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Baby Massage, Traditional Indian Style

March, 2019

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?
 

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Comments

As a man, I can relate to baby massage only intellectually. But after carefully reading of Nirmala, the snippet of her life, and the authority of cultural experience which informs her massage, I deeply felt the absence of a holistic culture in the United States and over-developed countries.

Oh, how we have subsumed the birthright of our connection to the whole (cosmos) to the merely intellectual! Fortunately, many, many proponents and practitioners (such as Esther and all on her team) are restoring us to our inheritance.

When my now 38 year old daughter was a baby, I took an infant massage class taught by someone in our local home birthing community. From that point on, I made it a practice to massage all of my babies each evening after their baths until they were about 3 years old. It was something they really enjoyed plus they slept better. During a very long coast-to-coast flight, my then 3 month old son became very fussy. I laid him in my lap and began massaging him. He quieted right down, eventually falling asleep. I drew quite a crowd of interested onlookers!

When my baby was in the NICU at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville in 2009, the PT gave us a booklet about a form of baby massage used in India and we practiced it on him once he was medically stable and we could hold him. He was fussy during the experience, it seemed to me very stimulating to his sensory system, but I believed it was important and so continued after we went home. It involved massaging the limbs, kneading them in various ways, joint mobility, and a bit of visceral/abdominal massage as well as the back. I will look for the booklet...It was beautifully printed.

Wow! I don't even know where to start. A baby that is crying for the whole time of being touched is a HUGE problem for me and I'm wondering why it isn't a problem for all of you reading this article! Saying that crying "makes the babies lungs stronger" is archaic! The description of her type of massage is indeed rough, unloving and void of listening to the infant's cries for help. Very sad! I used to teach baby massage about 37 years ago. I learned from a kind, loving teacher named Vimala Schneider. You can still find her information online and she's written several books. I also taught leg and cross body stretches and bringing feet to head to stretch the spine, but gently! It should feel good and not make a baby cry. 

I very much agree with you!

the reason the baby stops crying after a few sessions is the same reason a woman stops crying after a while of being abused. The cries are not making the abuse stop. The only option is to take it. 

 

The cries are there there for a reason. As another commenter said, the massage should relax the baby.

 

 

And yes the types of stretches and things are great for babies but GENTLY.

not vigorously.

I am just unable to believe that this massage that made the baby cry the whole time, was good for the baby.  I could not have allowed someone to do that to any baby, without putting a stop to it.  Yes, some things in life are painful, to heal some problem (for  example).  But I don't believe any routine practice should be, regardless of whether the baby stops complaining after the 3rd massage.  That baby may have simply "given up" complaining, realizing that her/his cries were never going to be listened to, appropriately.  I think the shock and helplessness of not being able to prevent some "caregiver" from hurting him/her, does damage to the baby's sense of control of its body, its ability to adequately express its needs and have them taken seriously, and therefore to the developing strength and self-integrity of the baby's mental, psycological, and emotional health, damaging the connection the baby has with its mother.

I am sorry if I sound harsh, but I am completely serious, even as I know I could be wrong -- but I think inflicting pain unnecessarily is harmful, and the younger the person, the worse it is.

I can certainly understand your consternation - we felt it too! That said, there are some oppsing arguments / mitigating factors.

  1. Babies cry in many different ways. This baby was not screaming. He certainly got our attention and had us concerned and asking questions, but it didn't communicate hurt or damage to anyone present. It's challenging to communicate the real situation in an authentic way - I'm not sure I succeeded in this blog post. But it could also be that no matter how I described the situation and even if soe of you were present, you would not be able to tolerate what happened.
  2. I've certainly experienced babies crying on account of something being unfamiliar. This baby was old enough to be disturbed by someone who was not his mother handling him, and by the unfamiliarity of the process. I've experienced this when teaching mothers how to carry their babies on their backs. If the baby is older than about eight months, the baby might cry and reach out to their mother. The mother stays close and comforts the baby, as this baby's mother did, but usually decides that the lesson is worth learning.
  3. Learning from other cultures is tricky and there's a balance to be struck between acknowledging and valuing one's own sensibilities and exploring across one's boundaries in the domain of other cultures. Everyone is free to draw their own lines.

I am truly sorry to have offended some of you.