Team Smudge Tries... Bodywork: Massage + Acupuncture + Cupping

Team Smudge Tries... Bodywork: Massage + Acupuncture + Cupping

Welcome to a new series, “Team Smudge Tries…,” an experiential deep dive into the latest spiritual wellness trends, rituals, and practices that we want to learn more about. We’ll share the dirt on everything you need to know and how to get the most out of it should you want to give it a go yourself. Have something for us to check out? Contact us at 

Photo credit: @acupop on Instagram

First of all, I highly recommend getting yourself a friend who will get you an appointment with a body work specialist for your birthday. I’m assuming Luigi, my Smudge co-founder, was trying to send me loving messages of relaxation and rejuvenation. I’m choosing not to read too much into the fact he signed me up to get stabbed with lots of needles while I’m vulnerably laying on my back with no clothes on. Draw your own conclusion!

Second, I also highly recommend going into any new spiritual wellness ritual with an open mind. While I am a devotee to massages, I am fairly new to other practices that loosely fit within the alternative medicine category known as “body work.” When it comes to acupuncture, my one and only real foray into the centuries-old practice was when I used it to induce labor ten years ago. (FYI- I started contractions hours later in the middle of a Baja Fresh.) Like eating carrots and flipping my mattress twice a year, acupuncture falls within my mental bucket of “things that I know are very good for me, but for which I only rarely create the time.” Cupping, for me, falls into another category: “things that I think might be good for me but which involve an open flame on my skin so maybe I get around to that later rather than sooner.” So while I wasn’t running to get this triple wellness threat onto my calendar, my flexible attitude came in handy when I was given a friendly nudge. Embrace the adventure.


I pulled up to a San Francisco apartment where I would be receiving the body work treatment (more on that in a sec), dressed in some casual joggers and a sweatshirt. Wardrobe-wise, it doesn’t really matter what you wear because you will be disrobing like you would in a typical massage and getting under a blanket, but it’s nice to pull on something comfy and cozy when you are done -- and something that you don’t mind immersing in the scent of essential oils. Also, maybe don’t schedule a dinner right after like I did, or if you do, prepare to wear a greasy and messy topknot and call it fashion.

My practitioner runs her sessions out of her apartment, a somewhat typical post-pandemic hiccup that occurred when traditional studios and spas closed. But never fear, the room where she conducted the session had everything I could possibly want in a bodywork studio and felt comfortable, safe, and clean. Soft acoustic pop covers filled the room and I felt immediately ready to unwind. 

As she explained, she approaches these three disciplines (massage, acupuncture, and cupping) as an interconnected journey towards healing of the mind, body, and soul. We started with a short Q&A that felt more like therapy than spa-like, with her giving me permission to discuss anything I wanted to bring up that could be helped by the session. Therapy! All three practices are associated with healing anything from digestive issues to anxiety, so I appreciated that she took the time to let me own the direction we would go in. I identified insomnia and anxiety as two (completely unrelated, duh!) problems I would love to improve, along with some shoulder and back tightness that have cropped up as I’ve started lifting weights.


The order of operations seemed important, with the massage both helping me decompress and allowing her to identify points of extra tension. It was a fairly typical massage, which is to say it was completely amazing and sleep-inducing (asking for a friend: does a massage still have its therapeutic effects if you start snoring?). She used lots of naturally scented oils and exfoliated both my legs and back with what felt like a salt scrub. By the time the hour-ish massage portion was done, any questions I had about what was to come next were moot -- I was ready.

Which was good, because apparently I had a lot to address! She agreed that I was holding a lot of tension in my shoulders and my neck. She planned to focus the rest of our session on that, as well as the typical pressure points for treating anxiety and sleep.


