The Message Behind the Massage

Many years ago while vacationing on Kauai, I called a resort spa to schedule a massage. The reservationist on the other end of the phone asked, “What kind?”

“An hour,” I replied.

“No,” she corrected me. “What kind of massage would you like—Swedish, shiatsu, sports, lomilomi?

I felt like I was reading the wine list at a posh restaurant. I just wanted a massage to melt away the tension. “What’s lomilomi?” I asked.

“It’s Hawaiian-style massage,” her soothing voice explained.

“Is that like a Swedish massage?”

“Well, it depends on your therapist. It’s typically deeper and might include chanting or music.”

I was young then. Newly-married and starting a brand new career, I wasn’t ready to experiment in massage, and, honestly, I was self-conscious of my body. So, I chose the familiar Swedish-style. Almost 20 years have passed, and many more massages. I now live on Kauai. At this point, it was time to give myself over to the massage from the islands I now call home. I picked up the phone and repeated that conversation, this time choosing the Hawaiian-style.

Angeline Locey, a Hawaiian practicing traditional Hawaiian healing, says, in order to understand lomilomi, you must experience it. Amen, sistah.

A PAST HANDED DOWN

If there was a lottery in Hawaii, and if I hit the jackpot, I would schedule a massage therapist to visit my home every day for the rest of my life.

It turns out my daydream isn’t far off from the everyday activities of old Hawaii. Stories abound about lomilomi treatments—often shortened to simply lomi—given to Hawaiian warriors before battle, to hula dancers before performances and to chiefs during important decision-making times. Every Hawaiian community had lomi kahuna (experts in the knowledge) who trained for decades and ensured their people’s health for the everyday rigors of a physical lifestyle, which included fishing, farming, canoe building and surfing.

There wasn’t one true lomilomi practice or technique; there was no “college of lomi.” The knowledge was passed from generation to generation—grandmother to grandson, auntie to niece—and resulted in as many different styles as there are valleys on Kauai, according to Angeline’s son, Michael Locey, who apprenticed under his mother.

The “one-hour massage” didn’t exist then either. Some sessions lasted only 15 minutes while others went on for days. Here’s the best part: Some lomi sessions included two, three or more practitioners working on one person. Talk about pampering.

For my “research” on lomilomi, I headed north to the Princeville Health Club and Spa at the Princeville Resort on Kauai’s North Shore, and, a few days later, south to ANARA Spa at the Hyatt Regency Kauai Resort and Spa in Poipu. Ever studious, I noted some common qualities of lomi: Long, gliding hands—or was it palms or fists or forearms or elbows? Was there one pair of hands or two? The ANARA Spa’s brochure defines lomilomi this way: Massage strokes are more vigorous, rhythmical, and faster than Swedish massage and incorporate more elbow and forearm work.

FROM ONE COMES MANY

Almost every massage therapist I met was trained by a Hawaiian kupuna (respected elder)—Auntie Margaret Machado. It seems many roads lead back to this kupuna who 60 or so years ago, was the first to teach lomilomi to non-family members. Until then, lomi knowledge was considered sacred and was not shared outside the family. In her heart, Auntie felt she was doing the right thing by making the information accessible to all.

If many roads lead to Auntie Margaret, I attest that it’s not an easy trip. To find her massage school in south Kona on the Big Island, I meandered through miles of barren, lava fields, careful not to maroon the rental car on a lava rock.

Auntie’s massage school sits one hundred feet from the ocean’s edge in an old plantation home with a rusted tin roof and weathered, paint-peeled siding. On the covered lanai (porch), students practiced lomilomi on futon-covered tables. Although Auntie Margaret has handed down her mantle of teaching to her daughter Nerita Machado, she sat in the shadows of the lanai presiding like a mother hen over her chicks.

“Of all places,” I thought, as I looked down at a sign at my feet that said, “Hawaiian Massage Classes.” It was cracked and broken into three pieces, yet students from around the world find their way here. I asked about the number of students Auntie has taught over the years, and no one knew but suggested that it is in the thousands.

