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Learning Traditional Scraping Therapy: A Deep Dive into Indonesia's Ancient Art of Kerokan

In East Asia, traditional scraping health techniques like Gua sha (China), Kerokan (Indonesia), Cao Gio (Vietnam) and Kos Kyal (Cambodia) show similarities in how they are learned through ancestral lines in village communities. In this episode of the Gua sha show, we look at Kerokan in Indonesia and we explore how one villager has learned how to scrape her family and how she then passes this down to a new generation.

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Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to episode 15 of the Gua sha show. This is the end of season one and I’ll be back after a break with another 15 episodes in season two. Today we're looking at how knowledge is passed down in a scraping technique used in Indonesia.

The Origin and Evolution of Kerokan in Indonesia

I was researching and reading some reports and I thought it would be a great idea to tell you a little about Kerokan, the traditional indigenous scraping technique used in Indonesia. Although this features in only one country the same pattern is present in many East Asian countries which have their own version of scraping therapy and which bears a lot of similarities with Gua sha in China.

Explicit Knowledge vs Tacit Knowledge: The Learning Process of Kerokan

Firstly let’s start with looking at how knowledge is gained because scraping knowledge is passed down in a particular way as is most indigenous health practices. There’s commonly thought to be two main types of knowledge - explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.

  • Explicit knowledge is one that can be articulated and recorded in written form and because of this it’s easily transferable. It’s like my Gua sha books, if you want to know this knowledge, just buy the books and read them. There is also an aspect of logical deduction and the result of practical experience and this kind of knowledge is more likely to be objective, logical and technical.

  • Tacit knowledge is different. It’s the knowledge which a person acquires from his or her personal experience and more likely to be subjective, cognitive and experiential. And it’s more intimate and circumstantial. It often requires complete participation and cooperation in order to learn and is usually face to face interaction, apprenticeship and mutual trust and understanding.

It was the same type of knowledge when I was an apprentice craftsman in Japan. There were no books or instructions - everything that I needed to know was passed on to me via the master-apprentice relationship. I didn’t have a clue how to work with wood before I worked with Kashima-san. It was a special time because it’s a dying art - not only because the new generation have moved on but the raw materials - the 1000 year old tree trunks on the forest floor - are all but spent.

So with this tacit knowledge in mind, let me turn to a recent report which claims that almost everyone in Indonesia especially in Java is familiar with traditional treatment methods such as Kerokan.

The Art of Kerokan: Traditional Techniques and Tools

So what is Kerokan? It’s a familiar scraping technique which uses things like coins, onions and pieces of ginger to scrape the back using olive oil, balsam, eucalyptus oil, coconut oil, or body lotion as lubrication. It’s quite common to come across photos of Kerokan in an image search. They often show thin red sha lines right across or down the back. Directly next to the line there is a gap and then another line runs parallel to it. This is often because of how the coin is scraped along the skin.

The Beliefs and Benefits Behind Kerokan

Although a mechanism of action is not usually known with traditional techniques. Indeed in one study only half of users could explain a mechanism of action of coining such as increased circulation, body warmth, help in breathing. The belief behind this scraping of the skin is that wind enters into the human body from outside and this can cause discomfort with symptoms such as cold, body aches, headache, and nausea. It is believed that this can be caused by people doing things like bathing too long, consuming too much ice, being in the rain, eating late, and eating a bad diet.

According to another report, the general assumption is that after Kerokan treatment, the body will feel fresher, the pores will open and the wind can be expelled easily. Also that the body feels light and relieved, the appetite increases, dizziness is relieved, pain is lessened and belching.

The interesting thing about this report is the interview with Mrs.Rokayah. She is a resident in Pemalang village in central Java and she explains how Kerokan is learned in her village.

Passing Down the Tradition: A Personal Account of Learning Kerokan

She explains that she first learnt it from her mother and that Kerokan had been practised by her ancestral family. She was taught at a very young age when she was in elementary school and started treating others in the family at junior high school (aged 11-14).

She says that all the people in her village learnt from a parent in the same way with oral knowledge being passed from generation to generation.

She details the steps and techniques that that she learned from her mother:

  1. Use a coin, for example Rupiah 1000 coin and balm. (used to prefer old Dutch coins which were heavier) - it is thought the use of copper coins can prevent tetanus from occurring.

  2. Apply a balm to the back with light massage in order to prepare the skin and muscles for scraping.

  3. Pinch the coin using your thumb and index finger.

  4. Start scraping from top to bottom on the right and left sides of the spine, and then sideways on the left and right sides of the back.

  5. Do this repeatedly until the skin is red or blackish; do not scrape over the bone.

  6. Scraping pressure must not be too strong or too weak; the angle of the coin to the body is about 45 degrees.

  7. When finished, apply a balm to the back using light massage.

The Intimate Connection: Kerokan as a Bonding Experience

Mrs. Rokayah explains why she and the residents in her village like kerokan and she gives 2 reasons:

  • Their parents taught them that they were not supposed to take medicine when they got a mild illness such as a cold. The idea was to take medicine as a last resort, only used if Kerokan did not successfully stop the symptoms. This is communicated as a teaching: "mild sickness do not take medicine.”

  • The connection she felt between her and her mother when she is doing Kerokan. The feelings of affection and communication that she shared with her mother during Kerokan weren’t replicated by anything else in her life. It’s described as an intimate moment between mother and daughter. One of the reasons is that while practising Kerokan, they are also chatting with each other.

Adapting the Tradition: Kerokan Across Generations

Mrs. Rokayah describes how after she got married and had children, she taught her husband and children how to practice Kerokan. Mrs. Rokayah described scraping her four-year-old granddaughter for a cold/fever and she used a sliced onion, not a coin for scraping.

It’s thought that red onions are used because the oils contained are thought to prevent infection in the body. And burning the onion with a flame first is thought to bring out more essential oil.


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