On a crisp spring day I drove past the stucco subdivisions, commuter trains, and skate parks of suburban West Auckland and considered the following, seemingly innocuous, question: “Am I okay with deep bodywork?”
Atarangi Muru, a world renowned Maori tohunga (traditional healer) from New Zealand, posed it to me three different times over the past month. At first, my reply was natural. “Yeah, I prefer it actually.” Next, I was confused. “Yes … you asked me that last week; I’ll be fine.” By the third time, I was wondering why she kept asking. Scheduled with Atarangi to receive a session of romiromi, a core element in Maori healing; I was eagerly anticipating my first experience with this traditional therapy. When I finally reached her clinic, a converted storefront, I was contemplating what “deep” actually meant to her.
“Well, if you’re expecting a nice private session with soft music, you may be surprised,” said Atarangi as I entered her sparse, bare-wall environs. She directed me to a thin mat on the industrial carpet, where her 26-year-old son, Terence, placed his feet on mine to work various pressure points in my soles. Atarangi, who trained him, said, “He works through what we call the whatumanawa, the seeing heart.” He also works, almost exclusively, with his feet, which, according to Atarangi are more sensitive than his hands. Sure enough, I slowly began to relax even while activity buzzed around me. (Kiwa, Terence’s 3-year-old son, ran wild pretending he was a race car. Bill, Atarangi’s husband, showed up and started cracking wise as Pat, their aunt — who is known as “Aunty Pat” — and her friend, Wiki, laughed in delight.)
Next, Terence leaned close and whispered, “I’m going to move to the calves now. For many people this is the most intense part. Feel free to yell or laugh or cry — whatever you feel.” Um, did he say cry?
Terence stepped forward, and I immediately learned that, in the vernacular of Maori healing, “deep” is a synonym for “Holy God, that hurts!” His weight pancaked my muscle to the bone; it felt like my leg was on fire. Instinctively, I held my breath. Wrong move; the pain intensified. I tried to scream, but without oxygen my breath was stunted. Then Aunty Pat began to sing a song that carried the soft warm breeze of Polynesia, and tears rolled down her cheeks. Wiki took my hand and said, “Let it out.” Bill was suddenly watching over me, too, and so was little Kiwa — I was cocooned by family I hardly knew, but I could feel their love and empathy.
Finally, my scream came out true. It was a huge release, and Terence lifted his foot, satisfied. I laughed hysterically, and social hour started anew. The session went like that for over an hour — from serious and deep to light and happy, and back again as Terence lovingly trampled me. He was right, the calves were the worst part, but there were other memorable moments. When Terence jammed his fingers into my skull where the cranium plates are fused, it didn’t tickle. But when it got intense, there was always song, prayer, a huddle of attention, and my near constant primal screams to carry me through.
Atarangi finished the work. She examined my energy and could see that a block remained, so she compressed my abdomen with her considerable elbow. Atarangi is a big woman, and she leaned on my gut with all her might while Aunty Pat sang her beautiful Polynesian prayers. “Spontaneous songs, or takutaku, allow us to go into the places that you keep hidden,” Atarangi explained. Afterward, Kiwa gently placed a cool rock on my heart, and I just layed there, while energy pulsated throughout my body. When I rose, I felt deeply and completely unburdened.
This was my first taste of the Pacific healing arts, and it was something I never expected. These all-natural traditions date back centuries and have manifested in various incarnations and languages over thousands of islands from Easter Island off the coast of Chile to the Hawaiian chain in the north, and as far south as New Zealand. Although I came SIMPLY to learn more about these healing traditions, I left with something far more profound.
Polynesian culture was born in Tahiti, among those who originally left Taiwan and Southern China, and passed through Indonesia. Intimately connected to the Earth, early Polynesians prayed to gods associated with the wind, sea, forest, and sky. They also developed a mind-body culture that employed chanting, song, dance, and martial arts. And when they were sick, their healers relied on native island herbs and plants, bodywork, and spiritual healing to lead patients back to wellness.
Over the centuries these traditions were gutted by missionary zeal and criminalized by colonial courts. In New Zealand, the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 makes it technically a crime for indigenous healers to practice their craft, but Polynesian healing arts are making a comeback. You can find them among a growing legion of modern Hawaiian, Tahitian, and Maori healers that are helping their people reclaim their roots. And they’re cropping up in Hawaiian and Tahitian spas, as well.
