Moxibustion is becoming quite well-known in the West, primarily because it is frequently used in combination with acupuncture—in fact, the chances you might encounter the modality are actually pretty high. This funny-sounding form of treatment involves burning dried leaves or floss from the equally-funny-sounding wormwood plant (better known as moxa) near or directly on the body, usually at the sites of acupoints. It may sound odd, but moxibustion treatments tend to be deeply relaxing and feel especially pleasantly warming to people who suffer from cold conditions.
When moxa burns it gives off a thick and pungent but pleasant-smelling smoke that, frankly speaking, smells just a little bit like marijuana (naturally, I'm speaking of medical marijuana—I wouldn’t know what that other kind smells like). The herb has been both burned externally and boiled in herbal decoctions for centuries because of its versatile nature—in addition to dispelling cold, it both warms and opens the meridians. Furthermore, moxa is said by some to enter the meridians of all of the zang-fu organs, and as its qi moves through the body, it is capable of bringing along the qi of whatever other herbs are being burned along with it. One could wax poetic for endless pages about important herb—in fact, two-and-a-half millennia ago, even Mencius took the time to jot down a few notes on how to use the herb.
Below we’ll look at the four main ways burning moxa is used.
Warm Needle Technique
Detailed above in the acupuncture section, this technique involves affixing a small ball of moxa to the end of an acupuncture needle that has already been inserted into your body. Once the moxa is lit, its heat and qi will move into your body through the needle. Acupuncture needles are long enough that the heat from the moxa ember won’t be enough to cause pain or burning. Paper or cloth is placed around the needle so that falling ash won’t burn your skin.
Moxa atop Ginger or Fuzi
The burning of small moxa cones atop a slice of raw ginger or a “cake” of the herb fuzi is a common and very effective method used to tonify yang qi and dispel dampness. Your doctor will place a slice of raw ginger or a cake of fuzi atop an acupoint in order both to protect your skin and so that the medical effects of these herbs can complement those of the burning moxa, and then light the cone from the top. As it burns downwards, its qi and heat will enter the body, yielding very pleasant warming sensations and sometimes very distinct feelings of qi moving in the body or the expulsion of pernicious cold. When the fire burns too low it will sometimes become too hot to tolerate, at which point your doctor will remove the ginger slice or fuzi cake.
Definitely not meant for smoking, these “cigars” look like giant cigarettes, stuffed tight with ground moxa leaves. They can be conveniently held by hand or by specially-designed tools which keep the burning tip fixed at a safe distance from your body. Your doctor may use moxa cigars in either one of these ways, and in some cases patients are taught to burn moxa cigars at home in order to continue the healing process between visits to the clinic. This method is very safe and gets used daily in tens of thousands of households around China, but one must be very attentive not to let the burning tip of the cigar get too close to one’s skin or flammable objects.
Direct On-Skin Burning
In Old China, burning moxa directly on the skin was once a very common method of treatment with a reputation for being extremely effective, but it is now very rarely used because of the pain, blistering, and even scarring that it can cause. Medical records from ancient history reveal that the ancients sometimes used very large amounts of moxa for on-skin burning, and even in modern times methods remain in use which can raise a blister as long and thick as a snake running the length of the spine! Other methods, such as burning moxa cones just below the belly button, are legendary for their ability to restore the body’s yang qi and even, legend has it, contribute to the qi cultivation of needed for kung-fu mastery. For this reason, to this day some Chinese and Korean people still grit their teeth and feel the heat, both in the few clinics that still offer this kind of treatment, and at home.
Since the heroic side of TCM has not really entered the West and is now also quite rare in China, you are not likely to encounter any situations where a large amount of moxa is used directly on the skin. However, if you see a practitioner of traditional Korean medicine (an offshoot of TCM that evolved in Korea under the influence of both Chinese and Korean culture), there is a chance you will be offered treatment that involves burning tiny, sesame seed-sized kernels of moxa floss directly on top of acupoints. This method causes a seconds-long burning pain, redness or mild blistering, and a scar that may take as long as several months to completely disappear. Since few patients are interested in any methods that cause pain and mild injury, not to mention permanent scars, the chances of meeting this type of moxibustion are very slim.
Warning 1 (of the semi-humorous, semi-serious variety)
Alright, young’uns, something tells me that I need to say the following… First of all, yes, moxa does smell a bit like weed, and yes, moxa cigars do look like something one could attempt to smoke. Don’t do it. I promise you, moxa smoke inhaled into the lungs will just bring misery. It carries a hot resin that will probably coat your windpipe and leave you coughing in spasms, and I don’t even want to think what the qi of this smoke would do to the body if drawn straight into the lungs. From the bottom of my heart I promise, if I had ever come across a single piece of evidence that moxa was used to produce a pleasant high anywhere or anytime in China’s long history, I’d tell you (the Chinese, like humanity everywhere, have been getting high off of this and that for centuries, and the ancients left behind plenty of prose, poetry, and art related to the drug culture of bygone days), but it’s just not used that way. Making moxa brownies would be even worse—I have taken herbal medicine decoctions containing moxa leaf and I have only two comments: one, they are amongst the foulest tasting potions out there; two, no, not even the tiniest buzz, sorry. Young whippersnappers, don’t waste your precious Duncan Hines mix on an experiment so sure to go wrong.
Warning 2 (of the serious variety)
At-home, D.I.Y. moxibustion is very popular in China and some readers might be introduced to this method of self-care by Asian friends or popular TCM literature. Unfortunately, there is a conception out there that moxibustion is always safe and carries no side effects. However, this is not the case. The moxa herb is very warming and therefore its properties are very yang. According to yin-yang theory, this means that improperly used moxibustion can easily harm your body’s yin qi, the most obvious symptoms of which would be inducing night sweats, hot flashes and flushing, and/or sweating at the palms of the hand and soles of the feet. If one is unlucky, overuse/misuse could cause even bigger trouble. It is generally considered safe to judiciously perform a bit of self-moxibustion at acupoints like zu san li and a few others, but I recommend first checking with your TCM healthcare provider before adding moxibustion to your self-care health regimen.
Also, if you do choose to practice self-moxibustion, be aware that you should only purchase moxa that has been aged for three years or longer from reliable sources (again, ask your TCM doc or pharmacist). Well-aged moxa has a much lower likelihood of harming your body’s yin qi, as described directly above.
Finally, don’t let that burning ember touch your skin or your sofa—and let your neighbors know what the smell is, unless you want them calling the cops on you for smoking what appears to be the world’s largest joint!