Using Korean needles, which are more narrow than those used for Chinese acupuncture, she inserted them at the top of my head, in my left arm, on my stomach, left shin, and in my ankle. While not painful, I could definitely feel the needles being inserted, with the one on my crown and in my shin providing the biggest sensation. I kept my eyes closed during the 15 minutes or so that the needles remained in my body. She left the room, which was jarring for a second, but assured me she could hear me if I needed any assistance.  

Photo credit: @acupop on Instagram

Much as I felt the time I did acupuncture to induce labor ten years ago, I felt a buzzy energy coursing through my body almost instantly. Practitioners of acupuncture would say what I’m experiencing is “chi,” (also spelled “qi”) the vital life force that moves and connects everything in the universe. Acupuncture needles applied to specific areas in the body can serve to unblock or accelerate the flow of this energy, correcting imbalances and helping ailments including migraines and allergies. And there’s lots of data that it works -- many health insurance plans cover acupuncture among acceptable plans of treatment for a variety of illnesses.

For me, the feeling was a generalized state of being recharged. With an hour of massage to prep me, the release that the acupuncture needles provided was a jolt of power. But in contrast to the frenetic energy that I get from my daily cup(s) of coffee, this buzz felt more like a grounding and gradual reboot. And while the massage made me feel like I was seconds from slumber, acupuncture made me feel like I was rested but ready for action.


The final ten minutes of our session was devoted to cupping, the practice of placing round cups on your skin to create a suction. There are different variations of cupping, which like acupuncture has its roots in traditional Chinese medicine -- this particular practitioner uses glass cups and lights a piece of cotton doused in alcohol to create a “cool” flame. She placed six cups, all on my back, focusing on the muscles where she had identified the tension during the massage. The idea is that the suction increases the blood flow to the area, relieving pain and giving the muscles a break from the hard work they do.

I’m pleased to report that cupping, despite leaving deep circular bruises on your skin (the darker the bruise, apparently the more toxicity the cup is releasing), doesn’t hurt at all -- even with a tiny flame getting oh-so-close to your flesh. Similar to the acupuncture needles, the cups were left on my back for several minutes. During this time, I was instructed to focus on taking deep breaths, which helped the cups work their magic. The resistance of the suction against my muscles felt pleasant, not unlike when somebody helps stretch out your legs when they are sore. The practice makes logical sense to me -- despite no professional training or medical knowledge whatsoever! -- and while I waited for them to be removed (also painless), I visualized the tenseness of my shoulders and back loosening. 

Because I didn’t actually have any acute pain or injury at the time -- not something I want to proactively test - it’s hard for me to tell if the cupping actually helped me. I felt fantastic when the entire session was over, but after two hours of body work, it was hard for me to pinpoint which part could be tied to cupping. Even so, I loved it as a final part of the process, a few quiet moments for me to simply breathe and savor the rituals I was lucky enough to experience that day. I certainly would consider doing it again as part of a holistic wellness practice and next time (knock on wood!) I’m in need of some acute pain relief.

Photo credit: @acupop on Instagram


The session ended with her answering a few questions I had about which needles corresponded to which body parts and pressure points (here is a good guide from UCLA if you have a similar inquiry). 

I walked out of the studio and into the chilly San Francisco air, feeling refreshed and revitalized. I also felt very complete and connected, having been given the rare and awesome chance to pay mindful attention to my mind, body, and spirit in a way that felt powerful and profound. Will these rituals make a transition from my “carrots” bucket to the one labeled “things that I know are good for me and I will make them part of my regular wellness routine”? I hope so! In the meantime, I am 100% sure that it was the perfect gift for somebody who is in need of an extra energy boost. (Thanks, Luigi!)

Photo credit: @acupop on Instagram

Interested in trying Body Work for yourself? Lara’s services were conducted at AcuPop in San Francisco -- contact to schedule an appointment. Sessions including all three types start at $165. Looking for a practitioner outside of the Bay Area? Check out this directory to find a certified acupuncturist, or search your local spas and massage studios. Team Smudge pays for all services in connection with this series and receives no compensation for its reviews. 

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.