From Ida Rolf’s Legacy to a New Paradigm for Structural Integration

By Karrie Osborn

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, June/July 2004.

When Bill Williams was working on a 10-session bodywork protocol with his mentor Ida Rolf in the 1970s, he knew he wanted to take it further than the physiology that was being explored. His training in psychology and his interest in energy afforded him insight into the integration that could happen when body, mind, and spirit met. While Rolf, with whom he was teaching and researching at the time, didn’t want to take the work in that direction, she gave Williams her blessing to seek out his own truths. And so was born Soma Neuromuscular Integration.

Addressing Body and Emotion — Soma Understood

Myofascial changes learned during Soma work provide options to habituated movement patterns. Here, Marcia Nolte of the Soma Institute of Neuromuscular Integration activates and confirms these options.

When looking at the structural branch of the bodywork tree, it’s difficult to envision deep tissue, repatterning therapies as those that can go beyond the physical manipulation of fascia to work with our emotional underpinnings, but that’s just what Soma does.

“When you change movement and the way a person stands in the world, their whole self-image and behavior begins to shift,” says Karen Bolesky, who along with Marcia Nolte, took over Williams’ work via the Soma Institute of Neuromuscular Integration in 1985. “We don’t just get the person vertical. We also talk about how that affects them in the world ... we help them find the personal meaning.”

Soma Neuromuscular Integration is a body/mind therapy that changes people, says Bolesky, who was first Rolfed by Williams in 1971. It changes the physical body by adjusting structural alignment and balance via soft tissue manipulation. It changes the emotional self by transforming how individual feel in their bodies. And it changes the integration of body, mind, and spirit, thereby altering the way clients perceive the world.

Bolesky says Soma practitioners work to release a client’s chronic, stored muscle strains (which block energy) and structural aberrations. The end result is a realignment of the entire body. Secondary effects include a noticeable jump in energy once the “blocks” are removed, fewer aches and pains, more efficient movement, a healthier and more disease-resistant body, better coordination, greater levels of emotional openness and sensitivity, improved self-reliance, and enhanced creativity. The body begins to listen to itself again, something more challenging than it sounds. It’s all about “coming home” or being reintegrated.

Living in a “reintegrated” body opens the door for a new way of living, Nolte says. This reintegration brings about a balance in our whole being, allowing us to access the mind while experiencing the body.

Getting to that place of reintegration is not always easy. There is a lot of physical and emotional work that takes place on the client’s part as she moves through the 10-plus-1 Soma sessions (see a description of the sessions on page 24). One of the more unusual and chaotic times for the client comes during critical work with the core, or physical center. Some clients have even described going a bit “cuckoo” during that time, hence the need to get through these sessions relatively quickly — no longer than two weeks between sessions. Bolesky explains it with this analogy: “If you’ve ever had a chipped tooth, you know how much of a focus it becomes to you. When we change the pelvis (the core), it’s just exactly like having a chip on your tooth. There’s often a disorientation and the whole sense of balance is different,” she says. While the effect is temporary until the body moves through these particular sessions, it can also be disconcerting and disorienting, especially if not anticipated.

Outside of the core sessions, time is of relatively little importance throughout most of the work. Some people go a few weeks between sessions; some a few months, or even a year. The beauty of it, Bolesky says, is that the body doesn’t forget what it has learned, or rather, relearned. In fact, Soma’s results are said to be progressive, as opposed to simply permanent. “The body continues on its course of improvements long after the initial process is over, having rediscovered its inherent self-correcting nature,” Nolte says.

Having begun in the Rolfing tradition of 10 sessions, an 11th, optional session was added to further the reintegration process in Soma. And while there is a protocol inherent in the session work, Bolesky says the client leads the way. “For each client, the session is formed differently; developed to what the client needs on that day.” Even though the goals are inherent in the protocol, each session has its own goal, again depending on the client. “The client is more sacred than our recipe or our goals,” Bolesky explains. That’s why the work is so individualized and personal.

