Burning mugwort in moxibustion heat therapy is one of the oldest forms of Chinese traditional medicine and is used to stimulate the flow of qi and maintain general health. It especially dispels cold and dampness.
By focusing heat on acupressure points, it can treat aches and pains and is even known to relieve menstrual cramps.
Traditionally it meant burning moxa - mugwort and other herbs - directly on the skin over acupressure points. Because of pain, burning and even scarring, this method is seldom used. Sometimes the burning moxa can be placed on a piece of ginger, salt or other compound - carefully, by a skilled practitioner, so that it heats but does not burn.
Today, indirect moxibustion involves burning a moxa stick an inch or more above the skin, or combining moxibustion with acupuncture. In this method, an acupuncture needle is inserted and heated by burning moxa - thus the heat is conducted through the needle into the body.
All moxibustion involves burning mugwort (artemesia vulgaris), a small, spongy herb, compounded with other herbs, depending on requirements. Mugwort, the herbal essence of moxibustion, is fabled worldwide for warding off the evil eye and maintaining health.
Moxibustion dates back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-770BC). The Chinese characters for acupuncture zhen jiu, which translated literally means "acupuncture-moxibustion."
Since the two therapies share a similar purpose, improving the flow of energy, they were often used in pairs. However, moxibustion has its own special benefits.
"Both acupuncture and moxibustion aim to unblock the energy channels and thus stimulate the energy flow, yet moxibustion is more effective in dispelling coldness and dampness while warming the meridians. This is due to the characteristics of mugwort, the raw material of moxa," says Cao Yinyan, the chairman of Yinyan Indirect Moxibustion Health Resort.
She used to be a plastic surgeon, but turned to the study and practice of TCM and moxibustion about 10 years ago when she found Western medicine inadequate as a holistic approach. She now operates three moxibustion health resorts and a moxibustion training school.
"The human body is just like a running machine. Dampness will rust it while coldness will freeze it," says Cao. "Therefore, apart from adding oil to help it run again, we should also help it get rid of the unfriendly damp and cold environment. And that's what moxibustion does."
There are three common types of moxibustion: direct moxibustion with a moxa cone, moxa needle (acupuncture) therapy, and indirect moxibustion with a moxa stick.
In moxibustion with a moxa cone, a small, cone-shaped piece of moxa is placed on top of an acupuncture point and burned. It can be placed directly on the skin or placed on a piece of ginger, aconite herbal cake, or salt.
Moxa needle therapy, or wen zhen (warm needle), is "acupuncture-moxibustion." Needles are inserted into acupuncture points, while the top of the needle is wrapped in moxa and ignited. The needles conduct the heat into the energy channels. Moxa is absorbed through the skin, and inhaled.
Moxibustion with a moxa stick, xuan jiu (indirect), is the most popular because there is much lower risk of pain or burning. A practitioner lights one end of a moxa stick, roughly the shape and size of a cigar, and holds it close to the area being treated for several minutes until the area turns red from the heat.
"With preparation and back work (including mugwort back massage), the moxibustion therapy will not only be effective, but also relaxing and pleasant," says Cao.
Patients first soak their feet in hot herbal liquid medicine, which will help open the acupuncture points and stimulate the blood circulation. Then essential mugwort oil is massaged into the back of a patient lying on his or her stomach. The aromatic penetrating oil stimulates the flow of energy.
Then comes the main part - moxibustion. The moxa stick may be held one to three inches above the skin.
Many people find the moxa aroma relaxing. The moxa sticks are compounded with mugwort and different herbs for different conditions, such as deficient yang energy, excessive internal heat, or dampness.
When the heat of the burning moxa stick penetrates the acupuncture point, the area and surrounding muscle will be warm. The warm area expands while the stick is kept in the same place for about three minutes.
The freer your energy channel is, the more quickly the warm area expands. The coldness or dampness will actually come out from the acupuncture point in the process, and the practitioner can feel it. If you are seriously suffering from dampness, the emerging dampness will even moisten the burning moxa stick and change its shape from a cylinder to a cone.
Therapy takes about 90 minutes, then you eat a cup of white fungus soup. The sound of "great mercy mantra" from a tape or CD accompanies full treatment, helping you to relax physically and psychologically.
Doing indirect moxibustion therapy at home is quite simple, but always be careful burning herbs and tipping off the ash. Buy moxa sticks at TCM pharmacies for about one yuan (14 US cents) each. Light one and place it one to three inches above the specific acupuncture point for about 10 minutes.
Remember to press the point to make sure you've found the right point before moxibustion. If the point is tender, that's the spot, otherwise, try again.
Only a few acupuncture points, three shown here, are frequently used by ordinary people at home.
(Shanghai Daily December 28, 2007)