The author underwent the form of moxa therapy depicted here. // © 2016 Will McGough
Feature image (above): In this traditional Chinese therapy, dried mugwort is burned and then applied to the skin. // © 2016 iStock
It was a very relaxing morning of walking along the canals and crossing the small stone bridges in Tongli, China. From the bridges, I could see the old rowboats sailing underneath trees and docking at canal-side cafes. It was easy to see why artists and writers have called these streets home for centuries and why both locals and tourists come here to unwind.
But I was in the mood to do something. Or, better yet, have something done to me. Foreign massages have always intrigued me, especially in Asia, where they are incredibly affordable. I was curious about a form of acupuncture offered throughout Suzhou and other Chinese cities called moxibustion, or moxa, that was being taught at a school near the canals. Instead of using needles, the procedure uses the heat from a burning bundle of herbs to stimulate points on the body.
At first, it felt like someone was holding a heat lamp over my shoulder. Then, it felt like the ember was actually on my skin. I flinched. The therapist pulled back, then returned the burning bundle of mugwort to its hovering position, this time holding it a little farther away. I settled in as he moved the fire over various points on my neck, shoulders and back. The focused heat began to warm me, and I could feel my head getting heavier.
The interesting thing about moxa is the esteem the Chinese have for it.
According to Guojun Zhang, director of Wormwood Institute in Suzhou, the practice has nearly 2,500 years of history, dating back to 475 B.C. In today’s world of technology-driven changes, the fact that the Chinese are still practicing and teaching it is incredible.
The customary belief is that moxa helps fight off symptoms and diseases related to poor circulation. At the heart of the procedure is the idea that heating up meridian points on the body disperses the stagnation of blood and corrects improper distribution, such as excess blood flow to the upper body. In more traditional Chinese terms, moxa improves qi, the term for the life energy that flows through all living things. More specifically, moxa can strengthen the yang qi from collapse.
The therapist wrapped the burning end of the bundle in a cloth and rubbed it on the back of my neck. He used short strokes, adding aspects of physical contact and comfort to the massage. I took a deep breath. Moxa was turning out to be as relaxing as it was interesting, a combination of something I knew with something I was just beginning to understand.
Chinese proverbs say that a man who undergoes moxibustion often will live a long life of at least 100 years. I’m not sure about that just yet. But, when in China, perhaps it’s better to be safe than sorry.