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Do Alternative Therapies Really Work? Eastern Cures For Western Problems [And I'm sorry in advance for the picture.]

Posted Apr 26 2013 1:16am

THIS. Just. I have no. Ah. Okay, what in the 7th circle of Dante’s nightmare IS THIS?! (Seriously, pause and take a guess – I’d LOVE to see in the comments how many of you got this right just from looking at the picture!)


This picture? Is the back of a man who has just received a Gua Sha treatment, a type of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Those red lines, by the way, aren’t paint. They’re broken blood vessels and bruises from the “scraping” performed as part of the treatment.

This noise? Is the sound of me screaming and doing a full-body shudder before wondering if anyone looking at my search history will think I’m into torture porn. (Dear loved ones, in the event of my untimely passing or incarceration please please do not look at my search history. It is a weird, scary world out there and apparently Googling health topics brings out the best of that.)

Um, excuse me, Charlotte: Your ignorance is showing.

When Shape assigned me to write about “Eastern Cures for Western Workout Problems” I immediately replied to my editor reminding her of my natural skepticism for all things kooky, er, outside traditional American medicine. She wrote back and told me to get over myself. Which I’m sincerely trying to do! I’ve had a whole lifetime of “western” programming, see, but I am getting better! I’m finally at a point in my life where I can admit the benefits to acupuncture (in theory, I still haven’t tried it) and see the relief provided by a chiropractors (again, in theory, since they still scare the ever-loving crap out of me ). Plus I’ve been burned often enough by conventional medical wisdom to know there is a lot (LOT) to be desired in our current medical system. But there are still some health treatments out there that I really struggle to understand and see the benefit of. I mean, did you SEE that guy up there?! They basically beat him bloody with a blunt object and he paid them for the privilege!

So really this article was perfect for me! Take a non-believer, make her interview a bunch of experts and she’ll be converted! Did it work? Eh… maybe. A little. But many people do not share my reticence when it comes to alternative therapies.

Gwyneth Paltrow told Oprah she’s a lifelong fan “because it just works.” Robert Downey Jr. confessed he’s “as close to being a Chinese-American as any Caucasian ever could be in his life” thanks to his love of it. And supermodel Elle McPherson trusts it so much that she puts her million-dollar body completely in its care,  saying, “I do choose to look after my body from a Chinese medicine perspective, which promotes and maintains wellness rather than treats illness.” (A perspective I really agree with, by the way. Preventative care, for the win!) It’s official: Traditional Chinese Medicine is making a modern comeback! Caught up in the marvels of modern medicine it can be easy to forget that once upon a time there was no Icy Hot and Ibuprofen. And yet people still had ways, many of them ingenious, to deal with the soreness, pain, fatigue and other problems that come from leading an active lifestyle. And now you don’t even need to be a celebrity to reap the benefits of this ancient wisdom. Check it:

6 Eastern therapies that could help cure your Western workout woes: 

Gua sha

Stretching merely an afterthought in your workout? For too many of us flexibility takes a backseat to other goals like getting stronger, faster or just sweatier. Yet flexibility is a key component of good health and injury prevention. But you aren’t limited to boring static stretches after a treadmill session; Gua Sha, a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), offers an Eastern antidote to this Western issue.

 Gua Sha is performed by a practitioner who first lubricates the skin with oils and then firmly “scrapes” the skin with repeated strokes using a round-edged instrument like a Chinese soupspoon, a blunt bottle cap or or even an animal bone. The scraping is continued along the acupuncture or “balance meridians” until small red or purple spots, called “sha”, appear on the skin. Depending on the pressure used, these spots range from subcutaneous blemishing to bruising or broken capillaries and may take several days to weeks to disappear. The treatment can be soothing or quite aggressive depending on the person performing it and intensity of the desired treatment. The name, gua sha, literally means “scrape sand” in Chinese and describes the goal of treatment which is to “scrape away disease by allowing the disease to escape as sandy-looking objects through the skin.”

