‘One who hides pain behind a smile’
My experience with a Balian, May 2015
While preparing for an upcoming trip to Bali for the first time, I found myself reading about things to do and particularly one area that had piqued my interest. Amongst the list was suggestion of an Eat Pray Love experience. While the website condured images of Julia Roberts sitting cross-legged with Ketut, the more research I did on the Balian experience, the more I was determined to see one. A Balian is a traditional Balinese healer who will use holistic practice to aid those in need.
Reviews by journalists spoke of different ways that the Balians heal. Some with water cleansing ceremonies, others with massage. The one that kept coming up was a man named Pak Man in Ubud. Customers spoke of painful massage-like experiences. Somehow this attracted me, probably due to some belief that pain always yields results (no pain no gain…. right?). While he speaks no English, his wife is a Brit and provides translation. It was done. That moment where my interest is piqued, my determination set and now just the laws of attraction apply. I would definitely be going to see a Balian, specifically Pak Man, in the little town of Ubud.
Now let’s not deny, I was nervous and even afraid of my own decision. It seemed to be one of those moments that was beyond my control, where I’d decided at some level that I would do this, despite myself. Even our Balinese driver was quietly surprised at the request to take us to the Balian, afterwards asking after me to check that I was okay.
We sit around a table with his wife, my friend Jelena and the man himself – Pak Man. He enjoys a cigarette while we discuss why I’ve come. Yes, ironic that the healer smokes. It strikes your morals as would the sight of a smoking doctor.
I explain that I’m constantly exhausted and have been getting small colds every 6-8 weeks. At the time I was flying weekly for work and was sure this was a contributing factor. (NB: the weekly trips were a contributing factor, but not as sure as the hotel I was staying in, which it turns out was musty and mouldy and making me sick).
He asks if I also get headaches. I confirm that I’ve been having headaches since childhood and migraines for the last ten years or so. Pak Man informs me that the immune issues I’m describing normally come from the spleen, but he will know more once we start our session. He shows me to his hut where he first removes his shoes at the steps. I do the same, and then wait awkwardly at the doorway while he prays at a Balinese alter.
The Balian are not taught how to heal. They are simply born with the talent, almost empowered by the gods. They live in our world, but they also access the Balinese spirit world of Niksma. I’ve read enough to assume this is who Pak Man is praying to, and that I should remain patient until he engages me.
Without his wife to translate, communication between us is limited to gestures. The next hour becomes a guessing game for me, although it’s clear he knows exactly what he’s doing. He wants me to lie down on the mat. He gets a sarong and has me pull my dress up to just under my bra. He puts a hand on my abdomen and starts chanting. He takes a stick, burns the end of it, and gestures for me to put this in my mouth. It is later explained to me that my spirit has been in pieces due to the traumas of my past. That I’ve been in a world of confusion and have been making bad decisions. The act of sucking on this stick somehow centralised my spirit and makes me whole again.
He takes the stick and draws on my forehead, still chanting. He moves back to my stomach and draws some more. He then moves to sit at my legs, and starts a process of short, almost frantic high pressure rubbing of his fingers on my right foot. He moves up my shin and I feel intense discomfort. For some reason I’ve never been comfortable with my legs being massaged, particularly the knee and shin areas. While it’s not painful, the discomfort, almost like a fear, is always so intense. As he moves higher to my knees, I have to concentrate on my breathing because my head just can’t bare it. He’s pressing hard in circles around my right knee and while its painful, it’s not physically so. Mentally, it feels excruciating. The more circles, the less painful, but I remind myself that inevitably he will need to do the other knee too.
He moves back to my feet and presses a finger hard into several points of my sole. One of them is particularly painful. He pulls at my toes, making each one click and then rotates my leg until my knee clicks. He goes through this process several times. While my knees have always been clicky, I’m still surprised by how many times he is able to elicit such a noise from one limb. He circles my knee again with pressure, and then moves onto my left leg. The left, though still far from painless, is not as bad as the right, but I am relieved when he moves himself to sit at my stomach again.
My joy is short lived as Pak Man starts to push several fingers hard into areas of my abdomen. I’m breathing deeply and audibly, my face scrunched into a grimace of pain. Little do I know, the worst is yet to come. He pushes two fingers deep into my belly button. The pain of stretching this precious skin is bad enough, but when he starts scooping his fingers in rotation, the pain is deep in my abdomen, and feels somehow connected down into my uterus. I pray that it will soon be over. Later, while relating this story amongst friends, this technique became known as the infamous belly button rape.
He removes his fingers and begins to press hard again into those same areas of my abdomen. To my horror, he moves back to my belly button again for another round of the circle of pain. He motions for me to roll over onto my stomach and it crosses my mind that this could go either way. Could this get even more painful, or was the belly button my pinnacle today?
He wants me to remove my bra, and presses into several areas of my lower back. This is far less painful and I breathe easy again. After poking around further, he wants me to sit up, cross-legged in front of him. He is positioned behind me while I clutch a sarong to my chest.
He pushes into several more areas of my back, as well as my neck and shoulders. It’s almost pleasant. My head is back and his chin is resting on my crown, holding me in place. He sticks his fingers hard into my ears and holds them for a few moments before removing them. He suddenly twists my neck and its both shocking and painful. Moments later I have the same experience in the opposite direction, and further enjoyment of his fingers in my ears again.
He pushes my body forward and has me grasp my hands at my neck, folding my arms around my head. The sarong has dropped, along with all dignity. He is crouched behind me, grabs me by the arms and very suddenly pulls me backwards, pushing into my spine with his knees. There is an immediate crack in my lower back in the area of his knees. It’s shockingly painful. He repeats this two more times, in two further areas of my back and the third time is the only time I make an audible sound in our whole session, the pain is so intense. In a final assault, he digs a finger into each of my temples so hard that I think I will pass out. He turns off the Air Con, rubs his hands together and places them on my back. They’re hot, and when I feel him blow air in the gap between, it feels cool by comparison.
He moves to sit in front of me, and I clutch the sarong back in place, tucking it under my arms. He applies pressure to several more areas of my face – similar to a massage. He gets up to make some medicine, and he sits back down, holding out a plastic cup full of water. He gestures that I should drink this all at once. I gulp it down.
Apparently we are done.
He goes back to praying at his alter, while I dress myself. I wait at the doorway, saying thank you several times in Balinese before making my way back to Jelena. In the hour of pain that has passed, she has made friends with several geckos, and the family pet, a dog named Tatti.
We sit. I’m sweaty from the ordeal, my hair sticking to my neck. Pak Man, and his English speaking wife join us. He explains to me that there is a problem with my knees – particularly the right knee. The pain is travelling to my head via the spleen, causing migraines. But it’s okay – he’s fixed it.
Interestingly, I recall I once had someone practice Reiki on my knees, and they said there was something going on in that area. I was 17 at the time. Since the healing by Pak Man, I’ve become so aware of my knees. The migraines do still happen (but Rome wasn’t built in a day), and my knees continue to click.
For the following days my digestive system feels different. It’s become very fluid. Possibly whatever it was that he made me drink (which I was convinced was just a cup of water). My belly button kills, but we know what happened there. My back, normally in pain and cracked many times a day is neither in pain nor able to be cracked.
I asked Pak Man at the end of the session if I should come back. He told me that would be up to me. If I ever go back to Bali, I would definitely consider it, though perhaps I’d choose a Balian who performs a type of healing a little less hands on…
Want to learn more about Balinese healing? Read more