed but the arm still is in the air, then our model was, since it’s not the muscles, then it’s the fascia that’s stiff.
I only had three patients at that time; I should have better prepared. I would have done the range of motion test and would have used a force meter, so that I always used the same force to pull, et cetera.

In the three clients: One had no restriction—at least not to 180 degrees. In two of them, the arm was hanging in the air before the anesthesia in a way where I would have thought it was not muscular restriction, because if you wobble the arm, there was no visible muscle restriction. But as soon as the anesthesia kicked in, the arm dropped all the way to the table. That was not happening with the ankle joint, for example, so it means: in many people, shoulder joint restriction is some nonvoluntary, not EMG [muscle tonus]-related muscular restriction. But it seems to be independent of fascia also.

TL: The change in range of motion was from something that the anesthesia affected; probably the nervous system.

RS: Yes, nobody believes that anesthesia effects collagen fibers or the viscosity of the ground substance within a few minutes. That would be a huge surprise. Anesthesia is usually specialized to influence the nervous system and particularly the muscle tonus. So it meant that some component of a chronic movement restriction was not only fascia properties. And I wanted to find out which—and how we could separate them.

Something Missing

TL: Is that what took you into your doctoral work? When I visited you in Munich last year, you told me that you were in your fifties when you decided to go back to graduate school and dive into research. Was that the question motivating you?

RS: This question had been fascinating me long before. Before I did the experiment in Australia, I had a chance with some German doctors who were experimenting with ketamine, which is an aesthetic drug. In my subjective Rolfer’s experience, if I Rolf somebody’s leg in normal conditions, and then again when the person is under ketamine anesthesia, I realized that there is something missing. You don’t get the specific response that you are used to. And then I tried it with very fresh meat from the slaughterhouse, in which the animal had just been living two or three hours before and it’s still warm, and I got a similar sensation. And that was for me a more stimulating question.

TL: So in both cases something is missing.

RS: Yes. And of course you do get a response similar, like if you lean on a piece of bread or anything else that’s pliable and not animated. And the basic question that has been inspiring me until today is: What is the difference between live tissue and not-alive tissue? And that is, of course, also a profound philosophical question.
It comes back to: What is life, in a living body? If you take some of the elements of life away—for example, if you kill the animal, then the animal is dead, but some of the cells are still living—the muscle cells can still twitch for three, four hours. But if you wait 10 hours, then all life is gone in the tissue.

Under ketamine some life has gone, but the life that is gone is not the fibroblasts and not the muscle cells. What is gone is the connection with the central nervous system. And with, for example, people who have had a stroke and are half paralyzed but where one side of the body is normal, you don’t lose connection with the whole central nervous system. But with a big part of it, in one side, the connection with the central somatic nervous system is mostly cut off. And if you work on one side, you’ll get a different tissue response than if you work with the other.

TL: I see. So the difference in the working the two sides in someone with a stroke or with some paralysis on one side was confirming what you were finding in those other cases.

RS: But you also have it when you work with clients. You get to an area in their body and you feel nobody at home. And you have some clients where you get slightly bored because wherever you work, you think you are working more or less on a piece of meat. And then you get the next client, and wherever you touch you go, “Holy cow! Somebody is in there.”


1.    Robert Schleip, “Talking to Fascia—Changing the Brain: Explorations of the Neuro-Myofascial Net,” Rolf Lines 19, no. 2 (2005): 18–21.

Til Luchau is the author of Advanced Myofascial Techniques (Handspring Publishing, 2016), a Certified Advanced Rolfer, and a member of the faculty, which offers online learning and in-person seminars throughout the United States and abroad. He invites questions or comments via or     @TilLuchau on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.