*Things I have learned from being an acupuncturist, above and beyond the 3000 years of theory, the requisite biomedicine and microbiology courses, the location and function of the acupuncture points, current acupuncture research, the names and functions of hundreds of herbs, various acupuncture techniques, how to write an herbal formula, interactions between herbs and medication, basic anatomy and physiology, etc. In short, this blog is about what I’ve learned beyond what they teach you in becoming an acupuncturist.
1. Our bodies want to be healthy.
They do! Really! Oftentimes, pain, sickness, disease, and emotional imbalance arise or continue because we don’t allow our bodies to recover or heal the way they want to. We play in the basketball game even though our ankle is really hurting. We eat cheese because we love it even though it keeps us up at night with stomach cramps. We drink beer when we go out with friends even though we are always congested the next morning. Your body is sending you signals ALL THE TIME in the form of pain or discomfort, to let you know when something in your life needs to change. It might be your diet, or the fact that you are pushing yourself too hard, or that a friend’s hardships are taking their toll on you. Far too often we ignore these signals by pushing through the pain, by taking medications to mask the signals, by thinking we can conquer our body’s innate boundaries and breaking points. But the signals are your body’s way of letting you know how to make it healthy. Listen to them! Notice the patterns. Notice which foods make you feel better, which make you feel worse. Notice if exercise exacerbates your back pain, or if it makes it subside.
There is an important difference, here, between “giving in” to pain or discomfort and listening to the wisdom it offers. Giving in to knee pain is stopping doing everything you love because of the pain. Listening to the knee pain is understanding where it comes from – why it is there – what causes it to feel better and what causes it to be worse. And listening means giving it the time and the rest it needs to recover, to strengthen, to get to a place where you can do the things you love without thinking about it. Giving in to intense social anxiety is staying at home and letting it rule you. Listening to your anxiety is learning what causes it, learning what the triggers are, learning what techniques acknowledge the panic and then let it assimilate back into your being. I often tell patients that the acupuncture needles are reminding your body how to heal itself. And I believe that. But I also believe that is true of most of the medical treatments that we use. Sure, there are some conditions that require medications for life. But not most – in most cases, whether it is pneumonia or menstrual cramps or migraines or eczema – the goal of treatment is to get you to a place where you don’t need the medication or treatment anymore. Think of all the recent research that has come out about the way we respond to placebos – even when we are given a sugar pill, we get better! When we are told we should get better, we do! I think that a big part of this is the fact that by taking action – taking a pill (whether real or not), getting an acupuncture treatment, going to physical therapy – we are showing our bodies that we are listening to them. We are hearing their call, and we are responding. And they respond in kind.
2. The mind is a powerful tool – for healing or for destruction.
I don’t know exactly how many of my patients have conditions that are worse when they are stressed or emotionally agitated or depressed…but I would guess it is at least 75%. One of the basic tenants of Traditional Chinese Medicine – indeed, one of the basic tenants of most forms of holistic health – is that our mind, body, and spirit are not separate entities that exist independently from one another. They are different aspects of the same being – YOU. And they depend on one another, nurture one another, harm one another. We very often see patients who are experiencing a chronic illness of some sort – and oftentimes, symptoms started during a particularly stressful time in their life. Patients tend to come down sick after experiencing grief. And when patients are feeling positive and upbeat, their symptoms often improve. (And obviously, the reverse is true, as well. When symptoms are better, then the patient tends to be in a better mood.)
One of the many positive benefits of the mind-body-spirit connection is that it gives us agency when dealing with our health. It gives us power. We can choose how we are going to respond to a particular physical health ailment – and often times, that can make all the difference!
I talk about this a lot with women who come to our clinic for treatment of unexplained infertility. The Western medical treatments for infertility necessitate that a woman obsess over her condition – needing to record basal body temp, date of ovulation, cervical mucus. And most of the women I see for this condition in my clinic are incredibly stressed, anxious, and obsessive about this process. I always tell them that this stress actually makes it harder for them to get pregnant – it blocks the flow of energy, it tenses up the body, it releases hormones that get in the way of the IVF drugs. When women can relax through the process, when they can make the incredibly difficult step of accepting where they are and moving ahead from there, their chances of conceiving go up markedly. I see it again and again. The mind calms down. The mind says, ok, I am ready. And then the body follows.
