Jamu Massage & Wrap Therapy
The birth of my daughter in Sydney four years ago brought much joy to my life. However, I was often overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness and exhaustion, as I was in unfamiliar surroundings and far away from my family in Singapore. A declining bank balance and a fuller laundry basket rendered it quite impossible to find the time to relax and pamper my fatigued body and soul.
During this bittersweet period, I often found myself remembering the days after my mother gave birth to my sister. When she was discharged from hospital my mother was visited by a bidan (midwife) every day for a month.
The arrival of this jovial little Malay woman wearing a traditional batik sarong and carrying a large woven basket full of traditional herbs never failed to intrigue me and enthuse my mother. I was six years old and fascinated by the sight and smell of the jamu (traditional Malay herbs) being rubbed onto my mother’s still-swollen belly, the extensive massage she received with aromatic oils, the very long cloth wrapped around her abdomen and the overpowering smell of the akar kayu (dried roots of medicinal plants) bubbling in the kitchen. At the end of every session my mother was a picture of serenity and contentment.
Let me divulge a secret that women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and other parts of Asia have known for centuries: jamu massage and wrap therapy — a longstanding tradition that cares for the physical, emotional and social wellbeing of a woman after she gives birth. Combining daily home visits, massage with essential oils, a stomach reduction technique, herbal remedies, expert advice and female bonding all in one package, it’s definitely a treat worth sharing.
To understand the techniques and ingredients used in this therapy, it is necessary to know the philosophy behind it. The Malays believe that good blood circulation is fundamental to good health. The theory is that keeping the body warm will ensure better blood circulation, which will lead to faster healing after childbirth, less muscle aches and joint pains and easier subsequent deliveries.
History of jamu massage
The 13th century Venetian traveller Marco Polo once said of Java: “…from thence also is obtained the greatest part of the spices that are distributed throughout the world.” However, spices are just part of the vast array of flora that flourishes in the tropical soils of Indonesia and Malaysia. Malaysia alone has more than 200,000 species of flowering plants, of which 1230 have been found to be medicinal.
Jamu is a blend of herbs derived from the bark, roots, flowers and other parts of various medicinal plants. Used in massage, the ingredients in jamu range from the better known (for example, lemongrass, nutmeg and jasmine flower) to the more obscure.
Urut (massage) was a way of life for 16th century Indonesian royalty and the aristocracy and is a tradition maintained today by Indo-Malays for its therapeutic benefits. The technique of the Malay urut is derived from a fusion of Chinese, European and Indian influences during the spice trade of the 1500s.
Recipes of jamu originated in the 1500s in the palaces of central Java, where herbal remedies and massage were integrated as part of a holistic healthcare system. The benefits of jamu were virtually unknown outside the Indo-Malay community until about five years ago when the increasing influx of tourists to places like Bali gave rise to jamu massage being offered at many spas and resorts.
Before the modern healthcare system was established, antenatal care, labour and postnatal care of mother and baby were the responsibility of a bidan (midwife). The bidan’s skills were usually handed down from generation to generation through hands-on training.
According to Malay tradition, the new mother was strictly homebound after the delivery for 40 to 48 days. During this time she was restricted to light duties and encouraged to breastfeed (until the child was two years old). The following procedures were carried out during the confinement period.
The bidan took a tuku (a metal instrument with a sphere at the end of a long handle), heated it by fire, wrapped it in cloth or paper and gently rolled it over the woman’s abdomen. The rolling movement gave a gentle massage and diffused the heat throughout the abdomen.
Starting with the head and neck, the bidan slowly massaged towards the lower limbs. Care was taken in massaging the abdomen.
A bengkung (a cloth approximately eight metres long) was wrapped tightly around the woman’s waist and pelvis to act like a brace. It was usually worn in the morning after the body massage and during the night.
The woman was encouraged to lie on a salai (a wooden apparatus) in the afternoon. Underneath this apparatus was slow-burning charcoal or wood in a metal basin; the heat was intended to soothe and relax the body. Of all the traditional practices, using a salai was the least common, as it had to be built and fixed in the home.
The woman drank ubat periuk, a tonic made from boiling akar kayu (dried roots of medicinal plants) in an earthen pot. She also practised pantang makan dan minum, which meant refraining from eating or drinking certain foods that were believed to hinder the process of healing after giving birth.
