I'll Try Anything Once: DIY Moxibustion

I did not burn the house down in the name of traditional Chinese medicine, though I kept my neighborhood-crazy-lady rep by waving what looked like an enormous joint around my knee for 15 minutes.

Jan 17, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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Since I’m an acupuncture fan, dabbling in other traditional Chinese medicine treatments isn’t terribly strange for me. Whenever my acupuncturist suggests a new remedy, I’m almost always into it. Herbal supplements or hot glass cupping? I’m so there.

After last month’s parkour session, I showed up in her clinic with a ridiculous bruise on my knee. I showed it off proudly like a battle scar. In response, she handed me a cigar.

Only it wasn’t a cigar. It was a moxa stick.

“Try this at home,” she instructed. “Burn it close to your bruise to break up the blood clusters. It might take a few rounds, but depending on the bruise, you might watch it disappear as you treat it.”

I’ve had moxa treatments as part of my overall acupuncture treatment before. Moxibustion is a centuries-old method of burning mugwort herb near (or directly on! ow!) a tense or inflamed area to loosen and soothe the body. Some folks use it to help with fertility and hold burning moxa near their abdomen to make the uterus warm and hospitable. Others, like me, use it sort of like arnica, which also purportedly treats bruises, aches, and pains.

But I’d never seen one of the sticks, nor did I know this was something I could try at home.

Back in my apartment, I first made the embarrassing mistake of trying to unwrap the thing. (I did not admit this to my acupuncturist, but she will read this and lovingly tease me about it later.) It may look like a giant cigar, but since I don’t smoke, what the shit do I know about how this sort of thing works?

I insisted that I couldn’t set the paper on fire -- I'd burn the house down! -- but then you know I had dusty herbal clumps all over the floor. Doh. I wrapped it back up and went to find some matches.

My partner Andreas is admittedly more levelheaded than I am and could already tell I hadn’t researched a thing before diving in. I had two packs of matches in my hand when he stopped me.

“Hang on before you do that,” he instructed. Then he asked aloud as he Googled, “Can I burn moxa inside?”

We don’t have any sort of ventilation system in our bathroom -- around here, it's called opening the windows -- so burning something inside is generally not recommended. We’re lucky that opening all the windows after cooking something steamy and smelly isn’t an issue in the mild San Francisco winter weather.

Moxa smells nice, but everything around it -- maybe your whole apartment? -- will actually stink if you burn it. If you have crappy ventilation like we do, you might get a headache. Know how you smell after sitting next to a campfire? It’s like that, only you smell more like a hippie than a...a different kind of hippie?

A minute later, Andreas announced simply, “No, don’t burn that in here. You should go out on the porch.” Some random blog was more helpful than we’d anticipated.

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So I bundled up, put Malcolm the cat on his leash (more on this soon), and carried my moxa stick, matches, and a bowl of rice (to extinguish the stick) out to our obscenely nice rooftop patio.

I pay to live in a shoebox-sized studio in downtown San Francisco, but the view is worth it.

Then I kept my neighborhood-crazy-lady rep by waving what looked like an enormous joint around my knee for the next 15 minutes.

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An at-home moxa treatment has one other aromatic aspect to consider. Again, being a non-smoker, I didn’t realize that any breeze at all might make the little glowing stick puff like crazy and cause a coughing fit if the smoke came my way. It took an embarrassingly long time for me to find a position in which I could both relax and breathe normally.

But more than trying to dodge inhaling clouds of moxa smoke, it was nice to sit outdoors after dark, relishing the view while the cat yowled at a tabby in the next building. The area around my knee warmed up quickly, and I saw a few signs that my bruise might have started to dissipate.

When Malcolm and I eventually came back in, Andreas looked up at me in the loving way he always does when I’ve been doing something he thinks is both amusing and incomprehensible. “You guys have fun?” he asked. He patted Malcolm on the head, then he inspected my knee, looking for a sign that the healing had begun.

I did two more patio stints with my moxa stick, and by the end of the week, my bruise had all but disappeared.

Would a ginormous purple and yellow contusion go away so quickly otherwise? I guess I’ll just have to bang myself up trying to get in shape and find out.