What is cupping?

By Alina Prax | Published: October 24, 2016

Curious about those round bruises all over Olympian Michael Phelps’ back? It’s cupping!

Recently, many athletes, including yogis, have been seen sporting the telltale circular bruises that cupping leaves. Cupping is an ancient Chinese medicine technique that uses suction to remove toxins and tension from the body. Specially designed glass cups are heated by burning a small piece of cotton soaked in alcohol on the inside of the cup. The fire inside the cup consumes all the available oxygen so that when the flame is removed and the cup is placed on on the skin, it creates suction. This suction pulls the skin upward and into the glass cup.

Cupping therapy draws blood into the area being treated, which usually reddens in response. Cupping is thought to flush out inflammation and stagnant qi (energy). It improves circulation and relieves muscular tension and soreness. Different than a massage, which presses down into the skin and muscles, cupping lifts muscles and tissues up, providing a much deeper release. This lifting allows for muscular adhesions to break apart, especially if the practitioner glides the cups back and forth over the area being treated. A medicated massage oil is often used to enhance the benefits of this practice as well as to provide lubrication so that the cup can easily glide over the skin. (Learn more about Unlocking the Stress in Your Body.)

Cups are typically left in place anywhere from five to 15 minutes. Specific locations along the body’s meridians are the usual sites for cupping therapy. In Chinese medicine and acupuncture, meridians are energy channels that move qi through the body. Qi is the body’s vital energy, similar to prana in the yogic tradition. Traditionally, cupping therapy was used to treat respiratory problems such as asthma and congestion, as well digestive disorders. Bony parts of the body, such as the spine, should be avoided. There are many different types of cupping therapies, all with their own particular benefits.

DIY cupping sets are affordable and readily available for purchase online and make a great addition to any self-care arsenal. Cups come in a range of materials, from glass to bamboo. There are also plastic cupping sets that come with an air pump that creates the suction inside the cup without the need for a flame. (Read on about Chinese health and philosophy in Balancing Yin and Yang.)


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Written by Alina Prax | Editor/Writer

Alina Prax

Alina has been an avid yogi for over 20 years. After completing her Sanskrit studies at the University of Texas-Austin, she traveled to northern India on a pilgrimage to various holy sites to celebrate. She holds a 300-hour yoga teacher certificate from Dharma Yoga, a Buddhist-based asana practice. Over the years, she has had the honor of studying with some inspiring teachers such as Richard Freeman, Shannon Gannon and the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. She is thrilled to be part of the Yogapedia editorial team, helping to craft beautiful and meaningful articles about yoga and the spiritual path.

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