A Hotel Masseuse on How the Loss of Touch Has Impacted Us All

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Hawaiian native Claudette “Maka” Pico has been practicing Lomi Lomi massage and Lomi A’e, an ancient Polynesian-style of barefoot body walking, in the spa at Sensei Lāna’i, A Four Seasons Resort since September 2019; before that, she was working her muscle-melting magic at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Kapolei. The pandemic walloped Hawaii’s tourism industry, but as the islands slowly reopen, hotels are finding safe and creative ways to welcome guests back. We chatted with Pico to find out how the coronavirus has changed her day-to-day job as a masseuse—and how she sees it impacting spas in the future.

Here in Hawaii, ha is very important. Ha means life. Ha is how we breathe and connect, by touching our foreheads and noses together, taking a deep breath, and connecting with a higher power. Our ha, our breath, was taken from us by COVID-19. We wear our masks, we hold our breath, and we hold all that tension inside our body. 

Also missing is touch, the oldest form of healing. What’s better than a warm hug to express so many things you cannot say? It speaks to our humanity. People need touch. Yet some of the guests who’ve come to see us lately say, ‘You know, I haven’t been touched since February.’ We can’t hug. We can’t shake hands. Humans are social creatures, but we can’t connect with our humanity right now.

Lomi Lomi is a healing practice that’s passed down through the generations. It helps bring the body back into balance. It always begins with a pule, which is a prayer or blessing, and we do that with a moment of silence before we begin. During that time, we listen intuitively to what the body needs; the movements that follow are fluid and rhythmic and the touch can vary in pressure and speed. Lomi A’e is a stepping massage form of Lomi, which is more about alignment than muscle manipulation. It’s a deeper type of massage, done on a floor mat versus a table, and we use walking sticks to help us keep our balance.

Sensei has individual hales or houses, rather than massage rooms, and each hale has an infrared sauna, steam shower, onsen, a Japanese soaking tub, and a saltwater pool set in a beautiful garden. Guests have the entire place to themselves, nothing is shared, and the hales are thoroughly cleaned by our sanitation team in between guests. It’s always one therapist to one guest. When they arrive, we’re waiting for them in our masks, face shields, and aprons, which are cleaned in between every session. We ask them to wash their hands before they change, and we do the same to let them know we’re keeping them safe.

The PPE took some getting used to, I’ll admit. But our therapists are very experienced and we learned quickly how to work with the changes. The guests have been good about wearing masks, too. Everybody understands what COVID is and what we need to do to prevent the spread. We’re not offering facials or aquatic treatments right now, due to the proximity between guest and practitioner. Also: You can’t wear a mask and face shield in the water; it’s too difficult to breathe.

The bigger challenge for me personally is being able to move freely between the islands. I live in O’ahu and commute to and from Lana’i by flying. When I’m at the airport now, I see a lot more tourists coming in. I feel okay about it because there are temperature checks before you can even get on the plane. But there’s always some worry. My five-year-old granddaughter has a condition, so I have to be really careful about where I am, what I’m doing, and how I’m sanitizing things. Unlike a waiter in a restaurant, we’re not standing six feet away from our guests—we’re, like, six inches. I expect hand-washing, mask-wearing, and other protocols to remain in force even after we have a vaccine.

Spas and massage practitioners are going to be very busy in 2021. People have been storing things up this past year; they come to us to help them release. Some talk about what they’ve experienced in 2020, others about everyday stressors like their families and work. People tell us things they usually tell a therapist. We’re here to listen and to help them heal.

We’re reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a daily basis. Find all of our coronavirus coverage and travel resources here.

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