cov_esalenI recently spent some time at Esalen® Institute and while there picked up a copy of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey J. Kripal. This book recounts the fascinating formation and history of Esalen Institute, the 1960s epicenter of the human potential movement. Many people are familiar with the deep connections between Ida Rolf, Ph.D., founder and developer of Rolfing® Structural Integration and Esalen. (In fact the institute still has a meeting room named after Rolf.) What I wasn’t familiar with, up to now, was the connection between Swedish scientist turned religious writer, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Esalen. After all, Swedenborg lived between 1688 and 1772; centuries before Richard Price and Michael Murphy, founders of Esalen, were even born.

As these sort of synchronistic events go, I received notice in my email this week of a newly published article by Theodore Jordan in the International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine titled “Swedenborg’s influence on Sutherland’s ‘Primary Respiratory Mechanism’ model in cranial osteopathy.” Now there’s been an oral tradition in Rolfing SI (passed down to me) that Ida Rolf knew of, or had a copy of a rare book by Swedenborg titled The Brain. It had effected her thinking on the importance of cranial work in the structural integration process. In the Rolfing community we are highly cognizant of how Dr. Rolf’s thinking was influenced by her practice of yoga, the study of biochemistry, and treatments and training from pioneer osteopaths.

Jordan explains the connection between Swedenborg’s book and William Sutherland, DO, developer of cranial osteopathy, and how surprisingly Dr. Rolf carried on an oral tradition of that connection.

The connection between William Sutherland, DO and Swedenborg’s book, The Brain, is described by a person with close ties to osteopathy: Ida Rolf, PhD (1896–1979). Dr Rolf is best known as the creator of ‘structural integration,’ known commonly as ‘Rolfing.’ Structural integration is a unique form of deep bodywork that focuses on the remolding of the connective tissue of the body with the goal of restoring body symmetry and alignment.

While Ida Rolf was Ida_with_Client_lgdeveloping her approach to structural integration, she was known to have had an excellent rapport with a number of osteopathic physicians with whom she shared, discussed and demonstrated her ideas. For example, David Patriquin, DO, in a personal communication, described how she presented her ideas at an osteopathic conference in New York in 1955.

Ida Rolf stated in several lectures that she knew Dr William Sutherland and in a transcribed lecture, she told the audience how she learned about Sutherland’s methods after being hired as his secretary. Rolfing instructor Jim Asher reported she often showed off a signed copy of Sutherland’s book, The Cranial Bowl, that was dedicated warmly to her.

It was probably through her contacts with various osteopaths that Ida Rolf heard rumors that Dr Sutherland’s ideas were inspired by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Ida Rolf even went so far as to identify that the book used was Rudolf Tafel’s translation of Swedenborg’s The Brain. In a taped lecture to one of her advanced structural integration classes, Ida Rolf described this connection to the students:

[Tafel] made a translation which is pretty hard to get. And there are books [by Swedenborg], the titles of which are the Animal Kingdom, and the Economy of the Animal Kingdom, and those are not the same books …. And then there are these books, The Brain. Now The Brain is an impossible thing to get a hold of. Originally there were 6 copies, (or was it 4?) printed, and that’s all. Old … Sutherland haThe_Brain_V1d one of those. And when somebody accused him, or suggested to him, ‘Oh I see where you got some of your ideas,’ that book disappeared. And it hasn’t reappeared. Even after his death it hasn’t reappeared ….

Ida Rolf may have exaggerated the scarcity of this book (there were obviously many more than six copies published), but she is correct that Sutherland’s model seems to borrow heavily from the proposed physiology as described in The Brain.

To read more about the connection between Swedenborg and Sutherland I refer you to David Fuller’s “Swedenborg’s Brain and Sutherland’s Cranial Concept” from the Swedenborg Scientific Association.

So how was Swedenborg’s influence felt at Esalen through a separate line of transmission than Ida Rolf? Well, Kripal says Esalen was impacted by two different but connected psychological lineages:

the psychoanalytic stream, which focused on various mystical, occult, and erotic understandings of energy; and the gestalt stream, which focused on the nature, creative constructions, and awakening of consciousness.

Kripal sees the Swedenborg influence come in through the psychoanalytic or energy stream.

. . . Swedenborg became fascinated with the correspondences he saw in altered visionary states between spiritual union, sexual union, and the intellectual life.

