In Depth Interview
How did you get involved in acupressure / acupuncture?
At age 9 I developed what was later diagnosed as Crohn's Disease, a serious inflammatory digestive disorder. For many years I underwent consistent medication and periodic hospitalization to manage my health.
At age 19 I met Dr. Michael Smith, an acupuncturist and herbalist. Within 2 months of starting to see him, I began to experience huge changes in my health and after 8 months I was able to stop using Western medicine. Around the same time I was working for non-profit environmental organization and was looking for a new direction in my life that still involved making a powerful, positive difference in the world. Dr. Smith encouraged me to pursue acupuncture as a career and took me under his wing, teaching me his style of medicine as well as martial arts and philosophy.
What would you say makes your business unique?
I was just talking about this yesterday with a recent acupuncture graduate. There is an old saying in China, "the tree of medicine has 1000 blossoms". Every practitioner has a unique approach based on their educational background, life experience, and schools of Chinese Medicine they're drawn to. It is part of what makes acupuncture so endlessly interesting, and also so maddeningly difficult to conduct reliable research on.
Dr. Smith was (and still is) an ordained priest of the Huan Yuan Daoist tradition. His approach is very spiritual, meaning in this case a lot of discussion about the patient's relationship with themselves and their experience of life. I have adopted much of this approach, and also use a lot of the counselling techniques from Jin Shin Do Bodymind Acupressure, which was created by a western psychotherapist.
Additionally, I employ a lot of hands-on techniques such as acupressure and Tui Na massage in order to activate points without needles and to iron out knots in muscles. I have found that this synergistic blend of acupuncture, bodywork, and counselling is very effective.
Most people know that acupuncture involves being stuck with needles. What does acupuncture involve exactly? Does it hurt?
Great question. There are so many different ideas out there about what acupuncture entails, and a lot of things can lead to misconceptions. TV shows like to exaggerate the number of needles for visual effect; you'll never see a real acupuncturist leaving someone looking like a pincushion. In fact, one of my teachers said, "if you use more than 8 needles, you don't know what you're doing". Many people's only experience with needles come from blood work or vaccinations. Acupuncture needles are 1/8 the diameter of a standard blood donation needle and create much less sensation. Some may have had a physiotherapist use Intra-Muscular Stimulation (IMS), which can be incredibly painful- like people scream and cry- and it is sometimes labeled as "acupuncture". I wish this didn't happen, because I've met people who won't try classical Chinese acupuncture due to IMS experience.
Does acupuncture hurt? I am asked this all the time, and the best answer I have is, "yeah, a little." I would compare it to a mosquito bite that lasts for about a second and a half. Some acupuncturists manipulate the needle until the deeper nerves activate. This sensation is like a sudden dull ache- not painful per se, but sort of odd and occasionally uncomfortable.
For many people, the idea of the needle is what holds them back more than the physical sensation itself. Even the word, "needle", is kind of unpleasant and harsh. I wish there were a different word for those pokey metal things I use.
What is the philosophy behind those specific “trigger spots” as you call them on your website? How old are those ideas?
The term more commonly used in my field is "acupoint". I use the phrase "trigger spots" for convenience and accessibility- it conveys an idea that most people can grasp in a general sense. I can see how the term may be confused with the modern "trigger point therapy", which uses specifically innervated spots on muscles to facilitate release.
The Chinese word for acupoints translates literally (as literally as one can with Chinese) to "hole", and the concept is as old as the first texts on Chinese medicine (c. 200 BC). They are places where we can access the deep through the superficial. One of my teachers likened them to the electrical outlets in the wall: accessible places of decreased resistance and increased conductivity that allow us to plug into the wiring network. And in fact, there are electrical scanning devices that pick up increased energy at the location of classical acupoints.
Moving to practical terms, stimulation of these spots has been found over the millenia to correspond with inducing, enhancing, or suppressing certain physiological processes and/or phenomena in the body (and the mind- more on that later). Over time, cohesive theories began to develop that grouped these points into categories with similar effects and linked them with specific organ systems. Thus, by stimulating- with hand, needle, or massage tool- these points, we can create or "trigger" certain desirable effects within the patient.