Another way personal meaning is given to the work is through the client notebook distributed to everyone going through the 11 sessions. It involves personal journaling, self-relaxation techniques, movement exploration, and more. It’s designed to help the client integrate the changes they experience after each session and then to be able to talk about those changes with the practitioner.

Personal and Individual

Slow, intentional work around the greater trochanter begins the process of providing more balanced movement between the pelvis and leg.

Personal meaning is something not just of benefit to the client, but also to the Soma practitioner and how she works. “One of the ways this work is most unique is that it’s a 10-session structural bodywork, in the history of Ida Rolf, but we have this tremendous value in working very personally with the client,” Bolesky says. Even though there is a basic protocol for Soma work, she says they don’t teach how to do a rote session. Instead, Soma students are trained to use their best skills within the context of that protocol.

If a student’s training is in movement or exercise, that’s the focus their work takes on. If counseling is their background, that’s the premise for their Soma sessions. The uniqueness of the work, Bolesky says, is how personalized it becomes. “My clients receive a lot of therapy because of my counseling background,” she says. “While Marcia’s clients receive more developmental movement than if they came to me.”

This sort of training and practice allows each practitioner to treat the work with individual fervor. “Each student is taught to work with what skills and knowledge they already have and draw that out.” Does this take away from the Soma experience? “Not at all,” Bolesky says. “It strengthens the Soma work. We don’t do the same thing to each client, and that allows us to work in a very non-competitive way with each other. It promotes a community where we can refer clients back and forth.”

Movement Remembered

A difference between Soma and other types of movement re-education is the knowledge intrinsic in the protocol. An important characteristic of Structural Integration is that the 10 sessions Rolf developed are sequential, Bolesky says. “These sessions were developed by the dictates of the body; it’s not a random release. That’s the power in it.”

The global goals of most movement re-education therapies are somewhat the same as with Soma, such as reorganizing structure, Bolesky says. “But the biggest difference is we’re not only integrating; we’re first and foremost releasing deep fascial bindings in the structure. If movement patterns aren’t affected somehow, then the body moves as if it hasn’t been released. That’s why we include movement to repattern. All structural work releases fascial structure, but then the body must have some sort of re-educating because movement patterns are so habituated into our belief system.”

Nolte explains it this way: “The human organism is genetically encoded for movement. Beginning in the womb and continuing after birth, reflexes activate stage-specific movement tasks that allow the infant to discover a vital sense of internal connectedness.” Each movement is practiced again and again until the child develops the voluntary muscle action associated with that task. “Once a stage of muscle action becomes volitional, that stage is integrated deep into the nervous system and lays the foundation for the next stage of movement to emerge. This process of reflex, practiced to volitional muscle action, patterning and integrating the nervous system, and creating support for the next stage, continues until the child — somewhere around a year of age — is standing and walking.” This patterning blueprint is what Soma practitioners and their clients work toward when moving through the 11-session program.

Nolte says the body knows how to move efficiently, gracefully, and powerfully. Like breathing, movement is “encoded genetically.” Problems arise when injury and trauma impede the natural patterns and change them. “By the time most of us have reached adulthood,” she says, “we have lost touch with our sense of internal connectedness. We experience our body as ‘my arms, legs, back, my sore knee, my broken ribs, etc.’” It is through Soma that the client can regain that sense of wholeness, ease and internal support they knew instinctively as a child, reminding the body what it knew all along.

What Makes Soma Unique

Even though there are obvious and necessary similarities between Soma Neuromuscular Integration and any of the other 10-session modalities, there are several things that set this particular bodywork apart from its brethren. Some of those unique traits include a way of looking at the integration of mind (Three-Brain Model), a system to effectively evaluate the body structure (holographic body reading), a massage “tune-up” to mobilize your energy after going through the Soma process (Somassage), and a drawing interpretation component to help clients and practitioners gain insight into the problems they face.

Structural organization of the shoulder girdle, demonstrated here by Karen Bolesky of the Soma Institute of Neuromuscular Integration, requires fluid stability that supports the full three-dimensional rotary function of the arm and shoulder.