This may sound a bit like Tantra and it is likely Swedenborg was exposed to Asian Tantric cultures. He wrote of a mystical energy, called influx, “that permeated the entire universe and descended into his own being in moments of inspiration.” This has much in common with the early hypnotic healers of the 18th and 19th century who used something called animal magnetism to induce trance, altered states of consciousness, and healing. It is this lineage of access to the sacred through the body, through the arousal of a certain type of energy that alters consciousness which gave rise to the psychological model of unconscious and conscious levels of the mind. Indeed, Freud himself had experimented with hypnosis later to abandon it for the “talking cure” eventually to become what we know today as psychoanalysis.

It is this lineage Kripal speaks to:

. . . much of modern psychological thought—that modern “soul-talk” (psyche-logos)—is structured around what are essentially secularized versions of what were once esoteric practices and altered states of energy. Much of Esalen’s history, particularly its rich psychological culture, is simply incomprehensible without a very clear awareness of this historical fact.

And that is how 18th century Swedish scientist turned Christian mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, in search of the underlying unity between the physical, spiritual and divine worlds influenced osteopathy, Rolfing SI and the flowering of the human potential movement at Esalen Institute during the 1960s. Thank you Jeffrey Kripal for enlightening me!

I found so much material in the process of writing this first piece, I needed to write a second. Please read More Connections Between Emanuel Swedenborg, Ida Rolf & William Sutherland, DO.

© Carole LaRochelle, 2009.

Beatles and MaharishiLong before Michael Murphy and George Leonard coined the term “human potential movement’ in 1965¹ and The Beatles met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in August 1967 Ida Rolf, Ph.D. was interested in the development of human potential. In addition to osteopathy and homeopathy one of the biggest influences on Rolf’s understanding of the human body was yoga. Throughout the 1920s she participated in a group that practiced yoga asanas and held meetings and lectures in Nyack, New York with American yogi, Pierre Bernard. Rolf has this to say in her 1978 book Ida Rolf Talks About Rolfing® and Physical Reality.

His father had been a tantric and he was brought up as a tantric. He had spent most of his childhood in India. In tantric families, boys of seven years of age are taken from their families, put into another home of the same culture grade, and are brought up with the other family. In Hindu tantric families, through the centuries, the basis of the boys’ education was the Tantras—the five Indian sacred books. These they had to learn by rote, which is something like the mental equivalent of doing five hundred cartwheels.²

I believe Rolf is referring to Sylvais Hamati here, a Syrian-Indian, who Bernard met at the age of thirteen in Lincoln, Nebraska. Hamati was an accomplished Tantric yogi and he and Bernard traveled together from the late 1880s into the early 1900s. Bernard made his first dynamic splash into public view on the front-page of the New York Times on January 29, 1898. “He had given a public demonstration of his Kali-mudra or ‘death trance’ to a group of physicians in San Francisco, during which he seems to have successfully slowed his vital functions sufficiently to mimic death.³”

American Yogi Pierre BernardBernard capitalized on this publicity becoming known as “The Hypnotist Dr. Bernard” and quite a famous personality in the San Francisco Bay Region before he left the area around the time of the 1906 earthquake. He published what is likely the first Tantric publication in the United States, the International Journal of the Tantrik Order.

By 1909 Bernard was in New York City and had emerged as a successful teacher of yoga. With the help of New York’s elite, including Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, in 1919 Bernard moved to a 73 acre estate in Upper Nyack, New York. It was here where Rolf met and trained with Bernard in the 1920s.

Robert Love has just published a biography of Bernard titled The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, a name modeled after “Omnipotent Oom” given to Bernard by the local press after reported accusations of such things as “wild Oriental music and women’s cries, but not those of distress.⁴” I refer you to Love’s lively biography for more details about Bernard’s life.

What Bernard offered Rolf through his teachings was unique at the time and is, I feel, still relatively rare today: physical experience as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment, or the evolution of consciousness if you will. Yoga aims to develop the whole person through the practices of breath awareness, meditation and movement. Rosemary Feitis writes of Rolf:

In those years of practicing yoga and discussing its principles, she was establishing the basis of all her future work: that bodies need to lengthen and be balanced, and that a balanced body will give rise to a better human being.⁵

How fascinating to me, as a Rolfing® practitioner for 15 years now, to see the early origins of Rolf’s work. From the turn of the 20th century popular interest in hypnotism, Theosophy, and the self-proclaimed mystics such as G.I. Gurdjieff, to the Jazz Age roots of yoga in America, it seems the interest in the “human potential movement” has been with us quite a long time indeed.


1. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 207.

2. Ida Rolf, Rolfing® and Physical Reality, ed. Rosemary Feitis (Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1990) p. 7.

3. Kripal, p. 236.

4. Kripal, p. 237.

5. Rolf, p. 8.

© Carole LaRochelle, 2010.