'Hilot' revives traditional Filipino practice

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 04 2009 12:13 AM | Updated as of Mar 04 2009 08:13 AM

BAY, Laguna - The gentle rustle of leaves and a bubbling spring provide a soothing backdrop as traditional Philippine healer Nonie del Mundo sends a world-weary couple into a deep sleep.

"They are now in a dreamless state which will help them reconnect with the higher being, or God if you will," said del Mundo, an amiable 58-year-old grandmother and one-time real estate broker who heads the Hilot Pinoy movement seeking to bring back indigenous healing to the mainstream.

Two assistants clad in white then place heated glasses with trapped smoke on acupressure points on her clients' backs. Called "bentosa," the centuries-old method is meant to stimulate blood flow, heal colds and remove toxins from the body.

The woman, she says, needs to cleanse her kidneys and gall bladder, while the husband is healthier if a little dehydrated.

The session takes about three hours, beginning with a lingering bath in naturally warm spring water. It is then followed by "dagdagay" or reflexology of the foot where nerves are connected to the head zone, after which one is put into meditative sleep.

Del Mundo comes from a family of healers that stretches back more than a century.

The "hilots" or "albularyos," as they are called, practice the art of touch therapy and have often been associated with the dark arts, portrayed as gifted healers or mystics who can use black magic to kill.

Many poor Filipinos in remote villages where hospitals and clinics do not exist rely on these healers for quick treatment of common illnesses.

Modern health spas and therapy centers offer traditional massage, but hilots are still largely shunned in the formal medical field and the advent of modern science and technology has all but pushed them into extinction in some areas.

While Manila in 1997 passed a law promoting alternative medicine, no privately-owned hospital offers the practice. Only a handful of state-run hospitals employ acupuncturists and hilots.

The hilots however are legally allowed to work in areas where registered midwives, doctors or nurses are not present.

There remains no actual census on the 'hilots' but the World Health Organization estimates there are some 250,000 practitioners of traditional medicine in the country.

Del Mundo says she is not concerned with the "material" aspect of her craft, saying that her mission is to help the people and pass on her knowledge.

"My vision is to have one hilot per home," del Mundo said. "All of us are gifted healers, because we are divine by nature.

"Imagine a poor mother who has nothing but her soothing words and gentle hands to help ease a sick child's pain, and imagine if she learned how to cure, then that would help her even if a doctor is not around."

She had initially turned her back on her gift, but in 1989 her husband was involved in a motorcycle accident and his right leg had to be amputated.

With no money to pay for her husband's therapy, del Mundo decided it was time to return to her roots.

In 2002, del Mundo established Hilot Pinoy, taking under her wing gifted touch therapists and teaching them her methods. She did away with amulets and lifted the veiled of mysticism on the hilots, and practices scientific methods to healing the body.

Del Mundo's calling is passionately shared by businessman Emmanuel Mercado, who discovered alternative healing 12 years ago after doctors gave up any hope of curing his wife, Mila.

An amniotic fluid embolism in the brain after giving birth to their only daughter, Therese, left Mila mentally handicapped and wheel-chair bound.

"When we met it was like the pieces of a puzzle came together," Mercado said, who owns the Forest Club resort where del Mundo now takes her clients.

Water from a natural hot spring flows into the resort in the rural town of Bay, which sits in between the mountains of Banahaw and Makiling, both considered sacred by spiritualists.

Mercado says he hopes Filipino hilots will one day be embraced by the mainstream, in the same way that practitioners of India's Ayurvedic medicine have gained acceptance in the modern world.