THE HEALING POWER OF PRAYER

As a devoted Seventh Day Adventist, Auntie Margaret believes deeply in prayer. As a Hawaiian, it’s in her blood. One of the most famous Hawaiian historians, Mary Kawena Pukui, (who co-authored Hawaiian Dictionary and Place Names of Hawaii), wrote of Hawaiians, “Everything they did, they did with prayer.” It’s a good mix.

Auntie recognizes ke akua—one God—and acknowledges that she doesn’t heal; God does. She teaches pule (prayer) before every lomilomi. Above the door to her massage school, a hand-lettered poster reads, “Touching the body with a loving touch. If your hands are gentle and loving, your patient will feel the sincerity of your heart. His soul will reach out to yours and the Lord’s healing will flow through you both.” That’s Auntie’s definition of lomilomi.

She took both my hands in her wrinkled, old ones, kissed each and said, “That’s the touch. That’s how it should feel. Light but firm.”

THERAPEUTIC METHODS

At the Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii on the Kohala Coast, Timmah Allen started my lomilomi in the Willow Stream Spa with a chant in Hawaiian. When she finished, I felt relaxed yet rejuvenated. Her stroke was vigorous and alive, and it ran over my whole body like a quiver. My body felt like one fluid wave instead of separate body parts.

At the Kohala Sports Club and Spa at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, Kat Reynolds paid special attention to my problem areas—my “paddling” shoulders and “runner’s” hip—as I listened to the surf pound below my oceanside treatment cabana. She bent my knee to my gluteus and then rotated the leg, all the while applying pressure to the side of my hip. I felt the muscles deep inside relax.

EMOTIONAL AWAKENING

Back on Kauai, at Auntie Angeline Locey’s open-air Mu’olaulani in rural Anahola, the message is unconditional love for the body. A former student of Auntie Margaret, Auntie Angeline’s three-part Hawaiian wellness treatment starts with a steam session in a 16-foot octagon-shaped steam room followed by a full-body scrub using Hawaiian alaea (sea salt) and coconut oil. The first relaxes and opens up the body while the second cleanses and detoxifies. Then, simultaneously, two massage therapists lomilomi the body.

Mu’olaulani means a place for young buds to bloom. By that, Auntie means it’s a place—or rather, garden—for guests to shed their “shame and pain” about their bodies and begin to love themselves again in a safe place which is also Auntie’s home. She believes in sharing lomi with guests, because it’s also a way she can create respect for and, thereby, perpetuate the Hawaiian culture.

As my lomi research progressed, I heard about another style sometimes called “temple.” It goes deeper—not necessarily physically but emotionally—and is usually saved for transitional times in people’s lives, like after a divorce or loss. It usually requires more than the typical 60 minutes to allow the emotional body to relax and release, and the style of the stroke itself is much longer—covering the whole body—so the draping is scant.

Temple-style is considered sacred. Practitioners guardedly share it and usually perform it in the privacy of their homes. Massage therapist Tatiana Blanco says she’s not interested in just healing the physical body. In her living room overlooking the Anahola River, she uses esoteric words like “dance” and “celebration” to describe her metaphysical healing practice. I did feel like I was dancing a slow dance as her forearms waltzed over my body. If Auntie Margaret’s style of massage is about love, then temple-style is about transformation, and I learned it certainly can be emotional.

After my canine companion of 13 years—Nestle—died last year, Sherry Wilner invited me to her massage table. She calls lomi a process of cleansing. She said my body was an island and things would wash up during my lomi like trash on a beach. I should pick it up and then decide to throw it away or to keep and polish it. I cried on her table. I felt anger. I felt love. I saw images of Nestle romping in a field, tail wagging. When I rose, I wanted to laugh myself to tears—all in the expanse of two hours. The power of touch allowed me to release some pent-up emotions. I felt freed—like winter was over and spring was beginning.

 

This originally published in HAWAII Magazine.

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