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The mystery and mysticism of hilot

The traditional practice is steeped in history and folkloric culture of the country.


By Mae Lorraine Rafols Lorenzo


Long before Filipinos became enamored of the luxury of spas and massage parlors, we often turn to the traditional hilot for relief of pain or overall well-being.

The origin of hilot, considered by those who practice traditional medicine as the Philippines’ traditional healing system, is a mystery. The practice is shrouded with history and folklore, often associated with albularyos, hack doctors. It is also said to cure ailments caused by mystical creatures like duwendes (dwarf) or kapres (giants). Because of this, a session of hilot is often done with oracions (prayer) and the use of holy oil.

Hilot is also notoriously associated with a woman’s pregnancy—as a way to bring back the mother’s ‘alignment’ after giving birth or, as some would claim, a way for a woman to lose an unwanted pregnancy.

Despite the negative and mystical impression, however, one can’t deny that hilot is as much part of Filipino tradition as our devotion to religion, with regions all over the country practicing it and swearing by its effectivity.

The body and the elements

In the book Hilot: The Science of the Ancient Filipino Healing Arts (Revised Edition) by Dr. Bibiano Fajardo and Ma. Aleli Pansacola, practitioners of hilot and founders of the Association of Traditional Health Aid Givers (ATHAG), hilot is described as “a holistic healing modality, takes the whole person—spirit, mind/emotions, and body—into consideration, and sees health as the natural consequence of the harmony among these three faculties.”

When it comes to the physical body, the hilot tradition abides by the belief that man is made up of the four elements—earth, water, air, and fire. These elements of the body have a natural balance, which has to be kept within a certain range for the individual to be in a state of health.

The balance of the four elements is determined by the mind/emotions—in a state of harmony, the four elements are balanced. In a state of disharmony, the elements of the body are in disarray. When thrown off-balance for extended periods, the elements of the body eventually give in to physical ailments and disease.”

Historians agree that the reason hilot is often associated with the supernatural is because healers or albularyos of the past needed to explain the symptoms in a way old Filipinos would understand—ad that is through mysticism. According to the book: “Imbalances in the person’s earth element were explained to have been caused by earth elementals such as duwende (dwarves) or kapre (giants). Imbalances in the water element were explained as the doings of the sirena (mermaid) or siokoy (merman).

Imbalances in the air element were blamed on the diwata,  and imbalances in the fire element were attributed to naughty tiyanaks or impernales (imps).”

These afflictions are said to be kulam (curse) and that hilot is the only way to cure one’s sickness.

Scientific basis

Despite this colorful history, there are those who believe that hilot has solid scientific basis. Dr. Fajardo, for one, do not fit the manghihilot or albularyo stereotype. He is, as one would describe, as a man of Science, with a degree in chemical engineering. It is his history with traditional medicine (having grown up assisting his uncle mix herbs for boys about to undergo circumcision) that got him really interested with the practice. He would often apprentice with different albularyos and, through his own experience and research, was able to prove that hilot has a scientific framework.

In a nutshell, one’s framework and well-being are affected by the earth’s electromagnetic force (EMF), one of the four fundamental forces of nature, which produces electricity, magnetism, and light and affects everything on the planet.

In Fajardo’s book, it explains that the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) corresponds to physical systems and organs in the body: earth represents man’s flesh and bones, water represents the blood and other body fluids, air signifies the air we breathe, and fire refers to the body’s metabolism and energy. The imbalances, which used to be explained away through different encantos, are ailments affecting the organs related to that specific element, and that the disharmony one feels is now what we refer to as “stress.”

Through hilot, albularyos like Dr. Fajardo aim to regain one’s balance of the body by aligning all elements. This scientific framework of hilot aims to reach out to younger generations and make them understand that such a healing modality can address many of the familiar ailments of society: High blood pressure, kidney ailments, reproductive health concerns, backpains, muscle pains, and other health concerns.

ATHAG is also working closely alongside LGUs to teach the art of hilot among mothers, small scale entrepreneurs, health workers, and even inmates. The practice of hilot is slowly getting recognition in health events such as the Asia Wisdom Conference in Thailand early this year.

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