Philippine Traditional & Alternative Healing

This page contains more details regarding Philippine TAH particularly touch therapy / therapeutic massage and herbal medication. Other forms of TAH such as faith healing, orasyon will not be discussed in detail on this page.

The history of major PHT i.e. Touch Therapy and Herbal Medication, the developments Modern Medicine and the effects on society by the improvements of both Modern Medicine and PHT will also be discussed on this page.


Hilot (the practice) generally involves massaging, pressing and stretching parts of the body either for diagnosis or cure. The Magpapaanak however, combines hilot with herbal medication when aiding pregnant women before they give birth including with the actual delivery or giving birth itself.

Currently, hilot has been more commercialized and is fused with massages used in Spa and wellness houses.

On December 11, 2007, the Manila Bulletin has a news article with the following headline: “Philippine hilot wins in Asia Spa awards”. The article announced that Mandala Spa and Villas Boracay’s “Hilot Trilogy” was recognized during the 2007 AsiaSpa Awards as “Holistic Treatment of the Year”. The award cited the use of touch therapy as a form of healing in the Philippines.[1]

On December 4, 2009, AsiaSpa Awards cited The Farm, a holistic healing and wellness centre in San Benito, Barangay Tipakan, Batangas, as the “Spa Cuisine of the Year,” while Mandala Spa and Villas in Boracay’s “Hilot Trilogy” was acknowledged as the “Spa Treatment of the Year” [2] .

The healing spas are part of the prevailing traditional and alternative healing in the Philippines which have flourished and are being accepted not only by the Filipinos but also by foreigners who sought treatment and healing from the Filipino healers. As a matter of fact, the Filipino spiritual healers have used the cyberspace to advertise themselves with their own website containing a directory of Filipino healers.

Outside the Philippines, there is also Virgil J. Mayor Apostol who is a Filipino TAH practitioner in the United States. He is promoting the ancient Filipino healing method called ablon. His therapy is more known or branded as Rumsua. Stated on his website,, Mayor Apostol was encouraged by the former PITAHC executive director, Alfonso T. Lagaya, MD, MDM to pursue his target of practicing healing using ablon.

With the popularity of alternative healing in the Philippines, Dr. Godofredo Umali Stuart created a website named as Philippine Alternative Medicine with articles about Herbal Theraphy; Healers, Hilots and Albularyos; Faith Healers; and other related articles.

Herbal Medication

Herbal medication is the process of using medicinal plants for healing. The pre-Spanish Filipino has been using such plants for healing through the aid of special healers called herbolarios or curanderos.

Currently, herbal medicines are now widely accepted in commercial forms due to the scientific studies of Dr. Nelia P. Cortes-Maramba. She pioneered the research in herbal medicines and toxicology using the rigorous discipline of science but with an open mind to traditional medicines.[3]

TAH at Present

The Philippine government has recognized the importance of traditional medicine in the essential health care of the people. Considering that majority of the Filipinos cannot afford the rising cost of western "modern" medicines, the effort of the government to acknowledge and institutionalize traditional medicine is laudable. The creation of the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC) through the promulgation of Republic Act 8423 otherwise know as the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act (TAMA) of 1997 is a big leap to promote and advocate traditional medicine on the national level.


But the current status of traditional and alternative healing in the Philippines can be fully appreciated by looking at the past. The historical perspective of the traditional and alternative healing shows how the struggles, contradictions and development of the Philippine society affect the growth and acceptance of the different kinds of healing paradigms among the Filipinos. The historical perspective would also show that the there is a close relationship between the economic activities of the people in the society, the relationship among the classes or levels in the society and development of healing technologies during the different periods of the Philippine society.

Pre-Spanish Period

According to the the Migration Wave Theory of Henry Otler Beyer there are three main waves of people who came and became inhabitants of the Philippines prior to the colonization of the islands by the Spaniards. These are the Negritos, the Indonesians and the Malays. Although this theory is widely known by many people, some historians are disputing this theory. [4] But the fact remains that prior to the colonization by the Spaniards. the Philippines has its own economy, political system and culture.

