Behind Olympic Cupping, a Story Rooted in Ancient Religions

While cupping hit the mainstream thanks to Olympic athletes, the practice has a religious history in Islam. 

At the Rio Olympics, photos of circular purple hickeys decorating American swimmers were featured worldwide. Commentary from Olympians was overwhelmingly positive: cupping was said to help recovery time and pain management. In most outlets this was repeated verbatim. America had another alternative therapy du jour.


Does this meaning cupping works? Probably not.

While most commentators point to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as the originator of cupping, where it is heated and believed to shift the body’s energetic field, it has actually been used by a variety of cultures for at least 5,000 years. Egyptians were sticking suction cups on each other over 3,500 years ago, while Hippocrates was known to get his cup on.

Most interestingly, though, is the religious reverence given to wet cupping in Islam. Muhammad prescribed this version, which involves creating a small incision in the skin before suctioning, as recorded in the hadith.

Otherwise known as hijama, this ‘drawing out’ removes the jinn, or evil spirit, from the possessed. Along with the jinn being booted, any black spells associated with the spirit were also dissolved. Depending on the fanaticism level, hijama is a ‘cure for every disease’ or ‘certain diseases,’ although which ones are not elaborated upon. Instead, it is recommended on the ‘odd days of the Lunar calendar,’ and, obviously, is best on an empty stomach.

As with many such ‘sciences’ bloodletting is purported to remove toxins from the blood. That is the liver’s role, but I suppose since you’re discarding actual blood from your body, anything in it will, by default, leave as well.

A practitioner pricks the patient's skin with a needle during a blood cupping session in Singapore. Cupping therapy dates back to ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures and is used to treat a variety of medical conditions ranging from skin problems, blood disorders, fertility disorders and stroke. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

Support for cupping in the scientific literature does not bode well. Most evidence in favor of cupping comes from studies conducted by TCM practitioners, while most conclude that ‘more research is needed.’

One paper found cupping ‘not significantly convincing.’ A particularly disturbing paper documents patients in Rome and Mekele, Ethiopia. Researchers found lesions thought to be caused by trauma or violence to be cupping-related. One of the more unique endorsements of hijama comes from Pakistan:

ACT [Asif cupping therapy; the author’s first name is Asif] is novel quantum based energy model that successfully gives details that CT [cupping therapy] is a meaningful route based on electrical connectivity of deeper structure with quantum orifices present over the skin and application of negative vacuum and bloodletting facilitates the therapeutic expulsion of stagnated and intoxicated energy.

The main problem with such explanations is that energy has a definition, and it is measurable. Cupping, which has its most well known roots in TCM, is said to work by shifting the body’s qi, a mystical energy field that cannot currently be measured by Western standards—the exact response I’ve seen over and again anytime practices like acupuncture, cupping, and other TCM practices are questioned.

Western medicine, the nebulously employed term used when criticizing Euro-American medical approaches, is not perfect. The double-blind study is not without faults. Nearly unregulated pharmaceutical companies raking in billions of dollars on what should be generic prescriptions is heartbreaking and unsettling. An avoided conversation about diet being at the root of our diseases of affluence is tragic. No sane person would argue against these points.

Yet turning back to millennium-old hadith or a system that believes tiger penis offers aphrodisiac powers with no consistent evidence is equally boggling. As medical doctor Harriet Hall notes regarding acupuncture and cupping, “It can’t be stressed often enough that the plural of anecdote is not data.”

Religion requires a certain suspension of disbelief for it to be effective. Applying this mindset to medicine is dangerous. If future studies prove the efficacy of cupping related to specific conditions that would be a wonderful, non-invasive advance to be celebrated. That time has yet to come.

The process involves pricking the skin with needles before immediately applying a cup on top to draw congealed blood. Although the treatment is used widely throughout Asia and the Middle East, western medical groups remain sceptical of the health claims made by supporters and practitioners of the therapy. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

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Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.