Apostol applying Ablon on one of his teachers, Jose Ocampo. Photo Copyright © 2004 | Virgil Apostol.
(Article formally titled, "Healing Arts of the Philippines - Part I," by Virgil J. Mayor Apostol as featured in Bamboo Girl – #9 / Millennium Issue; Filipinas Magazine – vol. 10 no. 109; Rapid Journal - vol. 5 no. 3; The Filipino Martial Arts – vol. 2 no. 6; Filipino Press – May-July 1999; and on the websites: Jade Dragon Online; Metamind, Adobo, and Asia Pacific Universe). Derived from Apostol’s forth-coming book on traditional Filipino healing. Copyright © 1999.)
Hands-on therapy in the Philippines is a tradition as old as its first inhabitants on the islands. Known in the local languages and dialects as Hilot or Hilut (Tagalog, Dumagat, Manobo, Bicolano, Visayan), Aplos (Bontoc), Aptus (Ivatan), Unar (Kalinga), Kemkem (Pangasinan), Ilot or Ilut (Ilocano, Itawis, Zambal, Pampango), Ilu (Ibanag), Ilat (Isneg) Elot (Ilongot), Agod or Agud (Maguindanaon, Maranao), and Hagud (Bukidnon), just to name a few. Ablon (Northern Ilocano) is part of the traditional folk medicine that has survived the ages despite the coming of modern technology.
There are various specialties of a folk doctor (arbolario) such as the practitioner of Ablon or Ilut (mangablon or mangngilut), herbalist (mangngagas), bonesetter (mammullo), obstetrics (partera), and other specialists such as snake- or animal-bite curer (mannuma) and shaman or spiritual healer (mangallag). Yet all of these practices have their roots common to the healing modalities of other Southeast Asian countries including those of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, as well as those of the Pacific Islands.
Lying just above the equator, the Philippines is situated in the Pacific Ocean, north of Indonesia, east of Vietnam, and south of Taiwan. A tropical climate is endured with a cooler dry season from March through June, and a wet season the rest of the year.
Filipinos belong to the Austric stock of peoples that inhabit an area extending from Madagascar off the coast of East Africa, to Easter Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There are even those who believe that the Philippines was once part of the ancient continent of Lemuria that was swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean long before Atlantis was in the Atlantic Ocean.
As the natives migrated into the three major islands - Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, with them came their animistic beliefs and customs. Assimilation through migration and trade was the influence of Hindu-Malayan and Islamic-Malayan cultures via the islands to the south, as well as the European influence of Spanish conquest, a domain that lasted over 300 years since the 16th century. Thus, practices from a conglomeration of sciences, religions, arts, and medical practices, are still evident throughout the islands to this present day. Prevalent, though, is a spiritualistic character that oversees the etymology or diagnosis of an illness to the actual healing.
On a metaphysical level, sickness may be caused by several reasons such as a disturbed spirit which are dwellers of the animate or inanimate, nakadalapus - when one has accidentally walked through or met with a bad spirit, or even when cutting down a tree without asking permission of the spirit dweller. In such cases, an animistic food offering (atang) along with a prayer (kararag) or Latin oracion (incantation) is one solution. But for healers versed in the physical arts, hands-on therapy is also initiated to help drive away any spirit thought to have lodged itself in the etheric level of its victim. By driving away the bad spirit, the patient would get well.
From the metaphysical to the physical level, an indigenous concept of a hot-cold syndrome plays an important role in how nature affects the human organism. For example, after one has worked hard in the fields, or any type of strenuous activity, the body is understood to be hot. But one who takes a cold bath shortly after, throws off the physiological state that the body is in, plunging it abruptly from hot to cold. From this point, the
|It is considered taboo to destroy an anthill (bunton) lest the elemental spirit that resides within takes revenge. Photo Copyright © 2000 | Virgil Apostol.|
body to cold. From this point, the body becomes susceptible to illness.
The healer advises the patient not to bathe after a treatment because the body has undergone a similar process of working hard. The patient also needs time to regulate the temperature and spiritual bio-energies through the transitory state that the body is undergoing. Likewise, the healer allows his or her hands and body to rest before washing or else the same effect might occur. But if it is found necessary to wash, heated water, slightly warmer than body temperature, is used. Many prefer the use of alcohol for washing.