Jamu massage and wrap therapy today
The modern bidan is usually a certified masseuse who specialises in postnatal care and natural remedies. Today, with more mothers returning to the workforce soon after having a baby, the confinement period of 40 to 48 days has been shortened to suit the woman’s schedule and budget. Intensive postnatal jamu massage and wrap therapy is usually performed for seven to 14 days or longer. The techniques, as outlined below, have been modified to meet modern standards.
Lasting 45 minutes to an hour, deep-tissue massage is applied to the body from head to toe. The following strokes are applied in the session:
- Friction (dry massage) — penetrating circular movement using the fingertips and thumbs on the joints; breaks down adhesions and calcified deposits in and around the joints.
- Petrissage (with essential oils) — kneading, picking up, squeezing and rolling of the skin and muscles; stimulates blood and lymphatic circulation and relaxes the muscles.
- Effleurage (with essential oils) — long stroking motion (light or firm) applied over the spine, back, arms and legs, along with a circular rubbing stroke with the palms and fingers over the shoulders and buttocks; improves blood flow and relaxes the muscles.
- Tapotement (with essential oils) — rhythmic tapping, “chopping”, slapping, cupping and pounding movements using the fingertips and sides of the hands; breaks up fatty deposits and cellulite and encourages increased blood flow to surface tissues.
- Vibration (with essential oils) — penetrating vibrations using quick tapping with the fingertips; loosens scar tissue and adhesions around the joints.
The aromas of the essential oils used in the massage can be fruity, sensuous or heady, depending on your taste and what the bidan has in her basket of goodies.
Essential oils of sandalwood, lemongrass, coconut, spices and fruits are just some that may be used.
The massage is believed to have many benefits:
- improved blood circulation
- elimination of toxins through better lymphatic circulation
- improved digestion
- exfoliation of dead skin cells and promotion of cell regeneration
- easing of muscle aches and cramps
- improved respiratory system through deep breathing and relaxation
- improved sleep
- stress reduction.
Herbal body masque
Parem is a paste made from ground rice and herbs that is applied to the whole body. It is believed to keep the body at optimal temperature, improve the circulatory system and prevent rheumatism.
A jamu called tapel is massaged on the abdominal region to stimulate blood circulation and muscle contraction and to encourage toxins and blood clots to be flushed out of the system.
The eight-metre-long cloth known as a bengkung is then firmly wound around the woman’s abdomen, from under the rib cage to the pelvis. The wrap is worn for a minimum of four hours up to the entire day. The tapel and wrap are intended to work together to tighten the abdominal muscles and stretched skin and therefore reduce the after-birth bulge. The wrap is also believed to help the pelvis (which expands during childbirth) resume its original girth.
Women who have had a caesarean section are advised to wait until the wound heals, or at least two weeks after the operation, before using the wrap.
Facial and eye care
Pilis is a type of jamu applied to the forehead and is believed to assist in repairing burst blood vessels of the eyes and face caused by straining during childbirth.
Ubat periuk is a tonic made from boiling the dried roots and bark of medicinal plants and is recommended for new mothers to help heal and strengthen the body and stimulate breast milk production. It is drunk once a day.
During confinement it is preferable to drink warm rather than cold water. Fried and high-fat foods are forbidden, as they are believed to hinder blood circulation. Certain types of seafood are also banned, as they are thought to delay healing and cause itchiness in women who have had a caesarean section or episiotomy.
In the US the benefits of jamu therapy are more widely recognised than in Australia and it has become a popular feature in spas and health retreats. Kim Collier of JAMU Asian Spa Rituals in Whitefish, Montana, discovered jamu massage while living in Bali for a few years with her husband. There they learnt the history and techniques of the therapy and now train therapists in jamu at their instructional facility and spa in the US.
Irish writer Susan-Jane Beers suffered from chronic joint pain that was treated unsuccessfully with conventional medicine. While living in Indonesia she was prescribed a jamu treatment that healed her of the condition within days. In awe of this, she devoted 10 years to researching her book, Jamu: The Ancient Indonesian Art of Herbal Healing, to help promote knowledge and use of jamu globally.
Singapore is an example of a society that embraces modern medicine yet values its rich traditions. East Shore Hospital in Singapore even has a traditional Malay postnatal massage facility for women who want to be pampered straight after delivery. Modern-day bidans in Singapore may have a clientele of not only Malay but also Chinese and Caucasian women who appreciate the efficacy of jamu therapy.
Jamu therapy is rapidly gaining a foothold in spas and health retreats overseas, so it may only be a matter of time before it really catches on in Australia.
Lela Husen is a Sydney-trained nurse originally from Singapore and of Malay heritage
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