Three-Brain Model — Bill Williams developed this model as a way to talk about the necessary integration that takes place during the Soma process. “The Soma Three-Brain Model is a functional model to depict the enormity of the experience of the body/brain,” Bolesky says. According to this theory, the body/brain can be divided into three parts: the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere, and the core.

The left hemisphere is the dominant brain in our culture. It has a linear emphasis, and it works to perceive spatial details, language, and symbol processing. Bolesky says the left is the slowest of the three brain modes. “It can handle only 16 bits of information per second; its limitation seems to be similar to the rate at which neural impulses move through the nervous system. The significance of this 1?16 time lag means we never see the absolute present — the right now.”

This hemisphere analyzes, makes policy, plans, and seeks results, although it can’t act on any of these things. The dominance of this brain mode is where we see the struggles of children and adults suffering with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD (see much more on the benefit of Soma work with ADHD in this issue’s Lifespan column, page 140).

Bolesky says the right hemisphere is our place of reverie and daydreams. “It is the place in which people manifest their healing power,” she says. There is no concept of time in this hemisphere, yet it is the place where we garner inspiration, connectiveness, and rest.

The core refers to the central nervous system and the older, deeper parts of the brain, Nolte says, such as the limbic system, thalamus, and hypothalamus. “This ‘brain’ handles all life functions, while the spinal component is often referred to as the ‘brain in the belly.’” This is the place where our “gut feelings” originate and where the production and control of energy occurs. Whereas the left hemisphere can only take in 16 bits of information per second, the core would allow you to take in four volumes the size of War and Peace every second, Bolesky explains. The core connects the left and right hemispheres, but it also is where the body/mind finds the energy to replenish itself.

One of the goals of Soma, then, is to create integration — a process that can change lives. “Integration is volitional access to all three brains, which is greater than body/mind,” Bolesky says. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” She says that accessing the appropriate brain for a given task is a conscious and important effort. “When balancing a checkbook, I need access to the left hemisphere mode of perception. When playing tennis, I need access to the core brain mode of perception. When in daydream, or a quiet moment to recuperate, I need access to the right hemisphere mode of perception.” Soma makes these shifts perceptual, granting ease during each transition and making the body comfortable with the new thinking process. “When we can choose how we respond, and from which brain, we begin to experience life with greater energy and vision,” Bolesky says.

Holographic Body Reading — This in-depth model for truly seeing the body was developed by Williams as a means to make the process easier. This model drew from Williams’ experience with the body and from the work of Japanese physician Kimiyoshi Isogai and his book Isogai Dynamic Therapy. Bolesky explains that Holographic Body Reading relies on a typical random pattern that can be seen in nearly 70 percent of the human population. The pattern depicts the most common locations of compression and torque. “It’s a global pattern,” Bolesky says, “that shows the effects of gravity and the push-pull communication of the connective-fascial net.” She says the pattern also indicates the downward spiral effect of compression. “It’s a checklist that really assists us in seeing the body.”

Somassage — Designed as a sort of tune-up for clients of Soma’s 11-session program, Somassage is a client-centered massage geared toward mobilizing relaxed energy and reminding the body of all the structural work it’s experienced (i.e., the principles of balance, alignment, and suspension mechanics). Nolte explains that after the session work has created structural change, the body needs a long period of time to integrate all that has occurred. In fact, it’s recommended that at least one year passes before undergoing any more structural change. “Somassage was developed to facilitate that long integration process,” she says. “It is a maintenance massage that does not introduce new change.” Bolesky says the Somassage sessions are simply meant to allow the body to remember itself and what it has learned. Somassage can also provide energizing effects to

These before and after drawings, that are part of Soma therapy, show the great shift — not only physically, but also perceptually — of the client’s body. The top drawing is before the first Soma session and indicates a tightness in the back. The same client’s portrait below, created after the final session, expresses levity, mobility, release, and connection to the outer environment.

clients who’ve not been through the 10-session work, although any alignments will be temporary.

Drawing Interpretation — Utilizing her work with drawing interpretation, Bolesky added this form of therapy into the Soma mix in 1986. It offers an insight into the struggles of the client’s body and mind. The drawing exercises are usually performed before any Soma work begins and after the 11-session program has taken place. In some cases, clients are asked to draw themselves as they feel in their bodies at that moment, regardless of where they fall in the spectrum of sessions. Even for a layperson, to look at the self portraits is telling.