The Negritos

One of the group of early inhabitants of the Philippines were the Negritos. They were wanderers who move from one place to another searching for hunting preys and trees bearing fruits. They were extensively dependent on nature for their well being including their food, clothing and shelter . Since they were not in control of the natural elements.their way of life were mostly based on superstitious beliefs. Aside from the superstitious beliefs, they use herbs and animal body parts to cure a person who is sick.

There are no known documentation about the life of the Negritos prior to the colonization of the Spaniards. But based on the researches about the descendants of the Negritos who are still living in different provinces in the Philippines, we can deduce how they practice healing during their time.

The Atis of Negros are one of the descendants of the Negritos. An online article at ThinkQuest states: "Until the modern times, the Atis have used the forest for indigenous medicines as it yields medicinal roots, woodchips, shavings, gums, wines, leaves, seeds, barks and herbs for curing kinds of sickness. They apply such herbs with the corresponding rituals." [5]

From another online article on the website of the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts, another medical practice of the Atis of Negros is also discussed: "The tuob is a ceremony performed for a sick child by the medicinal practitioner. He/she often uses beeswax and certain roots and plants for medical purposes. Examples of these are leaves of the buyo (betel) to reduce swellings of the body and bulasa plants for ringworm infection. Leaves of the tree called saong nga lunay, and the roots of the bologanon and dugoan vines and of the dugoan tree are taken by mothers for post-partum recovery. Certain animal parts are also considered to have curative value. Pieces of deer's porous antler found among burnt trees in swidden sites can cure snake, dog, and catfish bites. Turtle bile boiled in water and taken by the asthmatic and tubercular person has been found to be effective." [6]

Extracted from another online article, it states how the Negritos of Zambales view a disease: "Disease is usually considered a punishment for wrongdoing, the more serious diseases coming from the supreme anito, the lesser ones from the lesser anitos. If smallpox visits a rancheria it is because someone has cut down a tree or killed an animal belonging to a spirit which has invoked the aid of the supreme spirit in inflicting a more severe punishment than it can do alone."

"For the lesser diseases there are mediquillos or medicine men or women, page 66called “mañga-anito,” who are called to exorcise the spirit creating the disturbance. Anyone who has cured patients or belongs to a family of mediquillos can follow the profession. There is an aversion to being a mediquillo, although it pays, because if a patient dies the medicine man who treated him is held accountable. As a rule they are treated with respect, and people stand more or less in awe of them, but they have sometimes been killed when they failed to effect a cure."

The Babaylans and Herbolarios

The succeeding waves of people who came to the Philippines are of Indonesian and Malay stock. Farming, fishing and animal raising were their main source of livelihood.

The livelihood of the people mostly depended on the natural elements, and based on this economic dependence on nature, they believe that any misfortune were caused by a supernatural who has control over nature. One of their beliefs was that sickness and disease were caused supernaturally and so it follows that its cure should be done supernaturally or spiritually. The physicians of that time were called Babaylans and Herbolarios. The term Babaylan means priestess or shaman in Visayan dialect . They performed rituals that healed various illnesses of the “katutubos” or the native people of the Philippine Islands. Babaylans were often female but had their male counterpart called Baylans or Catalonans.

But there are communities who depended also on medicinal herbs which are being used by the herbolarios. Herbolarios are defined as the "general practitioner." Knowledgeable in most of the folkloric modalities, the albularyo is especially versed in the use of medicinal herbs. Albularyos have been the primary health consultant in many of rural areas because of tradition and chronic economic constraints. Being an albularyo is commonly something passed through generations which takes years of apprenticeship under a practicing one. Strong animistic and cultural influence set the mainstream and variations of albularyo practice in different parts of the Philippines.

Influence of the Chinese and other Asian culture

Chinese, Indian and Japanese merchants and traders came to the Philippines bringing with them their culture. Some of them settled in the Philippines. The use of Chinese traditional medicine were also introduced to the Filipinos.

