GJ man uses massage therapy to reach Nepal’s lowest caste
The perfection of hands is not just in their symmetry and design, or in their stamina and ability, but in their touch.
Weightless, feather touches. The gossamer graze of gentle fingertips. One callused palm touching another in friendship, in supplication, in congratulation, in compassion. A cause for concern — “Your hands are freezing!” — and care when the scabs and scrapes of life are evident.
Clenched fists, high-fives, interlaced fingers — the wordless touch of hands is the surest means of communication and connection we have. Do we even notice every touch? The shoulder rubs and back pats, the squeezes and smacks and glancing caresses. It’s unconscious habit.
And it’s a gift, a benediction learned, for some, a touch at a time.
“For so many people, the message they’ve heard their whole life is, ‘Don’t touch’,” explained Rob Buckley, meaning not just that they shouldn’t touch certain others, but that they, themselves, are untouchable. Dirty. Unfit to enter certain temples, pray at certain shrines, drink from this fountain or enter that door.
Despite outlawing the caste system in its 1990 constitution and banning discrimination against the lowest caste in a 2001 law, Nepal — 80 percent Hindu — remains a place where the concept of “untouchability” can dominate the lives of so many who did nothing more extreme than be born. It’s a condition Buckley saw daily as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, and it inspired him to found Himalayan Healers, a healing arts program and series of spa boutiques in Nepal that train and employ massage therapists who are considered untouchable.
“I wanted to return the power of touch to untouchables,” Buckley said.
Since the first day of class in spring 2005, when 12 new students gathered in a donated hotel lobby space in Katmandu, more than 50 students have completed the 500 hours of required training. There was the woman who’d been raped and left for dead in the jungle. There was the war widow whose husband had been shot in the back. There was the man who thought he’d never do anything beyond the most menial labor. There was the woman whose beautiful face belied the scars covering most of her body, the result of her sari being set ablaze.
All “untouchable.” All learning what touch can accomplish. And now, teaching those lessons to others.
Buckley, 38, returned to Grand Junction two weeks ago after helping his friends and former students assume leadership of the Himalayan Healers School.
“It was never mine, I just started it,” he said. “All along, we said, ‘This is ours.’ I never had my ego invested in it, so it feels good to hand it over.”
Now, in addition to his continued work with Himalayan Healers in Nepal, Buckley said he hopes to begin a similar program here, teaching the power of touch to veterans, victims of domestic violence, recent immigrants — anyone who might need a little help envisioning their own possibilities.
Buckley’s own path to massage therapy was circuitous. Growing up in the Grand Valley, he played soccer and other sports and learned to massage his muscles so that he could sleep. After graduating from Central High School in 1990 and turning down more than a dozen scholarship offers, he landed at the University of South Alabama, where he played soccer. From there, he attended Mesa State College for a year and in 1996 completed his bachelor’s degree at Colorado State University, studying history, Latin American politics, Spanish and Latin American studies. He also studied for a year in Monterrey, Mexico.
After graduating, he managed the Colorado Grill in Fort Collins, tending bar and having a good time.
“I thought, this is fun, but I need to do something different,” he recalled. So, in 2000, he applied and was accepted into the U.S. Peace Corps. Despite his Spanish and experience in Mexico, he was assigned to Nepal.
His first three months in-country, he lived with a host family who were kind and generous, and of a high social standing. They wouldn’t allow Buckley’s language tutor, an untouchable, in their home. It was an indelible experience that lingered with him as he began his volunteer work with street gangs and politicians, helping to open a drop-in center for heroin addicts and build a library.
He lived in a humble house with no windows and learned the language quickly, endearing him to the people he met and helping him make friends across social classes. However, from an unknown cause, he became so sick he had to be medically evacuated from Nepal. He remembers waking up on an operating table in Bangkok, Thailand, and later being told that he’d be bedridden for the rest of his life. Out of the Peace Corps, recuperating in Grand Junction from this drastic but mysterious illness, he sometimes had to call his brother to come pick him up after walking just a block.