While it is generally performed over certain energy spots, or “meridians”, over the entire body it can be used to treat specific areas as well. Lisa Alvarez, MSOM, L.Ac. and co-founder of Healing Foundations , an Oriental medicine practice, explains that Gua Sha is used to not only increase flexibility but also does wonders for “releasing muscle tension and stiffness” from a hard workout.  She adds that it also helps with other conditions caused by tight or sore muscles like TMJ (or clenched-jaw pain) and tension headaches.


When you’re struggling to eke out that last squat, the last thing on your mind is air pollution. But according to Alvarez, you should because both internal and external toxins accumulate in the body over time and can significantly affect your muscle endurance. One way to to release this toxic buildup is a TCM technique called cupping.

 Cupping is done by placing little cups strategically over your body. The 1- to 3- inch cups, which are generally made of glass or plastic but can sometimes be rubber or ceramic, are specially designed to induce a vacuum in some way. In hot cupping, a lit cotton ball is held briefly underneath the cup before placing it on the skin. Other methods include a hot water bath, a mechanical mechanism, or a rubber ball that can be squeezed. The slight vacuum created is said to “extract” the toxins by increasing blood flow to the muscle and tissue underneath thereby helping the body to cleanse itself, reduce inflammation and stimulate healing. Alvarez explains that it’s like a “reverse” massage. “Instead of pushing the muscles into the body to get them to relax, suction is used to gently pull the muscle tissue upward to help it release.”

For athletes, cupping is often used as a relaxing massage to treat sore muscles but it can also help treat injuries and pain. It’s so effective for exercise woes like a tight IT band or a strained shoulder that Alvarez says many of her clients see results both in their comfort level and in the gym in just one session!

Energy therapy

Nothing feels better on sore muscles than a relaxing massage but what if you could get the benefits without the actual massage? Reiki is a form of Japanese touch therapy based on the belief that energy can be channeled through the practitioner’s hands to heal the spirit of the patient. According to Alvarez, this spiritual healing promotes deep relaxation, revitalizes and resets the body’s energy field.

 Alvarez explains how a session typically goes: “During a Reiki session the client lies fully clothed on a massage table. The Reiki practitioner places their hands on or slightly above areas along the endocrine system and internal organs on the front and back of the body.” In Western versions of Reiki, practitioners usually focus on the seven chakras that run from the crown of the head to the end of the spine while in traditional Japanese Reiki the focus is on the energy or balance meridians which are found over the whole body. In both techniques the aim is to “channel healing energy” from the giver’s palms to the recipient’s body, specifically the sites where illness or pain is felt. Alvarez adds that because this is not a massage technique and therefore there is no manipulation of muscles or tissue that anyone can benefit from a Reiki treatment.

It’s most often used in conjunction with other treatments like acupuncture to “provide a deeper healing and rejuvenating experience.” And while it may sound hokey at first, some research has shown a reduction in pain for cancer patients receiving Reiki treatments. Alvarez says that reiki is one of the fastest growing complementary treatments and has many uses for athletes including overall relaxation, pain management, reduction of soreness and even aiding more Western therapies like physical rehab by helping the person relax and remain open.


“I can’t do this!” can stop you from finishing that tough spin class, “I’m too fat!” can deep six your confidence in the gym and “I have to have that jumbo chocolate doughnut!” can undo in five minutes what it took you an hour in the gym to accomplish. The mind is a powerful tool and getting it to work for you and not against you can be half the battle when it comes to making healthier choices. Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), is a method based off of acupuncture, neuro-linguistic programming (a behavioral modification technique), energy medicine, and Thought Field Therapy (a psychological technique that uses tapping on certain meridians) and is designed to help you master your own thoughts.

