The Lomilomi Way to a Better Life

By Makana Risser Chai  copyright (c) 2008, all rights reserved

Picture haunani handsWaves lapped the nearby shore. Flowers from a plumeria tree scented the breeze. I relaxed on the massage table as strong hands rhythmically stroked my shoulders once, twice, three times. My eyelids grew heavy and I began drifting away to the sound of Auntie Margaret Machado softly chanting, “Shoulders once, shoulders twice, shoulders three times …” Six of my fellow students in the lomilomi class stroked in unison as they followed Auntie’s directions.

Why was I, a 48 year old California lawyer, in a massage class on the island of Hawai’i?

It all started with my grandmother. My grandmother was a Gypsy. I don’t mean she traveled a lot, though she was born in Croatia, grew up in Paris, then married my American grandfather and moved to California. She was an ethnic Gypsy, or Romani. And not to perpetuate stereotypes, but my grandmother could read your fortune in tea leaves, see your future in the palm of your hand, and relax your body with massage.

She taught me massage, and I was good at it, but I did not want to work as a therapist. I wanted to be like my father, a lawyer. Bad plan. I hated practicing law. I wasn’t very good at it, and it made me sick. Many years later, I had one of those life-changing moments that begins when the doctor says, “Change your life – or else.” A short time later I realized that when my father died, at the age of 54, he was just eight years older than I was at that point. I thought, “If I had only eight years to live, what would I do?” The answer came in a flash, “Move to Hawai’i.”

It took me a couple of years to wind up the business, sell my house and move. I didn’t know what I would do when I got here. But about a year before I planned to move, I came over to check out each island to decide where to live. While on the big island, I just happened to read an article about Auntie Margaret. As I read the article, I got chicken skin.

Auntie Margaret, then 82, was hailed as one of the most esteemed lomilomi teachers in the islands, schooled in the old ways by her grandfather and now passing her skills on to a younger generation. She taught students to develop “the loving touch,” with a love that springs from a Higher Power. She said, “Lomilomi is praying work.”

I read that lomilomi is not just massage. It combines physical, mental, emotional and spiritual work. During treatment, a patient was expected to think and believe healing thoughts. The kahuna (master) instilled feelings of well-being by transferring their words, thoughts and feelings into the patient’s subconscious.

Reading this, I just knew I had to meet her. The article said she didn’t give treatments any more but she did teach, along with her daughter, Nerita. I then did something completely unprecedented. Without doing any research – without ever having received a lomilomi or even driving the few miles to look at the school – I signed up for a month-long class scheduled to begin in a year’s time. I would spend my first month in Hawai’i learning and living with Auntie Margaret on the shores of Kealakekua Bay.

So here I was on the lanai of Auntie’s house, a few dozen yards from the beach, next to the plumeria tree, watching the sun dapple the bay as I received lomilomi. I had been here three weeks, the longest three weeks of my life. I had gone from running my own business, to being just another student living with a bunch of students half my age. I was in total stress mode when I arrived, full of impatience, judgment and anger, and for three weeks I held on to those feelings. Every evening I promised myself to leave the next day. But after a restful night’s sleep on the lanai in the warm air, and day after day of giving and receiving massage, steaming in the sauna, and eating good food, finally, today, I relaxed.

The lesson complete, some of us strolled down to the beach, dove into the bay and snorkeled in the bluest water and most spectacular coral canyons in all of Hawai’i. We ate lunch and rested. Then it was time for those who had received to give. We oiled our hands while Auntie again softly chanted, “Shoulders once, shoulders twice.”

As I fell into the rhythm of the strokes, I suddenly became aware of feeling a deep connection to everyone and everything around me. I felt linked to all the students here, and all those who had ever studied here, to Auntie’s younger self and to her grandfather. It was almost as if I could see everyone who had ever been here on the lanai, a multitude of spirits going back many generations. They welcomed me into their midst.

Seven years later I am still in their company. They have led me, step by step, into my new life as a licensed massage therapist, lomilomi researcher, speaker and author of the book, Hawaiian Massage Lomilomi: Sacred Touch of Aloha. They speak to me through the kupuna I have been fortunate to meet, and in dreams, signs and visions. Visions? Don’t worry, most of what I’ve learned has been through the kind of research only a lawyer would do – years of reading every book in the library and boxes of oral histories at the Bishop Museum.

Massage evolved long before Hawai’i was discovered by the voyagers from the South Pacific around 900 AD. The peoples of ancient Egypt, Greece, India, China, and Japan all practiced massage, as did many native groups. The first settlers brought massage with them, just as they brought food staples, farm animals, and medicinal herbs. Over time, their massage techniques changed and evolved to become uniquely Hawaiian. As an indigenous practice, lomilomi varied by island, by ahupua’a (district running from the mountains to the sea), and by ‘ohana (family).

Traditionally, everyone in the ‘ohana knew lomilomi and massaged each other every day. Native healers used it as physical therapy to cure injury and illness. Servants gave lomilomi to the ali’i, the chiefly class, as a luxury of life.

How is lomilomi different from other types of massage? It starts with aloha ‘aina, love of the land. Hawaiians know the land itself is healing. Certain areas possess special healing powers. Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, believed in the curative power of her land at Waikiki, called Hamohamo, literally “to massage with oil.” Another place associated with lomilomi is the volcano on the island of Hawai’i.

