Kelsi Giswold grew up on Whidbey Island, helping out now and then in her dad’s practice, Saratoga Dental, in Langley.

With her return to Langley years later, now with her husband Jesse Guerrero, the couple has opened the Soma Institute of Structural Integration, next door to Saratoga Dental. Her brother Braden now runs the dental practice in the wake of their father’s passing.

“We moved the school here because we wanted to live and work where we love,” Kelsi said in a recent interview. “I grew up here. I wanted to live here and raise our daughter, and be able to offer our work to the community.”

Kelsi Giswold, Soma Institute Lead Faculty and Co-Director. Photo by James Harnois.

Their work is running a school that benefits students and their clients alike. It’s a modality that treats posture and structure through manual therapy and movement education to the fascia, the nervous system and muscles supporting the body. Practicing students assume what looks like yoga warrior-like poses while the client receives the benefit of their techniques.

According to the school’s website, Soma Structural Integration® is “…a form of structural integration, a manual therapy meant to holistically release and rebalance the body’s fascial web. Through 11 sessions clients regain freedom of movement and are supported in developing new movement and postural patterns. Soma is a transformative body therapy that has been taught at the Soma Institute since 1977.”

Jesse’s aunt, Karen Bolesky, ran the Soma Institute for 40 years in Buckley, a rural town located in the foothills of Mt. Rainier. After her retirement, the couple decided to move the school to Langley. They opened their school in 2022, after obtaining the necessary permits and licenses.

Jesse was long familiar with his aunt’s and her students’ work, located at a rural school on a farm framed by forest, with a yurt, cows, chickens and a garden. He said the treatments cured him of a childhood disease.

“Once I received the treatments, asthma went out of my body as it did for my aunt,” Jesse noted.

“He knew it was his life calling from a young age,” Kelsi added.

Soma Structural Integration® is rooted in the work of Dr. Ida P. Rolf, who pioneered the practice that she called Structural Integration  about 80 years ago. Structural integration,  which manipulates the fascia and joints to relieve pain and create body alignment, can be too intense for some. Bill Williams, a graduate of Dr. Rolf’s program  and with her permission, modified the modality’s techniques, and founded the Soma Institute of Neuromuscular Integration® in 1977 in Florida.

Dr. Ida P. Rolf, left, who founded the  school of Structural Integration 80 years ago. Her legacy is rooted in Soma Structural Integration®, which is now taught at the Soma Institute in Langley. In the second photo, Karen Bolesky, former director of the Soma Institute  in Buckley WA, is seen with her nephew Jesse Guerrero, Soma Institute Lead Faculty and Co-Director. Photo from Soma Institute website

Karen Bolesky was trained in Williams’ new mode of body work in the early 1980’s and she  purchased the school and moved it to Buckley to train students interested in the practice.

Kelsi and Jesse met while she was a student enrolled at the school. But first she traveled other paths before discovering what the school in Buckley had to offer.

“I went to Western and got a BFA in graphic design,” Kelsi explained. “I was disenchanted with that. My body broke down from sitting in front of a computer all day. I was interested in alternative medicine and body work. I serendipitously came across Soma.”

She had been living in Montana at the time, and was looking to find a practitioner to rebalance her body. Her mom had suggested Rolfing, having found her own success with pain management with a previous Clinton practitioner. Kelsi did her research, and found the Buckley school—and later, her husband. She enrolled in its program.

“I received my first session and, I’m, this is the massage I’ve always wanted,” Kelsi said. “I enrolled in the school. Jesse was an assistant teacher at the time. It took us a while to become a couple. We were colleagues at first.”

Later the couple realized their love for each other and married 10 years ago. They helped Jesse’s aunt run the school, updating and streamlining it for the Internet and social media.

“My aunt retired, but went back and forth on letting go,” Jesse recalled. “We all wanted to keep her legacy going. She did her best to groom all of us to take on responsibility for running it, yet she struggled with administration and marketing. She asked us to make a website and that’s how we started taking ownership.”

Nowadays the school attracts students nationwide. Practitioners spend about 768 hours, or about 34 weeks, learning their craft. Models or clients pay $55 a session while they are treated under the observation of the school’s teachers.

Kelsi suggested I would best understand the practice by receiving Somassage®, an introductory session that is a lighter version of Soma Structural Integration.

