What to expect from a Maori massage

Head to New Zealand’s North Island for a deep, intense and calming traditional Māori massage. It's not what you'd expect.

A picture of Champagne pool at Rorotorua, New Zealand.
  • Belinda Luksic
  • July 2018

As a wellness writer, I know my way around a spa menu. I’ve tried shiatsu, ayurvedic, Swedish and Thai massage. I’ve experienced crystal bed therapy, reiki and acupuncture. But until now, I had never received a traditional Māori massage.

A picture of a dock at the Lake of Taupo in the morning.
Lake Taupo in the morning

This is why I find myself standing nose to nose, touching foreheads – the traditional hongi greeting – with Renee, the masseuse at Wairakei Terraces and Thermal Health Spa in Taupō.

The adults-only Māori-owned hot spring on New Zealand’s North Island is one of the few places in town to experience the massage – with the added bonus of a post-massage soak in one of three silica-rich hot thermal springs. For centuries, Māori healers have practiced romiromi – an intense form of massage that includes deep-tissue work and a focus on pressure points, helping to release blocked energy, bring about balance and encourage deep spiritual healing. The gentler, oil-based therapeutic massage mirimiri is another form of traditional Māori healing. The techniques have been passed down through generations to those with healing hands. The esoteric and once- outlawed practice taps into whatumanawa – the spiritual dimension – to integrate and engender change.

My Māori massage begins with the karakia, a beautiful incantation that invokes spiritual guidance and protection. “It’s an invitation to our ancestors to join us in the room for the healing,” Renee says.

A rock carvings at lake Taupo.
Rock carvings at Lake Taupo

Given our location, I’m inclined to believe. Set among tropical gardens, the massages at Wairakei Terraces take place in a traditional meeting house, a tiny red and white hut with a sacred totem pole at its entrance and ancient carvings on its walls.

The one-hour massage combines the long, sweeping strokes of murimuri with the deeply penetrating shiatsu-like pressure of romiromi. At one point, Renee speaks in a low chant near my ear. And later, she presses a pebble into each of my upturned palms. I dutifully breathe into my heart chakra as instructed.

Sunset view of Lake Taupo.
Relaxing sunset over Lake Taupo

Eventually, I drift off to sleep – awoken at the end to another karakia, this time sung to close my energy fields and wave the ancestors from the room.

Having spent a night Googling other people’s illuminating experiences, I had hoped for a more cataclysmic release – a torrent of tears perhaps, or a flash of white light. But, as yet, nothing so profound has occurred.

I don the spa robe and follow the garden path to the springs – a large figure-eight-shaped pool spanned by an arched bridge, with two smaller adjoining pools. As I take to the steaming waters I notice, for the first time, my focused and blissed-out state. There might be something in this healing after all.