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Tea Leaves

Asian faith healer has lessons for modern medicine

Success of Bali 'bone-healer' highlights popular belief in traditional cures

"Bone healer" Mangku Sudarsana treats a patient at his clinic on the slopes of Bali's Mount Agung. (Photo by Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Despite constant advances in modern medicine, hundreds of millions of people around the world still turn to traditional medicine. The phenomenon is vividly reflected in Southeast Asia, where superstitious beliefs remain a fact of life.

In the Hindu-majority island of Bali, "balians" -- holy men who allegedly use energy from the universe -- are called on to cure everything from colds to cancer. There is no empirical evidence of success. But there is one balian whose patients claim his methods provide far better outcomes than modern medicine. His name is Mangku Sudarsana, but he is known as the "bone healer."

A few months ago, I overexerted myself while wriggling under a fence. Half an hour later, my lower back began stinging with pain. Over the next few weeks, the pain came and went. On most days it wasn't too serious but sometimes, it hurt so much I could not get out of bed. I tried acupuncture, physiotherapy and remedial massage, but the pain persisted.

Eventually, I went to a hospital and underwent a costly scan that showed I had a slipped disk. The soft tissue between two vertebrae had been squeezed out of its pocket and was touching a nerve. An orthopedic surgeon told me there was nothing he could do but prescribe painkillers because the herniation was not serious enough to warrant risky surgery.

Shortly after, I met an American expatriate in Bali who told me about her experience with the bone healer. "I went to him because I broke my kneecap in half," she said. "I was told by my doctors that I could be on crutches for as long as six months. But after seeing this guy I was back at kickboxing in three weeks."

I asked if the bone healer might be able to help me with my problem. Yes, she said, as long as I had faith and believed in his powers. Her riposte did little to instill confidence in me. As a journalist, I do not believe in anything but facts. Nevertheless, her story, along with dozens of similar testimonies posted online, piqued my interest.

"When I was 8, a voice came to my head [and] ... told me I have to be a healer," Sudarsana said of his career choice. (Photo by Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Half a dozen people were waiting to see the bone-healer when I arrived at his compound on the slopes of Mount Agung, near Besakih, the largest and holiest temple in Bali. Among them was a couple from India who had come to Bali for the second time for treatment. The man had weak wrists and the woman had hip problems. Both said their pain had decreased remarkably after their first visit. I also met a Balinese woman who had brought her mother-in-law from Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia.

"My mother-in-law is Muslim so she didn't want to come," the woman said. "I told her if you believe, come to Bali and he can heal you. If you don't believe, don't come. It's a long flight. But after she fell on the floor and spent months in and out of the hospital, she agreed. This is now our ninth or 10th visit. Before she was in a wheelchair. Now she walks with a cane -- and some days without a cane."

There are no cubicles for privacy at the bone healer's courtyard clinic. When it was my turn to see him, he was sitting cross-legged on a straw mat. Sudarsana is 68 years old but has the aura of a man half his age. His hair is nearly 2 meters long, tied in a bun on the back on his head. Dressed in a sarong with a decorative sash around his waist, he looked the archetype of an Asian healer. But he did not act the part.

Immediately, he contradicted the view that I must believe in his powers for the treatment to work. And instead of reading my energy, like other balians, he read the scan results. "I can fix this in two minutes," he said.

The author receives treatment from Sudarsana. (Photo by Lala Samsara)

"How?" I asked. "Through spirits? Through God?"

"No," he said, chuckling. "I will use massage to push the disk back in place."

I asked him how he could do what modern medicine cannot. "When I was eight, a voice came to my head," he said. "It told me that I have to be a healer. I've been healing people ever since."

Sudarsana never studied medicine. Nor has he read a single medical textbook. He claims his knowledge was "inherited" and that he taught himself human anatomy. "Most of my patients come from hospitals," he said. "When doctors can't fix a problem, people come here and I help them. Even doctors come to see my with their health problems."

The bone-healer asked me to sit facing away from him and lift my shirt. He pressed his hands into various parts of my back, then brought his knee to the sensitive spot on my lower spine and jammed it in firmly for a few seconds. I felt a crack in my spine, and with that the treatment was done.

I was asked to stretch my body in a way that would previously have irritated my lower back. For me, that was bending forwards or backwards. There had been times when I could not tie my shoelaces because of the pain. But when I tried bending forward, I found I could do it easily.

The bone healer smiled knowingly and called the next patient. I asked his assistant for the bill and he said the treatment was free but invited me to make a donation. I slipped a few notes into a wooden box.

The bone healer has not fixed my slipped disk. I know it is there because I can still feel it when I wiggle around. But the pain disappeared almost immediately and by following my osteopath's advice -- yoga to strengthen my back muscles and ongoing physiotherapy -- a relapse has been prevented.

Do I believe the bone healer is some kind of mystic? Not in the slightest. He is just a very intelligent man with intuitive medical knowledge who has committed his life to helping people. His 60-second massage was infinitely better than the toxic painkillers of modern medicine. The real revelation is that there are many more healers like him around Southeast Asia who could teach valuable lessons to the wider medical community.

Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a writer and photographer covering Southeast Asia.

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