TCM Chinese Medicine
When the World Health Organisation first began to endorse indigenous healing systems, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was on the top of the list. This is hardly surprising as its influence has spread further and wider than any other form of alternative therapy. Many spa treatments around the world have their roots in the ancient Chinese healing traditions. While practices vary due to the availability of ingredients and the skills of individual therapists, the fundamental concepts are very much the same.
TCM embraces the classic Taoist belief of a holistic and preventive approach to health by focusing on diet, exercise, and spiritual and emotional well being. Taoism is the fundamental healthcare philosophy that has been used by Chinese physicians, monks and meditators for more than 5’000 years, and with the present shift from Western thinking to a more integrative mind and body approach, it remains as relevant today as it was in classical China.
According to Taoism, the universe exists as a unified whole, comprising two opposing yet complementary forces known as yin and yang. It is the interplay between these forces that governs qi, the vital energy that flows along a network of channels or meridians to empower each and every organ in the body. Together with jing (essence) and shen (mind or spirit), they comprise the ‘Three Treasures’ that work in unison to maintain a person’s physical, spiritual and emotional health. The real beauty and benefit of TCM is that it treats the body as a whole, and aims to prevent illness by maintaining overall health and balance.
From massage therapy to acupuncture, moxibustion, herbal remedies and qigong, the practice of these ancient traditions continues to be encouraged, not only as healing procedures, but as an essential component to preserve vitality, longevity and good health.
Acupuncture enjoys immense popularity all over the world. It is based on the premise of balancing the flow of qi by inserting needles at specific acupoints along the body’s energy channels and meridians. To ensure that the skilled acupuncturist finds the exact position for the needle, he must first capture the qi, using a technique called deqi. This is done by twirling the needle a few times once in the skin, until the patient feels numbness, tightness and a dull pain as a gentle electric current is applied to the body to stimulate the qi. Needles are normally kept in place for up to 30 minutes, during which time various techniques can be used to either sedate, disperse or tone the qi for maximum effects.
Many diseases can be treated by acupuncture. Acupuncture is most suited to relieve the pain of specific conditions including digestive complaints, gynaecological and respiratory ailments, headaches and migraines, tennis elbow insomnia and muscular pain. Although Western medicine cannot explain in scientific terms exactly how acupuncture works, scientists know it does as its effects have been scientifically measured by monitoring changes in brain activity.
Moxa is the dried form of a herb commonly known as mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). By applying it to specific acupoints, its warming and invigorating properties penetrate the skin and activate the body’s internal energy. Moxibustion can be traced back to Chinese peasants who burnt herbs and placed them around specific parts of the body to relieve pain. The most common form of moxa used today is the moxa stick, a compressed moxa leaf resembling a mini cigar, which when lit is held or rotated above the skin of the affected area, causing heat to enter the body. This stimulates the circulation of blood and qi.
As both acupuncture and moxibustion help remove blockages along the meridian pathways, they can be combined for maximum effect. The end of the moxa stick can either be lit and held above the skin to warm the acupoint, or an acupuncture needle can be stuck directly into a moxa stick, which is then lit. When lit, the herb releases a curative effect that is released into the body.
Chinese Acupressure Massage
Acupressure is a term encompassing any number of massage techniques that use manual pressure to stimulate energy points in the face and body. Targeting specific acupoints, firm hand and finger pressure is artfully applied to release energy obstructions and stimulate qi. The acupressure technique can be used in conjunction with other massage styles and is especially beneficial for relieving constipation, diarrhoea, insomnia, back pain and poor digestion.
In TCM, the foot constitutes a full representation of the entire body with reflex points corresponding to every organ and gland. For example, the big toe is connected to the head, and manually stimulating it eases headaches and tension. A skilled reflexologist uses thumb pressure to press and deeply massage each of the tiny reflex zones in the feet to stimulate and activate the body’s natural healing mechanisms and rebalance the qi. Reflexology is suitable for all ages and has been shown to help relax the body and treat a wide range of acute and chronic conditions from postnatal depression to constipation, diarrhoea, insomnia, back pain and muscle pain, as well as skin problems.
