Massage therapy is an ancient form of therapy practiced in many parts of Asia. While it is slowly being accepted as more than just a day at the spa and a legitimate form of therapy in Western cultures, we’re still missing out on some of the more interesting and exotic treatments performed in the Far East.
While traveling through Beijing, you’ll have a lot to do. There are countless temples and sites to explore, loads of food and unique experiences to be had. Dedicate one afternoon to balance out your chi with some of these more extreme and unusual massages and you’ll leave feeling…cultured.
It’s been proven that when one of our senses is lost, the others become stronger. While one particular superhero uses this ability to fight crime, massage therapists in southeast Asia use it to fight cramps.
For hundreds of years, blind people all over China have found employment as massage therapists. Professionally trained, they get a thorough, holistic education of the human body, which is common in traditional Chinese medicine. The difference between a regular masseuse and a blind one is their keen ability to fine-tune their sense of touch to work out all of those knots. Since the trend exploded in the mid-90s, it’s easy to find a blind massage clinic on the streets of Beijing — just look for the sign 盲人按摩 (pronounced: mángrén ànmó) or ask your hotel.
A word of caution: when many Westerners hear the word “massage,” we tend to think a relaxing time with oils, soft music and maybe some cucumbers for good measure. The Chinese experience is a little different. First off, all your clothes stay on which sounds strange, but it’s more comfortable than you’d imagine. Second, blind massages are actually a form of therapy (read: you may be in pain after leaving). These therapists are trained to work out your muscles and restore “balance” to your body. After one of these sessions, you may feel limber and loose but also pretty sore. This isn’t your average day at the spa. Also good to note, if the pressure is too much, the Chinese word for “pain” is tòng le.
Trial by Fire
One of the most unique massages you’ll ever have is the fire massage. Sometimes translated as “steam massage,” this is almost exactly what it sounds like. A massage therapist will ask you to lie down on a table and cover whatever area of your body you want worked on (back, legs, stomach, neck, etc.) with plastic wrap and a thick towel and proceed to soak the towel in alcohol. Then they will light you on fire. Seriously.
During most fire massages, they only let the flame burn for a minute or so before extinguishing it with a wet towel and massaging the area with their hands. However, another variation is for the therapist to have alcohol soaked swabs on sticks that they will rub across areas of your body before massaging.
It’s actually a lot more controlled than it seems, and if the purported health benefits are true, they may just make it worth the while — Chinese medicine practitioners claim that it can help everything from joint pain to digestion and insomnia.
But this massage is definitely not for the weak of heart… or skin. While the therapists do not intentionally cause pain, the flames are, as you can imagine, hot. Some westerners have reported feeling quite a bit of pain during one of these fiery experiences, while others have enjoyed it.