How traditional Chinese knife therapy dao liao massaged my sore muscles and gave me an energy boost
Available for the first time in Hong Kong at The Mandarin Spa, dao liao, or knife therapy, is a traditional Chinese massage treatment that looks as scary as it sounds – and it’s done by a Frenchman. Kylie Knott has a stab at it
Frenchman Xavier Garnier had spent 20 years immersing himself in China’s ancient culture when he discovered dao liao, or knife therapy, a 2,500-year-old philosophy that taps into the energies of ying and yang.
In 2011 he took the therapy to France, then to Portugal. Now he has collaborated with the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong’s Central district to offer spa guests the knife treatment – apparently the first time it has been available in the city.
“It’s quite a strong therapy,” says Garnier in a lush, wood-panelled room of the luxury hotel. “Usually people would be a little scared of the knives, but actually it’s quite soft if you compare it to traditional Chinese massage that can be very painful. When we do the dao liao it’s not painful at all. It has a very holistic affect and will stimulate the circulation of the energy. It will balance all the energies of the body so the affect is even more holistic than traditional massage.
“If you look at them,” he says holding up the cleavers, “they are like butcher’s knives but actually see here – it is not sharp so you can’t hurt people.”
Garnier says the knives control the flow of chi, the life force that is the basis of much Chinese philosophy and medicine. While everyone is different, the main benefits are an energy boost from the stimulation of the circulation and lymphatic system, better sleep quality, and deep relaxation of the mind and body.
The knives might look like the sort of cleavers you’d find at a triad convention but in fact the blades have been dulled – and are even sacred.
“Even today, there are some masters in Taiwan who will bring some good energy inside the knife and they will also believe in the spirit of the knives,” Garnier says, “It’s also connected to Buddhism and Taoism, so yes there is a spirit, whether you believe it or not, a spirit of the knives. That’s why we have to be very respectful of those tools so before starting the therapy I will do some prayers.”
I took up the offer to go under the knives. After a quick warm up involving some coral and sticks I move onto the massage bed, face down, as Garnier applies ointment containing ginseng and other plants to my hands and feet. A soft blanket is then placed over my entire body, head included, before the knives come out.
Garnier rhythmically pummels the blades over my head, back, legs and feet. There’s no method in what might seem like madness – Garnier, who enters an almost trancelike state during the treatment, literally goes with the (energy) flow, following the knives across my body, unlocking meridians – energy paths – along the way.
“I listen to the knives. I don’t think about anything. It’s like a meditation, my mind is empty. The knives, they go to the areas of the body that need bad energy removed.”
About 10 minutes into the treatment my mouth is sandpaper dry, my body expelling hot energy, says Garnier, referring to the hot and cold (yin and yang) energies that traditional Chinese medicine philosophy uses to explain how opposite forces are interconnected. While I expected to feel pain, I experience the opposite – the constant thumping actually proves welcome relief for my desk-broken body.
I start drifting off to the relaxing music, and to Garnier’s faint words – something about the liver and emotions and blocking them out. Then, feeling like a piece of meat being softly tenderised, my sides are focused upon, finishing with the front of my body, face included – all while under the safe layer of that blanket.
When the hour-long treatment is over I feel buzzy, and ride the energy wave for the rest of the afternoon.
The 60-minute dao liao treatment costs HK$1,300 on weekdays and HK$1,380 on weekends. The 90-inute treatment costs HK$1,650 on weekdays and HK$1,780 on weekends. For reservations call The Mandarin Spa on 2825 4888 or email [email protected]