Suzi Ko

It was never my intent to go to massage school or have anything to do with massage industry.  For me, massage school was that necessary evil that I had to get through in order to obtain licensing to fulfill the destiny that my grandfather laid out for me years before my birth; and even when things were clearly laid out before me, I was not sure that this industry was where I really wanted to be. 

My passion has always been in teaching and working with developmentally disabled children and adults.  I started as a “candy-striper” at the local hospital while in high school and made fast friends with the paramedics at the local fire department.  The fire captain encouraged me to study emergency medicine and helped sponsor my paramedic classes while I was an undergraduate in Southern California.  This led to my bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Psychology and Psycholinguistics and my master’s degree in Human Development and Education where I specialized in Autism. 

I pursued an additional master’s in Management & Finance as a way to understand the idiosyncrasies of starting and running a farm-based school for autistic children. Then life caught up with me when a special child that I was trying to adopt was struck and killed by a freight train, and I began to study and understand the history behind the numerous institutions that are located on railroad right-of-way.  That study turned into a passion for the railroad industry and the necessity for educating the public, especially children, in railroad crossing safety.  From there I went to running trains; first freight, then working as a passenger conductor. 

Destiny has an interesting way of rearing its head, as when I was at my height as a conductor; I was struck down by a falling passenger and said good-bye to my railroad career. While recovering from my brain injury and re-learning everything from how to stand, walk, drive and function on my own, I reconnected with my Native Hawaiian roots through hula and healing. 

As a small child, I was sent to Hawaii to stay with my aunt and uncle every summer from the time I could fly alone through high school. I was one of those terrible children that the baby-sitter would hold out at arm’s length and declare, “Never bring this child back here again!”, so it was no wonder that my relatives would put me in hula classes to learn discipline.  I was also extremely fortunate because unbeknownst to me, this was all part of my maternal grandfather’s master plan and the foundation of life as I know it today.

My maternal grandfather was a traditional healer coming from a genealogical bloodline that linked him to the healing practitioners of the king.  He graduated from Lahinaluna High School in the 1880s being fluent in Hawaiian, Chinese and English, traveling to California in 1908 and purchasing his first of eight restaurants in Sacramento, California in 1912.  He was known through the Sacramento Valley and Central California as a traditional healing practitioner, serving the Hawaiians, Chinese and Native Americans in the area.

He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1930s and passed away in San Rafael, California.  All nine of his children received college educations in the health and medical fields, yet none were designated to carry on his traditions.  According to the elders in Maui, the gifts and traditions that my grandfather carried were to be bestowed upon “the eldest daughter of the daughters” he had with his second wife, my grandmother.  I am the only daughter of the daughters, and I am honored to continue his legacy of traditional healing today.

Native Hawaiian traditional healers trained through ancient methods are rare, even in Hawaii.  I was fortunate in that my uncle saw to it that as a child I was trained by some of the old masters.  Of course, I did not realize that I was training at the time; I just thought we were traveling the islands and that I was meeting and living with these various aunts and uncles to have fun experiences and enjoy Hawaii.

After my accident, I was talking with my hula and healing arts master teacher who asked me when I was going to fulfill my destiny.  I was astounded. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, and he suggested that I go back to my roots and look at lomilomi.  I looked everywhere for someone to tell me what this thing called lomilomi was and I was drawn to one of Auntie Margaret Machado’s first students.  She encouraged me to take her class, which I did, several times, before returning to my teacher, reconnecting with my Hawaiian family and completing the training my uncle started so many years ago. 

As was my grandfather’s plan, I went through the tradition of ‘ūniki as Kumu Lomilomi in 2004 and Kumu Ho‘ōla in 2010. [Kumu translates to teacher, but it also translates to “source”;‘ūniki translates to: Graduation exercises, as for hula, lua fighting, and other ancient arts (related to niki, to tie, as the knowledge was bound to the student). Ho‘ōla translates to: To save, heal, cure. ]

Today, as a traditional healer and lomilomi instructor trained through traditional means from acknowledged cultural experts and Native Hawaiian elders who were noted for their healing arts practices, as well as growing up in a highly Westernized community in California, I bring to my classes an unusual worldview.  I have been told that I am one of the last of the dinosaurs trained in the old ways.  I teach lomilomi and traditional healing as it was taught to me by my teachers.  I was trained by elders who were unique in that they lived during the time of the recognized Hawaiian kingdom, spoke their mother tongue and lived a Hawaiian life.  As such, they represented the last living link to an enormously significant time period for Hawaiians and Hawaii. 

Their upbringing coupled with their lives as healing practitioners during a century of tremendous change offered incomparable insight into what it was like to be a Hawaiian practitioner in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These traditional healing elders shared personal histories including stories about what they lived through and what and how they were taught.  Their accounts augmented and challenged my Western suppositions of healing, language and history, and offered unique and valuable perspectives on what they saw happening in the world around them.  Through their accounts, I created a historic educational model and developed the curricula I present in my programs today.

I acknowledge that my classes are unique and not for everyone.  The students who take my classes either come for a short time or stay and have been with me for several years.  My senior students are like family to me; and if we look at the historic accountings of Emerson, Kamakau, Malo and Kepilino, this is how it was in ancient times.  The halau or school, was not like schools that we are used to today where you graduate and move on; they were all encompassing, sharing and spreading love, compassion and healing to all who chose to step through the doors. 

Leslie Susan Ko, LMT, NCTM, Med., MBA

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