Wednesday, July 17, 2013


The Wonders of Hilot, Filipino Healing Art

A motorcycle ran over a child’s foot. There was no blood, but his foot swelled up. He could feel the veins painfully out of place, making it hard to walk. This was in the 1990s. His mother knew just where to take him, not to the emergency room of the nearby hospital, but to the popular manghihilot in the barangay (hilot practitioner). The child was afraid of needles, but a trip to a dimly-lit alley to allow a virtual stranger to manhandle his foot in an esoteric ritual in the middle of the night did not faze him. And true enough, after coaxing his veins into place (tears were involved), my foot was back to normal, and all for a token fee. 

Hilot has come a long way. These days, one can now spot hilot treatments alongside Thai, Swedish, and Shiatsu massages in local spa. Though it’s a modern, commercialized version for the mainstream market, it still features the hallmarks of the traditional Filipino healing art.

What Exactly Is Hilot?

“Hilot is our Philippine traditional massage, which has been practiced for generations. Banana leaves are used to detect the areas with imbalance or negative energy, called ‘eamig,’ and that’s where the hilot (therapeutic massage) is focused,” explains Dr. Nol Montalbo, proprietor of Mont Albo Massage Hut, a chain of spas that specializes in hilot. Elders explain eamig as “napasukan ng hangin” (air trapped in one’s body), which causes bodily discomfort ranging from a mild ache, to the pain of a muscle spasm or pulled muscle.

More on this mysterious eamig  (cold). “In the Filipino wellness system, there should be a balance between the cold and the hot energies. It’s similar to ‘chi’ in Chinese medicine, where free-flowing energy and balance is also sought,” said Dr. Montalbo.

Dr. Montalbo grew up in Batangas province where, like many areas in the Philippines, a visit to a manghihilot or an arbularyo (herbalist) is commonplace. Though now a medical doctor, Dr. Montalbo remains convinced of hilot’s efficacy in soothing aches and pains (“not as replacement for Western medicine, but a complement to relieve pain”), and thus decided to pioneer a spa that specializes in Filipino hilot.

Slow, Deliberate Strokes And Banana Leaves

At Mont Albo, specially trained therapists administer hilot that involves heat, banana leaves, bentosa (suctioning cups), and a healing massage with slow, deliberate strokes. “Banana leaves are warmed, placed on skin, and amazingly start to stick to the area where negative energy is concentrated. That’s where the therapist will focus the massage on.” The no-frills massage treatment at the nipa hut-inspired Mont Albo Massage Hut is priced at P380 (about 9USD) for 60 minutes, while at its upscale counterpart, Mont Albo Spa, the treatment is priced at P1,550 (about 37USD) 60 minutes for the total spa experience (inclusive of private room, sauna, use of high-end products, and a post-massage meal).

Hilot Treatment at Handuraw Spa

One of the most blissful hilot treatments is found at the Handuraw Spa in Eskaya, Bohol. It is situated with an amazing view of the sea. 

The pausok (smoke) ceremony at Amuma Spa before the hilot is in the spa at Maribago Bluewater Beach Resort in Cebu. “Hilot is all about pressure, and they expertly applied just the right pressure. It was also nice how they cover one’s body with banana leaves that kept the body in the right temperature.”

Traditional Filipino Massage

Practically, all the premiere Philippine hotels now offer hilot in their spa menus. One is the Spa Wellness a luxurious pampering establishment with several branches around Metro Manila. Grace Castro, The Spa Training Head, explained that while hilot by the traditional manghihilot concentrates on one part of the body to relieve pain, hilot at the spa is administered over the entire body, “mainly for relaxation, to improve blood circulation, and relieve stress and eamig.”

At The Spa, highly trained warm hands (heated by tea light candles) massage the back using coconut oil, followed by the application of pre-heated banana leaves to relieve bodily stress. This is repeated throughout the body. It is capped off with a soothing scalp massage, and a post-treatment cup of ginger tea. The 75-minute session at The Spa starts at P1,300 at the executive room (about 31USD) and P1,900 for the suite/villa (46 USD). 

Castro said, “Hilot is recommended to those who are stressed, looking for relaxation and foreigners looking to experience a traditional Filipino massage.”

Highly trained warm hands (heated by tea light candles) massage the back at The Spa

Dr. Montalbo pointed out: “What sets Pilipino hilot service apart from other massage therapies is that it is done with slow, deliberate strokes, it addresses the Filipino concept of eamig, and there is a level of spirituality. The therapist has the intention of healing.”

Just like others heading to manghihilot when they injured their foot these days, you may find others heading to a reputable spa for a soothing hilot session. There’s just something about the warm coconut oil, the comforting banana leaves, and the gentle healing touch of the Filipina that make all the difference. /MP

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