Some people are good at art; some people are good at cooking. Me, I’m good at hurting myself. The big injuries come like clockwork, as soon as the pain from a past wound has leveled off: an ankle sprain in 2007 that left behind a mass of scar tissue, a wrist sprain in 2013 that keeps me from chaturanga-ing in yoga today, a klutzy fall on my knee that shows up as a blob of inflammation in an MRI, and, in August, a broken foot bone that put me in a knee-high boot. Which would always be annoying, but this timing was especially cruel: Four weeks after the foot injury, I set off for Indonesia, a trip I’d been looking forward to for months. I’d been researching cities and setting up a dream itinerary full of sunrise hikes, treks up ancient mountains and prehistoric ruins, and long days of exploring beautiful, exotic villages on foot. I didn’t cancel or postpone my trip, as my doctor suggested. Instead, I adjusted expectations: fewer hikes, more breaks, a lot of ibuprofen. And I did it: I spelunked through caves in Semanu, climbed a 10-story-tall pyramid in Yogyakarta, and traversed the labyrinthine interior of a huge Jakartan market, sweaty but secure inside my massive, foam-lined orthotic boot. But by the time I arrived at my final stop — Ubud, a town in Bali — my body had had it. All the old injuries rang out like struck tuning forks, with my right foot clanging loudest. So when I got to my hotel, Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, I decided to take matters into my own (well, someone else’s) hands. Ubud is a spiritual place, full of Hindu temples and shrines, traditional dance and crafts, and lush rainforest, rivers, and fields of emerald rice. (Yes, it’s where Elizabeth Gilbert had the final leg of her Eat, Pray, Love journey.) And Mandapa reflects that: It’s built into the hills, abutting a jungle where I watched a monitor lizard shamble around one morning. Its yoga classes overlook a rushing river, and its spa offers comprehensive wellness programs far beyond the normal massage/facial menu: nutritional counseling, a couples' “ceremony” based on the traditional bride-and-groom regimen, and sessions with a Balinese shaman of royal descent. Then there’s Ketut Mursi, the “blind healer.” On the spa offerings menu, the description of her service was about four lines shorter than the rest: “Ketut Mursi is an extraordinary highly skilled reflexologist who has a gifted intuitive awareness and touch.” I kept rereading it. I’m a health journalist; I’ve written about wellness for my entire career, and I know that anything that doesn't have solid scientific research behind it warrants a healthy dose of skepticism. But, blame the Balinese air — I booked an appointment and waited with growing nervousness as it approached. Mandapa Spa’s front desk is a nest of tranquility, but I was jumpy as I checked in. The manager let me know that Ketut Mursi speaks very little English, but that she’d sit down with us to translate after the session. This didn’t help my anxiety; my way of communicating with non-English speakers involves a huge smile and lots of gesturing, and considering this healer’s lack of eyesight, neither would do me any good here.
