What is gua sha?
By now many of you have probably seen, experienced or read about the “ancient Chinese practice” of gua sha. What is it and what is it not? Who gets to teach it, how do we practice it and what are the original intentions behind a gua sha practice?
As a Mandarin speaking Asian-American Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine who has lived and studied abroad in China, I am determined to shed light on the historical and cultural significance of traditional Chinese facial tools, including gua sha. Gua sha is one of the many modalities found within a 4,000-5,000 year old indigenous medicine practice that is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Gua sha boards have been around since the Paleolithic Age in China, and are still widely used inside of the household and by TCM practitioners as a therapy against illness.
In the 17th century, the upper-class elite in China adapted these tools using precious stones such as jade, and began applying them to the face for cosmetic benefits. A different technique was then developed during the Qing dynasty once these tools went from the body for illness to the face for aesthetics. These specific facial tools were intentionally developed in China, however, once they made their way to the U.S. the narrative became skewed.
In the U.S., Chinese facial tools have been vastly appropriated, and are often referred to as “new,” “accidentally discovered,” or “reinvented.” Cultural appropriation of Chinese facial tools is particularly rampant amongst popular beauty and wellness brands disconnected to TCM. Yet, these brands flood the market with “new” gua sha boards, which are usually an adulterated version of a Chinese facial tool. The actual practice of gua sha is then consequently marketed incorrectly with little understanding or acknowledgement of the origin and the depth of the practice—the generations of knowledge that the practice carries.
When applied in the context of Chinese history, culture and medicine, Chinese facial tools are so much more than a stone that makes you look good. My hope is for everyone to have correct information about gua sha so that people teaching and practicing gua sha will have reverence for Chinese culture, Chinese history, TCM, as well as for the families and the practitioners within the culture who generously handed their traditions down.
Who gets to teach gua sha?
Licensed practitioners of TCM* will typically be the most qualified to teach gua sha since gua sha is one of their medicine’s many modalities. There are also individuals within the culture who have learned gua sha from their family and feel that they have the knowledge to teach. The main concern when it comes to teaching gua sha is safety. There are risks associated with a gua sha practice and licensed practitioners have the most training to be able to give the best advice and guidance when it comes to safe gua sha practices.
While serious side effects are uncommon, they can arise. I have often seen non-TCM beauty and wellness brands stumble or avoid answering customer safety concerns–they simply don’t have the credentials to answer certain customer questions. If questions are ignored then this is a good indication that you should look elsewhere to learn about gua sha. Unaddressed concerns can cause TCM to look unsafe, which puts the medicine and practitioners at fault, when it ultimately may have been a non-TCM practitioner that was unable to properly teach and answer valid user concerns.
In the hands of popular beauty and wellness brands who have not spent the time to learn the depth and breadth of Chinese culture, language, history, and medicine (including gua sha), the intentions behind gua sha become obliterated. Beauty and wellness brands disconnected to the true intentions of a gua sha practice market gua sha as the next Botox. They use catchy sales pitches that claim to erase your lines, wrinkles, forehead, smile, chin, cheeks, cellulite, etc. As a licensed TCM practitioner who has dedicated over a decade to TCM, I can tell you that you will never find the word “erase” within our medicine as an indication for gua sha. Erasing parts of your face simply does not exist within TCM; it is actually a scary thought.
What is it about?
Then what are the intentions behind a gua sha practice you may be wondering. I recently ran an Instagram story on how gua sha is not about erasing anything, but actually about embracing everything. A gua sha practice can be used to form a deeper relationship with yourself by accepting the features that make you uniquely beautiful. When you carve out the time to take care of yourself and intentionally create a mind, body, spirit connection, your true self will be revealed.
As Michaelangelo once stated that his sculptures already existed inside of the stone, he just needed to set them free, your true self is also found within. A gua sha practice can serve as a vehicle to set your internal beauty free. And guess what? When you shift your intentions from erasing your face to embracing your face, the esthetic benefits become even greater because you are no longer in opposition with the self.
An updated standard of beauty should include: 1) someone who educates themselves on the origins of an indigenous cultural practice, 2) is discerning when it comes to who to support and buy from, 3) someone who chooses a teacher that will honor a traditional practice by having the appropriate credentials while also giving back to the culture from which they are benefitting from, and lastly 4) someone who understands that everything they are seeking already exists inside of themselves–a gua sha practice should only serve to polish your mirror, not distort it.