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Definition, Purpose, Description, Preparations, Precautions, Side effects, Research and general acceptance

Hellerwork is a system of bodywork that combines deep tissue massage, body movement education, and verbal dialogue. It is designed to realign the body's structure for overall health, improvement of posture, and reduction of physical and mental stress.


Hellerwork improves posture and brings the body's natural structure into proper balance and alignment. This realignment can bring relief from general aches and pains; improve breathing; and relieve physical and mental stress. Hellerwork has also been used to treat such specific physical problems as chronic back, neck, shoulder, and joint pain as well as repetitive stress injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome. Hellerwork is also used to treat and prevent athletic injuries.



Joseph Heller (1940–) developed Hellerwork, a system of structural integration patterned after Rolfing. Although Heller received a degree in engineering and worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, he became interested in humanistic psychology in the 1970s. He spent two years studying bioenergetics and Gestalt therapy as well as studying under architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), flotation tank therapy developer John Lilly, family therapist Virginia Satir, and body movement pioneer Judith Aston.

During this period, he trained for six years with Dr. Ida P. Rolf (1896-1979), the founder of Rolfing, and became a certified Rolfer in 1972. After Heller developed his own system of bodywork, he founded Hellerwork in 1979 and established a training facility in Mt. Shasta, California, where he continues his work.

Hellerwork is based largely on the principles of Rolfing, in which the body's connective tissue is manipulated or massaged to realign and balance the body's structure. Because Heller believes that physical realignment is insufficient, however, he expanded his system to include movement education and verbal dialogue as well as deep tissue massage.

Connective tissue massage

The massage therapy aspect of Hellerwork is designed to release the tension that exists in the deep connective tissue, called fascia, and return it to a normal alignment. The fascia is plastic and highly adaptable; it can tighten and harden in response to the general effects of gravity on the body, other ongoing physical stresses, negative attitudes and emotions, and periodic physical traumas. One example of ongoing physical stress is carrying a briefcase, which pulls down the shoulder on one side of the body. Over time, the connective tissue becomes hard and stiff; the body becomes adapted to that position even when the person is not carrying a briefcase. In trying to adjust to the uneven weight distribution, the rest of the body becomes unbalanced and out of proper alignment.

Heller believes that as people age, more of these stress and trauma patterns become ingrained in the connective tissue, further throwing the body out of alignment. As stress accumulates, the body shortens and stiffens, a process commonly attributed to aging. Hellerwork seeks to recondition the body and make the connective tissue less rigid.

Movement education

The second component of Hellerwork, movement education, trains patients in the proper physical movements needed to keep the body balanced and correctly aligned. Movement education focuses on common actions, such as sitting, standing, and walking. Hellerwork practitioners also teach better patterns of movement for activities that are specific to each individual, such as their job and favorite sports or social activities.

Verbal dialogue

Verbal dialogue is the third aspect of Hellerwork. It is designed to teach awareness of the relationships among emotions, life attitudes, and the body. Hellerwork practitioners believe that as patients become responsible for their attitudes, their body movements and patterns of self-expression improve. Dialogue focuses on the theme of each session and the area of the body that is worked on during that session.

Hellerwork consists of eleven 90-minute sessions costing about $90–100 each. The first three sessions focus on the surface layers of the fascia and on developmental issues of infancy and childhood. The next four sessions are the core sessions and work on the deep layers and on adolescent developmental issues. The final four treatments are the integrative sessions, and build upon all the previous ones, while also looking at questions of maturity.


No advance preparations are required to begin Hellerwork treatment. The treatment is usually done on a massage table with the patient wearing only undergarments.


Since Hellerwork involves vigorous deep tissue massage, it is often described as uncomfortable and sometimes painful, especially during the first several sessions. As it requires the use of hands, it may be a problem for people who do not like or are afraid of being touched. It is not recommended as a treatment for any disease or a chronic inflammatory condition such as arthritis, and can worsen such a condition. Anyone with a serious medical condition, including heart disease, diabetes, or respiratory problems, should consult a medical practitioner before undergoing Hellerwork.

Side effects

There are no reported serious side effects associated with Hellerwork when delivered by a certified practitioner to adults and juveniles.

Research and general acceptance

As most alternative or holistic treatments, there is little mainstream scientific research documenting the effectiveness of Hellerwork therapy. Since the deep tissue massage aspect of Hellerwork is similar to Rolfing, however, several scientific studies of Rolfing may be useful in evaluating Hellerwork. A 1988 study published in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association indicated that Rolfing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help speed the recovery of damaged tissue. A 1997 article in The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy reported that Rolfing can provide effective and sustained pain relief from lower back problems.



Bradford, Nikki, ed. Alternative Healthcare. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 1997.

Claire, Thomas. Bodywork: What Type of Massage to Get and How to Make the Most of It. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1995.

Golten, Roger. The Owner's Guide to the Body. London: Thorsons, 1999.

Heller, Joseph. Bodywise. Berkeley, CA: Wingbow Press, 1991.

Levine, Andrew S., and Valerie J. Levine. The Bodywork and Massage Sourcebook. Lincolnwood, IL: Lowell House, 1999.

Nash, Barbara. From Acupressure to Zen: An Encyclopedia of Natural Therapies. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, Inc., 1996.


Hellerwork. 406 Berry St. Mt. Shasta, CA 96067. (530) 926-2500. <http://www.hellerwork.com>.

Ken R. Wells


(AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.) (AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.)

Born in Poland, Joseph Heller attended school in Europe until age 16, when he immigrated to the United States. Living in Los Angeles, he attended the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and graduated in 1962 with a degree in engineering. He worked for 10 years at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena as an aerospace engineer. During his service at JPL, Heller became interested in humanistic psychology. After leaving JPL in 1972, he became director of Kairos, a center for human development in Los Angeles. He spent two years studying bioenergetics and gestalt. He also trained under Buckminster Fuller, flotation tank therapy developer John Lilly, self esteem trainer Virginia Satir, and body movement pioneer Judith Aston.

He became a certified Rolfer in 1972 and spent the next six years studying structural integration under Rolfing founder Ida P. Rolf. He became the first president of the Rolf Institute in 1975. During his training with Rolf, Heller began developing his own system of bodywork. He left the institute in 1978 and moved to Northern California where he founded Hellerwork. He conducts classes and continues his work today at his headquarters, 406 Berry St., Mt. Shasta, CA 96067.


Bioenergetics—A system of therapy that combines breathing and body exercises, psychological therapy, and the free expression of emotions to release blocked physical and psychic energy.

Bodywork—A term that covers a variety of therapies that include massage, realignment of the body, and similar techniques to treat deeply ingrained stresses and traumas carried in the tissues of the body.

Chronic—A disease or condition that progresses slowly but persists or reoccurs over time.

Fascia—The sheet of connective tissue that covers the body under the skin and envelops the muscles and various organs.

Gestalt therapy—A form of therapy that focuses on helping patients reconnect with their bodies and their feelings directly, as contrasted with verbal intellectual analysis.

Kinesiology—The study of the anatomy and physiology of body movement, particularly in relation to therapy.

Rolfing—A deep-tissue therapy that involves manipulating the body's fascia to realign and balance the body's structure.

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