My students sometimes lead me to particularly juicy nuggets that enrich my understanding of posture-related practices in other cultures. Sometimes they simply send me a link to an article; sometimes it is an introduction to a special person. Recently, my private Gokhale Method Foundations Course student Alpana informed me that her friend had a visitor I might be interested in meeting. She was right.
Two days later, my daughter Monisha and I showed up at Nirmala’s host’s home in Saratoga. I was immediately struck by the woman’s presence, regal carriage, slender and strong frame, and sparky energy, especially for a 60-year-old. Nirmala does traditional Indian baby and post-natal massage on newly delivered babies and their mothers in Surat, India. She speaks no English. Thanks to Alpana’s fluent Marathi and my broken Hindi, I was able to communicate very effectively with her.
She described her daily routine, which begins with chai upon waking and chai again as she is about to leave for the day’s work. Her workday goes from 7am – 3 pm. In all that time, she rarely accepts offers to consume anything besides water. If a host insists, she might eat a small morsel of food. She bikes from home to home, massaging babies and mothers and sometimes taking care of an elderly person. She wears sandals to ride her bike but goes barefoot when she walks in her neighborhood. It was hard not to notice her especially kidney bean-shaped feet, and she was tickled that I wanted to photograph (and touch) her feet. Touching someone’s feet in India is a way of bestowing honor on them and also puts you below the person in some essential way. I was happy to touch her feet, and I was happy to hang on her words. I usually have to travel far and wide to find subjects like Nirmala.
Nirmala’s feet have a particularly strong kidney bean shape. Walking barefoot often probably helped keep her natural foot shape intact.
Nirmala described various aspects of her massage practice and her life, but also insisted that it would be much better if she could show me what she does. We settled on an afternoon two weeks later to meet again so I could observe her in action. Alpana offered to provide her transportation and be the translator for us once again.
I was able to find an 11-month-old baby in my network whose mom brought him along for this event. No one knew what to expect and the experience made a deep impression in many ways.
The base position was identical to what I had observed in Burkina Faso. Nirmala sits with her legs outstretched with the baby lying on her lower legs, the baby’s head close to her ankles.
Nirmala prepares to massage the baby with her legs outstretched.
When she massaged my daughter Monisha (as though she were a post-partum mom), she stood astride her and hip-hinged beautifully.
Nirmala hip-hinges to perform a post-partum massage on volunteer Monisha.
The baby massage was quite rough, comprehensive, rapid in the strokes, and unrelenting. Front and back, every organ, limb, and crevice received its treatment. I was reminded of Piglet pretending to be Baby Roo in the Winnie the Pooh story. Kanga pretended not to notice the switcheroo and paid no attention to Piglet’s squeals. But Nirmala was not meting out punishment, but rather helping the baby be strong. Some of us reached out to the baby to offer him solace. Nirmala explained that she was doing a light massage since the baby’s skin was light and might redden if she were more vigorous. She wasn’t sure how the baby’s mother would feel about that. Nirmala explained that the baby would sleep really well following the massage, giving the mother a rest. After the oil massage came a warm water massage in the bathroom. In Burkina Faso, the massage was done with shea butter and warm water at the same time, instead of sequentially. That massage was also vigorous, and the baby seemed a little in shock during it, but being only days old, didn’t have as developed a cry as the 11-month-old baby we observed.
The baby cried for the entire 10 minutes of being massaged with oil and then warm water — Nirmala seemed unphased and said that this usually happens for the first 2-3 massages, after which the babies get used to being massaged and don’t cry. She also said crying makes the lungs and baby strong. Mom was impressively able to withstand what must surely have been a stressful experience. All of us were too taken aback to say or do much, banking on the premise that Nirmala knew what she was doing. In Burkina Faso, the baby (only days old) cried only during the part where it was held upside down by the ankles (Nirmala did not do this).
The baby faces Nirmala’s feet as she works on every part of him.
Part of the massage included leg and crossbody stretches. This was quite different from what I observed in Burkina Faso, where the focus of the stretches was on the joints between the limbs and torso. Nirmala drew the opposite arm and leg toward each other, and both legs up above the head to stretch the back.
Nirmala’s baby massage involves various kinds of stretching.
Nirmala has additional expertise for conditions in both the baby and mother. She described what she would do in case the testicles hadn’t descended. Also what she does in case the mother has had a C-section. The masseuse in Burkina Faso was also comfortable doing procedures in some instances; for example, in case of a kink in the spine, she would have used a corn husking device to straighten the baby’s spine out. In both cases, the knowledge is passed down within the family. Nirmala’s daughter and daughter-in-law are able to provide similar services, and are, in fact, filling in for her during her U.S. visit.
My quick takes from this experience: massage for babies is an old tradition spanning many cultures. Babies are particularly targeted for massage post-delivery. The massage covers the entire body, is vigorous, and includes stretching. Oil/butter and warm water are used for baby and mommy massage. Crying is not a show-stopper. The masseuse maintains healthy posture throughout the act of giving the massage.
Have you seen or experienced baby or post-natal massage? What was your experience like?