FILIPINO HILOT MASSAGE
by Farida Harrison, Business Manager, PARTHIA~myhomespa
parthiaphils@gmail.com | www.myhomespa.ph
COPYRIGHT © 2006 by PARTHIA-myhomespa


Most people, especially medical doctors and even Filipinos themselves, react with cynicism and disbelief – diskumpiyado – whenever the conversation is about the “Filipino Hilot”.  This is not surprising, considering that your typical barrio manghihilot has had no formal training in the medical sciences.  And their attendant but unintelligible latin chants or ‘oraciones’ don’t help at all in lending credibility to the effectiveness of traditional hilot.  And so it seems all too logical for you and me to dismiss hilot as unscientific baloney laced with mumbo-jumbo – good for nothing more than a cultural show for tourists.

So why do people still seek out these charismatic and at times eerie-looking native masseurs?  Two reasons:  Poverty and desperation.  Medical fees and pharmaceuticals are increasingly beyond the reach of the poor.  Then there are those who have reached the dead-ends and cul-de-sacs of western medicine, and are desperate for cures that MDs and pharmaceutical products cannot give.

Western Medicine – No Panacea

“Modern” synthetic-based medicine is not perfect – in order to cure you, it needs to kill you a little, more or less.  After that, you can continue living with your partially killed existence.  What we call “western” medicine treats illnesses following a “diagnosis-prescription-pharma” pattern that often addresses only symptoms, instead of root causes.

Pharmaceuticals are synthetic chemicals – very expensive imitations of natural ones.  While they do help ease symptoms, these drugs have a fundamentally incompatibility with our human bodies which are natural.  There will be unavoidable side effects, and invariably, the drug firm will offer doctors other drugs to address the side effects of the first prescription. It is not surprising why even the US FDA recalls nearly half of the products it approves.  It is subject to vicious cycles of expense and even of unethical practice.

In addition, western medicine has become increasingly specialized, and consequently fragmented.  That explains why patients and their families sometimes get the impression of being tossed from one specialist to another – “pinagpapasahan” as they say.

There are just too many dead-ends in western medicine that more and more doctors are calling for significant shifts in the way health care is maintained or delivered:

  • from synthetic to natural;
  • from fragmented to integral (holistic);
  • from secondary and tertiary to primary;
  • from cure to prevention;
  • from bodily to mental and spiritual.

These shifts require doctors, nurses and health care workers to revisit the roots of their profession.  Traditional and native healing approaches and methods deserve a second look, this time with the eyes of modern science.

Hippocrates, the acknowledged father of western medicine, wrote in 5 BC:  “The physician must be experienced in many things, but assuredly in rubbing … for rubbing can bind a joint that is too loose, and loosen a joint that is too rigid”.  Isn’t that what our ancestors called hilot?  That “rubbing” has come a long way from being a primitive art to a documented science.  This ancient healing art was lost along the way because secondary and tertiary health care – characteristically dependent on pharmaceuticals and synthetics – had kept primary (preventive) health care in the backburner since the industrial revolution.

Over the last couple of hundred years, “rubbing” has come a long way to become “Therapeutic Massage”.  This is not just a play of words.  Massage Therapy in the Philippines is now a regulated occupation, requiring practitioners to pass licensure examinations.  A Licensed Massage Therapist is allowed in turn to certify a maximum of 20 therapists who are under his or her direct tutelage and supervision.

Rudimentary science behind the mumbo-jumbo

It is then that you realize that you cannot afford not to notice the healing wisdom of traditional Filipino caregivers, the manghihilots.  Behind the packaging of gesticulations and oraciones is a science born of decades, even centuries, of associating and recording causes and their healing effects.  Consider the following components available to native manghihilots:

  • an optimum environment (sunlight, fresh air, flowing water, minerals, ambient temperature, etc.) of a rainforest;
  • the application of appropriate extracts and concoctions from plants whose medicinal effects have been recognized for centuries;
  • a prescribed detoxifying diet of fruits, vegetables, and even something exotic and extraordinary; and most commonly,
  • the correct manipulation of muscles, ligaments and bones in order to dislodge accumulated toxins, soothe and rectify neurological circuits, improve circulation and oxygenation of bodily tissues and organs.

