When I was training Tai chi and especially the fire Tai chi (it really should simply be called Kung Fu) for 6 or 7 hours a day at the Five Immortals temple in China, the one thing that totally saved my life…ok my knees…, was moxibustion. Our knees were so sore from all the intensive training, that we needed moxa sticks to help heal them.
What is moxibustion?
Moxibustion is a method of heat healing in traditional Chinese medicine in which you burn herbs, usually Artemisia (also known as mugwort) over or on the skin. It has been practiced for over 2500 years. Chinese medicine practitioners use this method on the meridians or acupuncture points.
The Artemisia can be in a cone form or in a stick. In the Daoist medicine course that I followed, we also used moxa boxes where we simply placed grounded artemisia inside of them.
What are the benefits of moxibustion?
In addition to help cure or prevent illnesses, it has a tonification and warming effect on the body. Also, it enhances your chi and blood flow. It actually removes the cold and the dampness in the body. Therefore, it can be used on deficient type of illnesses (when you’re lacking energy and feel weak).
Not only can moxibustion help with fatigue and feeling weak, it can help with a multitude of illnesses such as:
- Cold and the flu
- Reduces phlegm
- Lowers pain (chronic, muscle, joint, arthritis pain)
- Lowers inflammation
- Digestive issues (diarrhea, inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome)
- Menstrual cramps (exception: if you have excessive bleeding, avoid this method)
- Insect repellent
- Purifies air, antiviral and antifungal
- Its oil cures snake poison
- So much more…
How to make moxa sticks?
The form of moxibustion that we used the most, were moxa sticks, they look like a big cigar. One afternoon, we went in the Guan Yin temple, where the senior students pored a bunch of dried up artemisia leaves on the table. We needed to rub the leaves between our hands to grind them as much as possible and little by little take out the sticks. If you don’t take out the sticks, they will break through the paper. Let me warn you, the leaves have a strong smell, so it will stick to your hands for a while.
Once your leaves are grinded, you can grab one or two sheets of moxibustion paper. At the temple, we used prayer paper. We put the artemisia in a tube to compact it. Then, we pushed it out and formed a line on the edge of the paper and started rolling it. You might want to try a few times to make sure the herbs are really compacted in there and won’t fall out on the sides. Roll it until right before the end of the paper and put some glue on the whole length of it. We made non-toxic glue out of flour and water. Once you have finished rolling it up and it has been properly glued, let it completely dry before using it. There you have it, your very own moxibustion stick!
We also made some with a box that rolled up cigars, it worked like a charm! You can also easily find moxa sticks online if you don’t want to make them yourself.
How to use a moxibustion stick
Now that you have made your moxibustion stick, this is how you’re going to use it. Find the specific spot where you have the most pain (for now you don’t need to learn all the acupuncture points). You can start by simply massaging that area. Get a lighter, light the end of the stick. Bring it to about 2 or 3 cm (1 or 2 inches) away from your skin. Please do not directly touch the skin, you will most definitely be saying ouch.
With your moxibustion stick, you will start by doing a circle with the yin yang line in the middle just one time. Then, you will only make circles by rotating around the painful spot for the rest of the time. You can stay on that one spot for about 45 minutes, it can also be done in 20 minutes in certain instances and depending on how close you do it. You also spend that time listening to an audiobook or a podcast.
After a while, when it got too uncomfortable, I would just slightly move to the side, but if you stay on the painful spot that’s good. Try your best to stay at the maximum of your discomfort. The skin needs to get red and if it sweats, it’s all the better. You can do this once a day for 5 to 7 consecutive days on the same spot.
After that, you need to wait 4 or 5 days before doing it again on that spot. When you are done using it, but the stick isn’t finished, take off the part that is burning, you can smash it and keep the rest for later.
The first time I did it, I remember thinking “ahh it’s not that uncomfortable”. Then a senior student came up and did it correctly and I was yelling “Hot, hot, hot!!!”. Though honestly, as long as your skin gets red, that will be already good enough.
What you need to do after you have done moxibustion
You have to keep warm! The problem is, if it is windy outside, you will lose half of your results. If it is cold and windy and you have to go outside, then bundle yourself up as much as possible. Put on those layers!!! Whenever you do any type of heat healing, for the first 24 hours, DON’T:
- Drink cold drinks
- Eat cold food
- Take a shower
The dangers and problems with moxibustion
One of the issues is if you touch the skin or get too close, you can burn yourself and cause your skin to get a blister. You only want a blister with certain diseases when you want to bring the water out. If you get a blister, do not continue using moxibustion until your skin has completely healed. You can pop it and squeeze it out, but don’t rub it off.
I used the moxibustion on my stomach too close one day. Since the skin is much thinner there compared to your leg, I made a blister there that took a really long time to heal. If you need to do it on your stomach, keep the stick further away from your body compared to other parts.
Avoid using moxibustion if you have high blood pressure, constipation, common nose bleeds, common gum bleed, hemorrhoid bleed, diabetes or very heavy bleeding during your menstruation. If you are pregnant or have any illness, check first with your doctor if this a method you can use. I do advise you to first try moxibustion with a Traditional Chinese medicine doctor so that you can see and experience it how it is properly done.
One issue when you do it inside, is that it smells like smoke for a while. Some even say it smells like marijuana, so be careful where you use this. One day, I came back to the bedroom and thought my roommate had been smoking in it. She had actually only been doing moxibustion on her knees inside because it was too cold outside. For the next day, she found a better solution for the both of us. She did it by the fire in the shed, so she got double the heating power!
Other types of moxibustion
I used the moxa box for my ovary pain during my period. I tried two types of boxes: one big wooden one where we put the Artemisia inside of it through the top part (see photo below). The second one was actually a moxa belt, it consisted of several round metal boxes in which we put some Artemisia in it. Then we put the metal boxes in pouches that were connected by the belt. The material was bright pink. I looked kind of ridiculous with this big bright belt with metal boxes around my lower belly…ugh menstruation is tough…
I prefer the box for stomach issues and cramps, because I feel more the heat with that method. But with this one, you can’t move around and you have to lay on your back.
Moxibustion works very well on healing sore muscles and pains. A bunch of students and I can attest to that! For leg and knee pain, I like using the moxa sticks but if I have stomach pain I prefer the moxa box, I feel safer of not burning myself with it ^^
I think it’s better if you have someone who shows you how to use it the first time. If you have any doubts if you can use it or not, check with your doctor first.
Have you ever tried moxibustion? How did it feel? If you have any questions about moxa, share in the comments!
The Daoist medicine foundational methods course from the Five Immortals temple from October to November 2019.