Ida Rolf’s view on the foot

…..with regard to flat feet, etc., she (Ida Rolf) talks a lot about this (obviously considering that Rolfing sessions typically start at the foot/ankle) and she says that people always come in and say “My feet are flat.  This is how I was born, so nothing can be done.”  She then replies, “Why can’t anything be done? Everyone is born with flat feet and the arches and intrinsic muscles of the foot develop in response to stresses that we place on them as we begin to walk and then age.”

She sure does look old.

We should start with the question of can someone be born with structurally flat feet.

I think the answer is yes. Can someone be born with a bony abnormality via genetic variation or mutation? That’s an easy yes. I was born with a bony boutonniere deformity in my pinkies. My pinky’s look like a point guard’s that’s played 20 years in the League. Basically, my PIP joints on both sides have a flexion contracture around 40 degrees with a bony end feel. So is it reasonable that someone can be born with something similar in the feet?
Bony variations in general are innate. That’s what makes us tall or short, or wide or narrow. These variations are not considered damning, but they occur for accepted reasons.
So it is definitely confusing as to why Rolf would be so definitive, but perhaps her quotes from her book are presented in limited context.

This can only happen if the joint mobility exists in the first place.

Something deeper to consider is the relatively misunderstood or under-understood concept of Postural Ontology. Ontology by definition is the study of an existence of reality. Basically it is trying to explain something that we know is happening, but can not explain. In this case, through months 1-14 and well beyond, the parameters of physical development are the same for any individual considered normal by those parameters.  We all develop the same exact way as long as it’s normal. But the ontology is the attempt to explain how this happens with seemingly no instruction. No one tells Baby to oblique sit at 6 months. No one tells Baby to breath diaphragmatically.  How do we all know how to go through the motions of development without someone or something coaching and directing the movement?

Well part of the answer, of which we will never know as is the nature of an Ontology, is that as we develop, there is constant interaction with the floor and the world around it. Yes, there is definitely an underlying tone of metaphysical bullshit here – some connection of man and Earth or nature. The interactions of the body in contact with the floor are consistently through specific bony contacts. Again, where and which these contacts are into a parameter of normal for everybody. The belief is that the reaction of the loading into the floor signals bone growth and potential change. We know this very scientifically grounded as Wolf’s Law in regards to bone density. There is clear radiological evidence demonstrating the shape of the femoral neck changing as we develop. Femoral and humeral retroversion can clearly be developed during the first few months of development when wrong or out of order loading is permitted. Do such baby toys as Jumpers and assisted standing devices influence bony structure? Yes, they definitely do.

This is where we start. This is where we are supposed to finish.

So refocusing back to the feet, if initial loading to the feet is with aberrantly developed hips or poorly stabilized ribs, the feet will develop inappropriately. This would tend to support Rolf’s suggestion. And this is indeed what happens in my opinion more times than not.  The question is how often the development yields a bony flat foot vs. structural flat foot.

I think it clearly can work both ways, but in more times than not, it works through the formative years of development.

So then the question becomes, can Wolf’s Law apply to the point of meaningful bony changes in an adult? Kolar would suggest yes. I am not in any position to support yes or no, but if you hold a gun to my head, I would say no. I recently gave my opinion on this in a recent response to working through a supinated foot, which is typically a structural issue.

What I can speak to with strong confidence is the use of manual therapy and/or corrective exercise to change a flat foot to one with a very appropriate arch. And this is where I think Rolf is coming from, and it’s because this is where most people are. The have what they think are flat feet, which is simply a natural shift to bony stability in the lack of presence of dynamic stability. This change can be made via joint mobilization, stability training, and/or bodywork.

Bottom lines………….
Are there structurally flat feet? YES.
Does the neurodevelopmental process irrevocably influence bone and joint formation? YES
Are most people’s feet really flat? Absolutely NO

  • October 11, 2010

Leave a Reply 6 comments

Caleb Smith Reply


I just wanted to gain some further clarity on a quote from this post, just to be certain that I wasn’t misunderstanding you (or to correct myself if I was). You said, “The question is how often the development yields a bony flat foot vs. structural flat foot.” When you say bony flat foot, is this referring to the shift to bony stability in place of dynamic stability that you refer to toward the end of the post? And the structural flat foot is referring to actual physical changes in the bone itself?

Lem Davis Reply

Hi, Charlie. I was a bit late on reading the “Structural Supinators” post, but since this is a foot-related post, I hope you don;t mind me asking this question here…..

You mentioned supination typically being a structural issue, but is it still fairly common to see postural distortions and issues elsewhere along the kinetic chain resulting in functionally supinated foot?

When standing in place, my left foot maintains a normal arch, but my right foot remains mildly supinated when I don;t consciously alter it. If I drive a slight bit of IR at the hip, the arch is restored to a point that mirrors my left side. For reasons unbeknownst to me, my current (soon to be former) manual therapist usually shrugs me off when I inquire about how I might potentially fix this issue or at least further minimize its impact. It’s also fairly clear to me that my right leg is (or at least appears) shorter than my left one, as when I am supine or in a long sitting position my medial malleoli do not line up evenly, with the left side lower/further away from my torso than my right. side This has led to much frustration, as I thought this therapist I was visting could be of assistance, but he has appeared ratherr aloof and disinterested in helping me get to the bottom of things (which iis why he will be getting the boot ASAP).

Charlie Reply

Caleb – I am referring to the choices we have to gain stability. We can access FORM closure which uses bony approximation or aberrant tone in muscles to control the position. This is what I mean when I say bony flat foot. This is a functional flat foot assuming the arch can change in an unloaded position.
The structural flat foot is locked the way it is.

We always want FORCE closure, which utilizes appropriate muscular action and motor control to time it.

Charlie Reply

Lem – Yes, while in my experience, it is less common, but yes supination can also be structural.
Based on what you’re describing, aberrant tone as high as the obliques, QL, or opposite anterior shoulder can be leading to the foot changes. It sounds like you are keener than your clinician.
Try to find a Rolfer or KMI practitioner. They can suck too, but at least their common denominator looks at the whole body as you are recognizing.

Brian Bott Reply

Charlie.. I know I’m being lazy, but anyone you recommend back up here in NJ? Would Liz’s ART services suffice? I experience much the same problem Lem described… I’m sort of playing a chicken or the egg game however. My left food lies completely flat while my right has a “normal” to high arch. I recently had the luxury if getting an x-ray on my pelvis however which is showing signs of rotation. So I don’t know if the foot led to the hip or the opposite. Having done much work in gear and wide stance squatting I’m assuming the latter. It’s much more comfortable for me to perform exercises such as BSS with my left leg in front over my left. I’ve been stretching and doing some corrective exercises an it has seemed to help a bit, was just wondering if you could lend some suggestion.

Charlie Reply

Brian – There is noone better than Liz in terms of ART, but that is just 1/3 of the fix. She resets the system. The strategy to reinforce the work she does and then reload the pattern is what validates any of the other fixes. If you do not need to use insurance, I would try Steve P @ Tom’s place. Ned Lenny in Cherry Hill would also get my vote. Joe P is local in Monroe and will take insurance. Perry Nickelston is in Ramsey, and he has a like mind.

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