“The cause of all negative emotions is a disruption in the body’s energy system,” Gary Craig, the founder of one popular style of EFT, says. “While acupuncture, acupressure and the like have been primarily focused on physical ailments, EFT stands back from this ancient process and points it directly at emotional issues. These, in turn, often provide benefits for performance and physical issues.” This is done by the patient performing a prescribed series of tapping or pressing on acupressure or meridian points on the body while repeating a mantra. Sometimes other steps are involved like counting backwards, singing a song or moving the eyes in specified ways, as instructed by the therapist.

As it’s designed to complement other types of therapies, specifically Eastern treatment methodologies, simple to learn and perform and doesn’t require any special tools or equipment, EFT can work for almost everyone, Craig explains. Its main benefit is enhancing your willpower and focus to help you stay on course with your healthy living goals.


Snap, crackle, pop! We’ve all had that moment in the gym where we’ve pushed a little too hard or stretched a little too far and while there’s no break or sprain, something’s most definitely out of whack. Active Release Technique (ART) is a Western therapy that aims to “treat pain and heal injuries resulting from poor biomechanics or improper muscular function,” Craig Thomas, ACSM, LMT, A.R.T., says.

 However, because ART requires the practitioner to actively manipulate the patient’s joints and tissue it can be, as Thomas puts it, “very intense.” Because of this, Thomas likes to incorporate the Eastern philosophy of balancing the yin and yang by beginning with shiatsu, a Japanese form of acupressure, and Thai massage, wherein the practitioner uses their own body weight – often leaning against or even sitting on the client – to pull and push, thereby opening up the joints. Together they relax the patient and open up the body to get the maximum benefit from the ART.

“Because the body is a whole system and every part affects the whole, the body wants to respond in entirety,” Thomas explains. “Which is why, even if you have pain in an isolated spot, you need to address the whole body.” During an ART session, the therapist will manipulate the muscle and other soft tissue of the patient as well as leading them or moving them through specified movements with the goal being to re-establish proper, healthy mechanical function and to gain flexibility and motion by separating the scar tissue from the underlying muscle. Thomas says that ART is perfect for treating the overuse injuries lifelong athletes often incur because it not only fixes the immediate source of the pain but also corrects the underlying structural problems that allowed the injury to happen in the first place. But, he adds, while ART is great for treating the injured area, the shiatsu and Thai massage are integral for balancing the yin, also known as the body’s potential energy, and the yang, known as the body’s active energy.


Your workout is only as good as your recovery, as muscles grow when you’re resting. One way to speed up your recovery is through acupressure because it has the ability to target very specific areas and types of pain while still addressing the needs of the entire body. Thomas calls it “tonifcation” or bringing energy back into the body.

“Acupressure is using fingers or a tool to apply pressure to acupoints on the body to balance circulation and stimulate the body’s natural healing abilities,” Alvarez explains. It’s similar to acupuncture, the technique using thin needles that many people are familiar with, except that there aren’t any needles. Instead, the practitioner simply uses their fingers to apply firm pressure to certain meridian spots thought to correspond with specific ailments, injuries or pain. It’s so simple that Alvarez says she often teaches her clients to do it on themselves, providing a quick and easy way for them to get some immediate relief and calming when they need it.

 One of her favorites that she recommends to athletes is the Gathering Valley (Large Intestine 4) acupoint found on the hand between the thumb and 2nd finger. “Applying pressure to this area is great for relieving any type of pain in the low back, whether it’s from deadlifts or PMS,” she says.


Welp. It’s been over a month since I wrote the article and the only one I’ve tried is EFT (and that was years ago). BUT at least now I’m open to them. I’d try any of these once. Okay, except maybe the Gua Sha because seriously, doesn’t that look like it hurts?

How do you feel about Traditional Chinese Medicine or other alternative therapies in general – you a little leery like me or totally into it? Have you guys tried any of these therapies? Do you have an “alternative” therapy or technique that you swear by? I want to hear all about it! Also: Anyone guess the picture?

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