The real story behind those giant back hickies
As if Michael Phelps needed purple circular marks to accentuate those famous winged shoulder blades. Mega-hickies? Nope. Michael Phelps didn't get punked by a weird love-biting ritualist; he got cupped.
But cupping, a type of acupuncture, is not just for heavy-medaled Olympians, movie stars or masochists. It’s beneficial for more than tight muscles, serving as the world's oldest treatment for tuberculosis and a modern-day prescription for patients undergoing mastectomies. It's also used for insomnia, migraines, allergies, skin issues, tennis elbow, cooties and the whole gamut of living body woes.
And it's not only found in the Far East or swanky Beverly Hills spas but right here in Durango, where a burgeoning community of licensed acupuncturists treats the full spectrum of humanity, from professional athletes to gout-stricken chefs and curious Gonzo journalists.
As I lay toasty between soft, flannel sheets, Megan Lott's calming voice explained that cupping can be used as an “aggressive energy treatment,” meaning it has the potential to churn the emotional butter, causing one in 10 patients to start bawling. I did a quick soul check, wondering if "Joyce," my irrational alter ego, was around. All clear. No waterworks today.
Lott isn't at all how I pictured a practitioner of Oriental medicine. Before my crash course at her practice, my Hollywood-trained mind imagined a grumpy Chinaman hurriedly poking needles in my most tender flesh as I lay on a hard table in a cold, sterile room, scared to move or breathe for fear the spikes would strike some special nerve and I’d be paralyzed forever. Joyce thoughts.
But that’s not how this story goes.
First of all, Lott, a smiling miracle worker with curly blonde hair and bright eyes, is far from grumpy. She first discovered acupuncture in Thailand over a decade ago and moved to Santa Fe to attend the Southwest Acupuncture School. Five years ago, she relocated to Durango with her husband and two daughters.
Her warmly lit office at Surya Wellness Center feels more like a cozy suite, replete with classical, wave-soaked music. An initial visit kicks off with a bit of paperwork on patient history, a pulse reading and tongue diagnosis, clues collected for her detective work to understand what's going on in a patient's body.
Then the fun begins. Like other Durango acupuncturists, Lott uses fire cupping, a method where an alcohol-soaked cotton ball is lit by a flame and introduced into a glass jar, creating a vacuum. The cotton ball is removed and the glass sucked onto oiled skin. The cup is then left in place or moved around.
While chiropractic work is more for the bones and structure of the body, cupping is for the tissue and muscles. It's basically the inverse of massage: rather than applying pressure into muscles, the suction from the cups pulls skin, tissue and muscles upward. The upward force orchestrates something called the qi meridian – and this is where it gets weird for our skeptical Westernized minds.
Qi, pronounced chee, is the basis of traditional Chinese medicine. Much like prana in Hinduism and mana in Hawaiian culture, qi means "breath" or "life force." The qi meridian is the path along which energy flows through a body. The point of all acupuncture is to get the qi, or blood, flowing, enhancing circulation in stressed-out bodies.
As Lott conducted my qi, moving the glass jars around, I wondered if my pale back would be spackled with those sexy spherical suction spots, like Jennifer Aniston. Lott told me I was healthy so there was no need for her to go too deep. Besides, the dark spots aren't bruises; they're really just ruptured capillaries. The discoloration is caused by toxins, or inflammation, brought to the surface of the skin.
Adam Hutchison, owner of Groundswell Acupuncture, later explained that the first time a patient is cupped, there's going to be inflammation, a sign of stasis, which leads to disease. As treatments continue, a body becomes a lot more vital and "less stuck," until stasis dissipates altogether.
"It’s like these little mini hugs," Hutchison says. "It's calming."
And who doesn't need more calm? After all, says Lott, stress is at the root of any bodily dysfunction. In light of this, she aims to make her treatments as nurturing as possible, that is, the opposite of my acupuncture nightmare.
My nightmare reads more like dry needling, which involves a forceful needling of a single trigger point or muscle area. The process can be learned over a weekend course versus the four-year graduate programs that licensed acupuncturists endure.