Spanish Colonialism

With the advent of Christianity which was brought into the islands by the Spaniards, the Babaylans were condemed as satan worshippers or witches. “The Spaniards had declared war against the babaylans following the Inquisitors’ paradigm in Europe because they embody the early pagan beliefs that were said to be the works of Satan”.

Herbolarios took the place of the Babaylans during colonial Philippines. The common folk or working class Filipinos could not afford expensive consultations and medicines so they resorted to going to Herbolarios. Medical doctors which were trained in Europe were only found the the big capital towns or provincial centers were very expensive for indigent folk like farmers and fishermen. Arbularyos (herbolarios) were a very cheap alternative and many times the only option for many indigent folk. They were typically found in barrios or small barangays.

Philippine herbal medication or plant medication has been studied as early as 1737. Books were published to provide a credible or verifiable basis for applying plant based medication. Thus as early as this time, traditional healing using herbs/plants were slowly being adapted by non herbolarios..
ref: [2]

Notable books:

  • Father Blanco publsihed the book Flora de Filipinas (edition 1 in 1737, edition 2 in 1845 and edition 3 1877-1883) was used as a standard reference on the pharmacognocy of plants (3 editions). Ref [2]

  • The book, Plantas Medicinales de Filipinas by Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera (was published in Madrid in 1892) as the "most extensive treatise on treatment" using medicinal plants. Ref [2]

American Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism

Industrialization, factories, education and related "modern medicine"

Americans used education to extend and reinforce their hold on the Philippines. They created educational institutions in order to deliver their promise of prosperity for the people. Ref [3].

During the Spanish era, the Philippines had only one medical school which is the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Faculty of Medicine and Surgery. Only well-off Filipinos were able to study and practice medicine due to high cost of education and even fewer Illuztrados like the renowned Jose Rizal had had practised and trained abroad. Thus, propagating the scientific medical approach hadn't reached the smallest unit of communities.

On the contrary, during the American occupation, the Philippines gained three more medical schools in just fourty years (1907-1947), namely: the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Medicine, MCU College of Medicine / Afable College of Medicine and SWU Matias A. Aznar Memorial College of Medicine (Cebu City). Another 24 medical schools were added from 1952 to 1993.

With this development of educational institutions and medical facilities, modern medicine became more popular, reliable and eventually displaced TAH in developed areas.

Herbal Medication
However, research on TAH, particularly herbal medicine continued. Moreover, the quality of research and development on herbal medication improved.From mere publication of books during the Spanish era, formal studies by colleges were made of herbal medication during the rather short American period. From the start of the American period up to 2009 government and medical schools in the country continue to perform formal and organized research and development in herbal medication.

Other Healing Traditions

The following are local beliefs and practices which date back to the pre-Spanish period:

*Bot-bot (Pasuk) A practice wherein the quack doctor makes a concoction of ginger, buyo leaves and rub it over the affected area of the patient as he mutters orasyon, to extract the object from the rubbed area which is causing the illness. Extracted objects are usually stones, broken glass, hairs, bark of trees etc.

*Tanduk A form of local tratement for dog and cat bites. It consists of making incisions over the bitten area to make it bleed and then dress it with a dried piece of carabao horn scarppings, believing that as it sticks to the wound, it sucks away the rabis or poison brought about the bite

*Buga A form of treatment for patients with stomach ache. One of the elders chew on buyo leaves betel nut tobacco leaves and lime and spits it on the umbilical area then spread it with his/her hand.

ref: History of Philippine Medicine (pg 236) Verbatim

Fringe Therapies

(na-bales, na-bati) refers to a condition of headache or stomach cramps attributed to the negative effect of a greeting that contains a positive physical comment (ex: "your hair looks nice," "you look wonderful," etc). An immediate verbal antidote (pang-kontra) is needed to prevent "bales." The common counter-utterance is: "Puwera usog!"
Most rural headaches & vomiting are commonly attributed to "bales," even recurrent severe headaches, especially when unilateral, even with the typical aura, triggers and other migraine accompaniments.