All of these non-conventional elements can gang up on our bodily ailments, effecting a cure, or at the very least a significant alleviation of pain.  These traditional healing approaches are only apparently unscientific.  Because of their undeniable and significant results, western-educated medical scientists are finally taking a second look in order to understand their inherent causes and consistent repeatable effects.

Mind and Spirit: Uncharted Territories

The other major flaw in “modern” medicine is its fixation to the visible and measurable, blinding it to the link between the body and the mind.  And it may take even a longer while before empiricists even scratch the surface of the Spirit. Consider the following:

  • having a clear vision of your purpose in life;
  • determination and reasonable satisfaction in pursuing that purpose;
  • inculcation of habits aligned to one’s immediate and long-term goals;
  • active pursuit and maintenance of harmonious and loving relationships;
  • removal of wacky desires that could lead to physical damage;
  • progressively taking charge over one’s emotions;
  • deliberate and wholesome forms rest and recreation;
  • prayer and peace with God.

Many doctors consider these elements beyond the purview of medicine, but that opinion is fast changing.  Beyond the proof suggested by the placebo effects and psycho-neuroimmunology (PNI), the prayers and goodwill of others have been shown to have undisputable clinical effects on the sick.  Peace of mind and of the Spirit brought about by these non-medical components can only bring good health to the body, and so, wellness to the whole person.  This mind and Spirit prescription is meant to defuse physical, mental, and Spiritual stresses we might have accumulated in our person.

As we have noted, traditional Filipino manghihilots do acknowledge and invoke higher powers – according to their religious beliefs, whether folk, Christian, or a fusion of both.  But they should not be  confused with “faith healers”.  Typically, traditional Filipino hilots do not perform “psychic surgery”.  Their prayers may be admixed with folk beliefs, but that is due more to the lack of evangelization than to malevolent superstition.  They are transparent characters who employ no sleight-of-hand tricks and are not beholden to or tainted by any imported brand of “New Age” influence.  They just have a knack for healing, and have the modesty to admit that the power is not theirs.

The Filipino hilot massage is to “modern medicine” what simple inarticulate faith is to formal theology.  Just as you don’t need to be an expert theologian in order to be strong in faith, hope and love, so you don’t have to be a doctor in order to be well and keep healthy.  It’s a native gift.  You pray to God when in need, and you rub where it hurts.  And just as you pray to God not just in time of need, so also in the course of daily living, you can avail of preventive measures to maintain bodily health.

With the conviction that no effective healing or pain alleviation can be effected without the help of the Almighty, it is standard procedure for myhomespa therapists perform a silent invocation at the beginning, and a prayer of thanks at the end of every therapeutic massage session.

The Roots of the Hilot Tradition

It is not easy to trace any organized establishment of the hilot phenomenon. In the first part of this article, we alluded to the simple and instinctive “rubbing where it hurts” and the consequent recognition of patterns of causes and effects. What can really drive our curiosity is the aura of secrecy with which manghihilots seem to cloak their healing skills. In general, Filipino healing traditions – including the centuries-old hilot – appear to be shrouded in mystery and secrecy.

This is more because those who have received the gift are not articulate in technical communications. They attribute their healing skills – rightly so – to a higher power. In search of an adequate presentation of skills and powers that are beyond their own comprehension, manghihilots of old have ritualized their healing activity, using the native animistic beliefs and vocabulary of their era, while discovering more cause-effect relationships along the way. And so, what may appear to some as superstition is really the manghihilot's inarticulate attempt to modestly attribute the power to God (or a higher being). Amulets and anting-antings are statements of attribution. The proof of this modesty is that authentic manghihilots do not charge fees.

