Lomi Pohaku Massage Melts Stress
I’ve rarely met a massage I didn’t like.
I walk away from some massages feeling light and lively, like I’ve finally dropped a super-size suitcase, one that any airlines would slap me with an overweight baggage charge. Other times, massages leave me in a deep slumber, and when I do come to my senses, I slink off the table and speak gibberish for the remainder of the day. I left the Lomi Pohaku at Serenity Spa at Outrigger Reef on the Beach feeling like an ice cube that had just melted.
Dhana, my massage therapist, started by having me lie on my stomach with my face snuggled in the face cradle. Then, she brushed my semi-long hair off my neck and back and braided it.
Over the years, I’ve found every massage therapist has a signature move—something that stands out from all the kneading and rubbing and stroking they do in a standard hour’s time. Sometimes, this move doesn’t even fall into the lexicon of massage technique. And sometimes, the move is so unexpected that it touches me on a deeper level than the physical. When Dhana braided my hair, a simple gesture to be sure, I felt nurtured. I felt what could only be Dhana’s deep commitment to her practice of massage. And, perhaps I felt something from a higher source. If so, that would be a true lomilomi experience.
Now, it’s hard to receive massage and think coherently at the same time, so I didn’t bother trying to interview Dhana. I didn’t ask her about her massage training. I didn’t ask if she’d studied lomilomi with renowned Aunty Margaret, the woman credited as the first person to teach lomilomi outside her family.
According to Nancy Kahalewai in her book Hawaiian Lomilomi: Big Island Massage, “It’s impossible to understand Hawaiian lomilomi without understanding a little bit of Hawaii.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve researched lomilomi. In fact, I research it every chance I get—like in September at Waikiki Plantation Spa and last summer at Aunty Angeline’s Muolaulani on Kauai and before that at Kulana Spa on Hawaii (Big) Island. For two years, before the budget crunch, I researched lomilomi every month on Kauai.
And, yet, like so much in Hawaii, lomilomi is not easy to define or, even, describe. The literal translation from Hawaiian to English is "to rub, press, squeeze, crush, mash fine, knead, massage, to rub out; to work in and out, as the claws of a contented cat,"*
I’ve heard the strokes of lomilomi described as long, gliding and deep. I’ve felt lomilomi practitioners use their hands, forearms, elbows and, even, feet. I’ve been told lomilomi may involve chanting, music, prayer and herbs, sticks and rocks. There’s no easy definition, no one description, because lomilomi practitioners from each family or district or island followed their own, unique practice. What I’ve gleaned is lomilomi is a holistic healing art. In essence, it’s not just about the massage.
Kahalewai writes, “The techniques are not difficult, yet take years to master. It encompasses releasing and forgiving in order to bring all aspects of the self into alignment. It is holy and wholistic, sacred yet practical. It enables the physical and energetic systems of the body to flush out, transform, and revitalize themselves, as the soft tissue is gently but firmly loosened, separated, and loved.”
And, then, she gets to the nut of the matter, if you ask me. She writes, “It includes massage or bodywork, but is most importantly a state of mind.” And, “Wrong thoughts were as critical to correct as physical problems. Individual ties to any negative belief, person, or place were corrected. A higher power and spiritual guidance was always called upon. Lomilomi always encompassed body, mind and spirit.”
But enough of the quotes from books. When it comes down to it, the best way to understand lomilomi is to experience it. That’s what Aunty Angeline told me years ago when I asked her about it. And that’s why I found myself in Dhana’s hands in a spacious and soothing room at Serenity Spa. I wanted to experience lomi pohaku, or hot lava rock massage.
After braiding my hair, Dhana’s hands slid over my body like hockey pucks on an ice rink. Except these hockey pucks were hot—lava hot. She lined up one stone after another along my spine. She placed one in each of my palms. I remembered thinking that volcanic rocks, porous as they were, retained heat quite well. Then, in a moment of lucidity, I realized she was rotating the rocks, constantly replacing cooling ones with heated ones from a stash somewhere in the room. She was a magician performing sleight of hand tricks, and I liked it.
When I turned over, Dhana had a fresh, hot set in place for my spine. After working my shoulders, she slid stones in the pockets of my neck. I melted just like an ice cube, all over the massage table. I was so relaxed that when Dhana went to perform another signature move of hers—something I’d never experienced before, something I can only describe as a head shake, something I suspect she uses as a measuring stick for how deeply she'd managed to relax her patients—I didn’t resist, and my head flopped back and forth like a rag doll.
Dhana completed my massage with another touching, quite spiritual move: She washed my feet with a hot towel.
*Pukui, Mary Kawena and Elbert, Samual H. Hawaiian Dictionary.