As according to an Albularyo or herbolaryo “ ito ang pagsasalubong ng init, mayroon talagang taong may taglay na Bales- KA ODRING”

A common rural treatment modality that utilizes prayer, either written or whispered. A piece of common material, usually cloth or paper (ex: cigarette rolling paper) to which a prayer has been written (orasyon) is applied and pasted directly to the wound. The same prayer may also be whispered (bulong) onto the applied material and wound or area of complaint. Another common practice is to whisper the prayer on the top of the head hoping to drive the poison back or downward, away from the brain.


The insert on the left is an example of an "orasyon," a prayer written on a piece of paper and applied to a bite or wound, believed to be effective for the treatment of poisonous snake or rabid dog bites. E.S.D.M. is a 'bibliato' for: emamil salvador del mundo. Jisus, for Jesus. Often, it's a mumbo-jumbo of esoteric initials and borrowed Latin

Often used in the treatment of poisonous bites or wounds, it is also used for a lot of sundry complaints: fevers, headaches, toothaches, and arthritic pains, usually applied directed to the area of complaint. The treatment involved both "bulong" and "orasyon," the prayer written on the pieces of paper now smudged and barely readable.
In some cases, like many other Albularyo, paper and conventional paste is used it comes along with bulong and orasyon as well.

A piece of paper with orasyon is also effecitive when it is soaked in oil ( with bulong). It is used mainly in “hilot” and in wounds that are hard to heal, mostly unexplained wounds or galis, which most albularyo refer to as “ hinahayop”.

"Tawas" as a Diagnostic Ritual
"Tawas" has evolved from its alum-based use to a diagnostic ritual utilizing non-alum materials as eggs, pieces of paper, cigarette rolling paper, fresh-water shells, candles, etc.

Ø The Egg
A raw egg is cracked into a glass of water and the glass and the glass gently shaken, the egg white breaking and taking on unpredictable forms. The egg-white is examined for any change in shape that might suggest the nature of the illness.

Ø The Paper
A piece of blank paper, about 4- by 4-inch square, whispered with prayers (bulong), is "crossed" over the body of the patient or over the area of affliction then examined for an shadows or shades for clues to the cause of the malady. Patients refer to this as "tawas x-ray."

Ø Cigarette rolling paper
The paper is smudged with coconut oil; then the healer breathes on it while whispering his prayers chosen for the procedure. The paper is then brought up to a light to "read" the shapes that have formed that will suggest the diagnosis or cause of the malady.

Ø Candles
A lit candle is held close to a mirror and the healer reads the forms and shapes produced by the heat and smoke on the mirror surface.
Or, a piece of candle is heated and melted on a spoon, then placed in water. The shape taken by the candle on the water will suggest the nature of the malady to the healer. Not infrequently, shapes of "dwendeng itim" (black elves) or forms representing evil spirits are seen, and treatments are so directed



  1. ^ Teodoro Agoncillo. History of the Filipino people
  2. ^ Dayrit, Ocampo and Dela Cruz. History of Philippine Medicine 1899-1999
  3. ^ Grimpaldo, Boquiren et al.. Kasaysayan ng Filipinas at mga Institusyong Filipino

  1. ^ Travel Smart. (2007). Philippine hilot wins in Asia Spa awards. Retrieved from Travel Smart on December 23, 2009 from

  2. ^ Good News Pilipinas. (2009). RP bags 2 AsiaSpa Awards in Hongkong. Retrieved on December 23, 2009 from

  3. ^ Llaneta, C. (2009). Philippine herbal medicine pioneer Nelia Maramba (MD’60): The plant whisperer. Retrieved on December 23, 2009 from the University of the Philippines Office of Alumni Relations:

  4. ^ Philippine History. (n.d.). The First "Filipinos". Retrieved December 25, 2009 from

  5. ^ ThinkQuest. (n.d.) Indigenous People. Retrieved December 25, 2009 at

  6. ^ Noval-Morales D. (n.d.). The Ati of Negros and Panay. Retrieved December 25, 2009 from the National Commission on the Culture and the Arts:

  7. ^ Reed W. (1904). Negritos of Zambales. Retrieved December 25, 2009 from