Hawaii: the place to be healed!

Warm tropical heat soothing my senses, slack key guitar swaying my body into a slow rhythm of relaxed “hang loose”, and ginger-flower essence mixed with a salty breeze. Hmm, where am I?

The islands of Hawaii are fast becoming a mecca for healing, especially the volcanic Big Island, also known as the island of fire and ice. This is an island encapsulating the need for pono (balance) as we wade through life. The Big Island’s snow-capped Mauna Kea mountain (ice) and ever-flowing Kilauea volcano (fire) sit side by side, enveloping all who come in a subtle vibration of calm and a cool platform to the universe beyond. Considered the central point for renewal, healing, energy and everything connected to the earth, the Big Island has long been a centre where healers gather, the tradition continuing today with events such as Ke Kumu (The Source) at the sacred site of Mauna Lani, an ancient lava flow from Mauna Loa steeped in the history of the Hawaiian people. According to Shad Mishida, massage therapist at The Source, “This island is always regenerating itself and even in the olden times Hawaiian healers would gather here for conferences.”

From massage to herbal healing and the spiritual connection to life on earth, ancient healing traditions have been passed down the generations for today’s travellers to enjoy. While Hawaii is seen as one of the ultimate holiday playgrounds and a sublime setting for a wedding in paradise, it’s also a place to renew your spirit and remember your place on this earth. The weather is beautiful year round, the spectacular landscape will take your breath away and the Hawaiian people will return it with aloha.

A true understanding of the strength and grace of the Hawaiian people can be found by tracing their ancestry. Thousands of years ago, people from the Polynesian nations (the Pacific islands from Fiji to New Zealand) migrated to the Hawaiian Islands in nothing more than carved outrigger canoes. They survived raging seas and were guided by the stars, putting their trust in nature. It remains one of the great feats of humankind. With the settlement of the Hawaiian Islands came myriad myths and legends to explain aspects of the Hawaiians’ attitude towards life today as well as their deep respect for the earth and the powers of nature. But what is it that sets the Hawaiian grace apart?

 Spirit of aloha

For Hawaiians, a healthy and balanced life begins with the spirit of aloha. A word almost overused by tourists, aloha’s meaning embraces everything from hello and goodbye to love, caring, sharing and goodwill to others. In short, it’s a way of life. Deeper meanings can be found in its etymology: alo, meaning in the presence of; ha, meaning breath. The ancient greeting of aloha was originally reserved for loved ones and close family. It involved rubbing noses, saying aloha and inhaling each other’s breath, or ha. When you breathe your ha, it’s in the presence of divinity.

Na’auao Pane’e, Hawaiian language teacher at Brigham Young University Hawaii, says aloha is the core of all things Hawaiian. “It is through aloha that all other Hawaiian values have meaning. The spirit of aloha affects everything we do, not so much in words but in actions.”

Polynesian paralysis

The Hawaiian approach to time has been called “Polynesian paralysis”, a term meaning people will get to where they need to go and do what needs to be done in good time. Gone are the haste, anxiety and impatience that make the rest of the world sick and frantic. In Hawaii, life is still a little slower than in most mainland states and cities and locals love the islands for this more natural state of play.

Clifford Nae’ole, cultural advisor at The Ritz-Carlton on Maui, explains it simply: “It is the ability to simply be still and listen to your heartbeat, to stop and observe a beautiful rainbow or to watch the dolphins dance with the ocean. I would make this a priority over getting to a destination on time — the ability of observation, appreciation and relaxation.”

Family (ohana)

Family (ohana) is everything that keeps you grounded and helps you grow. In Hawaii you need not necessarily have blood relatives to have a family — ohana represents everyone with whom you have a deep connection and all ties are considered as close as blood. Levon Ohai, a herbal practitioner (la’au lapa’au) on the island of Kauai, says family love is as deep as the ocean for Hawaiians. “We are a family type of people. Family is solidarity, it is our government and it goes back to time immemorial.”

Childhood lessons

Traditionally, a bowl of poi (a staple food made from ground taro) sits in the centre of the kitchen table in a Hawaiian home. As children, Hawaiians are taught to take only from the centre of the bowl of poi and never scrape the sides — in a way, learning to always take the best of what is offered to us in life.

This early childhood lesson remains an essential ingredient in the wellbeing of indigenous Hawaiians, from their spiritual view of life through to their easygoing, fun-loving spirit and grace with which they face the future, despite a past in which traditional Hawaiian culture was forced underground for two centuries.


Kupuna Alapa’i Kahu’ena, a herbal practitioner on Oahu, says the first healing medicine in the world is forgiveness. “Before any one of us can heal ourselves, we need to have forgiveness. If we cannot forgive ourselves, we cannot heal others.” For both therapist and patient, forgiveness and letting go of past hurts are considered crucial to healing. No medicine or treatment on earth will help you unless your body, mind and spirit are in balance (pono) and this can only come from within.

Sometimes the wrongs you have done to others or others have done to you are energies that affect you today, and these must be wiped clean. Where you can fix things and apologise you must do so, and where you cannot, you clean up your life as best you can, let go and move on. Another essential lesson is to allow yourself to forgive others. If a person makes amends to you, you must accept the apology. If, instead, a grudge is held, it becomes your burden and will continue to make you ill.

Herbal healing

Hawaiians believe everything has spirit (mana) to it. The trees, flowers, wind, sun, rain, ocean and mountains all have a spirit form, which must be respected when taking their gifts. Hawaiians knew inherently there was strength in the sea, earth and plants. Many plants can be traced to other Pacific islands, meaning Hawaiian ancestors brought these with them during their migration so they could use them for medicinal and health purposes.