Cupping is an effective way of removing stagnant qi and realigning the body’s internal energy balance naturally. Heated cups are strategically placed at various acupressure points on the skin. Using a pump to remove the air inside the cups, the vacuum cups help to increase the local circulation of qi and invigorate the body thoroughly.
Loosely translated as ‘to scrape for cholera’ or ‘scrape for fever’, this ancient technique is still widely practised throughout China to reduce fever, headaches, muscular injuries and improve circulation, amongst other functions. The term ‘gua‘ means, ‘to scrape’ and ‘sha‘ refers to the sudden attack of illness such as cholera or sunstroke during the summer and autumn seasons. ‘Sha‘ also refers to rashes. Before the actual gua sha treatment begins, liquid medicine is rubbed on the painful area or acupoints to stimulate blood circulation in the body. The therapist then scrapes the skin using either a ceramic Chinese soup spoon, a simple metal cap or a jade or horn blade, with repeated strokes from top to bottom according to the direction of blood flow. Some blood capillaries will break, releasing blood which leads to the visible purple and black bruises that remain after treatment. Such stimulation can promote blood circulation and remove obstruction and toxins from the body, thereby relieving pain.
Literally translated as ‘press and rub’, tui na is the oldest form of Chinese acupressure massage that uses deep digital stimulation on vital points along the meridians to stimulate qi and relieve pain and fatigue. This rejuvenating therapy is especially beneficial for treating colds and headaches, insomnia, intestinal upsets, lower back pain, stiff neck and hormonal imbalances, although sensitive areas such as the face and neck may require gentler movements.
Chi Nei Tsang
Chi nei tsang is a term loosely used to describe an internal organ massage of the abdominal area, believed to have been developed by Chinese Taoist monks as a method of detoxifying and strengthening the body. Chi nei tsang is based on the belief that the abdominal area (specifically the lower abdomen around the navel) is the centre of energy in the body. It is also the key location where metabolic processes such as digestion, detoxification and energy processing take place and the area where stress, tension and negative emotions can accumulate and congest. While other massage techniques work from the periphery inwards, chi nei tsang massage techniques target the internal organs, and work from the centre of the body outwards, cleansing and nourishing the organs. The procedure helps to improve circulation, stimulates the lymphatic system and eliminate toxins. This form of massage is also thought to help correct misalignment of the feet, legs and pelvis and to relieve chronic pain in the back, neck and shoulders. One’s emotional wellbeing becomes balanced too as negative emotion, stored in the digestive system, is cleared from the body.
For thousands of years, Chinese medicinal plants have played an integral role in helping to prevent illness and promote health and longevity. Thus, herbalists in ancient China were paid to maintain their patients’ health.
Through the centuries, the definition of ‘Chinese herb’ has expanded to include mineral elements as well as animal and animal parts – bones of tigers, deer antlers, dried gecko, seahorses, pig’s bile, oyster shell, pearls and kaolin are some examples. Chinese dispensaries stock herbs in their raw form or as processed medicines in the form of extracts and tinctures, oils and potions, as well as preparations ground to create ointments or poultices.
Herbs are classified according to their nature (hot, warm, cool or cold), taste (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, salty and bland), effectiveness and methods of preparation. Additionally, their basic biochemical composition and medicinal effects are considered, which together determine what herbalists cal the ‘natural affinities’. For instance, herbs used for liver ailments share an affinity with the liver meridian. When the herb is broken down in the body, its energy enters the liver meridian, and its therapeutic action directly targets the liver. Some spas may include herbal teas and tonics in their menus to complement physical treatments and re-establish the body’s natural equilibrium. Some of the commonly used Chinese herbs today consist of ginseng (Radix panax ginseng), a powerful tonic that stimulates the nervous and endocrine systems and increases the body’s vital energy; chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), drunk as a ‘tea’ which soothes and calms the stomach and is especially beneficial for treating menstrual problems; and dang gui (Radix angelica sinensis or Chinese angelica), considered the queen of women’s herbs. Dang gui is a tonic for the blood, helping to regulate the menstrual cycle and invigorate the entire system. It can be eaten raw or cooked, alone or combined with other herbs, in capsules or in liquid form.