You also use acupressure and Tui Na massage. How do these differ from one another and how do they work together for someone’s healing?
Acupressure is a way to activate acupoints by hand rather than through using needles. It is static, meaning the practitioner doesn't move their hand around once they've contacted the point. Tui Na means, sort of, "pushing and pulling". It does not work with acupoints but rather is concerned with moving blockages or releasing tension in tissue itself. Tui Na is dynamic, involving skillful and sometimes quite precise movement along the muscles and tendons. It can be looked at as the Chinese style of Deep Tissue Massage.
The two work together very well. Sometimes an acupoint is having trouble releasing because there is so much tension around it. In this case, using Tui Na to soften the tension can greatly facilitate release. In the other direction, muscle tension can sometimes be stubborn or recurring because a very specific acupoint (sometimes not even at the site of the tension) is blocked. In this case, activating the acupoint can allow a long-standing pattern to finally resolve. There are also certain points that promote overall relaxation in the body or a in specific area such as the shoulders or the hips. Activating these points makes Tui Na more effective with less effort.
I often flow back and forth from acupressure to Tui Na, using one to facilitate the effectiveness of the other. This is an advantage of acupressure; with needles in the practitioner's freedom to use massage is constrained. The disadvantage of acupressure, of course, is that a limited number of points can be activated at once.
How do those two compliment Acupuncture? Are there specific problems that acupuncture helps more then acupressure or massage?
Fundamentally, Chinese medicine is about restoring balance and enhancing vitality. It is an approach to healing more than any particular technique, though nowadays acupuncture is intimately associated with the term "Chinese Medicine" in people's minds.
In the 1200's, a physician named Sun Si Miao put forward a theory called "The 8 Limbs of Medicine", outlining everything a doctor should be able to work with to assist their patients. Acupuncture was one of these, acupressure and Tui Na another. Acupuncture, as I said previously, stimulates certain processes in the body. It is almost never a bad idea to use acupuncture (the exceptions are very weak people for whom the needling is a shock to the system, and those are are traumatically needle-phobic). Acupressure compliments it by allowing for a greater number of points to be activated without needing to use a large number of needles. Also, if needles have been placed on someone's front then the practitioner can reach under the patient to use acupressure on points on their back.
Tui Na assists acupuncture in that it allows its effects to manifest more quickly, and can be used to identify blocked points. I will explain. Often, people come to see me with a sore back. I will first massage their back with Tui Na to start it releasing, and also to locate where the focal points of tension are. Then I will place needles in their hands, feet, and legs because there are special acupoints there that promote circulation and relaxation in the back. Then I will place needles directly in the tense spots I identified with Tui Na. After some time (15-20 minutes), I will remove the needles and massage the area again.
To answer the second part of the question, Acupuncture is specifically good for complex patterns that require a sophisticated, synergistic combination of things to happen simultaneously. This is difficult to accomplish with acupressure alone, because not enough points an be activated at once.
You also do counseling, what would a typical session cover? Do you talk about someone’s whole life or just what is wrong with them?
In Sun Si Miao's 8 Limbs of Medicine, #1 is "Mind". Working with the mind has been an integral part of Chinese Medicine since the tradition began. Counselling is used synergistically with acupuncture, acupressure, etc to resolve patterns in a holistic way.
A typical session covers a person's relationship with themselves and the patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that form part of their illness. Everyone's mind is different and they care about and struggle with things on many different levels. Some people have a lack of self-worth, so they practice poor self-care or actively sabotage their well-being. Some people feel very driven in their work, so they regularly burn themselves out.
It also gets more specific. In Chinese medicine we view the organs as having psychological functions as well as physiological- for example, the Liver is responsible for our focus and motivation. If someone comes to see me with Liver pain or other dysfunction, we will talk about their ability to hold a vision for their future and anywhere they might feel stuck or frustrated in their life, and I will offer what perspectives and advice I have on their situation.
