By Chris McBeath

There’s a compelling mysticism about traditional Hawaiian healing practices that is only now coming to light.  Although for generations, the Kahunas (wisdom keepers) have protected their knowledge, there is groundswell of interest in their seemingly magic ways — in part to counter a culture of high-tech medicines, and in part because the Kahunas themselves recognize the need for balance between the two worlds. And nowhere is this better shared than by the wranglers at Maui Stables in Hana, at the lush southern tip of the island.

The Healing Land

Hana is old Hawaii — a tiny community that visitors pass through by the hundreds. Stay awhile, however, and you’ll feel the essence of the true aloha spirit. Here, far beyond a simple greeting, aloha is a way of life which, when combined with aina (the beauty and energy of the land), and mana (spiritual energy), offers authentic appeal that is deeply infused into the culture and personality of the place. Surrounded by fertile hills, mountain high waterfalls and a bountiful sea, Native Hawaiians are able to practice a way of life as they have for centuries.

“Everything we need is here”, says Keoni Smith a student kahuna, as we mounted our horses for one of the Hawaiian islands’ most unusual riding excursions. “The land and sea provides us all our nourishment to keep our bodies strong and healthy, our spirits connected. We have pono (balance) and harmony. Without these, healing cannot take place.”

Owned and operated by Ed Lincoln, a respected kahuna, Maui Stables is an excursion into a deeper part of Hawaii’s cultural heritage. Its alaka’i (guides) are all student wisdom keepers; some on the healing path, others on the shamanic way. Like their ancestors, their days are spent learning by doing as they follow the teachings of their elders into the mountain valleys to gather food, medicines, and the spirituality of the aina. They call themselves Kanaka Maoli – the real people, and are not only dedicated to the role of Kia’i, or caretakers of this aina, they also share their traditional wisdom as part of the renaissance of Hawaii’s cultural identity.

The horses make their way along a narrow road bordered by a crumbling moss-strewn wall behind which a temple once stood. “Lua martial arts were once practiced there”, explains Keoni. “Literally translated, lua means two, and refers to the fact that you must learn to heal before you learn to kill”. We continue our amble beneath canopies of coconut and breadfruit trees, and past sweet smelling jasmine.

“When Hawaii Loa led his people to the new lands, 27 plants were among their essential items” says Keoni. “They are often referred to as the Canoe Plants and include food such as taro, nui (coconut) and ‘ulu (breadfruit) as well as others for wood, tapa (cloth) and healing.”

In mythology, the history of Hawaii’s healing plants is even richer, and references six brothers, each a deity of different domains. One day, while working in the taro patch, Lono, the god of human skills, forests, agriculture and rain, injured himself and began to die. His black-sheep of a brother, however, saved Lono with a healing poultice of popolo (Glossy Nightshade) and when he recovered, Lono declared that everything in his domain would, henceforth, become instruments of healing.  Not only did food plants also become medicine, but popolo in particular became a sacred salve for many ailments that other plants could not help, and is one of the few plants that is gentle enough to use on babies.

Hawaiian healing therapies are based on the belief that pursuit of wellness must address the Higher Self, the conscious mind, the subconscious and the body. Hawaiian healers use plants and herbs, herbal remedies la’au lapa ‘au (massage) lomi lomi (prayer), and ‘ana’ana (hypnotic suggestion), to identify and address conditions that are distressed within their patient. Being ‘right with spirit’ is a requirement for the healer and is the ultimate goal of every treatment.

Mythology & Methods

Our horses turn off the road onto a sharply rising trail. Thickets of wild guava give way to patches of grassland. Wild cattle criss-cross our path and Keoni explains that the cattle, goat, pig and quail are more of nature’s provisions. “You can never go hungry in Hana” he says and then asks us to stop. “Before we explore sacred ground, we always invoke a pule (prayer) and call to our aumakua (ancestors). His voice resonates a low, melodic chant of vowels, which translated sang:
Grant me the wisdom that comes from the heavens
Grant us wisdom, compassion for all, and spiritual strength

And then we began to climb, the horses snorting with exertion as the horizon fills with views of Hana Bay and vast valleys of green.  Before the Europeans arrived, this region was prized by the Hawaiian ali’i (royalty) for its fertile land and ocean. The area is steeped in Hawaiian legend, and it’s said that Maui, the demi god, transformed his daughter’s lover into Ka’uiki Hill and turned her into the gentle rains that bathe it to this day. The horses a wet with sweat and we dismount beneath a weave of leafy branches.

As we walk the remaining 10 minutes to Pali Kea, Keoni picks a Kukui blossom and chews on it “It’s good for a hangover”, he smiles. “Just be sure you’re eating the right part of the plant; the flower replaces essential vitamins but the kukui nut is a very effective laxative!” He then passes around a shoot of Maia – the muho o’mia, to rub on our lips. They turn briefly numb, Maia is a good oral antiseptic. We brush past ferns “If they have spores, they are good for diabetes;” Keoni shares. “Without spores? Then use them for eczema”.

From here, at Pali Kea, the landscape of Kipahulu is breathtaking. Waimoku Falls seems to divide the distant jungle with a silver blade – not surprisingly, translated from Hawaiian, waimoku means: “the big water that cuts.”

Thousands of people once lived a sustainable lifestyle in these valleys, fishing, and surviving with the resources of the ‘Ahupua’a (traditional Native Hawaiian land divisions which stretched from the mountain to the sea). But today, it’s a vista that changes each year with introduced vegetation. Chinese bamboo grows up to one foot a day in Hana’s moist and warm climes, while Brazilian peppers strangling indigenous plants with a ravenous appetite. But that doesn’t diminish its beauty. Kipahulu is still a landscape that time has passed by. It is the land of place names that tell hidden stories of an ancient culture, of ancient sites and battlefields, and of mythological ancestors whose deeds were larger than life — all of which are shared in the oral tradition of chants, story telling, prayer and an extraordinary horseback ride through time.

Popular Traditional Healing Practices

Legend claims that when noni leaves were placed on his body, the demi god Maui was restored to life, whereupon noni (Indian Mulberry) has been used to cure everything from influenza and asthma to high blood pressure and senility. Noni is currently under study at the University of Hawaii Cancer Institute.

La’au lapa’au (healing medicines) includes the use of plants, herbs, dirt and urine to stimulate the body’s own healing mechanisms as well as attacking the specific symptoms of disease. Treatment often includes administering a ho’oma’ema’e (purification and symbolic cleansing), hala pulo’uol’u (steam bath), and hi’uwai (bathing in the sea).

Kahea (to call out) is a very spiritual healing technique in which the practitioner may never touch the body; and often heals from afar.

Lomi lomi (softening) uses touch and massaged manipulation of the body to promote healing

Ho’oponopono (to make right) is central to Hawaiian healing traditions and seeks spiritual intervention to restore harmony. This also involves the practice of pule (prayer) and ‘oli (chant)

The Hale Pulo ulo’u (house of purification) was also an essential part of the Hawaiian wellness and is similar to the Aztec, and First Nations sweat lodges

Ha Mo’o is a revered meditation technique, enabling you to tune into the Divine consciousness to recover soul qualities of peace, harmony and enduring happiness

“All indigenous people have the same way of looking at traditional healing. It is always tied to the land and to spirituality. In traditional healing, everything must be pono (spiritual balance and harmony) for it to be effective. If you lose the spirituality, the medicine does not work.”
(quote by Kahu Kapi’ioho’okalani Lyons Naone)