The nation’s diverse wellness and healing traditions are being explored to create a signature massage, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup
KNEADING muscles when they’re sore is something that we do instinctively. And given that there are places on our body that we have difficulty reaching, having someone else do the kneading is the next logical step.
The history of massage is said to be as old as human civilisation. It’s a traditional way of healing the body and it has developed over many generations all around the world with different communities fleshing out – as it were – their own massage styles.
This is usually influenced by the activities or wellness beliefs in that particular society. For example, in Chinese traditions, qi is a person’s life energy and it flows in the body through pathways known as meridians. A Chinese massage typically applies pressure on the meridians to balance qi and ensure that it flows correctly.
Indian Ayurvedic medicine considers the mind, body and spirit as one unit, and health is a matter of being in harmony with the universe. Its massage uses warm oils specific to the individual’s Ayurvedic make-up. A daily massage works to decrease fatigue, expel bodily toxins and boost the immune system.
The principle of a Malay massage is angin (wind) and urat (veins), which mean the nervous system or blood and lymphatic vessels. Veins are kneaded using long strokes to expel wind, and oils are used both to facilitate the movement for the massage and for its predicated medicinal properties.
In Sabah, the Dusun people have a deep tissue massage practice that uses inan, or the thumb, to put pressure on certain points of the body. The Dusun are traditional rice growers, and regular massages serve to ease the physical exertions of the job while restoring mobility and flexibility.
These massage techniques are kept alive, mostly, by traditional practitioners. The knowledge is passed down through family and massaging is a straightforward affair.
Some practitioners operate out of their home or make house calls. Those with premises usually keep it modest and fuss-free.
Some local spas do offer versions of traditional massages, but it’s more common to find modern or Westernised services such as hot stone, Swedish or aromatherapy massages on the menu. Regional massage techniques are also popular. Thai, Balinese and Japanese Shiatsu treatments are widely available in the country.
This may be due to our consumer habits, in which we are widely accepting of foreign products. Our wellness tendencies are also influenced by global trends. Spas are generally seen as an indulgence and part of the cosmopolitan experience, so there are certain expectations about the services.
Given this viewpoint, some spa clients – or even proprietors – may not welcome traditional massages, believing them to lack sophistication. Meanwhile, those that enjoy and understand the benefits of traditional treatments may balk at paying spa prices for them.
Despite these challenges, it will be a huge loss for the local spa industry not to have the option at all. Malaysia has a diverse wellness tradition, and it’s worth exploring these practices to forge a uniquely Malaysian massage service.
For the Association of Malaysian Spas (Amspa), work to develop Urutan Malaysia began six years ago after it was initiated by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. It’s a timely and pertinent project, but it is also complex to pull off.
“We have different races, cultures and traditions here, each with their own beneficial massage practices that we want to incorporate into Urutan Malaysia,” says Amspa vice-president Hana Halim. “So how do we decide what is right for this?”
The development panel includes representatives from Amspa, the Malaysian Association of Wellness and Spa, the Health Ministry, and Ministry of Tourism and Culture through its National Spa Council. There are also experts in various local massage traditions.
“For example, we looked at Chinese and Indian treatments. But how do we differentiate our product from traditional Chinese or Ayurvedic treatments? Simply taking parts of these different modalities is not going to justify Malaysia as having its own signature massage. So we have to research and recreate the parts which are useful.
“That’s why we took six years to develop the massage. It’s due to the differences and the different opinions of experts. The end product showcases the best of those modalities. It is a matter of putting what’s best to fit the industry and what’s best to suit the person being massaged.”
Camilla Jane Loh, Amspa honorary secretary, adds: “The women doing Malay post-natal massage have so much knowledge that has been passed down from one generation to another. But it’s not documented. If you ask them to tell you why or how to do it, they usually can’t because for them it’s instinctive. It’s intuitive.
“So the Ministry of Tourism and Culture took on this project as a way of documenting this amazing tradition and turning it into a formal protocol. It’s another reason why it took six years, because we went to so many people and documented all their methods before combining it as Urutan Malaysia.”
But for a massage to flourish outside its traditional space and into spas and wellness centres, it has to work within industry norms. This means an established standard operating procedure and training that’s open to all.
Hana explains: “The SOP for Urutan Malaysia is developed so that it conforms to the module for an employment-based certification programme under the Department of Skills Development called National Occupational Skills Standard. Anyone looking to get certified as a massage therapist will learn Urutan Malaysia as part of the syllabus.
“It’s how we build this as our signature massage and the hope is that in 20 years, every therapist will know Urutan Malaysia. In the near future, the plan is to have the massage rolled out in spas nationwide by next month to support efforts to make Malaysia a global wellness hub.”
EXPERIENCING THE URUTAN MALAYSIA
THERE is an emphasis in our culture on clean feet with shoes not being worn inside the house. Hence it is apt that I begin my 90-minute Urutan Malaysia experience with a foot soak. The water contains local citrus, floral and herbal elements. Choices include kaffir lime or calamansi, jasmine or hibiscus and screwpine leaf (pandan), lemongrass or ginger.
While the feet are being soaked, the massage therapist guides me through a breathing exercise that uses qigong breathing techniques. First, I inhale deeply through the nose, expanding my belly as I’m doing so. Then I exhale through the mouth while pulling the belly in.
Like most people I’m accustomed to breathing using my chest instead of stomach, so this feels unnatural. But deep belly-breathing is said to enhance the flow of qi through the meridians. It also draws more oxygen into the lungs and relaxes the body in preparation for the massage.
Next is an Indian head massage where the therapist momentarily presses on certain points on my head and face using her fingers. According to Amspa, the head massage is “a form of healing and relaxation that’s widely used to ease daily tension and stress”.
Out of the foot soak, it’s time to move to the massage bed, which is covered with Malaysian batik sheets. There is also music from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture’s specially commissioned album for Urutan Malaysia. The 10 songs are recorded at 528 Hz, believed to be the optimum relaxing and healing frequency.
The full-body massage uses Malay and Sabahan inan techniques, with repeated long strokes on the limbs and deep thumb pressure on the back muscles. Working on the concept of angin (wind), the therapist rubs oil on the soles of my feet to stop wind from entering the body.
The massage oil uses coconut as its base and it’s infused with pandan. Essential oils made from kaffir lime, lemongrass and ginger are added to the mix. The oil is warmed up before it’s applied and it doesn’t leave the body too greasy afterwards. It also has a light and pleasant citrusy scent.
Urutan Malaysia is essentially the same for men and women, with the exception of specific movements for the breast and lower abdominal area for women. The latter comes from a Malay technique called sengkak, which is a uterus massage for a woman’s “internal well-being” and is commonly performed on new mothers.
Another post-natal influence is the long strokes along the hips and outer thighs, although in confinement practices the reason is often unclear. Here, my therapist informs me that it is to relieve stress from the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back down each leg all the way to the foot.
I find the overall treatment to be invigorating, familiar and satisfying. Having it at a spa with all the accompaniments is a refreshing and wonderful experience, not to mention the oil smells much nicer than what’s used traditionally. The ministry may see the project as something to offer foreign tourists, but there’s no reason why it can’t be a hit among Malaysians too.