The Sensations of Bali

Massage and Beyond

By Brooke Comer

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, October/November 2000.

Every culture has its own tradition of healing touch. In Bali, the massage I recently received at the Ritz-Carlton Bali in Jimbaran Beach was an international hybrid – a blend of techniques borrowed from diverse cultures and performed in a uniquely Indonesian ritual.

In an open-air garden, fragrant with sweet-smelling blossoms, I was massaged, rubbed with spices, slathered in yogurt and set to soak in a bath strewn with rose petals. My massage therapist finished the job by annointing me with tropical lotions, and then left me to relax and relive the most memorable massage ceremony I’ve ever experienced.

I chose the Ritz-Carlton for my Bali visit because friends who’d had a massage there spoke of the experience, including the yogurt-spice rub and flower petal bath that followed, with ecstasy. While a Ritz-Carlton vacation might be out of my price range in the United States, in Bali my terrace room cost $135 (the ocean-view villas with private plunge pools are preferable, but pricier). The four-story, Balinese-designed hotel sits on a Bukit Peninsula bluff. The simple elegance of limestone carvings, handwoven mats, and marble and slate floors contributed to the tranquil atmosphere, reminiscent of an Asian temple.

Bali’s Magic Spell

I stepped off the plane jetlagged, but mesmerized. I already felt as if I were in a trance. A band and colorful native dancers known as the Traditional Balinese Royal Welcome, entertained arriving passengers at the Ngurah Rai International Airport. The rhythm of the dancers, the fragrant warm breeze and bright blossoms enhanced the magic spell. Just to be in Bali is to feel warm and relaxed – the perfect prelude to a massage.

My first order of business upon arriving in my room was to take a flower bath, ordered in advance for $25. A luxurious soak in an oversized bathtub anointed with essential oils and bright, beautiful flowers provides natural healing properties and is recommended for jetlag relief. It’s also the bath that follows a massage (I’ve heard it compared to dessert after dinner).

I had a choice of three flower baths and I selected the Sedap Malam, in which the distinctive Sedap Malam flowers are strewn on bathwater enhanced with lavender and jasmine oils.

I decided to save my second flower bath option for the next day; the Jepun Bali bath incorporates some of Bali’s most highly-prized flowers. Related to the frangipani, these blossoms have a powerful fragrance, which combined with patchouli and jasmine essences, stimulate a sense of physical and mental well-being.

The Kamboja Putih bath is filled with Kamboja Putih flowers which are common adornments throughout Bali and often seen wound in a woman’s hair or tucked behind an ear. This bath is complemented by lavender and geranium oils which help soothe and calm tired minds and muscles. I decided to save this one for my return from a white-water rafting trip down the Ayung River.

For my massage, I had several choices – indoor or outdoor, seaside or in a small, enclosed garden. Guests who have private villas may receive their massages next to their private plunge pools, or in enormous marble bathrooms next to the gigantic bathtubs for the requisite post-massage flower bath. Hotel guests can choose in-room massages, or private patio massages, if they have villas. If you’re not a hotel guest, the spa offers indoor or outdoor massages in a secluded, clifftop pavilion, which is also available for hotel guests who prefer not to be massaged in their rooms.

I had recently been in Antigua, where I had booked a deep tissue massage at the spa in my four-star hotel. I paid $80 for 60 minutes and came away unimpressed. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the massage prices were significantly lower here, in far more exotic and luxurious surroundings. For instance, the shortest massage available (30 minutes) at the Ritz-Carlton Bali Spa, cost only $20, excluding tip.

Balinese massage isn’t the only offering on the Ritz-Carlton menu. There is Swedish massage ($36 for 60 minutes or $48 for 90 minutes); shiatsu and reflexology ($40 for 60 minutes); and aromatherapy ($42 for 60 minutes). The most expensive treatment is a traditional Hawaiian Lomi-Lomi massage for $50. You can also get a 1 1/2 hour Lulur (Japanese body scrub) for $60, and an 1 3/4 hour Boreh (Balinese body polish) for $55. I chose the $50 combination treatment that includes a massage, Lulur and flower bath.

The Tranquility of Balinese Massage

When I arrived at the spa, the first thing I noticed is the extreme feeling of peace. I heard the pounding of the surf and the soft music of wind chimes.

