The Medium of a Massage: Facing Some Painful Truths

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The Medium of a Massage: Facing Some Painful Truths

"No pain, no gain," I kept reminding myself as my appointment with Jung Kyung-eun, a kyeongrak masseuse at Park View in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, drew closer. People warned me about the pain involved in this form of facial massage. One friend who slavishly follows every new beauty craze declared, "You will feel as if your eyes are ready to pop out. Even I won't try that again." Coming from someone who has subjected herself to numerous zaps by lasers and facial peels in her ceaseless quest for the look of the moment, I knew that I was in for some real pain.

Women have always endured some sort of pain to please others, if not to satisfy their own vanity. Plucking one's eyebrows with a pair of tweezers, for example, involves such pain that many women opt for a permanent solution in the form of eyebrow tattoos, euphemistically called "permanent makeup."

Women here, in a country where prejudice and discrimination based on appearance is rampant, are willing to go to great trouble and endure considerable pain to look beautiful. Not satisfied with mere eye and nose jobs, an increasing number of Korean women are getting their high cheekbones chipped away and jawbones chiseled by plastic surgeons, all so that they can achieve the ideal "small face." This fixation with having a "small face" has come to a point where one of the worst insults you can throw at a young woman these days is, "You are a rock face" - no disrespect to the four U.S. presidents on Mount Rushmore intended.

Hence, when a popular actress claimed last year that her tiny face was the result of kyeongrak facial massage, a new rage was born. After all, a massage seems so innocuous compared to major surgery. Although kyeongrak massage, rooted in Oriental medicine, has been around for a long time, it was the first time anyone heard that the size of one's face could be altered by applying the same ancient massage technique to the face.

Well, I had to try it to see if this claim was true.

Kyeongrak massage essentially involves stimulating the 365 kyeonghyeol, or points, that are connected by the 12 gi (qi in Chinese), or life energy, channels also called meridians. The aim of the massage is to remove any blockages along the meridian, restoring normal flow of gi throughout the body, and thus ensuring a healthy mind and body.

"The face mirrors the inside of your body," said Ms. Jung, probably detecting my skepticism as I got on the massage table. "The massage today will not only improve your appearance but promote health as well." The kyeongrak facial massage session began with a vigorous rubbing of the back of the neck and shoulders, producing noticeable heat in those areas. This was followed by very deep pressure applied to certain points, which Ms. Jung said were called kyeonghyeol. As soon as she pressed her fingers into the points, I clenched my teeth. Hard.

"The pain you are experiencing," Mrs. Jung said, "indicates a blockage in the meridian."

After several repetitions of this rubbing and pressing, she suddenly began pinching my earlobes, up and down, and then proceeded to massage my ears. I have had many facial massages before, but this was the first time that my ears were so pampered. "Ears are the microcosm of your body," she said, as she pulled mine sideways, stretching them until I wondered if they might actually tear.

Ms. Jung then glided her fingers into my scalp and began feeling around for little bumps, hard spots and slight depressions. According to her, these abnormalities indicate clogged meridians and must be massaged to promote the flow of life energy. She followed the scalp massage by gently beating my head with a large brush. That felt heavenly. In fact, it eased a bad headache I had from a cold.

Why all this massaging of the neck, shoulders, ears and head when all I was hoping for was a smaller face? Apparently, working just on the face will not produce the desired result. "Massaging the neck not only smoothes out the wrinkles, but works to define the neckline, clarify the skin and reduce swelling in the face," says Kim Yeo-jin, author of "Kim Yeo-jin's Hand Kyeongrak Massage." The particular meridians found in the ears affect the health of the skin, which is why so much attention is paid to the ears. "In fact, the neck and ear massages are the best for maintaining healthy beauty," the author said.

Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable, Ms. Jung began pressing her fingers into the underside of my chin and I knew instantly that this was what my friends had warned me about. The pain was like a knife, and I let out a sharp scream.

"Breathe with the massage," Ms. Jung instructed. As she pressed points along my jaw, the pain intensified. Watching my reaction, Ms. Jung asked if I had problems with constipation.


"The meridian along the jawline affects the small and large intestines," she explained.

Ms. Jung then worked her fingers on various muscle groups on the face, pinching, pulling, pressing. The sides of the nose as well as the temples received a vigorous rubbing, and the bones under the eyebrows were pressed very firmly. With so much friction, my face felt like it was near an open fire. "I am trying to manipulate the muscles to put them into their proper places," Ms. Jung said.

Teary-eyed, I asked softly, "Will all this massaging really produce a smaller face?"

"Well, after 10 sessions, you will notice a difference in the shape of your face," she said. "To see an obvious difference, you'll need about 20 sessions." (Ouch!)

"The first time is the hardest," Ms. Jung said reassuringly. "Next session, you won't feel so much pain." (Ouch!) The cost of one session, which typically runs about an hour and a half, is 60,000 won to 120,000 won ($46-$92). (Ouch! Ouch!)

When she finished manipulating me, Ms. Jung applied various potions to my face. My face was sore, similar to how my legs feel after an intense jog. On my way out, I checked the mirror to see if there were bruises. Surprisingly, there was only a reddish glow.

"It is important that you exercise your facial muscles daily," Ms. Jung advised. "Say 'a, e, i, o, u' with exaggerated movements of the mouth to stretch and tone your face."

Two days later, my face is still sore. When I look in the mirror, I do not see any difference. On the other hand, I notice that my face looks brighter. In fact, people who have seen me in the last couple of days have been telling me the same thing. "You look radiant. What did you do?" inquired a neighbor in the elevator. Perhaps I should give it another try. If nothing else, I will have glowing skin and better health, if all the claims made on behalf of kyeongrak facial massage are to be believed. Yet when I lightly touch my jaw, I am reminded of the pain. Even so, Ms. Jung said the next time would not be as bad.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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