To answer the second part of the question, it really depends. Sometimes what's wrong with a person IS their whole life- or to be more precise, their relationship with being alive and human. I've worked with a few people who simply feel there's no point to living. This one is difficult; the key thing is to discover the root of the problem and help them see that how they are feeling is a natural response to something that happened or is happening, and to show them that by resolving this pattern things can and will change. Acupuncture is very effective at waking up certain vital energies in these situations- I have always been successful with these cases. Sometimes it is a very specific thing that is causing a person's illness- for example they have digestive problems due to emotional eating. In this case, we talk about their relationship with self-nurturing and look at other ways they can give themselves love and care.
Of course, not all situations necessitate counseling. A sprained ankle or the common cold are random, external occurrences. In Chinese Medicine, we always use the appropriate mix of techniques for the given situation.
I noticed you said you “were able to stop all Western Medicine”, how does this work practically, do you no longer take any medication whatsoever or do you take only herbs and other supplements?
I no longer employ conventional modern Western medicine, what is sometimes called "Allopathic Medicine", in support of my health. This is not, however, because it is ineffective at alleviating the symptoms I sometimes experience. Indeed, I am quite responsive to pharmaceuticals when I have taken them in certain emergency situations. On that note, please don't think that I hold a blanket rejection of Western Medicine. I feel it is the correct thing to use in severe, acute circumstances. Also, surgery is an extraordinary development in human history.
I was able to stop all Western Medicine when I was younger because Chinese Medicine had resolved much of the root of the health problems, and was effective at managing whatever was leftover. This was a great blessing, because the medication I was using at the time had some pretty icky side effects.
Another reason I stopped Western Medicine is that, given the holistic perspective on health I was developing, I saw that using medication prevented me from having a clear understanding of what was going on within myself. This may sound odd, but I'd rather be sick and in authentic relationship with myself than be symptom-free and out of touch with what's going on inside me.
I currently use herbal medicine regularly, eat really really well, receive acupuncture and massage, and practice yoga and qi gong to maintain my wellbeing. And my digestion will likely always be sensitive, since it was so compromised so early on in my life. Like a tree bent from growing around a stone, we show the effects of our early struggles.
What would you say you are the most effective at healing in your practice? For instance is there a particular ailment that your patients have seen healed from their first session?
For some reason, I seem to be really good at helping resolve jaw pain (TMJ). I've had numerous patients with intractable pain walk out of my office with their first relief in years. I don't quite get it; it's not something I've ever suffered from myself and I'm not sure if it was even covered in my schooling. I use a combination of acupressure (mainly that), acupuncture, and counseling around communication. It's become something I'm very confident treating.
Another "ailment" I have great success with is depression. Did you know that depression is one of only two mental illnesses (the other is schizophrenia) that is found in all the world's cultures? I learned that in medical anthropology class. Therefore, Chinese Medicine has been working on how to resolve depression for a very long time. And we've come up with a very sophisticated theory on it. In Chinese Medicine, we identify 5 different types of depression and each is treated using distinct acupoints.
This is where Jin Shin Do really helps. It was created by a Western psychotherapist, so it involves counseling techniques that work with Westerners. A lot of times, I've found, a large part of people's depression comes from not understanding the nature of what they're experiencing and the root of it. Uncovering the root can take time, but understanding how depression works can give people a lot of empowerment in the situation. And then acupuncture and acupressure (caring touch can be very powerful in and of itself in these cases) are effective at "raising the qi" and literally lifting a person's spirits. Depression is also something that runs in my family, and I've experienced it quite seriously a couple of times in my life. This, I feel, gives me an ability to relate and a confidence in the efficacy of the work.
In what way exactly, is what you do spiritual? Are all the ailments and sicknesses that people struggle with partially, mostly or all rooted in something spiritual?
"Spiritual"... "of or pertaining to the spirit"... what a troublesome word. What a maddeningly vague, abused, maligned and misunderstood word. It means so many different things to different people and groups. You know, I haven't described myself as spiritual in years, for exactly the reason of its broad and highly variably definitions. "Spiritual"... yes, I have to apply that term to my work, but I must also clarify what I mean by the word.
