going up river in a long boat in Borneo

Jodie in Borneo February 2014

Feldenkrais in the heart of Borneo

I recently had the privilege of travelling with Malaysian friends into the heart of the Borneo jungle to the land of the headhunters.

Our trip took us to Bintulu in Sarawak, then across to Julau and up the ‘Batang Rajang’ river to small villages only accessible via longboat. Our host, Amal, skillfully guided the motorised long-boat up through shallow rapids, under the beautiful and dense canopy of the jungle.


Amal lives with his wife and her sister. Amal is in his late 60s and has lost quite a few teeth. Both women are about 80 years only. He and his family are from a tribe known as the Iban. Prior to arrival of Catholic missionaries in the area, the Iban were headhunters. They speak their own tribal language, will little Malay or English spoken except by the children, who go to primary school via long-boat.


Today they are hunter-gatherers, farming rice and pepper and living off the land, with a diet of rice, wild pig, monkey, frogs, river snails, palm shoots and fern shoots. Amal looks after the Catholic chapel, right next door to his house. A doctor only comes up the river twice a year. The electricity is only on for a few hours a day when the generator is running.


Amal’s sister in law was only known to us as ‘Ibo’, a friendly Iban term for ‘older woman’, because it is forbidden to speak the name of your parents in-law. I did some Feldenkrais with her to see if I could assist with her problem of ‘kicking in her sleep’. I’m guessing this was restless leg syndrome or a sleep disorder.



Amal’s wife, also known to us only as ‘Ibo’ had neck and shoulder pain from carrying things such as sacks of rice up to 50 kg on her head, neck and shoulders.

  I gave her 2 Feldenkrais lessons and left her with my contoured memory foam travel pillow!

Word got around about my work and when we visited the long-house on the other side of the river, 2 women presented themselves to me for Feldenkrais. One could barely walk, due to severe knee pain – she could not afford to have a knee replacement. She had grossly swollen legs, foot pain on both sides and lower back pain.



At first she was extremely nervous and jumpy when I touched her, so I used micro-movements and kept my own hands and whole body as soft as possible, looking to her face for any signs that I might be causing any additional pain.


There was not a lot I could do in one session but I chose to show her a relatively pain-less way to roll over from side to side in bed and a simpler and less painful way to get up from the floor.

My second client at the long-house was a woman, approximately 30 years old, with a swollen ankle. It was difficult to ask questions due to the language barrier. I presumed she had sprained it, especially with the slippery river rocks and treacherous stairs down to the river’s edge, but perhaps it was gout. I gave her a Feldenkrais lesson on finding the optimal alignment of ankle, knee and hip and left her with an exercise of trying to balance on one foot with her eyes closed.

I found out that the local people do not have access to eye testing or spectacles. Common medical problems include vitamin deficiencies, intestinal worms, arthritis and tooth decay. They also need education about the harmful effects of smoking and alcohol.

My plan on returning to Australia is to see if I can get Equal Health to take a team of medical volunteers to the area, including doctors, dentists, nurses and physiotherapists. I went with Equal Health to Trichy in Tamil Nadu, India in 2011 as a volunteer physiotherapist.