Can An Ancient Indonesian Wellness Practice Heal My City-Worn Soul?
I traveled 23 hours to Bali to discover the ritual of jamu.
“On a scale from 1 to 10, tell me how much this hurts.” A healer, dressed in head-to-toe white linen, is poking different parts of my foot with a sharp, pointed stick. “Four,” I respond, voice muffled because I’m lying face down and my face is in a pillow. Another poke. “Um… six? Ow… ow! 9! 10!” I yelp. Pak Kadek, the healer, sighs. “This means your stomach is bad,” he says solemnly. “You need more fiber and to drink more water.” Over the next hour, he digs this stick into different areas of my foot; the louder I yelp, the more it indicates a specific part of my body needs help. My kidney and bladder need green tea (for detoxing), my lymph glands could do with some tapioca pudding (for fiber and collagen), and my pancreas would work better if I avoided white rice (unless I supplement with sweet potato and corn). To no one’s surprise, New York City — and life, and my pasta-wine habit — has done a number on my body. But this is the exact reason I’ve traveled over 23 hours by plane to Bali: to learn about the ancient Indonesian wellness practice of jamu, and hopefully restore some parts of my body (and mind, and soul) in the process.
Kadek and I have this first unceremonious meeting in Canggu — a bustling neighborhood 30 minutes inland from the tourist-laden beach neighborhood of Seminyak. In Canggu, motorcycles and mopeds cram into the narrow unpaved streets, ants-on-a-hill style, squeezing past groups of pedestrians on foot strolling to open-air coffee shops and stalls of homemade wares. The pristine beaches most people associate with Bali feel worlds away. So do the buzzing sidewalks and concrete skyscrapers of New York City, though the air in Bali thrums with its own type of energy — less harried, more meditative. Bali, a tiny island nestled between Java and Lombok, is a spiritual hot spot based on its location alone. “Known as one of the energy vortexes of the world (with other well-known ones being Sedona, Stonehenge, and the Pyramids of Giza), these spiritual places are defined as locations where there are intersections of ley lines, aka lines of natural energy,” explains Metta Murdaya, founder of Juara, a skin care line inspired by jamu principles and ingredients. It might explain why thousands flock to Bali each year not just for its white-sand beaches and lush emerald jungles, but in search of something less palpable.
It doesn’t take long for me to realize that healing isn’t just a practice for the Balinese — it’s the only way of life. “In Bali, the spiritual traditions and beliefs from Hinduism infuse with the indigenous, deeply spiritual culture of the Balinese” explains Murdaya. Case in point: They celebrate Nyepi, a New Year of sorts, on March 22 not through loud countdowns and debaucherous imbibing followed by next-day hangovers, but with complete and utter silence — “to think about the past year and to not bring bad energy into the new year,” explains another healer. (Ahem, America, take notes.) Murdaya explains that along with karma — the belief that what you’ve done in your past life has a direct effect on what happens in your current — most Balinese also believe in Tri Hita Karana, a Balinese philosophy that translates roughly to “three causes of wellbeing,” consisting of harmony with God, harmony among people, and harmony with nature or the environment. “In other words, we are connected to more than just ourselves, and there is a lot more beyond us humans out there to be respected,” she says.
This leads me to jamu — a word that describes both the ancient Indonesian tradition that frames wellness through the lens of intention and joy, as well as the herbal drinks used in this practice to treat different ailments. Popular jamu drinks include beras kencur — made of rice, aromatic ginger, tamarind, and palm sugar to lower inflammation and boost vitality — and kunir asem, made of ground turmeric and tamarind for overall health, gut maintenance, and even period cramps. “Jamu utilizes plants and natural ingredients to improve one's physical and mental health, prepared and served (or used yourself) to feel well and good,” says Murdaya. “As a beauty tradition, Jamu beauty rituals are all about self-care, looking good as a part of feeling good, and similarly, using local plants in beauty products.” (Her brand Juara, available stateside, uses common jamu ingredients like lemongrass, candlenut, and ginger in its soothing serums and body scrubs.)
At first glance, it might be easy to group jamu with other Eastern healing methods like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or India’s Ayurveda, or even describe it as the precursor to the modern-day juicing craze — but that would be doing a disservice to all. Unlike Ayurveda and TCM’s well-documented, structured forms of healing, most jamu recipes are handed down from generation to generation through families and healers; to this day, there are jamu gedongs who wake up before sunrise to sell their healing jamu juices to neighboring villages. But Murtaya describes jamu’s inherent spirituality as what makes it truly unique. “Jampi oesodo is the belief that positive intentions, or whatever the mind does intend, does have an effect in the real world,” says Murdaya. In jamu, this can mean thinking positive and healing thoughts while making a healing juice for a sick friend or loved one, grounded in the belief that the intention and energy behind the physical product is just as important to the process as the ingredients themselves. “You’re not just taking ingredients and blending a drink — you’re creating it with the intention to heal,” explains Murdaya. “There is a positive energy about the drink — like how your mom's homemade chicken soup isn't quite the same as Campbell's, or the diner's chicken soup, even if it's the same recipe.”
In Western culture, we might call this the placebo effect, mind over matter, or even compare it to TikTok’s newfound obsession with manifesting — but however you want to explain it in clinical terms, jamu is happy to leave some parts of its healing approach undefined, in the hazy realm of energies, spirituality, interconnectedness, and nature. (For what it’s worth, the power of positive thought has been documented to help everything from boosting the body’s immune system to reducing anxiety in various studies throughout time; the takeaway is that it can work, even if inexplicably.) Beyond spirituality, jamu also takes into account gembira, the Indonesian term for being joyful. “That’s an Indonesian cultural trait,” says Murdaya. “We want to be happy island people because we believe being happy is a part of being well.”
On day four of our trip, we visit Dwaraloka, a healing center in the lush mountains of Denpasar, where we are led through a water purification ceremony that starts with a meditative walk through a maze of towering vines. Kadek, who I’ve reunited with and only now discovered is a priest as well as a healer, encourages us to brush up against the plants as we meditate, allowing our bodies to absorb their positive energy, while releasing any negative energy into their fronds. Moments later, he splashes holy water on me in a bubbling stream. As prickles of sunlight warm the droplets on my face, I do indeed feel lighter; my hunched New Yorker shoulders unfurling back, an invisible weight lifted.
Later that day, I witness another editor’s angry-red sunburn disappear before my eyes as Kadek applies a homemade salve of rice, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, clove, and crushed rice to his arm. Science and spirituality; the tangible and inexplicable. The magic of jamu, indeed.
4 Ways to Incorporate Jamu Into Your Daily Life
- Drink it: Murdaya details different jamu recipes in her book, Jamu Lifestyle: The Indonesian Herbal Wellness Tradition. Or, search “jamu” and the name of your city to see where you can buy jamu pre-made (Djamu is an Indonesian-owned company that ships jamu nationwide).
- Incorporate jamu ingredients into your diet: Murdaya calls this the “jamu cast of characters,” which include turmeric, ginger, candlenut, resurrection lily (kencur) galangal (a type of ginger), lemongrass, and tamarind. All of these ingredients can be used topically to soothe skin issues and muscle aches, ground into herbs, or sipped as tea.
- Savor your senses: In moments of hecticness or anxiety, try to find a moment of calm and delight — whether that’s breathing in the coffee you’re drinking or massaging in your hand cream with a bit more intention. “We all have and can make micro-moments of joy,” says Murdaya.
- Connect with community: “Sharing experiences, giving, and receiving are all a part of the Jamu community-oriented wellness tradition,” says Murdaya. “Always make time for friends and loved ones; friendships are nourishing and like food.”