For me, "spiritual" applies to two distinct things. The first is a person's relationship with themselves, the world around them, and the experience of being alive. You could call this a person's spiritual perspective. The second is the intangible layers of a person's being- their energetic field and the representations of their organs on the energetic plane. You could call this a person's spiritual body.
Now to the question. The ways in which what I do is spiritual are likewise two-fold. Firstly, there is an aspect of counseling that works with a person's fundamental worldview, with those aforementioned relationships. This goes beyond and deeper then helping them work through specific events or issues, and goes down to the basic narrative framework of their life. Identifying and shifting aspects of this framework that are limiting, disempowering, or otherwise self-defeating can be a tremendously powerful healing process.
Working with the other sense of the term involves accepting that there are aspects of our being that exist outside the realm of our mundane senses (sight, touch, etc.) In this sense, "spirit" is somewhat synonymous with "energy" (another problematic word). Our spirit is an intangible part of our being that influences, and is influenced by, our mind and body. Through a decade of Qi Gong practice, I have developed what I consider to be some ability to sense this type of energy and to work with it. Either that, or I have remarkably consistent shared hallucinations with my clients :)
As to whether disease is rooted in the spirit, this is my understanding: all experiences that we have involve all aspects our our being to at least a small degree. Different experiences vary in the degree to which they involve each aspect of our being. Illness is the same. A common cold will be mostly physical, insomnia will be mostly mental. Diabetes is mostly physiological. However, in Chinese Medicine we see everything holistically and there will always be other parts of ourself involved. For example, having a cold usually makes us less mentally acute and can depress our mood.
The spirit is involved in both of the senses I've discussed. First, a great teacher of mine once taught us the distinction between our pain and the story we tell about it. In many cases, one of the most important aspects of my work with someone is to help them have what I call an "empowered context" for what they're dealing with. Many people have a sense of helplessness, confusion, and/or self-blame around their illness. This relationship with their situation helps perpetuate it in any number of ways- often unconscious or compulsive self-sabotage. People eat in ways they know are unbalancing for their condition, they take on unnecessary responsibilities and push themselves too hard, it can be as simple as habitually staying up late so they're always tired. These things have nothing to do the illness itself; they are purely a function of the person's relationship with their life. However, they quite significantly impact the person's health and recovery. Helping someone see what is behind these patterns, and supporting them in relating to their world and themselves in a new way, is often a foundational aspect of the treatments I do. Sun Si Miao said, "the Mind is the 1st determinant of health".
The second meaning of "spirit" applies to this question as well. One of my teachers said that certain of our energy meridians are like the "blueprint" of our body, and our physical form manifests from them according to their condition. According to this teaching, traumatic events or long term strain can disrupt these blueprint meridians with the result that our body will continually be in a diseased painful state even as new cells generate. Acupuncture that activates and balances or "tunes" these meridians can have, in my experience, quite remarkable effects. I recall a young man who was in a car accident and his muscles were continually developing a pattern of tension that contorted his body. After working on the blueprint meridians, this phenomenon ceased.
"Spirit" is a very difficult concept to discuss in our society. I am hesitant to use it in public settings, because it has a strong association with New Age healing modalities that have no solid basis. Chinese Medicine explicitly acknowledges and works with Spirit, but we usually employ a bit of Coyote Medicine, so to speak, in how we approach it.
Are you continuing the tradition of master/teacher with anyone or do you plan on it sometime in the future?
Another great question! Simply put, no. Practitioners who are starting out sometimes ask me for advice, but I've never taken on a disciple in any way. I really don't think I've been doing this long enough to feel at all confident even if someone were to ask.
That said, I am very excited to teach. Among the many hats I've worn in my life, I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) for a while, and loved it. I also sometimes give workshops on holistic health, and they seem to be well received. Once I decide where I want to settle, I very much intend to pursue teaching Chinese Medicine.
As for continuing the 1-on-1 Master/Student tradition specifically, I do not think it is something I can plan to do. Such things, in my worldview, are decided by fate. If such an opportunity comes my way, I welcome it. If not, it is not part of my destiny.
Which discipline of martial arts are you and how do you see martial arts influencing your practice?
