The Pelvic Lift

A Rolf-Approved Session Finisher

By Thomas Myers

During my apprenticeship with Dr. Ida Rolf—way back in the antediluvian mid-1970s, before computers, cell phones, or email, when Mission Impossible was a (good) TV show—she would end nearly every session with a fascial release procedure called the “pelvic lift.” In the pelvic lift, the client, supine with her knees up, rolls her pelvis up from the tailbone until the lumbars are off the table. The therapist slides a hand, palm up, under the lumbars, stretching and easing tissue along the posterior of the lumbars and sacrum as the client brings the pelvis slowly, segment by segment, back down to rest onto the practitioner’s hand.

Rolling the pelvis up and settling back down vertebra by vertebra is a time-tested exercise given many names by many different professions; you will find variations of this in dance fundamentals, Pilates, personal training, yoga, and all over the various disciplines within somatics. The pelvic lift is a hands-on variation of this common exercise.

During the maneuver, Dr. Rolf’s hand was under the client with the full weight of the client’s pelvis bearing down on her hand. You couldn’t see much, and Ida was a fabulous practitioner but not much of an explainer. What was she doing under there?

We wanted to ask, of course—here was something she did with everybody and told us to do the same, so surely it must be of paramount importance—but we were too respectful to disturb her with questions when she was working. (Besides, asking the wrong question at the wrong time could produce an unfortunate blistering and belittling response from our mentor. “Watch and listen” were our watchwords.) She was often clearly working in the tissue along the low back and sacrum, but it was difficult to tell exactly what was going on. 

When we attempted it ourselves, we just tended to hook whatever tissue we could get a hold on and pull downward. This worked well enough in the ’70s, but we need to be more refined in our explanation today.

Somewhere within the cadre of her teachers, a list rose up of the possible bits to which one could pay attention while doing a pelvic lift. I first heard this list from Charles Swenson, then an anatomy teacher for the Rolf Institute, but the list was ultimately attached to Stacey Mills (no longer with us), a longtime student of Ida’s. Mills was an energetic dancer, an unfailingly encouraging teacher who taught for the Guild for Structural Integration, and a strong proponent of the pelvic lift. 

This list does not appear in Ida Rolf’s book; indeed, she seldom wrote down anything procedural for us, but you can bet she was the ultimate genesis of this list.

So, let us describe the clinical bare bones of the pelvic lift, and then unpack this list of some of the useful corrections this simple positioning allows you to make.

A Pelvic Lift Described

The client lies supine with his knees up far enough so that the feet are under the knees, heels not too far out away from the pelvis. It is not sufficient to have the knees bent over a roller or bolster; the feet need to be planted. If you wish, you might pre-position the client near the edge of your table to help with your body mechanics, which can be problematic in this otherwise simple move. 

The first part—raising the pelvis and lumbars—is purely the client’s movement. Instruct him to slowly lift the pelvis up off the table, starting with the tailbone and tucking the tail under to start with a little curl (hip extension or posterior tilt of the pelvis). 

Many people make the movement too fast, with the lumbars all clumped, so the first bit of somatic teaching is to get him to lift slowly, piece by piece and with awareness. In the best movement, the tailbone will reach toward the back of the bent knees, the client will feel each lumbar lengthen from its neighbors as it lifts, and the hamstrings and glutes will stay relaxed. I often use the cue: “Push your knees straight out over your second toes, allowing your pelvis to stay relaxed as possible.” What we want here is not a thrust, but a piece-by-piece suspension of the hips, sacrum, and lumbars into the air.

Allow him to go all the way up, lifting the pelvis until he feels the ribs start to leave the table. There is not much benefit in going beyond the lifting of the lower thoracics/floating ribs—this is not a bridge pose from yoga. Along the way, you could have him pause or repeat a section to improve proprioception and differentiation.

Before your client starts down again, place your hand under his lower spine palm up, heel of the hand toward the client’s heels, middle finger pointing up the spine to the head. Spread your fingers so that the index and middle finger are on one side and the ring and little finger on the other of the lumbar spinous processes. (Your hand will look like the Vulcan “live long and prosper” gesture.) 