This connection to the land is so important that lomilomi practitioners today, especially those at the best hotel spas, often give treatments outdoors so you can see the mountains, feel the warm caress of the breeze, smell the flowers, hear the waves, and taste the salt air.

Just as lomilomi springs from the earth, it also grows out of Hawaiian culture. Many traditional therapists also practice hula or lua, the martial art, and infuse their lomilomi with the energy of those disciplines. As you might imagine, one style is more gentle than the other.

The loving touch of lomilomi comes from the deep spirituality of the Hawaiians. Prayer was and is an essential part of the daily lives of the Hawaiians. The old ones prayed when building a house, making a canoe, and giving lomilomi. Native practitioners, then and now, pray before, during, and after treatment. Papa Henry Auwae, an elder teacher, said, “80 percent of healing is spiritual.”

The people of old prayed to the gods of healing, to their family gods (‘aumakua), and to Hamo’ea, the goddess of massage. One meaning of her name is “Hamo’ea-anointed-with-oil / patroness-of-various-diseases / cure-by-massage-therapy / give-to-the-patient-the-spiritual-breath-of-life.”

After 1820, most Hawaiians converted to Christianity, and prayer remains an essential part of lomilomi. As Auntie Margaret said, “The Lord does the healing. I don’t heal. That’s why I say prayer. I ask the Lord to intervene.”

Lomilomi also is unique because it is always done with loving touch. Auntie Margaret explained, “If your hands are gentle and loving, your patient will feel the sincerity of your heart, his soul will reach out to yours, and God’s healing power will flow through you both.”

A description by Martha Noyes of the work of Papa Kalua Kaiahua shows loving touch is not just a massage technique. It comes from the heart.

“I remember an old woman who had cancer that had already metastasized. She’d been through chemotherapy, but she was dying. Papa made no effort to be objective or detached. He felt the woman’s pain. He touched her in affection, brushed away her tears, stroked her forehead, embraced her and kissed her. Papa went to her, right where she was, and knelt on the floor beside her so he could work on her body without moving her. Her dignity was intact. Her spirit was supported. Her feelings were accepted. Her value was acknowledged.”

This is why lomilomi is called sacred touch.

The spirituality of lomilomi is also expressed with the breath. The Hawaiian word for breath is ha. And since the old Hawaiians were deeply aware that without breath there is no life, ha means life. Native historian Mary Kawena Pukui wrote, “Long before the missionaries arrived, Hawaiians had invested the ‘breath of life’ with a spiritual significance that closely paralleled Biblical references.”

It is only after the giver has invoked the power of prayer, breath, and loving touch that attention is given to physical techniques. Dane Kaohelani Silva, a kumu or teacher of lomilomi who learned from his family and also trained in chiropractic and acupuncture says:

“I conceive it to be a system of deep communication using biomechanical and energetic waves to stimulate the cells to heal and regenerate. Hawaiian lomilomi consists of both gentle and deep techniques, such as rubbing and stroking, kneading, pounding, pressing, shaking, vibrating, pulling, pinching, rolling and deep pressure-point compressions.”

In addition to using hands, practitioners use their feet, elbows, forearms and sticks, but lomilomi is most famous for using hot stones. Traditionally hot stones wrapped in leaves are placed on the body. The heat of the stones releases the medicinal qualities of noni, ti or other leaves. Some modern practitioners use bare hot stones as hot packs. Traditional Hawaiians also take steam baths and hot baths at the volcano, while some modern practitioners use saunas and hot tubs.

Before beginning lomilomi in days of old, the kahuna la’au lapa’au (healing expert) might also conduct a ho’oponopono session. Ho’oponopono (pronounced ho-o-po-no-po-no) means “setting to right,” “forgiveness,” “reconciliation,” or “family counseling.” It is a traditional system for restoring lokahi, or harmony, within the client and their ‘ohana. Early Hawaiians knew what modern medicine has now proved – holding grudges makes you sick. Only forgiveness and reconciliation could heal such sickness.

One of our beloved kupuna today, Allen Alapa’i, says:

“My grandmother said, ‘Forgiveness is the key that opens the heart.’ The thing that gets in the way of the heart is the mind. Turn off the mind. The mind is not us, it is other people’s voices. Once we forgive the voices, the mind turns off. When the mind goes off, the heart opens. Life is a feeling, not a thinking.”

As wonderful as it sounds, that philosophy was a little hard for me to accept. It’s the exact opposite of what I believed as a lawyer.

The last night I slept on Auntie Margaret’s lanai, I dreamed I gave lomilomi to an elderly woman in the hospital. The dream surprised me because I had no interest in hospital work. The next day, as planned, I moved to O’ahu and had dinner with my brother, who had been living here for 30 years. When I mentioned the dream, he told me the mother of his best friend had just been released from the hospital and suggested I practice on her. The next day I met Tutu. Full of aloha spirit, she hanai or adopted me into her family. Eventually she gave me the name Makana, which means gift, because she said I was a gift to her family.

A few minutes after I met her, Tutu said, “I have a son you should meet.” Three years later, we married. The aloha I received from him and his family inspired me to deepen my study of lomilomi.

I never thought my life would go this way, but it feels perfect. Now I know it’s true – life is a feeling, not a thinking. And one of the best ways to get in touch with your feelings is with lomilomi.

For a workshop where your team learns to give lomilomi massage, call Makana at 808-282-2743 or contact us.