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The Art of Lomilomi: Behind Hawaii's Traditional Massage Practice

Picture of Kalena McElroy
Updated: 11 April 2018
If you’ve ever experienced a Hawaiian lomilomi massage, you’ve undergone a particularly relaxing experience.

Hawaii’s traditional practice of long, gentle movements is a popular massage style, now found at many spas throughout the world. Unbeknownst to the masses, this ancient custom encompasses far more than just an enjoyable massage and understates a profound part in Hawaiian culture.

Lomilomi is a unique style of massage which uses century-old techniques to rejuvenate and restore the body, mind, and spirit. Lomilomi literally translates to “knead or massage” and is just a small part of the holistic practice of lāʻau lapaʻau, Hawaiian traditional medicine.

A few traditional techniques include kuikui (pound), beating with closed fists and pahupahu (drum), hitting with a cupped hand. Each ʻohana (family) forges their own style. Ancient Hawaiians all practiced basic Lomilomi within families, understanding the values of medicinal plants. But, kahuna lāʻau lapaʻau (traditional healers) were consulted for any major ailment.

Herbal Medicine | © Hamza Butt/Flickr
Herbal Medicine | © Hamza Butt / Flickr

Kahuna lāʻau lapaʻau are chosen as children and dedicate their lives to mastering the art of lomilomi passed down from generation to generation just by word of mouth. The late Papa Henry Auwae was one master. He described the practice as “solving the problems of body, mind, and spirit. In Hawaiian healing, the mental is not separate from the spiritual and physical.

These special healers were appreciated as doctors—they chose specific massage movements based on each client’s affliction and typically coupled this with the use of steam, heated stones, medicinal herbs, and pule (prayer) to help unblock the natural flow of energy throughout the body.

Like many cultures, foreign settles in Hawaii frowned upon practices of herbal medicine. As a result, lomilomi was only practiced as a restorative massage and not associated with traditional medicine. Today, many spas throughout the Hawaiian islands and around the world offer lomilomi, but massage therapists typically don’t spend much time studying the specific style, and the art itself is difficult to come across in the secular world.

Authentic lomilomi is rarely practiced and hardly offered in a spa setting. Following its decline, acclaimed lomilomi teachers created the Hawaiian Lomilomi Association to educate and perpetuate the art of lomilomi massage and Hawaiian healing. The website directory lists dozens of teachers and therapists located around the world who spent years studying traditional techniques and movements.