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Jari Menari – When Massage Meets Yoga

Bali’s best massage. That’s what the sign says. It’s a bold claim. I mean, have you seen how many places there are on this island offering massage? This island is home to everything from the humblest shacks to the most luxurious spas, proffering every style of massage you can imagine at every price point, from the budget to the wallet-busting.

As a tireless servant of truth, I naturally see it as my responsibility to investigate the veracity of this claim (it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it). Armed only with a thirst for justice and a slight tightness between the shoulderblades (festivals can be hard work), I book myself in for a Jari Menari massage.

Jari Menari’s masseurs use what technical director Susan Stein describes as an “unpredictable flow”. For most of the Jari Menari massage, I had no idea what was coming next, which – paradoxically – allowed me to relax more deeply and trust that I was in good hands. It also, correctly or otherwise, gave me the impression that the masseur was intuitive. He seemed to sense the pockets of tension in my body, and focus his attention on those.

Another purpose of this unpredictable flow, I’m reliably informed, is to allow for more concentration on the back. We all know that there are some parts of the body that enjoy being massaged more than others, but many massage practitioners seemingly feel obliged to dedicate roughly the same amount of time to each area.

By mixing it up, the Jari Menari flow keeps it fresh and allows the willing participant (who, if I’m anything to go by, has little intention of resisting) to enjoy plenty of delicious back massage without it becoming mundane.

I want to learn more about the origins of Jari Menari, so I enlist Susan to tell me the story. A former spa manager, she came to Bali almost 20 years ago. Following the fall of Suharto and the corresponding rupture in the Indonesian economy, she found herself shorn of the job she had been doing, and started training the young men around her who worked as gardeners, drivers, pembantus, etc. They enjoyed the extra income, and their clients loved the massages they gave.

What started as a hobby caught the attention of local man I Gde Nyoman Indra Prabawa (IGNIP), and soon he had the idea of founding Jari Menari (the name means ‘dancing fingers’) as a business.

Around the same time, the world was rocked by the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Soon after that, the Bali bombings ripped a hole in the psyche of this gentle island, events which provided a stark contrast to the ethos behind Jari Menari and illuminated the need for quality touch on this planet, both to heal us and to act as a counterpoint to extremist forces.

The Jari Menari team has scooped numerous awards, including recognition as the Asia Spa Spa Therapist’s Team of the Year in 2008, but I’m more interested in the changes the spa is making in the lives of its masseurs – and they are all masseurs, not masseuses. Early on, the decision was made to keep Jari Menari’s team all-male.

At times, it’s been a slightly controversial decision. Some women feel uncomfortable putting themselves in the hands of a male massage therapist, and some men feel uncomfortable with their wives or girlfriends being massaged by men.

Spend any time with ‘the boys’, however, and it becomes clear that the decision has paid off. They’ve made the most of an opportunity to learn a trade that might otherwise be closed to them (most spas prefer to employ female staff, for the reasons mentioned above). The single-sex nature of Jari Menari’s working conditions protects them from … how shall I put this? … distractions. Plus, once clients try a Jari Menari massage, they usually love it.

Which, I think, is one of the most heartwarming aspects of the Jari Menari story. A few scant weeks into their massage careers, young men who have grown up with very limited horizons have had delighted clients tell them: “that was the best massage of my life!” The idea that they could give someone, particularly a rich foreigner (and, yes, if you can afford to drop 30 bucks on a massage, you’re a rich foreigner by Balinese standards), the best massage of their lives does incredible things for their confidence.

I learn about one guy who has been working with Jari Menari for over a decade. When he started, he was single. Now he’s married with two kids. Jari Menari works with spas around the world, giving several members of the team the opportunity to travel abroad. Sometimes they see snow for the first time. Often, they decide that they prefer being back in Bali to whatever exotic locations they visit, but it’s always an eye-opening experience.

It all puts me in mind of a quote, sometimes attributed to Patanjali (although it seems bit too ‘personal development’ for an ancient sage):

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and your discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”

I’ve experienced this phenomenon countless times on the yoga mat; the ability to do things I never believed I could do, and the sudden, wide-eyed expansion of possibilities that comes with it.

In this sense, it seems to me that Jari Menari provides a form of yoga for the young men it trains. Massage takes them places they could never have imagined. It gives them a secure income and, even more importantly, an opportunity to experience themselves as valuable, brilliant, and powerful. The thanks and appreciation of satisfied clients tells them they can be something more than they ever imagined.

I’m ready for a second massage and, appropriately enough, there’s a yoga-inspired stretching option on the Jari Menari menu. It’s worth remembering that there’s a bigger purpose to all this. Touch soothes us and encourages our bodies to produce oxytocin (the bonding hormone) rather than adrenaline.

It might be stretching a point to say that it can prevent terrorism, but it certainly blisses me out. If it can also provide dignity, respect, and a sustainable living to the young men of Jari Menari, that can only make the world a better place.


Written by : Robert Wolf Petersen

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