Indigenous Filipino healing practices

Even if indigenous healing methods aren’t readily available to me, I’ve found enormous value in learning about how my ancestors took care of themselves.

I recently wondered about healing methods that originated in the Philippines. I was surprised to find quite a few traditional modalities that don’t seem to be known in North America.

I found the first few practices through Virgil Mayor Apostol, a Los Angeles-based practitioner who’s a descendant of a long line of Filipino healers. He wrote Way of the Ancient Healer: Sacred Teachings from the Philippine Ancestral Traditions as well as the first instructional manual published on Hilot in 1998.

HISTORY OF FILIPINO HEALING TRADITIONS

Traditional Filipino medicine takes a holistic view of the individual, including environmental factors that affect a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. 

Healing practices were first documented in the 16th century at the start of Spanish colonization, so it’s hard to tell how early they began. The babaylans or shamans — who were women but also men who dressed as women or changed genders — maintained culture, religion, and medicine for their tribes, and communicated with spirits that were thought to be associated with natural phenomena.

According to Apostol, the traditional Filipino medical system was composed of various specialties: midwifery, pulse diagnosis, bonesetting, herbology, suction cupping, skin scraping, herbal steam and smoke, energy medicine, and other forms of metaphysical healing.

Each area and group of people had their own set of healers, who passed down their knowledge to children at an early age.

Along with other cultural traditions, the healing arts began to fade in the 17th century, and continued with the introduction of hospitals and Western medicine after the Americans arrived.

There are more traditional techniques still practiced in the Philippines, but these are the most known.

Hilot / Ablon

Photo credit: thespa.com.ph

A recognized technique also practiced in other parts of Asia, Hilot or Ablon is often mischaracterized as a type of massage and offered at spas to attract tourists. 

It involves the hands and is akin to osteopathy, acupressure, and chiropractic or physical therapy. The practitioner, called a manghihilot or mangablon, detects areas of congestion and treats skeletal misalignments and energy imbalances through a person’s urat (nerve or vein), pennet (tendons, ligaments, or sinewy structures), lasag (flesh or muscle structure through which urat and pennet flow), and tulang (bones). 

Herbs, plants, and oils may also be integrated.

Subcategories of ablon include pekkel — using hands to rub the injured area — and ablon seated therapy, which treats the upper body, such as neck and shoulder joints.

Apostol’s “Ablon Chirothesia” treats back and neck problems, strain and sport-related injuries, headaches, sprains, and nerve disorders.

Herbalism and Plant Medicine

An albularyo is a practitioner who uses a combination of modalities: herbalism, prayers, incantations, and mysticism, similar to a shaman.

The Philippines is home to 10,000 to 14,000 plant species. While 1,500 of them contain potential medicinal value, only 120 have been scientifically validated.

The Philippine Department of Health endorsed just 10 medicinal plants that can be used in herbal teas, tinctures, fluid extracts, poultices (vegetable fat mixtures), tablets, supplements, powders, creams, and essential oils.

Lyn Pacificar, an albularya in California, manufactures products containing herbs traditionally used for healing.

This short video is in Tagalog, but gives a sense of how albularyos/albularyas use herbs today:

Tuob

Photo credit: Czar Dancel for Manila Bulletin

The tuob (boiling) ritual involves the sick person wrapped in a blanket or cloth, sitting over a jar heated by coal, or hovering above a steaming pot. The healer rubs essential oils over the heated patient and chants a healing mantra.

Benefits of tuob include detoxification, cleansing the skin, muscle relaxation, increasing body metabolism, boosting the immune system, keeping mucous membranes from drying, and relieving comfort from asthma, allergies, and arthritis.

Cupping Therapy

Photo credit: Keith Bacongco

Ventosa or suction cupping involves special heated cups that form a seal or vacuum to help ease sore muscles. It is a common practice in other areas of Asia, such as China.

Faith or Spiritual Healing

A folk healer heats a concoction inside the forest at Siquijor during Good Friday activities. Photo credit: Veejay Villafranca

As the spiritual element is of importance, practitioners may ask questions that are origin oriented, such as why the patient believes they were injured, and counsel them on spiritual matters related to the event of origin.

As part of her practice, Pacificar senses energies, auras, and passed figures who may have been related to the patient.

Spiritual rituals that may be integrated with bodywork include bulong (whispered prayers) and orasyon (recited or written prayers). Despite the introduction of Christianity in the 16th century, indigenous healing methods maintained an integration with spirituality.

HOPE FOR REVIVAL

The Philippines remains the best place to experience these practices. An Institute for Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC) established in 1997 promotes and advocates traditional and alternative health care modalities, through scientific research and product development.

In 2001, there were approximately 250,000 traditional medicine practitioners in the Philippines, far more than the 70,000 active Western medicine practitioners today.

The “healing huts” at the island province of Siquijor are one example of how tourism attracts patients.

Due to medical regulations that vary in each country, not all traditional Filipino modalities may be available in your area. With research, you may find healers like Apostol, Pacificar, or Lorelie Luna in Australia.

Despite technological advancement, modern disease continues to plague us. Even if indigenous healing methods aren’t readily available to me, I’ve still found enormous value in learning about how my ancestors took care of themselves.

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