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Pins ‘n’ Needles

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Some sports can kill you… or at least cause serious pain. For me, a hobby that started in grade school—with a light-blue plastic Whammo frisbee tossed around with a family friend—became an Ultimate frisbee career that consumed most of my high school years and all of my college years, and continued straight on through my twenties. I suffered a catalog of injuries over the years, but none as earth-shattering as having my lower back go out on me. Ten years later, when it seemed that the old injury was making a comeback, I got desperate enough to consider acupuncture.

Since I didn’t know any Chinese, and the doctor’s English was thickly accented, I found myself distilling my injury down to its basic components: “Back tight; feels weak. Pain when I turn like this. I first hurt it about eleven years ago,” and so it went. She made extensive notes in Chinese, checked the pulses of my wrists, and examined my tongue from across the desk. “Inside, very weak. Low energy,” she pronounced gravely.

She explained that she was going to prepare bags of tea for me. The bags of herbs turned out to be brown paper bags packed with what appeared to be exotic yard clippings; twigs, bark, fungi, and a fascinating assortment of what I would have expected to see lining the terrarium housing an exotic lizard at the zoo. As for the finished tea, I discovered that my understanding of the term “bitter” was uninformed and naïve. She had me schedule another appointment later in the week.

Lying face down on a paper-covered massage table (with a hole in the paper punched out where my face should go), I wasn’t sure what to expect. It sounded like she was tearing open a Band-Aid wrapper. I then felt the pressure of a finger on a point on my back.

As I braced myself for the needle, I only felt the pressure of another finger. Still waiting for the needle, it was only when she lightly tapped the top of the needle and I felt a light pressure inside my muscle—bypassing any feeling on the skin—that I realized I’d already been stuck. As she continued this way at several more spots down my back, I realized that I had been clenching my fists, and let them open and relax. She finished up with a couple more needles in my lower legs. I couldn’t feel the needles in me, but trusting that they were there, I decided I would not try to roll over.

“Okay. Next we hook up electricity, okay?” she said. What?! Electricity? I was ready to make like a pincushion, but I was not prepared for currents running through me. She set a boxy console on the edge of the table and proceeded to deftly clip wires to the needles. I heard her softly say, “Electricity coming.” Momentarily, I realized that the muscles in my back seemed to be lightly pulsing. Gradually the pulsing got stronger, until my right foot started to flick as if keeping a beat. I thought of how electrical fires start in walls of old houses, and hoped something similar wouldn’t happen to me. I was left alone in the room, listening to my foot crinkle the paper underneath as it twitched. Mysteriously, my lower back started to get comfortably warm.

When the doctor returned twenty minutes later, I realized that I had been napping. After disconnecting the wires and deftly removing the needles, she quickly rubbed mentholated oil into my back. Next, I heard the sound of a box full of something (that turned out to be thick, glass orbs). This sound was followed by some squirting, and the grating of a lighter. Then I heard the whoosh of a flame. Kind of like getting a barbecue started, I thought. Next came the—presumably flaming—glass orb’s mouth being clapped onto my back. As the flame extinguished, my skin seemed to get pulled into the bowl. It felt like a strong pinch and a twist. After doing this about a dozen more times, the doctor exited the room, leaving me feeling a bit like a turtle with a shell made of thick glass orbs.

If this was all there was to the cupping massage, it wasn’t so bad, I thought to myself. And it was just as I was settling into this unjustified sense of confidence that the doctor returned. She removed the orbs, leaving only two of the smaller orbs. The doctor then used the small orbs to vigorously massage across my lower back. Up and down and across they went, feeling like they were ripping some skin as they went—which they weren’t. For those who correlate the effectiveness of a massage with palm perspiration, this is the massage style for you. Just when it started to feel like I couldn’t suppress a yelp, it ended. Now I understood why it was important for any business appointments to be scheduled earlier in the day, before receiving this type of massage.

Despite the tenderness on my back when I walked out of that office for the first time, my back felt looser than it had in a long while. Checking my back in a mirror at home, I saw that the cupping had left circular marks in various shades of maroon. The areas where I had especially felt in need of work were marked with darker circles. There were red strokes marking where the vigorous massage had raked my back. Unlike the typical one-hour boutique massage that leaves me smelling New-Agey and feeling only slightly looser, here was a massage that left me smelling like a Chinese apothecary and feeling thoroughly worked over. I had definitely gotten my money’s worth. I just wasn’t sure at the time how long it would last.

That was all a little over a year ago. I went in expecting to find a cure for my pain in a few sessions. What I actually received involved the gradual process of deepening my understanding of my own health. During this time, my back has become more resilient. My back recovers from regular aches and stiffness more normally now. Exercise keeps my back feeling healthy between sessions. Yoga has been a central part of that maintenance.

I go get stuck, jolted, and cupped once every four or five weeks, and drink a cup of the herbal tea a couple of times a week. The recipe for the herbs has changed over the months and now I see berries, seaweed (I think), and chalky blocks in my cup, in addition to the familiar twigs and bark. Our garden compost is super-powered by these additions, I’m sure. My treatments continue to evolve as my body responds. I even play Ultimate once in a while.

Illustration by Retsu Takahashi


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