Herbal practitioners are known as kahuna la’au lapa’au and the secrets to treating illness with powerful indigenous and introduced herbs (plants and flowers) have been passed down through generations via storytelling and study. A herb’s application, tone and different parts of it may be used for different patients.

Each of the islands is considered to have its own personality, from the lush, motherly island of Kauai, the oldest, to the tempestuous and still-growing volcanic Big Island (also known as Hawaii). It’s believed that each island’s salts, clays and plant ingredients take on the properties characteristic of the island it comes from. For instance, Kauai’s clay and salt are well known for their strength and feminine properties. Different clays are used for men and women, depending on where they have been gathered. Some clays are even used in drinks for healing and strength.

Herbal practitioners must meet with a patient before knowing which plants and herbs to apply. The practitioner follows important protocol when gathering ingredients. First, a herb or plant is asked permission in the spiritual sense to be gathered for the purpose of treating a certain person. Then after the ingredient is used, anything that remains is also disposed of according to protocol, as the leftovers are considered to carry the sickness.

Cleansing mind, body and spirit

To maintain optimal health, Hawaiians practise constant cleansing encompassing the mind, emotions, spirit and physical body. Healing is believed to occur in many different ways. They believe all people are connected to their surroundings; so, too, all illness is a direct result of what you are in contact with, including people, your environment, your work and, of course, land, air and water. So healing your surroundings is as much a part of getting better as is healing your physical body.

To create balance, some practise the art of daily mental cleansing. This involves forgiving yourself and others from your day, and if you could have interacted with someone in a way that’s more in keeping with your soul, you must fix this in your thoughts. The intention to set a new pattern of behaviour is the blessing of each new day.

While not all life’s challenges can be easily explained, Hawaiians believe there is a reason for everything, which time will unveil.

Ho’oponopono (making right more right)

Ho’oponopono is an ancient Hawaiian psychology based on the principle of “making right more right” and purification. A large part of embracing the spirit of aloha and keeping yourself well is forgiveness of those who wrong you and apology to those you have wronged.

Here, the story of the bowl of poi provides another lesson to the Hawaiian. If you reach the bowl and find only poi stuck to the sides of the bowl, it’s seen as an opportunity to cleanse. You must dip your finger in water and clean the sides of the bowl as an act of forgiveness (to those who created a mess or wrong in your life) or as an apology (to clean up your own mess).

In the old days, when a problem arose within a family, a community leader skilled in the teachings of ho’oponopono would sit with the family while each member discussed their feelings. They might have been asked to go away and think and only come back to the table with forgiveness. Once someone apologises, it’s up to the other party to accept it and never speak of it again.

A range of Hawaiian healing and cleansing rituals is still performed in abundance today. Here are a few.

Lomilomi massage

Healing, detoxifying and energising, lomilomi is a form of chiropractic massage passed down to therapists from Hawaiian elders and practised throughout the Pacific for thousands of years. It eases muscle pain, increases circulation, helps draw out toxins and promotes relaxation and wellbeing. Some therapists practise a pule (prayer) before beginning.

Shad Mishida, who has practised lomilomi for seven years at The Source, often uses his hands, elbows, forearms and fingers in what can range from a gentle massage to a vigorous workout. “As a therapist, you’re a painter and you have so many different strokes you can use.” According to Mishida, the longer the massage session the better. “You don’t get any benefit of a massage until you are relaxed, because then your muscles can be manipulated or you can be stretched more.”

Ti leaf wrap

The ti leaf is one of the most basic resources in Hawaii. Its uses include tying food bundles and making leis (flower garlands worn as necklaces in greetings and ceremonies), and it’s thought to provide spiritual protection to guard the home. As a treatment, a healing mixture of aloe is applied first to cool the skin. The body is then wrapped in ti leaves, also known for their medicinal properties, to draw out excess heat. It’s mainly used for sunburn and reddened skin and is relied on for immediate relief.

Hot rock massage

For centuries, Hawaiians have used the healing power of heat and the energy of stones (pohaku) combined with a unique form of massage.

Renee Romano, a Mauna Lani therapist, says therapists use a set of 54 smooth rocks of all sizes. “We do a spinal layout on which you rest your back and a chakra layout on the front of the body. There are effleurage stones, which are your massaging stones, as well as hand stones that fit perfectly in your palms and even stones that go in between the toes. The hot stones increase circulation, loosening the muscle and getting everything moving so the blood is rushing to these areas.” Cold stones are then also used to flush the blood back out and slow everything down. Renee says not everyone needs to have cold stones; it’s based on the individual. “Some people like them so much they want to do just cold stone massage.”

At some places, the therapist may tap two rocks together against the skin to allow healing vibrations to penetrate to deep tissue. “Tapping sends a little electrical impulse, especially with a really tight muscle that doesn’t want to give in,” says Renee. The hot stones are replaced throughout the treatment and you feel warm, relaxed and re-energised. According to Renee, “The rocks are very grounding, so it’s a very earthy energy. It’s not just that your muscles are getting all warm and relaxed, but you definitely get a grounding, serene experience.”

And the final, most important tip for wellbeing from our Hawaiian neighbours? Just try to go with the flow! Giving thanks and living in the moment are common expressions heard throughout the islands of aloha. Think of a surfer trying to surf against a wave … in life, as in the surf, it’s easier to go with the flow.

Renee Bes

Renee Bes

Renee Bes is an international journalist and author who loves delving into the spiral of energy which keeps our Earth spinning: and believes storytelling with a focus on beloved language and powerful words can be a healing journey. Read more articles on her personal website and blog.

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