I first met Patrice Teinauri backstage at the Maison De La Cultura in downtown Papeete on the island of Tahiti. A professional Tahitian dancer, he’s also the best-known tahua, traditional Tahitian healer, on the island. Like always, his long grey hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and he was shirtless, barefoot (“to get more power from the earth”), and covered in tribal tattoos. They’re not decorative. “They’re for protection,” he said.
“In Tahiti we have different tahua for different maladies — malady of mind, of spirit, and of physical body,” he said. His specialty is treating physical problems. When his home clinic in the working class neighborhood of Paea is open for business, patients begin lining up at 4 a.m., and he works until late into the night. He treats everyone for free. “Traditionally, you don’t ask for money to heal people,” he said. “It’s a gift you must give freely.”
According to Patrice, he’s used his gift to heal kidney problems, breast cancer, and inoperable brain tumors. Once he treated a woman who suffered from menstrual hemorrhaging. “The doctors wanted to do a hysterectomy, so she came to me,” he explained. “I treated her regularly and made her a drink from three grated baby pineapples mixed with herbs. She drank it every day in the early morning, and the bleeding stopped. She keeps thanking me. Every year she brings me a pig.”
He begins most treatments with taurami massage. When he said “romi” I had flashbacks of my treatment with Atarangi, but Tahitian romi, it turns out, is less severe. “I use massage to relax a person and feel their energy,” he said. Then comes the popo treatment. First, he takes a stick with a sharp shark’s tooth at the end and gently punctures the skin at key energy points that tap meridians, which can affect muscles, joints, and organs. Over the miniscule holes he’ll place glass cups. He heats them so they become suction cups that draw out stagnant, or what he calls “bad,” blood. The shark’s tooth is a powerful figure in the Tahitian spiritual mythology, but the process recalls Polynesia’s Chinese ancestry. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture often precedes a similar suction technique called cupping. But unlike stoic TCM practitioners, Patrice will chant, sing, and pray during treatment. “Chanting is very important, because the word is strong and can heal by itself,” he said.
Patrice is also an expert in herbal medicine, making a variety of spicy coconut water–based tonics (almost always including chili and lemon) that are tailored to the disorder he treats. For strong diseases like liver failure or cancer, he’ll use the noni fruit, but he has hundreds of native plants to work with. “I drink a tonic everyday, and I never get sick,” he said. And he offers the tonics free to others.
Like Atarangi in New Zealand, Patrice learned everything from his grandmother, who trained him as a massage therapist when he was 11. A few years later, she passed
her mana, or power, to him as they held hands on her deathbed. Explained Patrice, “I asked my grandfather what she gave me, and he said, ‘In time you will know.’ Now the older I get, the more mana I have. It’s a gift that continues to grow, but you have to nurture it and serve others, or it’s worth nothing.”
Later that day, Patrice took me to a part of the island where he nurtures his gift through meditation. We went to the marae, which is an outdoor area where Polynesians traditionally gathered to commune with their ancestors, pray, grieve, celebrate, and debate. When the missionaries came to Tahiti, they burned and destroyed many of these spaces. We wandered among the lava rock foundations and reconstructed walls surrounded by jungle, where he sits for four hours at a time. Every three minutes he takes a single deep breath while staring at the light on the horizon. He says that’s how he rejuvenates his life force. “From the mountains, the sea, and God,” he said.
The most sacred marae of them all is located on the island of Raiatea, the historic center of Polynesian culture. Raiatea’s majestic, jungled hills are carved by ribbons of water that peel off the mountains in all directions. It was from here that Polynesian explorers departed when they left to discover New Zealand and Hawaii. Raiatea is a simple place, with one small town, and it lacks the spectacular turquoise lagoons and five-star tourist infrastructure of the big names — like Bora Bora and Moorea — so few tourists visit. Those that do come to the Taputapuatea Marae, where for centuries kings and their warriors frequented. Today it is a maze of manicured lawns and restored lava rock foundations, where there were once massive temples on the sea.
Raiatea is also home to Miriama Brotherson Tikore, a tahua who is the polar opposite of Patrice, and, like many present-day Tahitians, openly disregards the area’s ancient roots. Whereas Patrice is every bit the extrovert and meticulous in his observance of age-old Tahitian rites (he planted his daughter’s placenta in his garden to connect her with Mother Earth when she was just hours old), Miriama is a quiet, Seventh-day Adventist. But they share similarities. She, too, uses the shark tooth stick and glass cups, and treats patients for free. “Real tahua will never ask for money,” she says. But Miriama’s specialty is herbs.