"Acupuncture is so good for emotional release," says Lott, who earned her Masters of Science in Oriental medicine in 2007. "You have to throw a little chocolate at the heart when you're treating pain. It should be yummy."
Lott's passion is getting her most sensitive patients to forget any discomfort, thus the added bonus of heat therapy, essential oils, massage and guided meditation sprinkled throughout a visit. As Lott worked her magic and my body sank into the table, those visions of a torture chamber all but disappeared – until I had to flip on my back for the part of the treatment I was most unsure of: needles.
Chocolate for the heart, I thought, as I shifted under the heated sheets and Lott draped another blanket over my upper body, exposing my vulnerable belly. Lott showed me the hair-thin needles. So tiny, they were almost flimsy. And no need to worry about HIV; when she's done with them, they get thrown in a jar, and, when the jar is full, sent to the graveyard of used acupuncture spines to be incinerated.
I braced myself for pain, wincing bravely as she inserted the first prick but felt nothing. She continued to place more: one for the meaty spot between my right thumb and forefinger, one in my left foot, another on my forehead for calming, one in my stomach for centering, and still another in my left forearm. She says they were placed strategically, connecting my qi meridians to release stress, get rid of stagnation, and for overall balancing and better immunity. She calls it a "general tune-up."
"It's like I was opening different gateways in the body so they could move more freely," Lott explained after. "I basically took out the road blocks in the highway."
I lay there like a human porcupine, enjoying the newfound sensation. Lott told me she usually leaves the room during this time so a patient can relax. Most people fall asleep, she says. But considering this was business, she stayed and told me all about the different benefits of Acupuncture while she ran her fingers through my hair – maybe the best feeling on the planet.
After a couple of moments in nirvana, Lott showed me some of the funkier sides of Oriental medicine. She went to a closet that might as well lead to Narnia and pulled out a bag of loose moxa (which comes from the healing herb, mugwort), pinching a clump between her spindly fingers. After placing it directly onto the needle balanced below my navel, she lit it on fire. Smoke wafted and I felt warmth in my belly. She uses this method, called moxibustion, to “tonify qi,” she said.
As my qi tonified, Lott filled a tiger warmer (think a long cylindrical metal container, about the size of a ball point pen) with a moxa incense stick. She lit the incense and gently drew heat along my neck and sinuses. She explained that dampness in the body is seen as the giant culprit in Chinese medicine, and the tiger warmer is good for removing dampness from the body, shifting mucus from sinuses and bringing warmth to achy joints.
For the grand finale, Lott wielded her mighty, whimsical, wonderful ... soup spoon. I flipped onto my stomach again (the needles had been plucked out), and she rubbed the sipping tool along my back, a process called Gua Sha.
The spoon, like the other mysterious instruments, felt dreamy. Had I stumbled into Hogwarts, I wondered? Would I get to sip some Polyjuice Potion or dip my toe in lizard guts? I would've, had she offered, for nothing matters when you're sunk in the Draught of Peace.
"My husband always says, 'you're such a witch, but in a good way,'" laughs Lott, who often practices on her family at home.
But the lotions, potions, gadgets and gizmos are just one step in holistic health. At the end of a treatment, Lott issues therapeutic yoga poses or herbal supplement suggestions. She recommends that patients with particular ailments schedule appointments twice a week for the first two weeks. As symptoms improve, visits can be spaced out to one a week, then two a month, and so on, till, eventually "you're on your way," says Lott.
"My goal is to help people make lifestyle changes so that they don't need to see me forever," says Lott.
An hour after stepping into Lott's lair, I had drunk the Kool-Aid. The practical magic of Oriental medicine added a level of insight into this body of mine I'd never experienced. It was wild and, above all, more relaxing than any massage I've ever had. I walked out, mind-blown, judgments vanquished, swimming in my body. Maybe that's all Phelps was up to in those brazen bong-ripping years; he was simply, as Lott says, "acu-stoned."
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