Ani, my masseuse, arrived, graceful in a white tunic that seemed to float around her. She told me she learned massage from her grandmother, who learned from her grandmother. Balinese massage techniques, she said, evolved from early home medicine, and are based on warming the body through palm pressure followed by deep strokes up the legs and torso, from head to toe. Ani also told me that Balinese massage incorporates elements from Lomi-Lomi, the ritualistic, age-old massage performed by ancient Hawaiian priests for the island’s royalty. I learned that Ani specializes in Balinese shiatsu, which combines traditional Balinese and Japanese massage techniques using palm pressure.

Ani began by rubbing me with jasmine-scented oil. When she began the massage, she used the base of her palm, which relaxed my tendons and muscles, still stiff, to my surprise, from the long transpacific flight. She rubbed in a circular motion from my shoulders to my elbows, the pressure increasing as I became more relaxed.

Ani began to press the shoulder well cavity, which my chinese acupressurist at home calls Jianjing. Ani was very familiar with it; she told me that stimulating the shoulder well cavity opens up the qi. Balinese massage incorporates numerous Eastern traditions, and Ani is aware of the power the Jianjing can yield. Massaging the shoulder well cavity can ease not only physical tension, but the mental burdens we all carry as a result of being in physical pain. Ani, who also practices acupuncture, told me the Jianjing is where pressure collects, making the physical body tense, bringing on headaches. Massaging that area can release that tension, and as she worked, I could feel a tingling lightness spread down from my shoulders throughout my body.

As Ani used her palms to push from my spine toward the sides of my back, I could feel not only my torso but my entire body begin to relax. She used the side of her palm to massage the muscles next to the spine, and induced an even deeper state of relaxation by using her fingertips to graze my skin from the bottoms of my feet to my fingertips. Ani asked me to inhale deeply, then exhale. As I exhaled, she used her palms to press down on the muscles next to the spine; moving upward from my lower to upper back. I could feel her exert increasing palm pressure as I released the deep breath; she told me this helps to loosen the ligaments between the joints on the spine. The rest of the massage was applied with more palm pressure; I admit I asked Ani to work a little harder. Her touch was light at first, she told me, because not all hotel guests are accustomed to deep tissue massage or they may have sensitive areas or problem points.

By the time the massage was complete, I was in a deep trance and did not want to move. Now it was time for Lulur, the body scrub. Ani rubbed me – both sides of my body in turn – with powdered turmeric, ginger root and fine rice grains; the mixture felt coarse and granular as she worked it deeply into my skin. Ani scraped it off, telling me that this is a favorite method among local women to exfoliate their skin and induce a fresh, rosy glow.

When I was sufficiently scraped off, Ani applied big wooden spoonfuls of fresh, cool yogurt to my back. The spices Ani removed left me with a tingling, fresh feeling, and I felt like I was marinating, a feast for gourmet cannibals. The refreshing yogurt was slathered all over my body, on both sides. Every trace of stress was gone. I was barely aware of where I was; the pounding surf has become integral to the rhythm of my heart.

Ordinarily, I would shower off the yogurt and enter a flower bath. But Ani gave me a surprise bonus – between the shower and bath, I received an unexpected and thoroughly delightful mini-version of the Boreh, the Balinese body scrub favored by royalty for years. Ani threw a handful of spices on my back and rubbed them into my absorbent skin. I could tell what they were by smell: a mixture of cloves, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. This combination, Ani told me, when rubbed into the skin, increases circulation and raises the body temperature (this can be heightened by using more pepper), and eases fatigue, aching joints and muscles. Afterward, she removed the spices and placed slices of cool cucumber on my face and body while she massaged my feet.

At this point, I was in a rarified state of tranquil bliss. If I opened my eyes, I would see the Indian ocean below, and the bright flowers from the flame trees that surrounded us. It was hard to exert enough energy to force my eyes open. But I was glad when I finally did because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the sight of my Jepun Bali flower bath. The outdoor tub was strewn with every shade of red, pink and orange rose petals. The water was cool and soothing, redolent of patchouli and jasmine essences. As I soaked in it, Ani brought me a cup of ginger tea. I decided I was never going to go home. “I will stay in Bali forever.”