The concept of a hot-cold syndrome is found in the Philippines, as well as other Southeast Asian countries. For example, a humid condition opens up the pores and causes the body to sweat. Wind (angin) then blows on the body and cools the sweat, its coldness transferring into the body. If not attended to, a disruption of the natural internal balance occurs; the vigor is weakened, thus causing the body to become susceptible to sickness. This is why parents make sure their children are kept dry and covered, especially if there is a breeze since the pores are still considered open. The hot-cold syndrome plays an important role in other aspects as well such as in diet, emotions, relationships, etc.
There also exists an ancient science and theoretical counterpart to the metaphysical level of sickness. The belief in spiritual energetic vessels, called urat and pennet sets the foundation of how massage practices in the Philippines evolved. Not only does the urat and pennet carry spiritual energy, but also describes structures such as nerves, veins, tendons, arteries, sinews, ligaments, muscles, intestines, windpipe, etc. In other words, an urat and pennet describes a channel- or tube-like structure that anything can pass through. The concept of the urat and pennet is discovered to be parallel in concept with the native scientific theories of neighboring countries.
In the Ayurvedic and yogic traditions of India, the nadis are vessels that carry prana or life force energy. The srotas, on the other hand, are carriers of blood, air, food, water, plasma, sweat, lymph, etc. Being highly complex since historical times, their influence has reached eastern and western nations.
In the Thai practice of Nuad Bo’Rarn, or Thai manual medicine, the en or sen en are not only carriers prana, but also describe structures that are long, hollow, and tubular such as veins, blood vessels, tendons, cartilage, muscles, and ligaments. Thai medical practices were well established dating back to the time of the Buddha.
Pidjat and Urut, which are the Indonesian and Malaysian names for massage and manual medicine (Apun in Balinese), use the terms urat and uat (just like some of the Northern Luzon languages) to describe tendons, nerves, veins, blood vessels, muscles, as well as a transporter of spiritual bio-energy. These countries have preserved their traditional lontar or usada medical texts, which, in the past, have been inscribed on palm leaves for centuries.
The concept or acknowledgment of these spiritual or physical vessels has also traveled into the outlying islands. In Guam Micronesia, massage (Lasa) manipulates the gugat. The physical vessels are also known among many Pacific Islanders as uaua, a’a, waan, etc. Not only does this show a linguistic tie, but also points out that the belief in spiritual energy vessels or physical vessels, is not an uncommon concept and is shared by many cultures.
My maternal grandmother, Alejandra “Allang” Mayor, was a well-rounded healer and her knowledge of the urat and pennet was unique. One of her testimonials was regarding a patient that had inflammation of the lymph (babara), and in this case, of the groin. Since the inflammation was predominantly on one side, she treated this by systematically working the armpit opposite to the inflammation, following an “x” or contralateral lines.
With this concept of contralateral lines, she would treat similar cases, not only through Ablon, but also by tying a string around the toes, especially the tangan (big toe), a similar practice that is also found in India. The linking of these distant urat basically follow the same principle as in the Thai sen kalathari vessels which crosses at the navel and connects the opposite extremities down to the fingers and toes.
Since the urat is believed to have an interconnection throughout the entire body, its manipulation can have effective results. One of my Arnis teachers back in the Philippines was the town’s midwife. One day, a couple with their baby, about one-year-old, came to him not only because he was their midwife, but also because their baby had a fever for four days straight. Due to open wounds to my teacher’s hands, he asked me to handle it. I found the baby nonlethargic and responsive with smiles. The body temperature, though, was hot when touched.
Diluting some vinegar (suka) with water and applying it several times to the insides of the elbows, knees, and on the soles and palms, I began to manipulate the urat on the soles paying particular attention to those on the tangan (big toe). During this time, the baby continued smiling. Then after a couple of minutes, the baby began to cry. Almost instantaneously, beads of sweat, which seemed as big as kernels of corn, broke free from the top of the baby’s head (diaphoresis)! This was dried off immediately and I instructed the parents to keep the head covered. By this time, the baby’s temperature drastically reduced down to normal.
Apostol treating a baby for a feverish condition. Photo Copyright © 2004 | Virgil Apostol.
Those who become healers believe that they have a special calling. Some claim that various spirits instructed them, that they are a product of breech birth (suni) as my grandmother was, or part of a family whose tradition is being passed on. But for a foreigner (or one who is not familiar with Southeast Asian healing modalities) to learn, he or she must be open-minded, grasp the concepts, and have an idea of the culture and environment in order to truly understand how and why Filipino and other Southeast Asian healing modalities developed and practiced in their unique
It is quite interesting to note that many Filipino elders, who are experts in the native healing arts, are also experts in the native martial arts (e.g. Arnis and Escrima). It is as if these two arts are two sides of a coin. If an injury were to occur during practice or an actual encounter, such knowledge would make a difference in the recovery process.