I've trained a few martial arts in my day with varying degrees of dedication. I'd say the one that has had the most lasting impact is Ba Gua, a sibling of Taichi that has stayed closer to its combat roots. Ba Gua, Taichi, and Xing Yi are the three so-called "internal" martial arts; they focus on developing your internal awareness, coordination, and very fine motor skills rather than the "external" styles that focus on strength and form.
I have rendered someone unconscious in a fight, and have landed on my feet unhurt after being hit by a car and flying through the air; I consider these both to be testaments to the quality of the training.
Martial arts has influenced my medical practice in a multitude of ways. On the most simple level, it has given me a good posture when I'm doing massage or acupressure. It has given me a greater ability to sense tightness in people's muscles and how they might be released. It has allowed to more effectively spread or focus the energy of acupressure and massage as needed. Essentially, my ability to feel what's going on with bodies has been heightened.
Chinese martial arts follow the same metaphysical system as Chinese medicine. My training gave me opportunity to tangibly experience many of the theories of Chinese Medicine, which confirmed their veracity for me and helps me to communicate them with my patients.
In history, practitioners of Chinese Medicine have often practiced martial arts. Wong Fei Hung of the "Once Upon a Time in China" movies is a good example. One of the teachers at my school was also a high-level kungfu master; he came to medicine later in life. They are like the Yin and Yang of a person's cultivation, you could say.
How can Western Medicine compliment Eastern philosophies?
Now that's a doozy of a question.
I must choose my words very carefully, as I am legally bound by certain restrictions in what I can and cannot say about other modalities. Specifically, I will not comment on the comparative effectiveness of one or the other for various conditions. The World Health Organization acknowledges acupuncture to be effective for over 300 conditions, mind you.
So, let me tell you a story from my own life.
When I was 12, I was having a hard time with something in my life and I became terribly depressed. After several months of this, my health started to deteriorate. Treatment with diet and supplements did not turn my situation around, and I became gravely ill. One day I started having minor seizures and my parents, quite alarmed, took me to the hospital. It turns out I was close to death! The doctors immediately put me on serious medications and I was air-ambulanced the next day to Children's Hospital, where I stayed for a month.
The Western Medicine treatment there saved my life. Afterwards, I was always a bit sick and required consistent medication. Years later, I started seeing Dr. Michael Smith the Chinese Medicine practitioner. As we got to know each other, I told him the story. He analyzed it and made the connection between what was going on for me emotionally and what happened with my body. It made a lot of sense. Working from that basis, within several months my health improved to the state where I stopped using medication.
Thus, I always respect Western Medicine because I would be dead without it. However, and I don't think I'll get in trouble for saying this, Western Medicine is focused primarily on the physical body and does not give much attention to the possible interaction of the mind and the physical form. Chinese medicine is fundamentally holistic, so can work on that level. Chinese Medicine, however, is a comparatively slow form of medicine and in emergency situations is not effective to save a person's life. In the old days, there was emergency medicine in China, but it has been surpassed by Western techniques and we don't learn it.
Have you seen any good examples of how “Modern” medicine and other eastern medicines have worked well side by side?
Yes… though it really depends on what you mean with “side by side”. If you mean working cooperatively with mutual consultation between practitioners, then no. Such a dynamic does not exist in our part of the world. It’s getting better, but we’re pretty much at the stage where Conventional Western Medicine has said (sometimes), “okay, acupuncture is not just bullshit witchcraft. It has some validity”. In order for active cooperation to occur, Western MDs will have to be trained in Chinese Medicine theory so they can actually talk with us. As it stands, MDs have no idea what “Kidney Yin Deficiency” means, and I am legally prohibited from commenting on a person’s pharmaceutical use.
There is an exception to this: MDs who on their own initiative learn Chinese medicine. I know of three such people in my region, and by all accounts their work is extraordinary.
