The Sacred Tradition of Hawaiian Lomilomi
Lomilomi -- the word itself is veiled in mystery and magic. If you close your eyes and try to imagine what a Hawaiian lomilomi session might be like, it is not difficult to visualize a massage table set up under an open-sided, banana leaf-roofed gazebo amid black lava rocks with the sound of the ocean nearby and a beautiful lei-adorned "aunty" performing her magic. Actually, this fantasy may not be far from reality, especially when receiving a treatment from one of the lomilomi elders.
A few months ago I began a series of articles on massage therapy promising that I would end the series with an article on a type of Hawaiian massage called lomilomi, a word which means "breaking up into small pieces." At the time, I thought lomilomi was merely another form of bodywork, like Swedish massage, Tragerwork or shiatsu. I was wrong. When I began to do research for this article, I discovered that bodywork techniques are just a small part of lomilomi.
Perhaps the main difference between lomilomi and other types of massage is that lomilomi is intentionally spiritual in its orientation and approach to healing. Each lomilomi session begins with a pule, or prayer. This may be silent or aloud, in English or Hawaiian, and may be in the form of a chant. The purpose of the pule is to invoke the presence of the God and acknowledge right at the beginning that true healing occurs primarily on the spiritual level. No traditional lomilomi practitioners believe they are doing it on their own.
Another difference is in lomilomi origins and traditions. Most forms of massage therapy cannot trace their origins or have been developed or adapted in modern times. Lomilomi has been a part of Hawaiian culture since the start of their oral history. Practitioners in pre-Captain Cook Hawaii often received their knowledge and inspiration through divine inspiration in the form of visions or dreams. Practical training was done solely though observation. No questions were asked and the teacher and student never worked on each other. Lomilomi elders believe that their ancestors are present during a session, helping guide them in their healing work.
Lomilomi is holistic in its orientation. Other forms of bodywork have limited and specific focuses like pain relief or stress reduction and offer only physical approaches. In addition to massage techniques, lomilomi uses heat, steam, diet, cleansing, topical herbal therapy, exercise, health education and counseling in restoring health and optimal functioning on all levels of being.
Lomilomi soft-tissue techniques are not unique or spectacular. Like other forms of massage, lomilomi may be performed either with either light or deep tissue work, with rubbing, stroking, kneading, pounding, pressing, vibrating pulling and compression. There is no specific routine, although skilled teachers will use specific routines to guide their students in developing a framework for the therapeutic approach.
More than anything else, the purpose of lomilomi is to truly minister to the body and spirit. A lomilomi master has no doubts whatsoever about the presence of spirit during the session. She/he is able to channel their connection with aina, the spirit of the earth, and to bring that healing energy into the therapeutic session. This is done in a totally loving and peaceful manner. The practitioner doesn't need to go into a trance to establish the connection. In fact, a typical lomilomi session may be sprinkled with jokes, stories, songs and gentle laughter.
Finding a traditional lomilomi practitioner can be a challenge. Many new practitioners have minimal training, focus primarily on the physical aspects of lomilomi and have little connection to the richness of the tradition. During the period of repression of Hawaiian culture, lomilomi was forbidden, so practitioners went underground to preserve the knowledge and techniques. Most traditional lomilomi practitioners are not licensed under Hawaii's massage therapy law and do not want to be commercialized. Furthermore, because they are not licensed, some traditional practitioners lack knowledge of physiology, anatomy and contraindications for massage therapy. There are only a few elders or masters, most of whom are practicing quietly out of their homes and may be found only by word-of-mouth. Although she is quite aged, Aunty Margaret Machado in Kona is perhaps the most well known practitioner in Hawaii and is still teaching and passing on the knowledge and traditions.
One good place to start in finding a lomilomi practitioner is with Nancy Kahalewai, owner/director of the Big Island Academy of Massage in Hilo. She recently published Hawaiian Lomilomi, Big Island Massage, a book which is available at most bookstores on the Big Island.