Long before paper was invented, the Chinese recorded their history on thin slivers of bamboo. In fact, the material was used in a multitude of ways, ranging from musical instruments to elaborate decorations, artwork, and even agricultural tools. Since bamboo was incorporated into so much of daily life, it wasn’t long before it was used as a form of creative and spiritual expression, which quickly took on ritual and healing connotations.
Chinese, Indonesian, and Japanese festivals, rituals, and myths abound with bamboo symbolizing life energy, prosperity, longevity, sexuality, and fertility. In China, stalks of bamboo still symbolize eternal youth, strength, prosperity, and peace. What may seem like a new technique, bamboo massage, has ancient roots and perhaps deeper associations than simply bodywork. Today, bamboo massage is touted as Bamboo-Fusion, Tian di Bamboo Massage, or simply promoted at high-end spas as the latest in exotic treatments or for massage therapists as a new tool, but bamboo can be seen as much more than a new trend or accessory.
Bamboo massage is a technique that incorporates bamboo stalks of varying lengths and diameters to provide deep-tissue work. (The Japanese name for bamboo is take, while the Chinese call it chu. It is from this word that the cho sticks, used by some bamboo massage practitioners, take their name.) Some practitioners combine elements of shiatsu, traditional Chinese medicine (where bamboo cups or the ends of the stalks are used in specific ways), Thai massage, lymphatic drainage, and even ayurveda into the technique, and sticks are sometimes heated or essential oils are incorporated into the massage. The massage itself promotes circulation, sensory nerve perception, and lymphatic drainage and provides a deep sense of relaxation and well-being. An added benefit for the practitioner is that using the bamboo sticks helps to reduce stress and strain on hands and fingers while still allowing for deeply penetrating maneuvers.
Bamboo Structure and Benefits
Although bamboo matures fully in approximately seven years, most bamboo flowers only once in 60 to 120 years, with large heads much like those of sugarcane. After blooming, all the bamboo plants of the same species die, which occurs worldwide at the same time. Overall, there are more than 1,200 species of bamboo, all of them related to sugarcane and corn. Bamboo is, in fact, a giant grass: the bamboo stalk can be cut, leaving the root system intact for rapid regrowth. This makes bamboo a highly renewable resource. In a favorable habitat, it can grow as fast as one foot in 24 hours and will grow back to full-size in a few years.
In addition to its sustainability, bamboo is also recognized for its suppleness and resilience. With its unique combination of strength and flexibility, bamboo lends itself to a variety of uses. Because of its hardness, bamboo has been used for bridges, floors, furniture, gutters, masts, utensils, and vessels. Because the fiber is soft and can be finely crushed, it can also be used for clothing, bedding, and towels.
Part of what makes bamboo hard and straight, yet flexible and light, is that its outer cell walls are covered with silica. This creates a crystalline-like matrix, much like that of a quartz crystal or our own connective tissue. Some practitioners believe that releasing tension or fascial adhesions held within this matrix can help restore and rebalance the body’s electromagnetic field. In his article, “Bioenergetics of Man,” for the Academy of Applied Osteopathic Association, osteopathic physician R.B. Taylor writes, “Manipulative pressure and stretching are the most effective ways of modifying energy potentials of abnormal tissues.”1
If we look closely at what’s just beneath the surface of this statement, it takes us directly to what’s beneath the surface of both our bodies and the structure of bamboo itself. Crystalline-like matrices are known to exhibit two very specific properties: piezoelectricity and pyroelectricity. Piezoelectricity is activated with pressure and pyroelectricity with heat. On a physiological level, these two properties are believed to contribute to some of the healing effects seen in bamboo massage.
Piezoelectricity is the ability of some materials (notably crystals) to generate an electric potential in response to applied mechanical stress or pressure across the crystal lattice. The word itself is derived from the Greek piezein, which means to squeeze or press. In the case of massage, pressure along the fascia, which is also a crystalline-like matrix of tissue, would generate this same effect.
Pyroelectricity is the ability of certain materials to generate an electrical potential when heated or cooled. The name is derived from the Greek word pyr, meaning fire. As a result of a change in temperature, positive and negative charges move to opposite ends or poles of the material (the material becomes polarized), thereby establishing an electrical potential. Very small changes in temperature can, in fact, produce an electrical potential due to a material’s pyroelectricity. Thus, heating a bamboo stick and applying pressure with it could create this effect. This pyroelectric effect is also present in both bone and tendon.
All pyroelectric materials are also piezoelectric, the two properties being closely related. These two properties could, therefore, be easily stimulated as pressure is applied using the bamboo sticks to penetrate deep into the tissues. “Skillful manipulation [in bodywork] simply raises energy levels and creates a greater degree of sol (fluidity) in organic systems that are already there, but behaving sluggishly,” writes Deane Juhan in his book Job’s Body.2
Stimulation of the tissue by the bamboo sticks is believed to relieve this “sluggish state,” by dissipating the heat that results from an accumulation of toxins and poor circulation, much the same as what would occur through deep-tissue work, trigger-point activation, or various acupressure techniques. Some recipients of bamboo massage have described these releases as a whole-body tingling or a warming sensation.
