Lying face down on the massage table, I waited fearfully for the chopping to start. My knife massage therapist, Elsa, was cheerfully wielding two meat cleavers. That’s because, while chopping motions are expected in lots of body massage, in this one, knives do the chopping.
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Elsa began by using her hands to press my body and loosen the extra tension I was surely now carrying. Then the cold, steel knives started their gentle pummelling, over my back, arms and my head. I wouldn’t have known they were knives at work if it wasn’t for the occasional clinking sound, like cutlery against a plate, as they touched. After Elsa told me to relax for the third time, I gave in and closed my eyes as the knives worked on getting my qi, or life force, flowing.
When the chopping ended, I must have been asleep. Surprisingly, many people do doze off when pounded by these – admittedly blunt – knives for 70 minutes.
While it looks dangerous, daoliao, which translates as“knife massage” or “knife therapy”, is believed to have physical and emotional healing powers and is a form of Chinese medicine that is thought to be more than 2,000 years old. Practitioners say it was first carried out by monks in ancient China. It spread to Japan in the Tang Dynasty more than 1,000 years ago and to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s.
While knife massage is hard to find today in China and Japan, it has undergone a resurgence in Taiwan in recent years as people have sought it out to deal with the stresses of modern life.
The Ancient Art of Knife Massage Dao Liao I-Jing Education Center in Taipei has trained practitioners for almost four decades. They have 36 branches in Taiwan, 15 of which have opened in the past five years. They have also taught people from around the world, from Japan to Hong Kong, France to Canada.
Today, people seek out the therapists’ knives to help relieve physical ailments, improve sleep quality and deal with the pain of being dumped.
The knives target “qi doors”, or pressure points, similar to other types of Chinese medicine like acupuncture. But practitioners also believe the steel knives have an invisible power.
Before entering the knife massage world 15 years ago, centre director Hsiao Mei-fang gave and taught beauty treatments and meridian massage, another type of traditional Chinese medicine focused on getting the body’s energy flowing. But she said she felt tired every evening because “bad energy” from clients was transferring to her through her touch.
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“I got more income, but I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
One day, one of her students told her about knife massage. In this, the steel knives are meant to absorb bad karma from the client. Today, Hsiao says she sees herself as a “ghost-hunter”, tracking down the actions and results from her clients’ previous lives.
“For me, I really feel that knife massage sometimes is like hunting ghosts, your past, your previous life,” she said.
The therapists have certain rules to follow. For instance, if they are in a bad mood, they shouldn’t give a knife massage in case they “transfer bad energy to the client,” according to Hsiao. In any case, brandishing two knives while in a bad mood doesn’t seem like a good idea.
Knife massage sometimes is like hunting ghosts, your past, your previous life
To keep their own energies pure, all practitioners stick to a vegan diet. Hsiao and her army of therapists also wake up at or before 05:00 every morning and do 100 squats and headstands, and bash knives for 30 minutes against a pillow to get their qi going.
It’s a lot of work for the therapists – but also for the clients. Before my massage, Elsa got me doing 10 minutes of squats and stretching with her, both of us holding two wooden “cosmos sticks” in our hands, which are meant to help you balance your qi. Hsiao says parents bring children to play with the sticks and learn about qi in hopes of reducing school-related stress, while businesspeople consult her over whom they should hire.
“The cosmos sticks help you to balance your qi, take away some bad qi or energy, and the knife massage is to take away your karma,” said Hsiao. “In our culture, we believe qi is everything. If your energy is balanced, it will help you see things clearly.”
Perhaps this physical activity was part of the reason I fell asleep on the massage table. In fact, the whole knife massage experience was more than I’d expected. When making an appointment, I was asked to send a recent photo of myself so they could find a suitable therapist according to the energy emanating off it. (Thanks to the apparent acceptance of modern technology, a digital photo works fine.)
Soon after arriving, Elsa showed me five meteorites sitting at the side of the room; practitioners believe the meteorites have healing powers for the body, mind and spirit, and place the knives next to them to recharge.
Then of course there were the knives, cold, rectangular, metal cleavers, which looked like they had been taken from a chef’s kitchen or a crime thriller. Practitioners must study hard and follow the teachings, otherwise the knives could be dangerous, said Hsiao. However, in the centre’s 40 years’ history, no client has ever been injured by knives, she said.
“At the beginning I was scared when I saw the knives, I thought it was dangerous,” client Chiu Mei-lan, 73, had earlier told me. “I was quite afraid, I said to the therapist, ‘don’t hit very hard, just lightly.’ It started to feel quite nice, so I said, ‘you can do it harder, that’s too light.’”
Chiu first tried the massage because she was having trouble sleeping. “After knife massage, I sleep very well,” she confided.
On the chopping board, Elsa draped towels over the clothes on my body, as well as my head. The knives began working on what I was told were my 10 qi doors. For 70 minutes, two blades quickly and gently pummelled, one after the other, moving from the top of my head to the soles of my feet and leaving me with the impression that I had been thoroughly targeted.
We believe qi is everything. If your energy is balanced, it will help you see things clearly.
Some clients come to consult with Hsiao, who uses a small, circular board with a compass at the centre to help her clients find their direction, or purpose, in life. This is a divination board, based on an ancient Chinese text called the I-Ching, or Book of Changes.
“It’s like I put your information in my Google,” she told me. “If I enter your information [into the board], I will know present you, past you and future you, so I could give you advice very easily.”
After tapping the board with a stick and seemingly pondering deeply for a few minutes, she pronounced that I was very into “justice, like Oprah”. She also gave me some general health warnings, such as I should eat more calcium and less ice cream.
Michael Stanley-Baker, a historian of Chinese medicine and religion at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that knife massage looks as spectacular as “fakirs who lie on nail beds and Daoists climbing knife ladders”, with “a technique that is masterable, not miraculous, but nevertheless spectacular.”
“In practice, there is a blurred connection to Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM],” he said, “which really places this in the realm of ‘folk medicine’ – a hodgepodge of theories, charts and aphorisms that draw on traditional knowledge, but not from a thorough grounding in medical theory that one would expect from a TCM professional.”
Hsiao said she didn’t need to convince anyone about the effectiveness of knife therapy, as people will believe anyway if you cure them of their ills. “They will go to so many shops or [try] different therapies … and after [their] experience they will find the best one,” she said.
For me, having a knife massage was an experience rather than simply a massage. I went away with meteorites swirling in my mind and pondering how much ice cream I really eat. But I was undeniably relaxed. I went to bed early, slept through to the next morning when my alarm went off, and then immediately fell asleep for another couple of hours.
BBC Travel’s Well World is a global take on wellness that explores different ways that cultures the world over strive for a healthy lifestyle.
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