Julie Kim, a student with two weeks left before completing her practicum, treated me a few weeks ago. Though I swim in open water regularly, my body has its arthritic aches in shoulders, lower back and hips.

“I fell in love with Soma because of the quality of touch — really slow, intentional, and clear,” Julie wrote in a text message. “The effects of the work always leave me feeling lighter, more embodied, and whole. In the series (a master set of 11 sessions that we offer) I experienced transformational work that created sustainable changes in my body and gave me a greater awareness of how my body responds to my life. The aspect of sustainability is another huge reason I was drawn to the work, because it’s really meant to create long lasting shifts and help people restore from the root cause of any misalignments or pain.”

Student practitioner Julie Kim, left, standing, learns a technique from Jesse Guerrero, Lead Faculty, and Co-director of Soma Institute. Photo shared by  Soma Institute: James Harnois.

The master set of 11 sessions, which clients receive are explained here.

Wearing shorts and a tube top, I laid on a flannel-sheet-covered massage table while Julie ran a cocoa butter stick along her forearms to facilitate smooth contact with my skin. A petite woman, I marveled at the strength she used in applying pressure to broad planes of my body.  I could feel tension leaving with her work. At first I chattered on, trying to absorb the experience so I could write about it now. Vanessa Wood, one of the Soma Institute faculty, stopped by to provide guidance to Julie. Vanessa suggested I quiet my mind in order to feel the experience in my body. I did so and went into a zone of relaxation. After two-plus hours, I left the table very relaxed.

As I stood in the hallway putting my street clothes on, a man exited at the same time I did. He was beaming and told me he had just finished the eleventh session with another student practitioner. I learned that he had initially come to the Soma Institute to relieve intense pain following surgical fusion of vertebrae in his neck. He raised his arms above his head in a kind of Hallelujah moment to show me his newfound range of motion and his pain-free body.

Later I worried that spending two hours using full strength to work on clients might be too taxing on the student, especially since they might see three or four clients a day. Julie assured me in a text that the techniques she learned gave her strength and did not wear hear body out.

“Oh! No need to worry for me,” Kelsi texted in response to my concern. “For me, generally, giving bodywork feels really good in my body, as I’m basically doing comfy yoga poses the whole time. I had a wonderful experience getting to share Soma with you and chatting!”

Ensuring for the students’ well being in body, mind and spirit, Soma teachers find that when their students are relaxed and comfortable, they are better able to treat their clients.

“Our way of work is effective through really excellent body mechanics, “ Kelsi said. “We help our students use their body, which maximizes their contact with tissue without too much effort. If she’s efforting on your tissue, you will feel like resisting. One of the big things we teach our students is how to do deep work.”

I’ve known that feeling of resistance with previous massage sessions, where a spot is hit and I feel like leaping off the table. In my two hours with Julie Kim, she remained focused and present to applying just the right kind of pressure. If it was too much, I let her know.

Jesse added that the practice students learn at the Soma Institute involves focus and using energy in the right way.

Jessie Guerrero, Co-director and Lead Faculty of the Soma Institute, demonstrates techniques in structural integration. Photo shared by Soma Institute: James Harnois

“What if you could get the right amount of intensity without pain?” Jesse asked. “Yes, what we do is body mechanics. It is also energetic. We want to meet someone where they’re at. We use cushions. Cocoa butter. The way we teach is to have a therapeutic relationship with the client. We teach students to set up their space to honor themselves and honor whatever presents to them. This school was created to foster a body/mind connection. [Soma Institute of Muscular Integration® founder] Bill Williams was a psychotherapist and was interested in how mind was a part of body. Both are part of the whole. That core philosophy is why people generally have a positive experience with what we do. We finesse the work. We pay attention to the person on the table and ourselves.”

Twice a year the school offers free clinics. Kelsi and Jesse love offering bodywork to populations that might not otherwise have a chance to receive Soma.  Sign up at this link.

Meanwhile, for those interested in Soma as a profession, the Soma Institute is offering a certificate course in Somassage®. This workshop can be taken Aug. 14-17, or November 10-13. For more info. and  registration visit this link at Somassage.

Starting in January the full 11 series is offered in the student  clinic for less than half the typical cost of private practice sessions.  Clients interested in participating in student clinic January through June 2024 can visit this website for more information.

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