Gua Sha

Arriving at a spa for a post-banquet midnight massage, we’re offered as a complimentary ‘gua sha’ or ‘baguan’ treatment. Sorin and Heather have gone home, so it’s just Guoliang, Bobby and I. Guoliang tells us that baguan involves applying flaming glass spheres to the back, and results in your back looking like it’s been attacked by a giant squid, with huge circular marks about 2″ in diameter scattered across your back.

But none of us want to have unsightly marks on our back, so we opt for gua sha, which Guoliang describes as a gentle scraping of your back to release toxins.  I love a good exfoliation as much as the next guy, and this sounds like bliss.

The three men are massaged in the same room, the three of us side-by-side.  We change into disposable ‘modesty’ boxers, and we all lay face-down on the table.  I get the oldest and most experienced masseur, Bobby the next one, and Guoliang gets a young guy who looks to be 12 and has a voice like Michael Jackson (he is actually 27.)

We are oiled up and kneaded until our muscles relent and are too painful to be tense. Our shoulders, arms, hands, backs, sides, buttocks, thighs, and calves are all given attention. We are covered with a layer of aromatherapy oils and the three-part percussion is played in slaps.

Then it is time for the complimentary gua sha (刮痧). I feel a gentle scraping that runs across my back from top to bottom and from my spine to my sides. It feels wonderful. I love getting my back scratched, and this feels amazing. The only sound I make is an occasional gentle moan.

When we’re done, Bobby and Guoliang are complaining about pain and burning in their backs. I don’t understand, because I feel wonderful.  But then they turn around…

gua sha (guoliang) / shanghai, china

gua sha (bobby) / shanghai, china

Gua Sha involves scraping the back with well-work coins to remove unhealthy toxins from below the skin. It typically results in bruise-like marks that last for several days. There are long (and a bit defensive) articles on the web about why this is good for you.

While Bobby’s marks are almost tribal, Guoliang’s are an angry splash across his back and look incredibly painful. (Guoliang is above and Bobby below.)  The boy made up for his lack of experience with enthusiasm, and dug deep. Both Bobby and Guoliang complain of feeling like they have a very bad sunburn, such as you would have after falling asleep on a tropical beach. For several days in a row.

I have very few marks on my back, and no pain at all. Apparently I had the yáng guǐzi version of gua aha, while Guoliang and Bobby got the full-on medical-grade coining.

Meanwhile, Xián has been getting a similar massage in another room.  When she emerges, we learn that she was offered a different freebie… a complimentary ear cleaning. Guoliang winces every time he is touched, but Xián is radiant and she hears everything we say perfectly.

3 thoughts on “Gua Sha

  1. while i greatly enjoyed the massage i received in Beijing, it was nothing like this, and it was the 2nd best expert muscle massage of my life. all the masseurs there were blind men. you all were courageous!

  2. I have performed gua sha as a practitioner and the cupping, too. Americans are sort of freaked out by it because of the welts it leaves (temporarily). But afterwards your back pain may be better! I had a teacher who liked to cup the area around the armpit which she called the well of toxins. The bruising was always the darkest there. How did you all feel several days later?

    • Bobby and Guoliang are both feeling great, and the marks are fading fast. Sorin had cupping done a few days ago, and those also seem to be fading pretty quickly. (His cupping was done by a blind masseuse, and the pattern is very beautiful.)

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