My grandfather, Lucio Respicio Mayor, was such a person. Besides from his expertise in Siete Tero, his other art was called Cuerdas, an adopted Spanish term translating as “cords” which is synonymous to the urat. Depending on the desired result, Mayor was able to cause his victim to fall unconscious, collapse with temporary paralyses, become hysterical, and cause internal hemorrhage or epistaxis among other things, all accomplished by knowing which points to attack. It was usually on the back of the body, opposite side of the point struck, or along the urat that a counter-point or area was manipulated in order to reverse what was initiated. Herbal medicine was administered such as the chewing and swallowing of young guava leaves to help in coagulation if one were spitting up blood. For a bleeding cut, the leaves were first masticated then applied externally. Sometimes the inner skin-layer of a bamboo tube was used to seal the cut.
Besides from blows or cuts received from strikes or slashes, injuries in the practice of Arnis can also result in musculoskeletal problems. For example, if I was to strike you and you disarmed me, that disarm might have involved a torque or twist to my wrist, thus causing injury. As a result, the wrist can swell – a natural occurrence when the body needs to prevent it from excessive movement. The only problem is that when this swelling takes place, the muscles and tendons eventually have the tendency to create adhesions, which are basically the hardening of the surrounding structure. The end result – limited range of movement and possible long-term soreness. With the knowledge of Ablon, one would be able to help breakdown the accumulation of toxins, avoid major swelling, as well as prevent the occurrence of adhesions, all through the balancing of the urat and pennet. Overall, healing will speed up.
Another advantage of possessing knowledge of Ablon is the acquaintance with the human body. I had a friend, Eddie Lastra, who flew down to see me about his shoulder. One of his favorite Arnis styles was the sword and dagger, but every time he would thrust forward with the dagger in his left hand, his shoulder did not want to cooperate. For many years, he endured pain to this area. After a few sessions of Ablon, what we discovered was that every time he thrust forward to the upper chest, neck, or head region (especially with most of his opponents taller than he), his elbow was extended horizontally. This caused an impingement in his shoulder while in motion that resulted in wear and tear. The option of keeping the elbow pointing down while thrusting was more natural to the shoulder joint and did not cause any pain. Now, Mr. Lastra is a happy thruster!
During an interview, one of the questions was what would I suggest to someone interested in learning Hilot or Ablon. I responded by saying that the introduction of Ablon or Hilot into the mainstream needs to go through the right channels to receive proper accreditation and support within the field of Alternative or Holistic Medicine before spreading to individuals who do not have some sort of professional state license. This will protect the trustworthiness and integrity of the Filipino healing arts in the future.
If someone is sincere in learning the healing arts, they need to realize that they are dealing with a practice in the medical field whether it be folk or contemporary medicine. This is not a game and needs to be done in a proper manner. However, I would highly support anyone who wishes to enter this field.
Traditional healing methods are continuously sought despite the presence of hospitals and medical clinics. They are also sought not only because they are less expensive, but also because they get satisfying results. Even in the more populous towns and cities, there are those who would visit a folk doctor for certain ailments before going to a medical doctor, or vice versa when one would go to a folk doctor after finding no hope from a medical doctor. Some enjoy the better of these two worlds.
Although some oppose the integration of traditional and western medicine, there is a growing crowd that is for this merging. What usually happens, though, is that the physicians of western medicine usually hold the monopoly or the upper hand backed up by large organizations and money. Whatever the physicians say the humble folk healers must abide by. This strips them of their holistic practices by displacing them into the mainstream. Other attempts are to commercialize traditional medicine as a tourist attraction.
Fortunately, in many cases, doctors and health professionals feel just at home when traditional medicine is concerned, not only because it comes with the culture but because they are open-minded and may have integrated them into their own practice. It is sometimes evident that there are those that seem to be on a race to catch up with the mainstream, high-tech medical practices abroad, but time will come when they, too, will catch up with the many who are preaching the concept of mind-body medicine synthesizing traditional holistic health care practices with conventional medicine.
The concept of mind-body medicine may be new to many, but not to the ancients who were naturally holistic in their approach to life - physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The healing arts of the Philippines, and of other great cultures, are a testimony to the wholeness that we seek to return to.
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