What I Did On My Free Day In Ubud: The Healer

After my ten days of diving while on vacation in Raja Ampat, having a scuba tank on my back 25 times, my lower back began to complain. I pretty much used mind over matter to ignore it while I was diving and with my kids, but by the time I got to Bali, I couldn’t ignore my body’s complaints any more. My first day in Candidasa, I had that little familiar tearing feeling in my lower back when I took a simple step. Uh oh. I knew that feeling—once, twice a year, that’s how it feels when I tweak my back.

Evelyn, my roommate and co-teacher, happens to be an extraordinary bodyworker and healer, and she generously worked on my back a little every night. I took a lot of Advil and limped along, pushing past my discomfort. I was running a retreat, participating in all our daily activities, teaching writing, trouble-shooting problems and handling a lot of details behind the scenes. I really couldn’t afford to stop. But every day, my posture got a little worse as one part of my body compensated for the pain in another, and pretty soon after two miles of hiking here and three miles of hiking there, lifting suitcases and wearing a big backpack, I was hobbling part of the day and having trouble getting up from the floor or even moving at all after letting my body sit still for too long.

If I’d been home, I would have headed over to my favorite chiropractor, gotten one adjustment or maybe two (when it gets really bad), my yoga teacher wife would have given me some poses to do, propping my legs up in the doorway or leaning just the right way over the kitchen counter to stretch out my back and I would have been over it. But not having those resources here, I kept getting worse. I still could override it, but I was getting cranky. One afternoon, while Surya walked behind me and watched me walk, he said, “I’m taking you to the healer when we get to Ubud.”

Three or four more days went by. I took more Advil and kept pushing through. When we got to Ubud, I skipped one outing and got a wonderful 90-minute treatment from Mamek, the massage therapist at our hotel, Okawati. She’s got great hands and it felt great while she was massaging me and I loved being touched, but it didn’t address the underlying problem.

But I have 60+ years of my will and my mind prevailing over my body, so while I acknowledged that I was uncomfortable, I kept right on going. I’m the leader after all, right? And the stiffness and pain were manageable, but definitely tiring. I fell into bed exhausted by 9:30 every night and just didn’t feel like myself.

Or maybe I was just getting old. I’ll be 62 this summer and my body was definitely giving me the message that I couldn’t just dissociate and push through because I wanted to, just because my mind had made a decision. My body was telling me that maybe I could no longer definitely do everything just because I was adventurous and wanted to. It was humbling, and I could feel a change coming.

Yesterday was our free day in Ubud, a day everyone enjoyed very much—whether staying around the hotel, shopping their brains out, enjoying a leisurely lunch, going to the Mask Museum, or other activities I don’t even know about yet—or as three of us did today, visiting the healer. We were told it would cost 200,000 rupiah for the treatment ($14.03) and that we’d split 350,000 rupiah to pay our driver. Surya said he would stop and pick up the necessary offerings. He would also translate for us, because Ketut (not his real name; I’ve been asked to protect his identity) speaks no English and usually only treats Balinese patients.

Ketut lives in a village in Badung Regency in a compound with his wife and three children, his mother, his three brothers, and his uncle. He’s in his mid-forties and spent the first part of his work life employed by Parks and Recreation in Denpasar. His grandfather was a healer, and his father was a healer, too, but Ketut didn’t really relate to that at all. He just wasn’t interested.

But after his father died, his father’s clients kept coming around asking to be treated. He told them he wasn’t a healer and that he knew nothing about healing—basically, he told them to go away. But they kept coming back. After months of this, he finally said “Oh, I give up. I guess I’ll try it.” And instantly he knew what to do. Unbeknownst to him, the gift had been passed on to him from his father. He immediately began to have amazing results, word spread, and more and more people came to see him. Soon, so many people were coming that he quit his day job and became a full-time healer. He sees people all day long at his family compound.

A small man with a broad and warm smile, he sits on the floor of the bale (pronounced ba-lay) the open-air pavilion that the Balinese sleep in, eat in, work in, dress their dead in.

Ketut’s specialty is muscles and bones, and he is a bone-setter. When the Balinese dislocate a joint or break a bone, they come to him first to set the bone—with no anesthesia or pain killer of any kind—and then later go the hospital for medicine—if they go to western doctors at all. I was glad I didn’t hear this story until after my treatment.

After a long beautiful drive from Ubud, we stopped by the side of the road and our driver got out of the car. Moments later, he returned carrying a tied white plastic bag full of offerings. Five minutes later, we pulled up outside a large family compound and Surya led us up the driveway. Ketut was squatting in the pavilion, manipulating the arm and shoulder joint of a middle-aged woman, who was grimacing in pain. Her daughter, wearing jeans with ripped-out knees was staring at her i-phone and leaning on one of the posts of the bale. Her mother, an old woman with no teeth, a beautiful wrinkled face and a hijab, sat on the bale, too. Whether they had been treated already or were merely accompanying the mother, I couldn’t tell. Surya instructed us take off our shoes and sit up on the bale with everyone else. When you go to a traditional healer in Bali, everyone watches everyone else’s treatment. This wasn’t a foreign idea to me; I’ve been to Balinese healers before.

