Have you ever heard of moxibustion, or have you heard of it but never tried it? By now, I’ve used it so much in the treatment room and on myself, too, that this Chinese herbal therapy is familiar and comforting and trusted. It’s like a plate of pasta or a warm bath with epsom salt in its role as a nourishing, healthy staple at home, and in my office I find that clients love it too. But if I look back to when I first heard about moxa and, later, when I first tried it on myself and on patients in student clinic, I can definitely say that moxibustion seemed odd and vaguely suspect. How could holding burning herbs near the skin be useful? And what about the smell? Plus, as much as my teachers framed this therapy in safety terms and focused the initial lessons on the subject of how to avoid burning the patient, my initial reaction was to be a little scared to try it on anyone.
Experience, however, taught me otherwise. Moxibustion therapy is a great way to treat muscle aches and pains, digestive problems, and many other conditions that are related to coldness and lack of energy. In my own experience, moxibustion is incredibly good for when I’m feeling worn out and depleted. With clients who come to me for traditional bodywork, I have had genuinely thrilling results with things like gut health, low back pain, and–interestingly enough–occupational illness. No kidding–there is more than one hairstylist and/or colorist here in Austin who can work without pain thanks to my moxibustion treatment (more on that later).
What about you, dear reader? Well, read on! If I do this right, you are in for a treat. Why? Well, I hope you are going to allow yourself to be persuaded to experience the wonder of this ancient healing herbal treatment as a result of reading this essay.
What is moxibustion?
The quick answer is that it’s a form of heat therapy that uses the dried herb Artemisia Vulgaris (also known as mugwort, or ai ye in Chinese). There are several forms that this can take. Some common ones are moxa sticks, and these can be larger and roughly the size of a breadstick; others are smaller and about the size of a cigarette. Loose moxa is spongy and can be rolled into shapes of varying sizes and applied accordingly. If it’s the size of a rice grain or smaller, the burning herb can be placed directly on the skin. If it’s larger–and this is really a lovely treatment–the moxa can be placed on slices of fresh ginger that will be strategically situated on the body. Loose moxa can also be put into a moxa box, which is just what it sounds like, and then the box is set on the lower back or abdomen or wherever the healing warmth is needed. With acupuncture, the moxa can be attached to the needles themselves, either as a pre-made cone or in loose form.
The herb is set on fire in whatever form it’s used, and as it burns, the healing benefits enter the body to strengthen and warm specified areas. It has a distinctive odor that most people like (or at least find intriguing). Some moxa sticks are designed to be smokeless, which is useful for places with poor ventilation. Depending on ventilation and other factors, one can even choose to employ moxa in tincture form. This method is especially good in the treatment of chronically sore muscles.
What can moxibustion do for you?
My favorite uses for moxibustion are when I have someone with digestive issues or low back pain. It feels so good to have a warm tummy or back, and beyond the feel-good factor you have the actual benefit of the herb as it enters the targeted area. Most of the time, my moxibustion treatments are part of a tui na session (if you haven’t read any of my blog posts about Chinese therapeutic massage, check here for more information) but you can come see me for a moxa-only treatment if you like. Trust me–if you have cold, tight muscles or weak digestion, you will love moxibustion.
Another significant issue that I have treated is occupational; to wit, the wrists and forearms of haircutters and colorists. One of my first hair professionals was an older person who came to student clinic. They had been seen by other students and were getting some relief but nothing lasting. Because I have such a strong foundation of tui na treatment, I can say without being boastful that my palpation diagnostic skill is excellent. I felt this person’s arm where they thought it hurt and said “Nope. That’s not the problem.” I then found the spot where I thought the problem was, pressed gently, and asked–as my beloved teacher, Dr. Fan, does–“Is this a tender spot?” The person just about fell off the massage table and said, “Oh, my God, YES!” I then gave the patient a moxibustion treatment with a careful focus on exactly where I felt the herb needed to go; after three treatments, the patient was cured.
This person had been scared that they would have to retire because they couldn’t hold the position to cut hair and nothing they tried had worked. Until I fixed their arm and wrist with moxibustion, they were in a state of not just pain but also despair. They were worn out by their suffering, frustrated because nothing seemed to be helpful to change things, and depressed because in no way did they want to retire from a job they loved. Helping this person the way I did made me so happy. It’s a case that I will remember for life, it really is.
