For most of her life, Stephania Varalli, a 28-year-old editorial director from Toronto, lived with constant knee and hip pain. Born with misaligned ankles, she was given orthotics at age 2. "I always had pains in my body," she says. "I accepted the fact that I would always hurt." V aralli once saw a chiropractor for a few months, but says, "It was a quick fix-the pain would come back if I didn't see him again." Looking for a more permanent solution, Varalli turned to Hellerwork, a structural integration technique that combines deep-tissue bodywork with talk therapy and lessons in proper movement. She had heard about the method through a friend. "I had nothing to lose. I didn't expect it to work," says Varalli. But she found relief after the second of 11 sessions and experienced ongoing improvements as she completed the series. She credits her practitioner for focusing on her feet, the root of her problem-and she no longer wears orthotics. "I feel like my body is working," she reports.
Hellerwork is named for its creator, Joseph Heller, a onetime NASA aerospace engineer who became a dedicated student of Rolfing-a method of hands-on bodywork developed by American Ida Rolf-in the late 1970s. Heller put a new twist on Rolf's therapy first by adding movement training. Later, when Heller noticed that clients raised common themes that correlated to certain parts of the body (for example, leg and feet work would elicit comments about "standing up for oneself"), he realized he needed to address emotional issues, too. The result was a three-tiered approach- a powerful antidote for chronic tension and stress. "By the end of the series, most clients don't need to come back," says Jeffrey Weisman, a Hellerwork practitioner from Laguna Beach, Calif., who moved to Toronto last year and treated Varalli.
On the table
The first Hellerwork session begins with a discussion of your physical complaints and a postural assessment. Then comes the bodywork, performed on a massage table while you're wearing loose-fitting clothes. Unlike traditional massage, which reduces tightness in muscles, Hellerwork releases the fascia, a thin layer of pliable connective tissue that wraps around each muscle like sausage casing. Ideally, fascia is loose, allowing muscles to glide freely and the body to stand straight. But physical strain or injury can make the fascia rigid and sticky, creating the adhesions, or "knots," we attribute to stiff muscles, pulling our bodies out of alignment. "Working on the connective tissue creates more space, more ease of movement within the body," says Jenny Lou Linley, the Vancouver, Canada-based president of Hellerwork International (which has its offices in California). The practitioner doesn't just glide her hands over your skin in quick strokes, she says. Instead, "she leans into the tissue, allowing the fascia to release."
The right moves
The damage caused by bad body mechanics cannot be undone with massage alone. After 60 to 90 minutes of bodywork, the Hellerwork practitioner moves on to a "movement" lesson, demonstrating the correct way to stand, sit, walk, or bend, and has you practice it. Although these simple moves don't require a lot of strength, they do have a huge impact on how you feel. After all, you stand up and sit down an average of 200 times a day.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Hellerwork is the talk therapy (called "dialogue" by practitioners), which happens throughout a session. "We store our issues in our tissues," says Weisman, adding that the connection between mind and body leaves depressed people stooped and draws worry lines on our faces. Not every client has an epiphany, but Weisman says at least one of his patients per day experiences some emotional release during treatment.
Jill Girling, 41, a Toronto filmmaker, says Hellerwork left her feeling lighter in mood, which was one of her goals. She has become less anxious and more confident, and says, "I felt I dropped 20 pounds of baggage."
But Linley warns that Hellerwork's talk component is not a replacement for psychotherapy. Hellerwork practitioners are trained to notice emotional cues like gritted teeth and guarded posture, but they aren't counselors. They simply observe and ask questions. "Often these questions bring revelations," says Linley.
The standard 11-session Hellerwork series does the trick for most people. (Practitioners typically charge between $150 and $200 per session; see hellerwork.com for more.) Weisman says his clients leave educated about their bodies and feeling more balanced, but adds, "The real work doesn't begin until you finish the series. It happens over the course of the next six months to a year as you put your body through the paces."
Sandy Skiff, 47, a physical therapist in Mount Shasta, Calif., decided to give Hellerwork sessions a try one year ago, when her clinic began offering it as a service to clients. She admits she initially held a bias toward more traditional bodywork. But Hellerwork helped her recover her range of motion after multiple knee injuries, including reconstructive surgery on both knees. After Hellerwork, says Skiff, "I'm not fighting my body or myself anymore."