Interviewed by Sarah McElwain

Francesca Biryukov

How did you become an acupuncture practitioner? 

I started as a bodyworker and went to the Swedish Institute to learn massage. While I was there, I was exposed to various teachers and more Eastern studies. And then I learned acupressure and shiatsu. I had a real connection with these modalities. 

The director of the Swedish Institute at the time was Sidney Zerinsky. He was a fascinating man who spoke Chinese fluently. He’d accompanied President Nixon on his trip to China and there was an exchange of medical modalities and things. I began to question him and he allowed me to become an apprentice in his office. I worked there as an assistant for many years. And went on to formally study acupuncture myself at the Tri-State College, which was on West 14th St for many years. It was one of the only acupuncture schools in the United States and one of the first on the East Coast. 

You’ve recently introduced three new services at the Spa—Facial Rejuvenation, Gua Sha and Cupping. Facial Rejuvenation is self-explanatory. It’s an alternative to Botox, right? 

It’s a better alternative because it doesn’t paralyze your muscles and put toxins into your body. It’s actually micro-needling of the acupuncture meridians. All of the acupuncture meridians either begin or end on the face. The meridians travel from the feet up to the upper body and end on the head and the Yang Meridians travel downward from the head to your feet. So actually when you are needling the face, you’re having an affect on your internal organs as well. Micro-needling uses very fine needles and very shallow insertions. We’re not trying to necessarily treat an organ in your body, but they do have reflexive connections to all of the organs. 

People experience results in one treatment but generally a series is recommended depending on the individual needs of the client. I think everyone looks better even after one treatment as it brings a fresh and rejuvenating look to the face.  The number of treatments recommended will be discussed with the client but a series of 10 treatments is ideal to begin with for a maximum result.  

What is Gua Sha? How do you pronounce it?

Ggwah-shah. Gua Sha, Cupping and Facial Rejuvenation are all very much a part of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncturists have always incorporated them into their practices. Now people are apparently finding out about them and requesting them, so we decided to specify these different services and offer them individually. They are primarily done in conjunction or along with acupuncture. More and more bodyworkers and massage therapists are incorporating them into their own practices. They started out as folk medicine. Cups, for example. Many people tell me that their grandmother would put glass cups on their backs when they had a cold. Gua Sha, which means scraping or rubbing, is something I think we do innately with our hands on areas where we have pain. 

It’s a folk medicine technique and many different tools are used. I use jade stones. The Chinese once used the ceramic spoons that you would eat soup with. Gua Sha may be even older than acupuncture techniques. 

Tell us about Cupping.

Cupping is the placement of cups, glass or nowadays plastic that creates suction over an area which you can use on the back or over a joint. It pulls more circulation into the area you’re treating and relieves pain. It’s good for any type of chronic muscular tension. It’s also good for injuries where you may have an area with scar tissue that you want to break up by pulling a lot of circulation into the area. 

What you’ll see with Cupping that you don’t see with acupuncture is a little reddening. Cupping is an intense increase of circulation. It pulls blood into that area.  We tell people they might have a circular area that turns intensely red or purple if there is really a lot of stagnation there, for a day or two. When I worked at the Swedish Institute, I directed the student clinic for many years and there was not much interest in cupping until Gwyneth Paltrow had a treatment on her back and was walking around the city in a sundress. After the public saw the purple circles as a result of  Cupping, we immediately got a dozen phone calls from Channel 4, Fox News and media who wanted to interview the institute about the technique. Gwenyth Paltrow’s photo actually appeared on the front page of the Post, so people need to be prepared not to wear a sundress if they’re going to a wedding or make public appearances after they’ve had Cupping.  

For a client who may not wish to be treated with needles as an alternative, I might treat that painful area and release those muscle spasms with cups. 

What can new clients expect at their first appointment?

Check in at the front desk and take the elevator up to the newly renovated Moon Room on the Sixth floor. We always begin with an intake. It’s important to have the proper treatment as is appropriate to the client’s condition. This should be discussed with the Practitioner at the time of intake. Cups might be incorporated into a treatment plan that treats the whole person taking into account their chief complaints and needs.

Intake interview should incorporate the client’s current condition, the reason for their visit, their health history, any chronic conditions.  An acute injury might be treated differently than a chronic pain they might have had for years.  All of that is important to know as well as other information that may be contributing to their condition. Dietary issues, lifestyle habits, the type of work they do that may be exacerbating or creating their condition also should be taken into account. It is important to have a good intake and a good history to be able to address the individual needs of the client. Chinese Medicine should always treat the whole person and every person is an individual. 

I had my own practice for many years and closed my private office during COVID. A patient tracked me down and visited me at IYI. I now have patients I’ve known and treated over many years. Sometimes they feel better and I don’t see them for a year or two and then they come.  I have very many patients that I have long-term relationships with. 

I especially enjoy introducing clients to yoga. Their appointment includes a yoga class at any level at IYI. People say, I tried yoga, I couldn’t do it or stuff like that. So I like to suggest a level they’ll benefit from. I get to introduce them to a practice I think is wonderful and unique. So for example, a lady who told me she couldn’t do yoga, she’s in too much pain. I recommended a restorative class. She went and she liked it. And she said, Oh, I’m going to go back to that. It’s not what I expected. So I’m very happy to help people find the right level. They might think they could hurt themselves but anyone in any condition can practice yoga. There are arthritis and chronic pain classes. You can lie down or sit in a chair and learn a kind of centering.

Francesca Biryukov is a New York State‒licensed acupuncturist and a National Board‒certified herbalist in the field of traditional Chinese medicine. She is a graduate of the Tri-State College of Acupuncture and served as the clinical director of the Yu Wen Acupuncture Clinic at the Swedish Institute for 15 years and has more than 25 years of experience in classical Chinese medicine. 

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