Interestingly, after that, the universe sent me several hair-care professionals, both young and older. I have learned from all of them the nuances of how being compelled to hold your arm up in a certain position and your wrist at a certain angle can affect certain aspects of the arm, depending, and I learned how to treat varying different presentations. Someone who cuts hair has different specifics than someone who colors hair. How one holds one’s arms is one aspect; whether or not one needs to put one’s fingers into the scissor handles and bend one’s wrist is another story. I love working on haircutters and colorists, though, because it’s interesting work and because it means so much to them when I effect a resolution to their pain and dysfunction.
And as to the muscle aches and stomach problems? Well, when I help someone with those issues, I can also ease stress and anxiety. This, as you can well imagine, is a wonderful resolution to some fairly common scenarios. It’s also been of tremendous benefit to my treasured EDS/Hypermobility syndrome clients, as I discuss here, and my work with musician clients, who are also very dear to me (discussed here).
Do you want to know more?
If you like history, there is a genuinely lovely article you can access online, here, titled “Moxibustion in Early Chinese Medicine and Its Relations to the Origin of Meridians: A Study on the Unearthed Literatures.” In it, the authors discuss the earliest evidence of moxibustion as a healing practice; this evidence, as you can see, goes back thousands of years. The practicality of this technique is evident from its origin, and as the authors note, “Mastering fire-making technique provided a prerequisite for moxibustion to take its shape. In cooking a meal or getting warm by using fire […], people unexpectedly found that stimulating body’s specific location could alleviate pain and suffering. Ancients summed up the regular stimulating methods and developed them into [this] therapy.” The article is well worth reading in its entirety so I won’t replicate it here, but the main focus of the piece is how moxibustion relates to the conceptualization of the body and its geography and that, if you are an anatomy nerd, is really exciting stuff!
If you like evidence-based medicine and want to see some research discussion, a good article, “The Mechanism of Moxibustion: Ancient Theory and Modern Research,” can be found, here. As you will see, there is much more to be done with moxibustion research, but between the two articles I have cited, you can get a great introduction to a more scholarly approach to the topic should you so wish.
Self-Care is Not Selfish
As people who have been following my blog know, I am a credentialed AOBTA-CP traditional Chinese bodywork therapist who is working her way through the board exam process. Once all that’s completed, I’ll be a licensed acupuncturist in addition to the bodywork and holistic health coaching services I offer at present. If you are interested in trying moxibustion treatment, then now is the time to do it. Cooler weather really does make moxa a luxurious treat. My suggestion is that you book a tui na (that’s Chinese medical massage; it’s like a massage and it’s like acupuncture but without the needles) appointment and mention this article. I will do a full intake and palpation diagnosis and give you both the manual therapy and the herbal in one session. I will be happy to discuss various ways that different types of moxa can benefit you, and your subsequent appointments can include only the appropriate form of heated herbal treatment for your individual needs if that is what you prefer. I can even talk to you about ways you can keep up the good work at home. (Take a look at this neat clip on a great point to work on at home if you like; notice, though, that the practitioner cautions you to do so with professional advice beforehand…and that’s my advice, too).
However you choose (tui na and moxibustion or moxibustion only), though, you can feel confident that you are nourishing and supporting your own wellness in time-tested fashion. Taking good care of yourself and nourishing your wellbeing is not selfish. It’s an investment in your most precious resource-your own health!
Chang Huang, Jiankang Ling, Li Han, Juntian Liu, Mengyun Yu, and Baixiao Zhao. “Moxibustion in Early Chinese Medicine and Its Relations to the Origin of Meridians: A Study on the Unearthed Literatures.”
Have you ever though to try traditional Chinese bodywork? At present, I offer tui na (similar to massage) and other ancient Chinese therapies, including cupping, gua sha, moxa, and more. If you are looking for a holistic wellness consultant and coach, my services can entail short or longer term programs. You are your own best investment, and when you take charge of your wellbeing you invest in yourself now and for the benefit of your future.
Two Hearts Wellness is a local holistic health and wellness outfit with a passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, and literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine. If you want to learn more about me, click here and do feel free to follow my blog and/or my Instagram, connect with me on Facebook, or contact me here to set up an appointment for personal training or health coaching services. If you are interested in Asian bodywork therapy, click here to book an appointment online.