Story by Alyssa Navares
Photo by Jyoti Mau
Ancient Hawaiians didn’t, of course, have sonograms; they relied on their hands to track a woman’s pregnancy. It was the pale (pronounced “pah-lei”) keiki who had this special touch and functioned as part-pediatrician, part-masseuse and part-midwife. The pale keiki would massage a fetus into proper position in the womb and massage mothers who were experiencing pain during pregnancy and labor. The work didn’t stop once a child was born: Mashed leaves from the popolo plant were massaged onto a newborn’s stomach to strengthen its body, and in the first few months of a keiki’s life, it wasn’t uncommon to use massage to mold long, slender fingers destined to dance hula or to correct birth defects such as bow legs.
Today only a few pale keiki remain; most work independently from their homes or out of clinics. A growing number of lomilomi practitioners, though, are taking up the art. Kaipo Kaneakua practiced as a pale keiki for years at the Maui Memorial Medical Center; today he works on O‘ahu and hosts an average of nine workshops a year to train new practitioners. It’s no longer only expecting Hawaiian women who seek baby lomilomi experts, he says; his clients have included women from Germany, Sweden and Japan.
Kaneakua talks of the two main techniques of lomilomi: ka and ha. Ka involves a circular massage that realigns the body’s internal organs—clearing out the intestinal tract of a newborn still learning to digest its food, for example. Ha enables a pregnant woman to alleviate pain through breath as the pale keiki transfers healing mana. Kaneakua describes helping a woman who was five months pregnant find the heartbeat of a fetus doctors said she had miscarried. “She knew her baby was not lost,” he recalls. “I had her lie on one side but couldn’t feel a heartbeat. Then, when she went on all fours, I felt the tiny heartbeat way off to her side.” He massaged the fetus back into position, and it developed to full term. If you believe in the healing touch of lomilomi, he says, then Haumea, the Hawaiian goddess of birth, will do the rest.