Even though a series of photographs is also taken throughout the course of the 11 sessions, Bolesky says the self portraits can prove more telling. “Some drawing changes are more obvious to the client than the photographs,” Bolesky says. “And the drawing does not lie.”

Creating Change

Soma Neuromuscular Integration can not only help people become vertical, as Bolesky calls it, but can address a number of issues both physiologically and psychologically. ADHD is but one area where Bolesky has seen considerable results when addressed with Soma’s 11-session protocol. Children have self-reported an improvement in their daily lives, reaffirmed by parents and teachers who see the effects of Soma in action.

Clinical depression is another area Bolesky says can find great improvement with the mind/body integration Soma and its three-brain model provides.

Work on the back releases not only myofascia, but often the painful experiences we have attempted to put behind us, so to speak, that keep the back stressed and overworked.

For Bolesky, asthma is her testament to the value of this work. A sufferer of acute and chronic asthma since 2 years of age, Bolesky says when it got bad, she sometimes felt like her life was slipping away. Her medical doctors prescribed a host of medications over the years, including Theophylline, Marax, Albuteral, Intal, Prednisone, Tilade, oxygen tanks, respiration therapy, and adrenaline. “The medical community told me I would be dead by the time I was 45,” she says.

“I had asthma for so many years, I actually didn’t know how to not have asthma,” she says. “That was the truth for me. I didn’t know in my body/mind how to change.” After becoming a co-owner of the Soma Institute, Bolesky had the advantage of being surrounded by those eager to try their craft. After experiencing the effects Soma had on her asthma after the first 11 sessions, she continued on. While obviously not typical, Bolesky went through a total 12 rounds of Soma work until, in 1994, she reached a point where asthma was no longer a part of her life.

She describes the process as one where Soma helped bring her body back into balance and helped her release the restricted patterns in her body/mind that had been caused by years of stressed breathing. “My body became a safe place for me to live in again.” She’s now her own best testimonial to the work she loves.

To Listen Again

Bolesky reminds us that our bodies know how to listen, we just have to remind them how sometimes. That’s what Soma does. “Our bodies want to heal, to feel great,” she says. “But sometimes with accidents, stress, abuse, trauma, and self-criticism, we forget to allow our body to listen to itself. We forget, literally. If the body can return to being a listening mechanism, it will heal. All touch therapy, whether structural integration or massage, has the goal of supporting the client’s body to heal — to feel great. Possibly what we are doing as somatic educators is pointing the client’s attention (which has often wandered) back to their own precious body. That is how we teach them to begin listening and attending to their body. That is the power of touch.”

For more information on Soma training, contact the Soma Institute of Neuromuscular Integration, 730 Klink, Buckley, Wash., 360/829–1025 or visit

Karrie Osborn is contributing editor to Massage & Bodywork magazine.

Soma Neuromuscular Integration

A Breakdown of the Sessions

Session 1

Free the tissue surrounding the rib cage, lengthen the front line of the chest; results in feelings of lightness and well-being, a more upright posture, and fuller, deeper breathing.

Session 2

Focus on the body’s foundation, the lower legs and feet, which creates a sense of being firmly grounded and in touch with reality.

Session 3

Lengthen the sides of the body and free the shoulders so breathing can expand for greater relaxation and more immediately available energy.

Sessions 4, 5, 6

Adjust and lengthen the center line, or core, that runs vertically through the body. After these sessions, walking takes a fraction of the energy typically expended, with improved balance and freedom of movement. These sessions should be completed within two weeks of each other.

Session 7

Release the muscles of the neck, face, and head, resulting in a more relaxed appearance with increased self-reliance and personal power.

Session 8, 9, 10

Integrate the whole body in a new and more efficient manner. Energy and vitality increase as the body’s structure becomes more aligned and balanced in gravity.

Session 11 (optional)

Release and integrate the myofascial wrapping of the arms and shoulders.