23 Jan MOXA: THE BURNING HERB THAT HEALS
WHAT IS MOXA?
Moxa or moxibustion is a term derived from the Japanese word mogusa or mo kusa, meaning, “burning herb.” It can be found in many forms, from moxa “wool” to moxa pressed into a charcoal stick, but it is always harvested from the mugwort plant (artemisia vulgaris or artemisia argyii). After harvesting, the leaves are ground aged for 3-5 years before use.
Mugwort has been used alongside acupuncture for over 3 thousand years, at least as long as we have evidence of the practice of acupuncture. The translation of the Chinese character for acupuncture, zhenjiu: “zhen” stands for needle and “jiu” means moxa, or acupuncture-moxibustion. They are integral and complimentary modes of treatment: “A disease that may not be treated by acupuncture may be treated by moxibustion,” according to the Lingshu (Miraculous Pivot, or Spiritual Pivot), one of 2 parts of Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine), the earliest book written on Chinese Medicine, compiled around 305-204 B.C.
There is evidence of a long history of the use of mugwort within the archives of Western civilization too. Its Latin name, Artemesia Vulgaris associates the herb with the Greek God Artemis. Below is an illustration from an 11th century manuscript in which her Roman counterpart, Diana, hands the god Chiron the herb mugwort for medicinal purposes.*
A few summers ago, I decided to grow my own mugwort in Nova Scotia. By making my own moxa, I know where it’s from, and I like to think that it carries a bit of the seashore into my acupuncture practice in Philadelphia…
I sourced my seeds from Richter’s Herbs of Ontario, Canada. Mugwort grows quickly (in fact “like a weed”) – I tend to get two harvests each summer. For as long as weather permits, after harvesting, I dry the leaves in the sun. Nova Scotia weather is notoriously unpredictable however, so I generally finish the drying process inside, hanging the stems bundled together and upside down in paper bags over the winter months. Once the mugwort is completely dry, I sort the leaves and removed seeds and sticks.
Next stage: grinding, which is not as straightforward as I expected. Many of the texts with which I consulted vouched for the use of a mortar and pestle to grind the mugwort. I challenge anyone to the task! Mugwort leaves are fibrous and stubborn, so after experiments with many different ways of grinding, I made friends with a food processor. This worked well enough for the initial round of grinding, but only for a first pass. The leaves resisted even the power of a food processor, and I finally resorted to finishing the process in a coffee grinder, specially purchased for the process (can you say, “small batch grinding”?).
After several rounds of grinding and sifting, the leaves transform into a loose fluffy ball, pale in color and unrecognizable as mugwort.
Then I wait 3 to 5 years!
WHAT IS MOXA GOOD FOR?
Moxa is used to strengthen the immune system, to warm the body and to bring more qi and blood flow to an area. Moxa is especially useful for the treatment of pain. Moxa is often cited for its effectiveness in turning breach babies.***
Moxa is used both directly and indirectly, depending upon the intended effects. It is used to great effect in tandem with acupuncture points, enhancing and maximizing the effects of the acupuncture needles. In this case a small ball is rolled and place on the head an acupuncture needle and ignited. It burns for about 20-30 seconds until it extinguishes. This is repeated for a prescribed number of times.
Another method you may come across is the use of moxa with salt or ginger. A cone of moxa is placed on the umbilicus (belly button) over a thin layer of salt. The moxa is then lit, slowly and evenly generating heat. The salt diffuses the warmth, as well as preventing the heat from causing burns to the skin. Moxa therapy usually takes around 10-30 minutes, depending on the number of moxa cones used in the session. It is a comfortable sensation and usually very relaxing.
Moxa also comes in the form of charcoal sticks of various sizes. A practitioner lights one end of a moxa stick, and moves it slowly over the area being treated. You may also come across moxa pressed into short towers (~1 cm) that can be placed on acupoints with an adhesive barrier.
Loose moxa comes in many grades. In general moxa comes from Japan, China and Korea. Practitioners each have their own preferred types of moxa, and become accustomed to a brand that works well for them. It’s quite expensive, and named by grade: “Pure Moxa”, “Moxa Gold”. By cultivating my own mugwort, I am creating the kind of moxa that best suits the needs of my patients and practice!
This is the perfect time of year for treatments to boost the immune system, and a way to sample the effects of moxa. Make an appointment for an acupuncture treatment and we can discuss whether moxa is a good therapeutic addition!
*= Harris, J. Rendel. The Ascent of Olympus. Manchester: University, 1917. 101. Print.
**= Lo, Yin. “How Does Moxibustion Work Scientifically?” Acupuncture Today Acupuncture Today February, 2005, Vol. 06,.02 (2005): n. pag. Web.
***=Cardini F, Weixin H. Moxibustion for correction of breech presentation: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 1998 Nov 11;280(18):1580-4.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gabrielle Applebaum, M.Ac., L.Ac., Dipl.Ac. Gabrielle trained in Chinese Medicine at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies in Glenside, PA. She is also a graduate of the University of Chicago and Harvard Divinity School.
She will work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan that incorporates acupuncture and the related practices of moxabustion, gua-sha and cupping, to assist your body in healing itself.
Gabrielle was just recently awarded the Best Acupuncturist of 2013 by Philadelphia Magazine’s BeWell Philly.