Hook your fingertips (by flexing your fingers) into the tissue on either side of the spine and draw downward toward the tailbone. Many, when they begin to learn this move, find much of the weight on the heel of the hand, down by the base of the thumb. That is OK to start with, but you will be able to do more fancy tricks with this move when you can support more of the weight on your fingers.

Commonly, at the beginning, one cannot generate the same pressure from the ring and little finger on one side of the spine that one can with the index and middle finger on the other side. With some practice, this will equalize.

If it does not, or the client is too heavy, or you just prefer it, you can do the two-handed variation: as the client lifts his pelvis, slide two hands in under the lower back, positioning one hand on either side of the spine. From this position, you can draw down with both hands on the thoracolumbar and sacral fascia, with equal “grab” on both left and right sides. The disadvantage of the two-handed variation is both hands are tied up. If you can get one hand trained up to talk equally to both sides, then you have the other hand free to cue the client as he comes down to fully rest into your hand. (I have trained both my hands so I can perform this move from either side of the table.) 

If you have a free hand, it can go on the belly to encourage the client to relax down in the belly wall or psoas, or onto the rib cage to encourage breathing, or to hold the thighs if the client cannot hold them steady or the knees are falling apart. 

Whichever way you do it (and I still do both to this day, usually favoring the one-handed style, so I can use the other for cueing, but using the two-handed method when the client is heavier or has really dense lumbosacral fascia), you must also pay close attention to your body mechanics. With the client on the table, even sidled over close to you, the tendency is to pull toward yourself as you pull down. If you do this, you can turn your client into a banana, pulling more on the hand on the far side of the client’s back and less on the side close to you.

To avoid this problem, you need to be sure that your pull is straight toward the client’s heels, not in a curve. This requires strength and attention to master, but the rewards are worth it. Second best is to do it on both sides successively, so the two side-bends cancel each other out.

Forcefully dragging the tissue down is really not a bad strategy for those with lumbar lordosis, anterior pelvic tilts, or a compressed lumbar spine. It is a less productive strategy for those with a flat or flexed lumbar curve or a posterior tilt of the pelvis. For this group, perform the technique gently over a towel or other small pillow that maintains a lumbar curve as the lumbars settle behind your hands. The emphasis during the technique becomes differentiation of the lumbars, not dragging the tissue down.

Finally, as you get interested in all the possibilities we list below of what you could be doing here, understand that the full weight of the person’s pelvis is on your hand. Get your work done and get out before your hand is squeezed bloodless. If my hand starts to go numb I have the client lift up, and I continue when my hand has full feeling again.

So, in summary: the client lies supine with her knees up, she lifts the pelvis and lumbars with care, you place your hand or hands under the soft tissue on both sides of the back, she lowers her pelvis one segment at a time onto your hand as you draw the tissue down toward the tailbone, leaving the client in an elongated, relaxed, and yummy feeling of the low back and sacrum on the table. Simple? 

The Starter List

Well, not so simple. The low back is a crossroads for many forces in the body. Of course, the sacrum is a triangular bone where complex pressures come from three sides: the two sacroiliac (SI) joints, where legs meet spine in gravity while standing, and the L5 SI sacrolumbar (SL) junction, where the spine rests on the pelvis. So, this is anything but simple in terms of the biomechanical forces in the area.

Here’s the bare list of possible objectives, listed in an order that is logical to me, not in order of importance. What’s important depends on the individual pattern. After the list, I unpack a few of these with additional comments.