We sat together in her prefabricated home, which was located at the base of a mountain and surrounded on all sides by lush forests. With an ever-present warm smile she sorted plant after plant in her kitchen and softly described the healing power of each. The tiare, Tahiti’s signature flower, is an all-purpose antihistamine. Rosewood fruit can be used to close and disinfect wounds that won’t heal. She crushes and steeps tou tree leaves to make a tea that regulates the cycle and cures infertility in women, and she uses rau matie to stop bleeding and cure arthritis. She can name literally hundreds of plants, and crafts combinations too detailed to compile here. But she didn’t see patients until relatively recently, after she had a peculiar dream.
“There was a man who used to live in Raiatea; I knew him. And he came to me in my dream because his son-in-law was dying of stomach cancer,” she said. The man gave her a medicinal recipe that combined hibiscus river roots and the milky sap of a breadfruit tree. After waking up the next day, she collected the ingredients and cooked the medicine down into a potent elixir. That’s when THE sick man showed up on her doorstep. “His wife had had a dream, too,” she said. After three months of massage and herbs, the man was cured.
The fact that she was somewhat skeptical due to her religion, only helps prove how blurry the line between the spiritual and physical planes can be in Polynesian healing. But to Tikore, it all comes down to nature. “When God made the world, he put inside all that we humans need. In nature there is always something that can help make you well,” she said.
Kauai is a mountainous island ribboned with hiking trails that lead to waterfalls, deep canyons, and breathtaking peaks. Rain is frequent — in fact, Kauai is home to one of the wettest places on Earth, and like Raiatea on Tahiti there are countless muddy rivers that thunder down lush slopes and into the sea. For now it remains largely undeveloped, which beckons naturalists and adventure seekers from the U.S. and abroad. And it also nurtures some of Hawaii’s best traditional healers.
Auntie Angeline’s compound — eight acres of fruit trees, shrubs, flowers, a perpetually belching steam room, and lomilomi massage studio — is on Hawaiian Homestead land in Anahola on Kauai’s east coast. Trained as a healer by her great-grandmother, who was a personal therapist for Hawaii’s last queen, Liliuokalani, she moved back from Southern California, where she worked in convalescent homes and met many languishing, isolated kupuna, or Hawaiian elders far from home. Driven by those she met, she built her compound in 1985 to heal her elders traditionally, through the spirit of aloha — the giving and receiving of love.
“At first, most of the kupuna still had to get over the missionary disease — the shame and pain of disrobing, being afraid of the body,” said Auntie Angeline, now 78. “We lived naked, you know, until the missionaries came. And hula was our yoga or martial art. Through hula practice we learned to honor, respect, and love our bodies.” It didn’t take long for the kupuna to get back in the groove of the more traditional ways, and word got out about the new healer in town. Soon she had a thriving day spa business built around lomilomi bodywork.
“Lomi means ‘kneading’,” she said. “In Hawaiian tradition, we lomi the soil — remove stones so we can grow food; we lomi our food — through good digestion so we can remain healthy; and we lomi our bodies — remove tension and blockages in our muscles and organs.” Auntie Angeline believes the source of those blockages is often emotional.
“People stuff grief and rage deep into their bodies,” she said. “The steam melts that down, and the lomi works it out of the system. I call it loving up the body. When you have an area that needs attention, we lomi all around that area — and the loving energy will change that vibration and heal it. It’s very spiritual work, but it should never be painful. I’m a real coward when it comes to pain.”
These days, Auntie Angeline has been slowed by a stroke, so her son, Michael, runs the spa. After I sat for a spell in the steam room, Michael and his assistant worked on me. Throughout the massage that featured long strokes from four hands at once, he chanted and sang, but he also gave me an astute physiological diagnosis. According to Michael, my ankle tendinitis is related to a tight low back, and I could gain an inch in height if I wasn’t so compacted in the thoracic area.
In addition to his therapeutic work, Michael and Auntie Angeline also host workshops on traditional healing. But Angeline doesn’t work on clients anymore. “I’m on the receiving end now,” she said with a smile. “I’m completing the cycle.”
After meeting these indigenous healers and experiencing their therapies firsthand their, I have realized that although it’s often referred to as “old-world knowledge,” the healing traditions of Polynesia still offer potent natural medicine that’s absolutely relevant today. When I left Atarangi in New Zealand after my third treatment with her, I couldn’t get over how free I felt. “It’s time for a new chapter,” she said. “That emotional state, that journey has been completed, and it is time to let it go.”
And I did with wonderful results. I feel so much more secure and balanced now. There’s less fear in my life and more joy. And that is a beautiful gift.