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The Hidden Treasure of the Philippines

By Sarah Kajonborrirak
Posted: April 14, 2008, from the November 2007 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

It’s no secret among spa aficionados that the Philippines spa scene has long been regarded as underdeveloped when compared to its regional neighbors.
       Seemingly everyone has either heard of or read about the wonders of Thai and Indonesian spa treatments and have very likely experienced some of those massage techniques and therapies for themselves. However, the Philippines, despite little being known about it on the international stage, definitely has extraordinary spa secrets that make it worth experiencing.
       Due to the limited knowledge of Filipino spa therapies and because very few of those therapies have been exported and become popular overseas, the country has been recently trying to lure tourists to its spectacular wellness centers where guests can experience the wonders of traditional Filipino treatments. Enjoying these treatments is quite a unique case because people must actually go to the country in order to experience its spa therapies, as it’s so difficult to find them outside the country’s borders.

The art of healing
       One of the strongest spa trends in the world is going back to basics and exploring traditional natural remedies to help uplift the mind and heal the body. In fact, there is a renewed interest in bringing life back to centuries-old healing arts, an area in which the Philippines shines. The country offers a fantastic array of treatments and healing arts that have long been used, passed on from generation to generation. They involve treatments that beautify, encourage relaxation and even relieve pain. The main focus of such treatments often is to heal, but Filipinos also added a pleasure factor to their ancestral healing techniques, resulting in fabulous spa treatments that bring health and enjoyment to the body and soul.
       Browsing through menus from the myriad of day and resort spas in Manila, a variety of treatments whose main goal is to heal and bring balance to the body, such as bentosa cupping, reiki and acupuncture, is easily discovered. Though beautifying therapies typically are less abundant, they are still very effective in their own right. In these times when people make huge investments in being healthy, ancient Filipino natural therapies are a great resource for three main reasons: a less costly price compared to medical treatments; effectiveness; and the treatments’ relaxing nature. The healing approach of these therapies, plus the deep relaxation factor they come along with, is a key selling point.
       The Philippines has been blessed with a sunny, tropical climate that is ideal for the growing of flowers and herbs, and Filipinos have been cultivating plants such as acacia and neem, using them for medical purposes, infusions, herbal compresses and other spa treatments, for quite some time. A signature style of the Filipino spa treatment are relaxing herbal wraps that also contain medicinal properties. The Albularyo Herb Wrap, available at the Sanctuario Spa, Salon and Organic Cafe in Manila, is prepared with fire-warmed leaves of palm trees that are coated with herbal oil, applied to strategic points on the body and then wrapped in gauze. Also available at Sanctuario is the famous Albularyo Seven Herbs Bath Treatment, which uses indigenous herbs to create a deeply relaxing bath. Besides the pleasing experience these treatments offer, they also are highly effective for treating colds and fever.

Trade secrets
       As well as having seen to the creation of healing treatments that are aesthetically pleasing, Filipinos have mastered foot reflexology and created their own technique for it. On a continent where foot massage is part of the daily or weekly routine of a significant percentage of the population, differentiation is important. Filipinos discovered a treasure of an answer within their indigenous people, and presented the world with the innovative—and difficult—dagdagay foot-and-leg therapy.
       The dagdagay technique involves using bamboo sticks and is guaranteed to stimulate nerving ends in a most effective and pleasurable way. Unfortunately, this reflexology technique is hardly known outside of the Philippines, giving a great deal of potential to those who come to this beautiful country to learn the secrets of dagdagay and bring the knowledge back to their home countries. It is not difficult to find a certified training center in the Philippines that can teach this body-balancing and well-being enhancing technique.
       Another treatment little known in the Western world is the traditional Filipino healing therapy known as hilot massage. Its strokes and stretching are reminiscent of the manipulation performed by chiropractors. A pre-hilot ritual is typically done at the beginning of a session in which the manghihilot, or practitioner, invokes a universal power to provide energy for healing. This opening ritual also acknowledges and invokes the power of natural surroundings, as well as summons the person’s inherent self-healing powers to action.
       Having and maintaining warm hands is an essential requirement for all kinds of hilot massage, and this is where coconut oil comes in handy, as it actually keeps the manghihilot’s hands warm. The use of coconut oil for healing purposes has origins in the Philippines, and the world is beginning to discover the benefits of virgin coconut oil as a base for aromatherapy massage.
       Elizabeth F. Nelle, director of product research and development with the Filipino Ministry of Tourism, says hilot is a highly intuitive massage in which the therapist identifies areas of energy imbalance in the body through touch diagnosis. Traditional Filipino hilot involves massaging of the hands and arms as a diagnostic step—pagpupulso—done in a seated position, to ascertain the cause of pain or discomfort. Thereafter, the manghihilot massages the head and neck, then, in a reclining position, the torso, hips, legs and feet. At the end of the hilot massage, a ritual of thanks, or pasasalamat, is performed.
        There are a host of indigenous Filipino treatments or modalities associated with hilot. And, just like many other therapies native to Asia, the best school for hilot massage therapists is often found within their families, as the secrets of the traditional healing art are passed on from generation to generation. Hilot improves circulation, eases aches and allows the body’s energy to flow better. Fortunately, the therapy is widely available in day and resort spas throughout  the Philippines, and it is advised that indulging in a two-hour session offers better results.
       One of the top places to experience the incredible results of hilot is at The Farm at San Benito, one of the most respected and awarded resort spas throughout the Philippines. The Farm is so highly regarded with spa-goers that it has become an institution. Part of its success is owed to its array of detoxification therapies and its medical approach, supporting the quality Filipino spa treatments that include health benefits. The folks at The Farm are fully aware of this and have created a spa menu with clear explanations of the benefits each of its treatments offer. Its therapists are also trained to provide as much information as possible about the treatments to their guests.
       Due to this holistic approach, there is a niche market of spas in the Philippines that offer full-range facilities with physician, nutrition and detoxification therapies. And, in order to further enhance the experience of their guests, spas also offer organic food and meditation pavilions, allowing people to unwind before or after treatments.
       Another key spa in the Philippines—one that could be called a trendsetter—is the Mandala Spa, located on the island of Boracay. The staff at Mandala has mastered the creation of body scrubs with pure, natural ingredients. Some of the standout treatments are the Cool Cucumber-Aloe Wrap, a must after spending a sun-filled day on the beach, and the Papaya-Pineapple Body Polish. These, just like many of the products used at the spa, are made only from natural ingredients. This way guests can know natural products, rather than harsh chemicals, are used in their spa therapies.

Hidden treasure
  All in all, it seems the spa industry in the Philippines likely will keep a low profile in the years to come. It may be a wise move, as it helps to avoid saturating the market and having its traditional treatments regarded as mass therapies, hindering further development. By keeping its secrets quiet, the spa scene of the Philippines manages to remain upscale and, in a way, exclusively for those in the know.