One of the first people to develop a bamboo massage technique specifically for North American clients was Nathalie Cecilia, a certified Thai massage therapist currently living in Sarasota, Florida. Cecilia, originally from France, came to the United States five years ago. She discovered this approach when one of her larger male clients kept asking for deeper pressure on his upper trapezius muscles. “I was using a long bamboo pole to keep my balance when walking on my clients’ backs sometimes [during a Thai massage session],” she says. “As I was working on this gentleman in a sitting position, my eyes caught the two bamboo poles that I used for the back walking. I had the idea to use one of the poles for tapotement on his upper trapezius. So I stood about six feet from him, tapping on his shoulders with this long stick, and he told me that it felt really great.”
From that point on, Cecilia began developing new ways to integrate bamboo sticks into her practice, eventually using sticks of varying lengths and compositions, creating what she now calls Bamboo-Fusion massage. Shortly after she created this technique, other therapists started asking her how to incorporate bamboo sticks into their treatment sessions. Cecilia then created an entire massage routine using bamboo and rattan of different shapes and sizes. The routine is now documented and Cecilia is approved by the NCBTMB and the state of Florida to teach this modality to other therapists. She now teaches workshops across the United States and her technique is gaining popularity in other countries as well.
“While doing traditional massage, I experienced pain in my thumbs and wrists after only two months of opening my business,” Cecilia says. “The Bamboo-Fusion technique allows you to easily adjust the pressure, making deep-tissue work easy. I can effectively palpate using the bamboo and am able to easily locate muscle tension and treat trigger points. Using bamboo is now like a continuation of my fingers. There is also a beautiful quality to the material; it has a luxurious feeling and both you and the clients feel very energized and revitalized, but also relaxed. Aesthetically, I’ve also noticed that the skin actually becomes more supple.”
Cecilia’s approach incorporates a large 12-inch bamboo stick that she uses to knead the muscles and do a crisscross technique that stretches the fascia in all directions. She also uses two short pieces of bamboo, cut in half, the size of her hand, to work more specifically in smaller areas, such as under the scapula. Her technique includes the use of oil or cream when doing a full-body massage on the table. She warms the bamboo sticks in a special heating pad before using them on her clients. “The bamboo is easy to heat and clean, unlike with hot stones since there isn’t a Crock-pot or water involved,” she explains. “With the heating device I use, the bamboo stays warm and clients love the heat, especially in cold climates.”
What also distinguishes Cecilia’s technique is that her bamboo sticks are custom-designed and made from bamboo and rattan, both ecological and sustainable resources. “The small wood pieces that I have cut in half are made with rattan [a climbing palm tree], since rattan is solid. They also fit easily in the palm of my hand, which makes it easy to apply deeper pressure. For the larger sticks, I use bamboo, which is a great tool to deliver long soothing strokes.” Cecilia has her bamboo sets made by a local woodworker; in the early days, she actually created them herself.
Bamboo Massage and the Five Elements
Another approach, Tian Di Bamboo Massage was developed by Ernesto Ortiz, LMT, CST, who studied at the Upledger Institute and now offers workshops worldwide. Ortiz incorporates principles from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), specifically the Chinese five elements theory, in which the principles associated with wood, fire, earth, metal, and water are applied to the massage technique. The massage uses bamboo cut in different sizes and the bamboo sticks (called cho sticks in this technique) are also used as an extension of therapists’ hands, forearms, and elbows, enabling them to work deeper and more effectively.
“[The] five elements have been used to describe our relationship to external and internal phenomena and to the overall natural process of life,” Ortiz explains. “Understanding these cycles and how they play out in our life and our body can bring us into a closer relationship with ourselves and the world around us and helps us understand how nature plays a role in our life and well-being. The Tian Di Bamboo Massage technique aims to apply an understanding of these five elements and develop an approach to treatment in accordance with one’s relationship to inner and outer conditions.”
In addition to learning how to work with bamboo, Ortiz teaches the basics of Chinese cupping and the use of gua sha, two other therapeutic approaches from TCM. Cupping involves placing glass, plastic, or bamboo cups on the skin with a vacuum-like device to deeply work acupressure points.3 The technique is used to relieve stagnation or a lack of the vital life energy flow (chi or qi) in the body. “When chi is compromised, it is believed to contribute to a variety of conditions ranging from chronic pain, stiff muscles or joints, fatigue, emotional and psychological states, and even problems with organs,” Ortiz says. “Cupping has been found to penetrate the tissue four inches into the body, stimulating blood flow, helping tissues release toxins, and helping support the lymphatic system.” (Editor’s note: it’s important to note that many liability policies do not cover cupping precisely because of this four-inch penetration.)
Gua sha dates back to more than 2,000 years and uses round-edged instruments made of stone, bone, or pieces of jade along the surface of the skin in order to promote the free flow of chi. In Tian Di Bamboo Massage, pieces of bamboo are incorporated into the gua sha technique. (In Chinese, gua means to scrape or extract and sha means toxins.) Gua sha involves palpation and cutaneous stimulation, where pressure is applied to the skin in strokes, encouraging blood circulation and removing toxins from the body.
As therapists and clients search for new approaches to massage therapy, bamboo massage may be at the forefront, offering a basic solution: a technique that not only makes use of a renewable and sustainable resource, but also reconnects us to ancient approaches. This reminds us of what it means to be connected and interconnected–respecting our needs and those of the natural world that support those needs. This may be the gift that this seemingly simple material offers: strength, flexibility, and versatility, without depleting our world or ourselves.