With patience and strong medicine, though, his health improved enough that he could rejoin the Peace Corps and return to Nepal, just in time for major escalations in that country’s brutal civil war. When other Peace Corps volunteers evacuated, he stayed, maintaining his friendships with Maoist rebels, politicians, business people, journalists and untouchables. He was invited to testify before the U.S. Congress about Nepal’s civil war.
After the Peace Corps in 2004, he studied at the Ojai School of Massage in Ojai, Calif., which is where, while sitting in a circle with other students, the idea for Himalayan Healers “moved through me,” he said. “I got goose bumps.”
His father, Jim Buckley, a retired professor of accounting at Mesa State College, drove to California that weekend to help him create a five-year business plan for Himalayan Healers and strategize how to make it happen.
Rob Buckley immediately began trading massages for frequent flier miles, and had a ticket to Katmandu in two weeks. With loans from his father and a credit union, and help from Sharmila Mali, a friend from massage therapy school, he began talking to people in Nepal about his idea.
Initially, a lot of doors were closed. Despite the caste system being illegal, it lingers philosophically, especially in smaller towns. When business owners learned he’d be teaching untouchables, they didn’t want Himalayan Healers meeting on their property. Finally, a prosperous Buddhist family allowed Himalayan Healers to meet in the lobby of their hotel near the capital building.
“It was really exciting work to do,” Mali recalled. “We were laying the groundwork for what’s there now. We knew we’d get a lot of males at first, because women would be really hesitant. Massage is associated with prostitution, because there are so many massage parlors there that are just fronts for brothels. So, it was important to bring back integrity to the profession so people would start seeing it’s legitimate.”
Buckley said he didn’t want students to feel that their training was a hand-out, so they were given micro-loans for the $580 tuition, with guaranteed employment at the end of their three-month, 500-hour training. And they were required to make a good-faith deposit, even if it was just one rupee, when they received the loan and began their training.
Many of the students had been traumatized by the civil war. Most were among the 40 percent of Nepalese people living in poverty, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Some were illiterate. Some couldn’t raise their heads or make eye contact. Some buckled under the weight of untouchability.
They began their school days with meditation and yoga. Their training included traditional Nepali massage, as well as ayurvedic, Swedish and sports massage, Reiki and other healing arts. A particular focus was traditional massage techniques, Buckley said, to help students reclaim a cultural heritage. They worked together, slowly learning that touch isn’t always painful or wrong. Sometimes it heals.
“We were reclaiming a healthy sense of touch,” Buckley said. “You could see people slowly letting their guard down, letting go of the trauma and allowing themselves to be touched in a healthy way. Our curriculum was designed to elicit that response.”
Buckley invited more than 20 guest teachers to the school, including Miami massage therapist and educator Steve Capellini, author of “Massage for Dummies” and “Massage Therapy Career Guide.”
“(Buckley) had used the concept of doing massage, which for us is kind of a luxury or pampering or a nice thing, and he changed it into something that’s life-saving and changes people’s lives,” Capellini said. “By training people how to give massage, he’s training people who don’t have resources, orphaned people just barely scraping by in a country torn by civil war, this really impossible situation, and giving them hope.”
In addition to the school, Himalayan Healers grew to include spas, mostly in hotels, throughout Nepal. Students graduate from their training and are guaranteed work in one of the spas, though some venture further. One former student now works as a massage therapist at the Four Seasons in Mumbai, India, and has her sights on the Four Seasons in Paris, Buckley said.
Working as massage therapists, often catering to adventure travelers and government officials, students can count on making 10–20 times the national average salary, Buckley said, and are able to quickly repay their micro-loans. The payments are cycled back into Himalayan Healers’ operational costs and loans for new students.
Until recently, students also were certified in America through a partnership with the Ojai School of Massage, and Buckley said they hope to find other schools for similar partnerships. Ultimately, though, the goal is to establish an official system of certification in Nepal.
There’s always more work to do, he said, and more plans to make. There are goals to build a permanent Himalayan Healers school, create more spas and to lead adventure treks through the Annapurna Mountains culminating in nightly spa treatments. There are goals to help students financially and socially, to help them learn English and business strategies, but mostly to help them reclaim what’s inside them.
And what’s inside them, transcending frail notions of “untouchability,” is what’s inside everyone: a recognition of the power of touch.