Surprisingly, the rituals, chants, and oraciones somehow serve to predispose the sick person mentally and physically towards healing. Admittedly, some persons do venture into deeper spiritism. But whether external powers and principalities do intervene is a matter for further investigation.

Learning the causes and beneficial effects of rubbing takes years. No wonder the manghihilot stereotypes are typically old men and women. There are, however, some amazing cases of prodigious children whose powers are undeniably gifts – i.e., acquired with minimal or no training at all.

On top of these processes of discovery, we should add the influences of Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Western healing traditions. And so what do we have? An evolution of diverse beliefs and practices regarding health that have stood the test of time.

What’s Common Among Filipino Hilot Traditions

Today there are many versions of traditional hilot massage in the Philippines. For now, let’s take a quick look at what is common among them.

A pre-hilot ritual is typically done at the beginning of a session, wherein the manghihilot invokes a universal transcendent or Divine power to provide the energy for healing. This opening ritual also acknowledges and invokes the natural power of the natural surroundings. Thirdly, it summons the sick person’s inherent self-healing powers to action.

Having and maintaining warm hands is an essential requirement for all kinds of hilot massage. This is where coconut oil comes in handy, because it not lubricates the hilot massage, but it actually keeps the manghihilot’s hands warm. The use of coconut oil for healing purposes began in the Philippines, and the world is only now discovering the benefits of VCO as a base oil for aromatherapy massage.

Elizabeth F. Nelle, director of product research and development of the DOT says that hilot is a highly intuitive massage wherein the therapist identifies areas of energy imbalance in the body through touch diagnosis. Traditional Filipino hilot involves massaging of hands and arms as a diagnostic step – “pagpupulso” – done in a seated position, to ascertain the cause of pain or discomfort. There are a number of interesting diagnostic methods.

Thereafter, the manghihilot massages the head and neck; subsequently, in a reclining position, the torso, hips, legs, and lastly, the feet. At the end of the hilot, a ritual of thanks or pasasalamat is performed.

There are also a host of indigenous Filipino treatments or “modalities” that are associated with hilot. These healing practices have been passed on not through institutional instruction, but by apprenticeship or plain exposure, and are passed on to relatives and neighbors. Hilot traditions have literally “rubbed off” from generation to generation.

New Generation of Filipino Hilot

Bobet D. belongs to one such line of healers. His late grandfather's healing ability is still the stuff of legend in his native Masbate. Aside from the family heritage, he and his brother Christian were taken as protégés, in their mid-teens, at the Philippine Holistic Wellness Center, operated by their uncle-in-law, Victor Donaire. The brothers are now both certified by the institute, which is itself duly recognized by the Department of Health. After four years of apprenticeship, Bobet became chief mentor on modalities for the myhomespa team of therapists. No, Bobet is not your typical ‘old manong’ manghihilot. He turned twenty in 2006.

Cynthia P. trained as a Physical Therapist, but felt called to massage therapy where her PT competencies give her a distinct edge. As a child, she was regularly brought by her mother to the town manghihilot in San Miguel, Bulacan. She also trained in therapeutic massage, and is now a DOH-licensed massage therapist (LMT). She made sure the myhomespa team knews their basic sciences. No, she is not your typical ‘old manang’ manghihilot. She was twenty-four when she joined us.

Lalai C. is the soft-spoken rural mystic from Davao who grew up experiencing healing from a paternal uncle and an aunt who are manghihilots in Surigao del Norte. Even after her formal training in therapeutic massage, she is still regularly mentored by her older sister, also a massage therapist. She is enigmatically quiet, but a favorite among myhomespa clients. She signed up in 2005 at age twenty-three.

Lanie C.’s departed grandparents were both manghihilots in Maasin, Leyte. She grew up in Manila, and does not recall any direct influences from lolo and lola. She decided to pursue massage therapy when she gave her sick mom a massage and her mom got better. She too, became a myhomespa mainstay at age twenty-four.