As we sat on the cool white tile floor of the bale and watched the rest of this woman’s treatment, chickens and tiny chicks ran around the yard, and multiple roosters crowed. There were two bird cages with mina birds, one in the shape of a pagoda, in front of us and a giant rice barn for storing the family’s rice was to our right. Surya explained how the legs of the rice barn are designed to prevent rats from crawling up and into the family’s rice supplies.

When the three generations of women left, Surya asked which of us wanted to go first. I volunteered. Ketut was wearing a pair of black stretch pants, a white tee shirt and a broad, warm smile. Barefoot, he worked from a squat. Immediately, he honed in on the spot at the epicenter of the tightness and pain on my lower left back, near my sacrum and then he asked me to take off my shirt. Five more Balinese patients had arrived and were seated across from me on the bale, one of them smoking a cigarette, so I was about to share my fat midriff with a group of strangers, but I complied, sitting there in my black bra with my round belly hanging out. I knew when I signed up for this, it was going to be about surrender.

Ketut began by touching my back with some kind of oil with herbs. He talked with Surya in Balinese and Surya translated, “It’s a pinched nerve.” Ketut’s hands were strong—well, that’s a vast understatement. They were powerful and relentless. His strokes were painful, at times excruciating. Surya held me in his gaze and reminded me to breathe, but it was difficult to let go into the sharp pain of the treatment. Have you ever been rolfed? Well, I have, and that’s exactly what it felt like. Ketut worked with confidence, pulling my leg back and manipulating my body in painful and difficult positions, at one point, popping my back—I almost screamed and just kept breathing. I trust Surya and I because of that, I trusted this man with my body. During my treatment, Ketut had me lay on the cool tile floor on one side and then on my other side. He dug in with his knees and elbows, cracked my bones and manipulated me as skillfully—and probably more–than any chiropractor has ever done.

At one point, I asked Surya to tell him I’d had a little vertigo since my time underwater diving, and Surya said, “Oh, he already told me all about that.” He read it just by touching me.

A few minutes later, he began pinching my forehead in three places really, really hard and I remembered childbirth. At the height of this very painful treatment, all the roosters raised their voices in a wild cacophonous climax of crowing. Were they feeling the energy release, too?

Despite the excruciating pain, my whole head opened up and a great whoosh of energy passed through me, and in that instant, I realized how much pain and discomfort I’d been overriding all week. The whole top of my head opened up, energy flowed in and through me, and I felt like me, not old, not tired, but full of vitality. Ketut told me to squat and then to rest against the wall.

The three of us took turns. Then he worked on the man with the cigarette and then he came back to me for round two.

While we were sitting and watching and being worked on, six local women, with towels wrapped in circles on top of their heads, began walking into the compound carrying huge loads of rocks on their heads. They were literally carrying boulders, and sometimes they came in with two boulders, one stacked on top of the other. They walked steadily past us into a back part of the yard we could not see, then returned back out the front gate, sans rocks, the wound towel still on top of their heads. Moments later, they returned again on the same trajectory with another load of huge rocks on their heads. This went on and on and on. When we asked Surya what they were doing, he said they were carrying in all the rocks necessary to build a new house in the back of this large family compound.

While the three of us being treated took a break and drank some sweet Balinese coffee that was brought to us, Ketut worked on a young Balinese woman who had just arrived for a treatment—wearing sweats and a tee-shirt and a white Adidas cap. She grimaced and cried out as he worked on her hip. Surya said her rib was out from carrying her baby.

As we watched, Surya said, “Visiting healers in Bali is a very serious thing. If someone needs it, I help them find the right healer, but it’s not something to put on a tour itinerary. It’s not something to do out of curiosity. It’s not eat, pray, leave.”

After my second round of treatment, an excruciating pressure on points on either side of my knees, Ketut had me walk up and down for a while and told Surya I might need come back for a second follow-up treatment in a few days, that one might not have been enough. I felt incredible elation and a freeing up of psychic energy. My head felt as if it had been cracked open—in the best possible way, I felt grounded, centered, and deeply happy. My back, however, was still feeling challenged—whether it was from the intensity of the treatment and the need to integrate it over the next few days or because my original problem hadn’t yet been resolved, I don’t know. But I felt altered and grateful. Surya instructed us to put our 200,000 rupiah notes in with the offerings. When we said we didn’t feel we were paying enough, he said it was okay to give a tip directly to Ketut, which each of us did.

On the drive back to Ubud, Surya told us a story about Ketut healed a young teenager from scoliosis and that her family had been so grateful, they had built his family the magnificent rice barn. He also told us that Ketut had no formal training whatsoever, but after a lot of people came to him, he bought a very basic biology and anatomy textbook, so he’d know what terminology to use to communicate to his clients about their body parts.

Surya also told us that healers in Bali don’t advertise. They believe Spirit sends the people who need treatment to them. I guess that was us yesterday. Lucky us. Lucky me.

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