I n rooms toward the back of a tiny store on Whitney Ave, massage therapists perform a 5,000-year-old medicinal tradition.
The exact origin story of what’s known as “cupping therapy” is fuzzy, but wherever it started, it certainly made the rounds. The Egyptians did it, Hippocrates and the Greeks did it—believing it balanced out the four “humors”—and so did the Chinese, many of whom still engage the practice today.
As do some New Haveners. It’s sometimes prescribed for patrons seeking the Chinese Tui-na massage services available at Naturegene Herb Store. The process is recommended for stress reduction, which sounds pleasant enough. Then a match is struck, scents of sulfur fill the air and, next thing you know, it sounds like there’s a Russian tea service for 12 being laid out on your back.
Only, instead of tea cups, they’re glass jars filled with flame-heated air, placed strategically on problem areas. The warm air inside the jar creates a suction that works deep into muscle tissue, purportedly to remove toxins and improve circulation. I’m told that some find cupping so relaxing they fall asleep on the massage table. For others, it can feel a bit like making a motto of John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good.”
The process lasts 5 to 15 minutes, with the masseuse working your limbs in the meantime. Then the jars are gently removed, sometimes leaving rather frightful marks—perfectly formed, deep purple circles. The theory goes that the more intense the discoloration, the more toxins are being drawn out from the area. The marks fade within several days and so does any residual soreness, eventually leaving an incredibly light feeling and greater range of motion for previously clenched muscles. Advocates of the process include the British Cupping Society, and some go so far as to say it helps with anti-aging efforts when it disperses those toxins.
At Naturegene, the primary goal is more immediate: pain relief. Hourlong massages start with a brief consultation about each client’s pain issues and concerns, and then those get special attention. The rooms are basic and clean, comforting but not luxurious. Beds are heated, and the masseuse uses a mobile heat lamp on each area as they go, keeping you warm and relaxed. Near the end of the hour, the masseuse focuses on the face and head, using an herbal oil with a mix of lavender, eucalyptus, mints, and other calming fragrances. Lastly—perhaps a tease to try their dedicated reflexology services—the massage therapist attends to the feet, soothing key pressure points.
Then there’s the acupuncture. Dr. Jing Du, one of their acupuncture specialists and an MD degree holder from China Medical University, has been doing it for more than 35 years. She’s also served as a research scientist at Harvard and Yale, and joined the molecular pathophysiology lab as part of the National Institute of Mental Health to study practical changes that occur in the body as a result of injury or disease. Since Naturegene’s opening in 1999, Dr. Du and other staff members have treated more than 10,000 patients battling chronic pain, diseases, infertility, cancer and problems with nerve endings. During initial consultations she fills out paperwork and creates files for each new client, just like at the doctor’s office.
In spite of indications such as that, the shop feels more exotic than clinical. The back wall of the store resembles an earthy apothecary, with floor to ceiling rows of wooden drawers. Each is labeled in Chinese and packed with herbs; they have hundreds to choose from, imported from China and bought on regular trips to New York City. Dr. Du, donning a white lab coat, pulls out contents and weighs each carefully to concoct a recipe of more than 11 ingredients, including sprigs of dried purple flowers, roots, and dried orange peels, and separates them into five doses. This recipe is for a fairly young man who has been her client for several years, who is prone to pneumonia during wintertime. As a preventative, Dr. Du will instruct him to soak these herbs in four cups of water for 30 minutes to an hour, then boil them for 20 minutes, then drain and keep the liquid, drinking one cup of tea at least twice a day to boost his immune system.
The array of ailments the shop claims to be able to alleviate attracts a diverse clientele: regulars of every age and background drop in and out of the store, picking up a bar of soap, a favorite tea blend or a bottle of Good ’n Natural vitamins. Shelves display rows of glass jars with mysterious-looking contents and curious descriptions to match. For example, lotus seeds without skin are said to aid with loss of appetite, palpitations accompanied by anxiety, irritability caused by weakness, and insomnia. Dried lycii berries, which look like little red raisins, are said to alleviate anemia, dry eyes, dizziness, blurred vision, photosensitivity, and night blindness. Codonopsis root is offered for the treatment of indigestion, weak or tired limbs, and shortness of breath.
For newcomers, maybe the store seems intimidating—packages labeled in a foreign language, strange flower names and pictures providing little clue as to their uses. After a few moments, however, shop manager Wen Lou and her husband, who first met in the shop in 2001, are likely to welcome them with a cup of ginseng tea, brewed several times a day and sweetened with licorice to surprisingly subtle and smooth effect—which, at Naturegene, seems to be a trend.
Naturegene Herb Store
75 Whitney Avenue, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.