Possible Pelvic-Lift Objectives

1. Disengage sacrum from L5.

2. Disengage L5 from L4.

3. Disengage L4 from L3, etc.

4. Engage the hinging of the sacrum below lumbars.

5. Engage the lumbo-dorsal hinge or thoracolumbar junction. 

6. Lengthen and hydrate lumbar intervertebral discs.

7. Teach lumbars to fall back from lordosis. 

8. Lengthen the thoracolumbar fascia.

9. Lengthen and ease sacral fascia.

10. De-rotate the lumbar column or specific vertebrae.

11. De-rotate an ilium, balance the two hip bones.

12.  De-rotate the sacrum.

13. Ease or straighten coccyx.

14. Create ease at the SI joint.

15. Balance the craniosacral rhythm via the sacrum.

16. Ground client—stimulate parasympathetic autonomic tone.

17. Release or stimulate pelvic floor.

18. Horizontalize (find neutral for) the pelvis.


Points 1–6 address the differentiation of the individual lumbar vertebrae, which often can be locked together as one functional unit. Our first job, before we can integrate, is to get differentiation (and consequent length) in the lumbosacral area. This helps hydrate the discs and find a neutral lumbar curve. Points 7–9 are about lengthening the whole sheet of fascia on either side of the lumbars and sacrum. Points 10–14 are about easing rotations that frequently get set into the SI joint or the heavy lumbars.

For those with cranial training, the sensitive hand can sense and correct any anomalies in the sacral pump (point 15), which can be calming and resettling. Point 16 is very important also in this regard. The sacral autonomic outflow is parasympathetic, so stimulation to the sacrum and sacral fascia (this is oft-observed anecdote, not hard science) often results in a “repose and repair” response—the calming of the “fight or flight” response—which can be a great way to end a stimulating or emotionally charged session.

Points 17 and 18 bring us back to the educational aspects possible with this move: bringing attention to the pelvic floor, or helping the client find pelvic neutral—what Dr. Rolf called a “horizontal” pelvis.

Simple Success

Well, Ida, it’s been 36 years since you sent me forth with your stamp of approval, and I’m such a good boy that I am still finishing most every session with a Rolf-approved pelvic lift. Actually, it’s not that I am so loyal or repetitive; it’s that you can effect so many useful changes with this one “simple” move. 

Cautions and Considerations

Presenting any technique via the printed page requires a few cautions and caveats:


Consent: Always obtain permission and informed consent for what you are about to do.  Before asking the client to lift her pelvis from the table, explain that you are about to put your hand under her pelvis and what you will be doing.


Draping: This technique is intended to be performed with the client in underwear. It is not recommended if you are working without any clothing. If you are, be extra careful with your draping to avoid the client feeling exposed on the backside. Even with underwear on, beware of going too far down the sacrum. Usually the top band of the underwear is pulled down an inch or so, no more; certainly go no farther inferiorly than the fourth sacral segment.


Approach: It is common in European osteopathy and some craniosacral therapy to “set,” or balance, the sacrum by coming between the client’s legs—usually with the legs straight but sometimes with the knees up—to cup the sacrum in the open hand. Because of the movement involved in the pelvic lift, for social safety, it is strongly recommended that you come in from one side to do this technique.  

By observing these cautions, the pelvic lift can be an effective part of your repertoire.


One-Handed Insight

There is an apocryphal story from the late ’50s (meaning I was about 10 and so have no idea of its truth) that Ida Rolf always taught the pelvic lift using the two-handed method, and that Stacey Mills—one of the few women who could stand up to Rolf in those days—came into the yearly summer training saying, “Look, Dr. Rolf, I’ve been experimenting with doing the pelvic lift one-handed, so that my other hand is free to work or cue elsewhere.” 

Reportedly, Ida was not pleased, and told her forcefully and in detail why this approach would never work: it was unequal, didn’t give the right message, etc. But by the time they showed up for the next year’s training, there was Ida Rolf, doing the pelvic lift one-handed, teaching it that way, and more or less glossing over the idea that it had ever been done any other way. 

My experience, from three decades later, was that Ida Rolf was tough and opinionated, but also generous and fair in giving credit. But she had to fight her way to getting her message across in the decidedly male-dominated world of the ’40s and ’50s. That scrapping left its mark on her.

—Thomas Myers


  Thomas Myers is the author of Anatomy Trains (Elsevier, 2009) and Fascial Release for Structural Balance (North Atlantic, 2010). Myers studied with Ida Rolf and has practiced integrative bodywork for more than 35 years. He directs Kinesis, which offers more than 100 professional certifications and continuing education seminars per year worldwide. For more information, visit