If by “side by side” you mean that patients use each to assist their healing with their own guidance, then yes. I have a number of clients who start seeing me while on pharmaceuticals and then gradually wean off of them and transition to using acupuncture to maintain their health. I also have clients with chronic conditions who keep a prescription on hand simply to ease anxiety about the impact of a sudden deterioration. One very interesting case is an HIV-positive client who sees me to alleviate the side-effects of the drugs he will always be taking. We have had very good results. In all of these situations, however, it is the client who guides the use of the two modalities- I have never spoken with their MD.
I am excited for Conventional Medicine to accept our system to the point that we can actively work together.
How is the standard form of Acupuncture different from your style? Is there any benefits in the standard model?
There’s an old saying in China, “The Tree of Medicine has 1000 branches”, meaning that there are myriad styles of acupuncture and all of them are valid.
The standard form of Acupuncture is called “TCM Acupuncture”, and it was developed in the 1970’s under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party within the context of the Cultural Revolution. It is what we learn in Chinese Medicine College, and it is what the licensing exam is based on.
TCM is materialistic (as in, it doesn’t pay much attention to energy or spirit), pathology-focused, and very systematic. Beautifully and brilliantly systematic. If you learn it properly, you can reliably come up with a treatment in every situation. It was designed such that it could be taught to a great number of people in a short period of time, and those people did not need any particular qualities other than reasonable intelligence.
Treatment wise, TCM is similar to conventional Western Medicine in that it goes Symptom->Diagnosis->Prescription. Very logical. TCM views patients as collections of signs and symptoms, not as unique individuals with life stories and worldviews. Again, it is very communist. It’s about restoring function so people can get back and be productive members of the proletariat. And it’s often quite effective for that.
If students do not pursue further education in other styles of acupuncture, or come to Chinese Medicine from a background of experiencing other styles, then that’s automatically what they will practice. Therefore, many acupuncturists have TCM as their style.
I think you can infer from the content of many of my earlier answers the ways that my approach differs from the standard. Frankly, if I were practicing in China during the Cultural Revolution, I probably would have had to flee the country. Many doctors from the more spiritual traditions did, Dr. Smith's teacher among them. You may also be aware of the “Five Element” school of acupuncture; it was likewise created by exiled doctors.
How do you see the future of Acupuncture and Eastern Medicine in the Western World?
Well, this is certainly an interesting question to ponder. There is no doubt in my mind that the future will bring a greater acceptance of Eastern Medicine- all trends point that way. In April of 2010 the Provincial Government started offering minor coverage for acupuncture for people on Medical Premium Assistance, and my clients keep getting more money in their insurance plans for acupuncture. I see two scenarios as likely:
We will be recognized as a fundamentally distinct yet equally valid approach to healing and will be supported by the Public Healthcare System but left to practice in our own unique ways.
Chinese Medicine will become increasingly standardized and materialistic (see TCM above) and we will be assimilated into the healthcare system, vastly increasing our presence and influence but losing our autonomy and compromising much of the creativity and spirit that makes this medicine what it is.
I, unsurprisingly, hope for the former. It all depends on how our society evolves, which is a huge question mark. Are we become more programmed and regimented, or are we becoming more creative and open? There is ample evidence for both, in my view. Only the future will tell. In any event, my commitment is to providing my clients with the most effective treatment and support that I am able to provide, and to carrying on the lineages of my teachers, regardless of the external situation. When I was born, Chinese Medicine was illegal in Canada. Now it is flourishing, and people from all walks of life are discovering its benefits. This is reflective of a profound shift in public consciousness. I look forward to the future very much because regardless of which way it goes, an enhanced role for this beautiful medicine is certain.
Do you have any books or particular resources such as Audios/Radio shows/Blogs that you like and could pass on to my readers for more information about what you do or why it works?
I’m not so much of an internet person, but here are some good books:
For a good overview of the Chinese perspective on health and the foundations of Chinese medicine, I suggest The Web that Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuk or Between Heaven and Earth by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold. For books that speak more to the spiritual aspects of Chinese Medicine, I recommend The Five Spirits by Lorie Eve Dechar and Nourishing Destiny by Lonny Jarret. All of these are great reads. More practically, Building a Jade Screen by Hong Zhen Zhu is a very good self-care manual, and Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford is an extraordinary resource for diet therapy with a Chinese Medicine foundation.