Elena Seto is a dear colleague who always inspires me to love life and follow my own passions. Her smile radiates the Aloha spirit and invites conversation. I have seen her photos of lomilomi and lei hulu on FB and was eager to learn more.
tp: I see you cite “Live your life!” on your FaceBook page: who is more appropriately a model of someone who lives her life passionately than you! Although it must be hard to choose only one of your passions to talk about in this interview, please tell us about some of your activities that give you a sense of fulfillment.
ES: The "Live your life!" quote was from a close friend whose husband had a malignant tumor surgically removed from the left frontal lobe of his brain last month. He's doing extremely well and finished his radiation treatment. His sparkly personality is back and he's back to gardening and telling jokes. The close call was a good reminder to enjoy life and all that it has to offer.
I'd like to have this conversation focus on Hawaii.
As a very young child, my mother used to send me on the airplane by myself to Honolulu to spend the summers there with my grandparents. When my younger brother was older, he also would accompany me to Hawaii to visit my grandparents.
Even though I enjoyed spending time with my grandparents, aunties, and uncles, I didn't fully appreciate being in Hawaii during those childhood summers. I loved going to the beach, eating shaved ice, and having weekly picnic dinners at the Honolulu Zoo for their Wednesday night evening programs...but I felt isolated from summertime fun with my friends in California.
Once I started college and my career, I stopped going to Hawaii for the summers.
tp: How did you return to your Hawaiian roots?
ES: I don’t have any Hawaiian ancestry. I’m tied to Hawaii by place as my grandmother was born on Kaua’i and my mother was born on Oahu. My mother met my father in Honolulu, but she gave birth to me in California. I had probably been away from Hawaii for 8 years or so, when a class catalog arrived in the mail from a university in San Francisco. One of the weekend workshops that really jumped out at me was an introduction to Hawaiian lomilomi massage taught by a kumu (teacher) from the Big Island. Without having any kind of instructional background in massage therapy, I found myself in class where it seemed like the majority of people already had advanced knowledge of massage therapy. I was incredibly intrigued and wanted to know more. It may have been because I stumbled upon a part of Hawaii that my mother and my grandmother knew nothing about. I took more and more classes over the next few years and became 'adopted' by a group of lomilomi instructors.
Although I've taken several lomilomi classes, I am not a licensed, certified massage therapist. I practice what I've learned on friends and family. I'm not even sure that I'm even really a good student. If my teachers ever really grilled me on certain aspects, I'm not sure that I would have correct answers for them. It started out that I took classes for informational curiosity and for fun...but I feel that lomilomi has helped me to find a deeper and more powerful connection to the Aloha Spirit of love, acceptance, and healing that I didn't fully understand as a child.
Lomilomi: Elena and Maka
tp: Please tell us more about Hawaiian lomilomi massage.
ES: There are so many different techniques and styles of lomilomi massage that vary from island to island, from family to family....including but not limited to long and flowing massage strokes to deep compression work to stretching movements to increase circulation and relaxation. There is a sacred, spiritual, prayerful, and respectful aspect to lomilomi that includes that Aloha Spirit of love, acceptance, and healing...and draws upon the strength of the energies of the earth, heavens, and the breath...allowing something bigger than myself to bring about relief and relaxation to the person that I'm working on.
I've also been taking some beginning qi gong classes (based in traditional Chinese medicine) and I've found it interesting that qi gong exercises also draw upon the energies of the earth, heavens, and breath to clear stagnant energy out of the body and cultivate replenishing energy within the body.
tp: That sounds deeply peaceful What other Hawaiian traditions do you practice?
ES: Through lomilomi, I also have gotten started in lei hulu featherwork. While I was working in a lomilomi booth at a San Francisco Aloha Festival, one of my teachers introduced me to a kumu lei hulu (a feather lei teacher). I had only intended to be polite and visit his feather lei class...with no intention of adding his class to my life, as I already was pretty busy.
When I showed up to my first class, I discovered that his class was closed to new students, but he was making an exception to let me in. He asked me what I wanted to learn to make. I told him that I only wanted to make a single flower out of feathers, as there were so many beautiful ones all around the classroom. Well...he wouldn't let me start on so simple a project, so he recommended that I start with a hatband. It took me nearly a year to finish my first project and I found myself part of his regular class. The lei hulu class is always lively with laughing, quarreling, gossip, food and fun.
Cata and leistp: We’d like to know more about lei hulu.
ES: Lei hulu is the art of working with feathers...originally to make leis, helmets, capes, kahili (standards) for the Hawaiian royal family. Only the Hawaiian royal family were allowed to wear feathered adornments. There were special birdcatchers that would catch native Hawaiian birds, pull a few feathers, and release the birds to be caught again another day. Birds were associated with the heavens and the feathered adornments that were created for the royal family were sacred and protective. Today, students tie or sew a variety of feathers (goose, chicken, peacock, and pheasant) to create works of art that can be worn by anyone.
tp: What else would you like to tell us?
ES: I consider myself very lucky to have been accepted and embraced into the lomilomi and lei hulu groups, as I'm not really a local Hawaiian. Sometimes my classmates have to explain/translate certain phrases or discussions for me because I don't always know what's going on.
Last September was the first time I had returned to Hawaii after being away for maybe 15 years. I saw Hawaii through new eyes, more appreciative eyes. I found a Hawaii that I can relate to...that's different than my mother's Hawaii and my grandmother's Hawaii.
tp: Where can we find out more about lomilomi massage and lei hulu?
ES: Here are two articles about lomilomi and lei hulu that give more information:
Lomi Lomi: Traditional vs Contemporary
Hawaii’s Feather Leis
tp: Thank you Elena; this was so much fun!