I was led to a treatment room, where I got my first look at the blind healer (or “Ibu,” as I was to call her: a Balinese term of respect). She was tiny (maybe 5’2”) and ageless. She had a round, smiling face; one eye was closed, the other slitted open. With her was a no-nonsense assistant and, from what I could tell, trainee — an Indonesian woman who guided Ibu by the arm and spoke just about as much English, with one key difference: We could communicate with our hands. She indicated I should change into a robe in the private bathroom. “Everything off?” I asked, and she nodded. I came out in a robe, and the helper indicated I should lie on the massage table, face up; I started to climb between the sheets when she pointed at my robe. I removed it and climbed back up, awkwardly (during a massage, the therapist doesn’t normally come in until you’re snuggled beneath a sheet). The assistant led Ibu to my side, where she grabbed my hands, one by one, then my feet. I cracked open my eyes and watched her hover her palm over my right outer ankle — right where doctors say the old mass of scar tissue lives — and fan her fingers open and closed a few times. (I hadn’t mentioned any of my injuries to anyone, so this got my antennae up.) She walked her hands up my calves, then my arms, pausing here and there, and when she got to my shoulders, she exclaimed to the assistant. The helper asked me to sit up, and I foisted myself into a fairly uncomfortable position: Legs straight out in front of me, arms at my side. She said something in Balinese to the assistant, and then I was stuck in this uncomfortable position for a while; the helper pinched at the tight muscles all along my spine (sort of like a massage, but with quick, small movements) while Ibu went to town on my feet. The sheet had fallen to my lap and I wasn’t sure whether my eyes should be open or closed. Mostly I squinted and cringed, because holy shit — the foot reflexology hurt. Toe by toe, square inch by square inch, she’d dig a finger in, pressing until it felt like she’d reached the bones. My ab muscles were cramping from holding me up, and Ibu let me lie down again. She turned her attention to my neck and the skin right between my breasts — not poking or massaging, just placing a hand there for a minute or two and appearing to concentrate hard. The whole thing had gotten so strange that it was losing its weirdness; I wasn’t intimidated anymore, or self-conscious about this woman’s palm pressed to my ribs, just curious what would happen next. I didn’t feel anything, no influx or energy or tingling sensation or change in temperature, but I liked her temperament and the fact that, for the three of us in the room, there was nothing odd about this at all. After a while, she spoke to the helper again, who lifted the sheet off me and spread it on the floor. I climbed down, completely nude, and sat cross-legged. (There’s massage-naked, and then there’s sitting-cross-legged-on-the-floor-while-an-unsmiling-assistant-looks-on naked.) Ibu sat across from me and spent more time pressing her palms onto my feet, my knees, my elbows, and finally, my hands. We sat that way for a long time, me still undecided if my eyes should be closed or open. “Very good energy,” she announced, her brow furrowed, “but big toxins.” Then, abruptly, she stood and the assistant helped shuffle her to the treatment room’s little patio. The treatment was over. I frowned as I changed back into my clothes. Toxins? The made-up concept of icky debris clogging up your system? Why was that even one of the English words she knew? And, c’mon, I eat loads of organic fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, drink golden milk and green tea like it’s my job — I’m loaded up with “big toxins?” I was borderline indignant as I slipped on the flimsy spa slippers and reentered the treatment room.
The whole thing had gotten so strange that it was losing its weirdness.
Then I followed the two of them down the outdoor path to the spa’s lobby and noticed something odd: Although this was my first time in weeks wearing support-free slippers instead of a hard-plastic walking cast, my broken foot didn’t hurt. In fact, both my feet — no, everywhere, all my limbs — were buzzing in a pleasant, TV-static way. The spa manager joined us in a little parlour, and Ibu began speaking almost immediately. “She says you naturally give other people positive energy,” the manager translated. “You’re filled with lots of good energy and were even transmitting it to Ibu during the session. Even if 20 people just walk by you, you give them the loving energy.” She paused to listen again, nodding. “You have a lotus flower in your heart chakra, which is a gift — it means you’re a healer. But you also absorb other people’s bad energy. Even if they just walk by you.” She listened again for the next batch; Ibu was gesturing as she spoke. “And their toxic energy, it gathers along your spine, and from there it causes pain in your limbs. She says your body is perfect, but what’s hurting you is the negative energy.” Your body is perfect except for the pain. It was almost a prettier way of echoing my doctors: Nothing is actually broken, the MRI just shows inflammation. She suggested a guided meditation to help clear out the “toxins” — envisioning a colored light swirling in each chakra, one by one. We said goodbye and went our separate ways. I haven’t stopped thinking about her since. My foot’s felt better since then — radically better. Not quite back to new, but I’ve ditched the knee-high boot and have since explored Dubai on foot and spent a full day barefoot at a waterpark, pain-free. The health journalist side of me suspects it’s a mental switch rather than a physical one: Research on phenomena like meditation, visualization, and the placebo effect suggests that pain lives largely in the brain, and perhaps Ibu’s confident declaration that my body is just fine quieted whatever mental narrative had my pain response turned up to 11. But I can’t stop practicing the guided meditation. It makes me feel calmer, stronger, more whole. Maybe the longest reach of that bizarre 60-minute session will be that I finally stop hurting myself, once and for all.