I’d admired for some time the hand-carved massage tools in wood, jade, and horn that Juliana Hung sources from Taiwan for the Wax Apple, her five-year-old shop in L.A. Together with those lovely Taiwanese theater slippers, which the Taipei native also brings to us, the massagers, she said, are “definitely the hot items.”
Hung’s grandparents always had simple wooden backscratchers laying around, but the one I used, she explained, came from Miaoli County, namely from the rural township of Sanyi, famed for its woodcarving. Hung’s grandmother — who is loath to stay at home and routinely accompanies her granddaughter on sourcing trips — used to visit the locale with Hung’s grandfather. “I like that these are all more sculptural,” Hung said of her edit of massagers.
So did I. It was why I’d bought this ebony model as a gift for my husband: He’s an architect at a boutique firm in Paris, and I figured the handsome massage tool could live right on his desk without embarrassment. The massager is shaped like a percussion mallet with a head inspired by paper lanterns. (It resembles the plant called pumpkin on a stick.) Go figure, my husband never brought it into work. He prefers to have the massage tool at home, and since I work from home, it didn’t take long for the club to end up on my desk and back.
You use it by drumming on your muscles, and I hadn’t realized that I really needed the Shiatsu-adjacent pumpkin-on-a-stick massager until I tried it. Like a lot of people, my trapezii tense up when I stress out, and the tension in those neck and shoulder muscles frequently leads to migraines. Barring getting another human to give me a neck massage, I’d tried to alleviate the tension with a TheraCane deep-pressure massager — but I found the plastic cane unwieldy. Also the self-flagellation-style drumming results in a better release that can help stop a migraine attack in its tracks.
While the pumpkin on a stick isn’t a strictly traditional Eastern massage tool, the beating technique — more generally called tapotement — is an ancient recourse. Lauren Kuei, a licensed, board-certified acupuncturist and clinical herbalist at Nava Wellness, her private practice in the Flatiron District, told me it roughly fits into the traditional Chinese medicine branch of tui na.
Kuei, who is from Taiwan and did clinical rotations at one of Columbia’s integrative-therapies programs, inspected my pumpkin on a stick via FaceTime. I asked her why and how this thing might work.
“You have this gradient of pressure applied to cutaneous and muscular layers, pressure and release,” said Kuei, “and it creates passive movement — which is essential for Chi (life force), blood, and lymph flow.” She turned to the point about tension-related headaches. “Muscle tension,” Kuei continued, “is basically prolonged, shortened muscle fiber that gets a little stuck, if you will, and is unable to stretch back to its normal length. Over time, that creates stagnation locally. I think at-home massage tools can help prevent these little stagnations from building — and the process can be almost ritualistic. It’s rhythmic, and our breath is rhythmic by nature. It probably resonates on that level, too!”
Thus, when I feel a migraine coming on, before immediately resorting to over-the-counter or prescription meds, I knock back a glass of water, try to breathe better, and gently, rhythmically beat myself.
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