I like this example, too, because it shows how the mind and body need to be in harmony with one another. The mind cannot will the body to be better, be painfree, be relaxed. Rather, the mind must open itself up to the body – they are on the same team. Too often, our minds work against us, get us all riled up, and fed up, and worried, and that takes its own toll on our bodies.
Acupuncture is all about connections – connections between different energy systems, connections between our mind and our body, connections between our qi and our blood. But treating patients has also taught me – again and again – that we do not exist separate from the rest of the world. The Qi that flows in each of us, through our meridians, is the same Qi that flows through the grass, the trees, the rivers, the sky. When things are off in the natural world, things tend to get messed up in our bodies, too. Obvious examples are things like seasonal allergies or joint pain that is worse before a storm. But there are more subtle ways that this connection plays out each day…I have written here before about how as the spring weather starts, people tend to get more agitated. This is due to the energetic of the season, of the natural world, which corresponds to the expansive, outward, impatient Wood energy. In the winter, the energetic is Water. Water is passive, quiet, and turns inward, like deep pools of stillness. I see this in every patient that walks into my clinic during the winter months, even during “nice” weather – they are turned inward, many experience seasonal depression, they move slower and talk slower and things take a longer time to heal.
Likewise, our energy has a profound effect on those around us. Have you ever walked into a room and felt immediately tense, and perhaps found out later that your two friends, or parents, or coworkers had just been arguing in that space? So often I treat patients for physical manifestations of living or working in a stressful environment, even if the stressor is not something directed at them particularly. Headaches, anxiety, digestive issues, kidney stones, back pain, asthma in children, knee pain, painful periods, infertility.
Understanding this, again, gives us agency. If we are connected to everything and everyone around us, we have the power to change that existence. The energy that we put out into the universe can positively or negatively affect everything we come in contact with.
In the Traditional Chinese medical texts, they talk a lot about the importance of the practitioner’s intention. Acupuncture is not merely about needles and depths and degree of rotation upon insertion – it is about an exchange of energy between the patient and the practitioner. Intention matters. Not just in acupuncture, but in everything we do.
4. Our bodies remember.
Lastly, I have learned that our bodies are wise beyond our wildest imagination. Our bodies remember things that we have long forgotten. Massage therapists often talk about muscle memory – this refers to how your body learns to move, even when you are not conscious of it. Many times after treatment (either with acupuncture, or massage, or neurofascial stretching), patients will be able to move in a way that they could before an injury. It isn’t their minds remembering, it is that stored memory in the muscles guiding the movement, once the scar tissue or qi stagnation or swelling that is in the way has been removed.
But our bodies also remember emotions. The concept of somato emotional release states that difficult emotions – from trauma, or heartbreak, or grief – can be stored in our body’s cells. Bodywork and acupuncture and exercise can help to access these stored emotions that are weighing down the actual tissues of the body, causing pain or disease or distress longterm. This is where the acupuncture theory is so beautiful, and so amazing to me. So often patients will experience pain along the channel that corresponds to a certain emotional weakness or issue for them, even if they aren’t aware of that issue anymore. Treatment over time can help their bodies, their emotional centers, and their minds to reconcile these issues and release the pain.
Our bodies remember pain, too, even when we forget it. Humans are horrible at remembering pain after it has passed. But our bodies don’t forget. Often in treatment, when I am palpating the body for a point, a certain area will be really tender, or the patient will flinch before I even stick a needle in. This is often a site of a previous injury that the patient only remembers when I ask about it. Or else it is an acupuncture point that directly targets the imbalance that we are treating.
Our bodies tell our stories – through muscle memory, through the way we move, through the clues that they constantly give us about what will make us better. They remember our hardships and are freed by our successes. I became an acupuncturist because I was fascinated at this idea that my body spoke a language that I didn’t know…that its tender spots told a story of my energy flow, my weaknesses…that its muscle soreness spoke of how I moved and how I remembered feeling…that its discomfort gave me the information of what I needed to do to heal…that it really told the story of who I was, mind, body, and soul.
What story do you want your body to tell about you?