Luckily, it's easy to get a good massage in Ulaanbaatar. Professional massage practitioners here in Mongolia are, in my experience, extremely skilled. They specialize in a more medicinal, intense form of massage than most spa-going Americans are used to, as it involves more pulling and applied pressure than a standard relaxation massage. Some Westerners that I've talked to, especially men, were very uncomfortable with their massages here in Ulaanbaatar. This reaction stems from the pain associated with Mongolian-style massage-healing and the brusque, no-nonsense approach to nudity and the body taken by many (maybe all?) Mongolian massage practitioners. Fortunately I'm not modest and I'm willing to take a good deal of pain in the name of long-term healing.
Бариа засал (baria zasal) is not massage. Baria zasal frequently gets translated as 'massage' and, while baria zasal treatments sometimes include massage, it would be a major mistake to confuse the two. My friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Aleah Goldin, is conducting research on baria zasal and I would encourage you to seek out her eventual publications on the subject. She is conducting actual ethnographic research; all I have to offer are my personal experiences and what I've been told about baria zasal. Baria zasal is not widely known amongst non-Mongols. Indeed, I've been working in Mongolia since 2005 and had never heard of baria zasal until Aleah told me about her research project. If you talk with Mongolians from all walks of life, they definitely know what baria zasal is and have likely either received baria zasal treatments themselves or know someone who has.
'Baria' (бариа) can get translated as 'massage' but it also means 'grip'. Бариа/Baria comes from the verb 'барих', which has numerous meanings and translations, including 'to build', 'to maintain', 'to hold', 'to beat', and 'to contain'. Засал/zasal is more straightforward: it means 'treatment', 'therapy', and 'care'. Putting these ideas together gives a better sense, in my opinion, of what baria zasal is as a set of healing practices and bodily treatments.
Someone who practices baria zasal is called a бариач/bariach (plural: bariachid). Bariachid employ a variety of methods to diagnose and treat their patients. Initial diagnosis starts with reading the patient's pulse: not taking the pulse, but reading it, as the bariach identifies the location or nature of an ailment from the pulse (such as inflammation of the ovaries or an infected kidney). Baria zasal involves a lot of laying-on of the hands, as well as application of suction cups (бумба тавих/bumb tavikh), acupuncture (зүү тавих/zuu tavikh), blood letting, pressure points, manipulation of bodily points or structures to release toxins (xop/hor) or to reposition them in the proper alignment (especially the womb or uterus), setting bones, and prescribing powdered herbal medicines.
Bariachid vary greatly in their specialties and medicinal philosophies. Some bariachid will only work on children. Others only deal with women who manifest childbearing-related problems: infertility, improper position of developing fetus, postpartum uterine or ovarian problems, mastitis and ailments of the breasts, etc. Some bariachid also work on animals. A common root of the problems that many bariachid work to heal is concussion during childhood, or тархи доргилт хөдлөх (tarikh dorgilt khudlukh), which can get translated as "shaken, concussed brain".
There is a major difference of opinion within the baria zasal community regarding what makes someone a good bariach. Some bariachid (and their patients) strongly believe that a bariach's healing abilities are the result of his or her lineage: a lineage that contains bariachid, shamans, or spiritually-powerful ancestors. The government now regulates baria zasal licensing and there are training courses required to become a licensed bariach irrespective of one's family background. These two approaches often do not see eye-to-eye in terms of what constitutes effective, ethical baria zasal. Many bariachid are independent practitioners working out of their homes or a small office. Others work in ардын эмнэлэг (ardiin emneleg) or folk medicine hospitals. These folk medicine hospitals have become more popular in Ulaanbaatar in recent years, although I do not know the history of these hospitals as medical or cultural institutions in Mongolia.
In late February I began receiving baria zasal treatments. To protect the bariach's privacy, I won't discuss personal details or the location, except to say that the bariach is a delightful person. The bariach who treated me first began by reading my pulse and rendering a preliminary diagnosis. She proceeded to palpate my head and vigorously scrub/rub my scalp with her fingertips. She then poked me in various spots on my upper back, arms, chest, and legs. After this preliminary poking, she began бумба тавих (buumb tavikh), or 'to put on suction cups', on my shoulders and neck.
|Suction cups in place|
Бумба тавих (suction cups) was traditionally performed with copper cups, where flame/heat was applied in order to create suction against the skin. My bariach explained that she switched to plastic hand-pump suction cups because her clients were now leery of the copper cups: to them, they looked painful and old-fashioned.
|The skin under hand-pumped suction cups turns purple while the rest of my upper back turns angry red.|
Despite how it looks, I found the sensations associated with the suction cups to be rather pleasant. The bariach left them in place for 10-15 minutes and only in the last few minutes did I experience any discomfort. After she removed the suction cups, my entire upper back felt like a million bucks. The lightness and absence of pain lasted for the rest of the day and on into the next. The visual results were less pleasant.
|Immediately after the suction cups were removed, my back looked like something out of a Clive Barker movie.|
Let me emphasize that the actual process was not painful for me and the resulting bruises didn't hurt at all. If I didn't have photo evidence, you could easily convince me that there were no bruises or marks on my upper back at all!
|Six hours after the cups were removed|
What actually hurt a great deal was when the bariach applied intense targeted pressure to select areas of my body. I have a fairly high tolerance for pain but when the bariach pressed various points on my arms and sternum(!), I felt like I was being stabbed. All of the spots she pressed on my arms bloomed into angry purple-blue dots. But this was only my first session. The bariach informed me that I would need at least five sessions to be healed of the various ailments that plagued me.
During our second session, she applied suction cups again. This time, she moved them around from their initial placement to places where my muscles were in the most pain. The results, overlaying my initial suction cup marks, were spectacular:
The second session didn't hurt either and my body felt great afterward. All of the bruising involved in baria zasal is the result of toxins/poison (xop/khor) being released from various parts of the body. The release of toxins is also accomplished by pressing on certain areas and structures in the body. Sometimes a bariach will instruct a patient on toxin release so that s/he can do it on his/her own at home.
My third baria zasal session didn't involve any suction cups, which I think was related to the fact that my back looked like I'd been beat up by a giant octopus; instead, it involved massage and pressure/release points. The pressure/release points are usually very painful but that pain not only recedes very quickly, a positive bodily change as a direct result is perceptible almost immediately. After every baria zasal session I've come away feeling wonderful: relaxed, pliable, and pain-free. Unfortunately, people going through baria zasal treatment regularly feel extremely tired during the course of the treatments (which can understandably span some time), and I am no exception. The bariach also gave me some morning exercises to do as part of my treatment. The exercises consist of several steps, and each step should last one minute, of beating the fingers, palms, hips, thighs, and knees. Poor circulation is a big part of my health problems and these exercises feel pretty great.
My baria zasal treatments have gone on hiatus, due to scheduling issues, but my plan is to continue with the process in the near future. During the hiatus my back has gotten stiff and sore again. A clear signal that I need more suction cup action! I'll write an update once sessions resume or I start treatments with a new bariach. Stay tuned for more bruise news!