Myhomespa proprietress Susan Manalo, herself a grandniece of a manghihilot from Biñan, says her therapists have been carefully handpicked, mentored and continuously trained within an environment of learning and development. “This young and growing team of modern-day hilots are not only naturals. Having been predisposed to traditional healing from an early age or significant experience, they have, more importantly, the passion for this healing art coupled with their unconditional positive regard for the wellness of our clients. For it is also important to have sympathy and a synergy between healer and afflicted.”


TEAM 2009:  Linda, Alma, Fida, Anna, Lai, Bobet, Jo, Jenny, Mai, Nimpa, Juliet, Che.

Aside from learning the various modes of massage (Swedish, Shiatsu, Thai, Reflexology, etc.), the new breed of manghihilots take courses on anatomy and physiology, microbiology, parasitology, ethics, and jurisprudence, hygiene and sanitation. The Department of Health's mandate of regulating therapeutic massage – and Traditional Filipino Hilot Massage in particular – as a legitimate occupation is good news for an unappreciated indigenous tradition that is still very much alive today in over 42,000 villages in the Philippines.

Healing the Image of Massage

Accreditation and licensing is a welcome development in the history of Filipino traditional hilot massage. But there were dark times when hilot was labeled as quackery, pseudo-science, and massage was passed off as immoral. The advent of commercialized sex in the 1970s gave a bad name to the legitimate art of therapeutic massage, and the tarnished image of this ancient healing art is not yet totally well.

The message that needs to be understood by the general public is this: Bona fide spas are not prostitution dens. Massage therapists are not prostitutes. They are certified and licensed workers whose gifts and training are officially recognized. Therapeutic massage is a clean and decent health care occupation.

So there! There are behavioral and legal boundaries to make sure that the baby of wellness is not thrown out with the bathwater of commercial sex. What should be downsized and eradicated is, of course, sexual harassment and exploitation. Only then can the image of massage and Filipino hilot be itself healed.

Wellness Tourism

The Department of Tourism is on the right track in tying up with the DOH to promote the Philippines as a center of wellness and “medical tourism”. The problem is the machinery is not yet that well-oiled. The stakeholders are nagkakahiyaan pa about who should take the lead in the critical areas of the wellness industry. Key areas with yet insufficient results are:

  1. the reconciliation of western and alternative approaches,
  2. the standardization of methods and modalities of traditional and alternative health care or “TAHC”;
  3. the accreditation of TAHC practitioners; and
  4. the training of new TAHC practitioners.
The longer the “pioneering” phase is stretched, the bleaker are our chances of realizing what we have been equipped to become.

Countries which are known for spa and wellness pride themselves for having just one or two of the following wellness assets: mineral waters, thermal springs, therapeutic mud, medicinal herbs, seaweed, aromatherapy oils, scenic and biodiverse environs. Lo and behold, the Philippines is blessed with all of the above and what’s more, Filipinos themselves are essentially kind and hospitable!

Despite the slowness, foreigners have already begun appreciating the Filipino healing arts, even more than Filipinos themselves. Why not begin to appreciate the beauty of the Philippines? Why not protect the good things of our native heritage? Why not try Filipino hilot massage? Yes, why not?

Here's what author Stephen Gallup posted on the internet: “The Filipino healers have been ridiculed by many Western doctors. They attempt no rebuttal to the charges. They did not seek the gift and responsibility that has been laid upon them, nor do they explain it. But anyone who is dissatisfied with Western medicine can take comfort in knowing that this alternative is available. If nothing else, it provides an excuse to go catch a glimpse of a very beautiful corner of the world.”

We should not fail to appreciate the giftedness of our land and our people for traditional and alternative health care. Make no mistake about it. The Philippines has a rightful claim to the title of global wellness hub, over and above Europe, the Americas, and even our Asian neighbors. We just have to begin appreciating what God has given us – for our benefit and for others.

[ Next: Wellness: Anobayan - Christian or pagan? ]

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