It’s a funny thing about acupuncture. If I’m talking with a group of people and say, “I just had an acupuncture treatment,” one or two will say, “Oh, yes, I’ve had acupuncture; it put an end to my allergies” or “it helped my back pain.”
The others will wince. “But, guys,” I’ll say, “acupuncture needles aren’t like hypodermic needles; they’re thin, not much bigger than a human hair. Sometimes it hurts a little, but not for long; most times, you don’t feel any pain at all.” They rarely look convinced. To them, a needle is a needle, and being punctured does not sound like fun.
I myself have come to deeply appreciate what the needles can do.
I went to Wu Hsing Tao School’s student clinic with two agendas: The first was to see if acupuncture would enhance my practice of Yi Ren Qigong, which, after all, I sometimes refer to as “acupuncture without needles.” The second was to see if it might ease my varied health complaints—anxiety, depression, a jaw tremor, hot flashes at the age of 70, constipation.
I had had acupuncture treatments in the past. Once they enabled me to cancel surgery on two trigger fingers, fingers that would lock when I bent them and not open when I wanted them to. Another time several treatments did not relieve my shoulder pain—but then the acupuncturist had warned me that they wouldn’t if I had a torn rotator cuff, which it turned out I did. The third time I’d presented a laundry list of complaints, and acupuncture didn’t seem to be helping any of them—but that wonderful practitioner did encourage me to pursue Yi Ren.
None of those times did I feel much after the needles went in, although it was pleasant to lie under heat lamps and relax while the needles did their thing.
But my first treatment at Wu Hsing Tao was absolutely amazing—and definitely more proof of the existence of qi. As I lay on the treatment table with needles in place, energy streaked up the meridians in my legs; it billowed within my core; it transported me to some other place. Would I have felt all that energy if qigong had not awakened me to feeling energy? I don’t know. At the time, lying there, I was just very grateful.
During that same session, I was given a second, briefer treatment, with the needles being inserted and then pulled out almost immediately. It was less dramatic, and treatments during subsequent sessions have been less dramatic, too. I have felt energy, even electricity, but no more great billows and only a few whooshes.
Although my first session was longer than the six I’ve had since, they have all followed a similar pattern.
Tulsi McCarthy, my “primary care student,” takes me to a treatment room, sits down with me and asks me questions about my health and my life and what I want from the treatment. One or two other white-coated students stand to one side, listening attentively, occasionally asking a question or making a comment. It’s a bit disconcerting being the center of so much attention—I’m never sure if I should just talk to Tulsi or include the others, too—but the students are so kind I don’t mind.
After that I lie down on a padded table, and the students take turns taking my pulses. I marvel at this. I once had to learn to take the plain, old, thump-thump-thump-of-the-heart pulse of patients in a nursing home, and I thought that was difficult. But they are taking the pulses of all my meridians—the three that run through my arms and the three that don’t but have reflections there. Oh, my.
My pulses taken, the students leave the room to confer with a supervisor. When they come back, Tulsi announces the treatment plan for the day. Almost always it involves one or two batches of needles, although I’ve also had little piles of an herb known as moxa burned on my chest. (Just the moxa burns, not my flesh, but it seems to get my body’s attention.) The students mark the spots they’re going to needle, and then the supervisor comes in, talks with me as he or she takes my pulses, and checks to make sure the students’ little ink Xes are precisely where they should be.
The supervisor leaves and the students insert the needles one after another, saying “take a deep breath” just before they tap on a needle’s head. As they work the needles, I can tell they’re watching my face and body for any reaction, and sometimes they’ll ask if they’ve hit the qi. I’m not always sure. Sometimes I feel a twinge, close to but not the same as pain; other times I feel something I do not quite have a word for. The student holding the needle is trying to feel the qi, too. One told me it’s like honey or light.
After each batch of needles, the students take my pulses, and at the end, the supervisor takes my pulses, too. The supervisor usually seems pleased and says my pulses are fuller or more balanced, or perhaps steadier or more relaxed.
I, of course, cannot feel my pulses. But invariably when I leave Wu Hsing Tao, I, too, am pleased. I feel somehow better. After the first session, when I had what was described as a “spring cleansing,” I noted the next day that the front of my body felt straighter, more spacious, perhaps lighter—so much so that I was surprised to look in the mirror and see that my tummy stuck out as much as ever. After my most recent session, I simply felt more at peace, and have continued to feel more at peace—and I can tell you, I did not feel at peace when I went there.
By adding acupuncture to my qigong practice, I have added another variable to the little experiment that is me: I have messed up the science. I may never know how much acupuncture has helped me, how much of whatever changes occur are due solely to Yi Ren, or whether it’s been the interaction of the two that has worked.
Constipation is a case in point. At my second acupuncture session, Tulsi asked me what one symptom I’d most like to see improve. Constipation, I said, going for the symptom that seemed easiest to assess. My treatment that day focused on this issue, and I was quite disappointed when almost two weeks passed with no change.
Then I went to a weekend seminar with Dr. Sun. He remarked that one of the exercises we were doing for the lung/large intestine meridians was good for inducing elimination. I did not rush to the bathroom when class ended. But the next morning, magnifico! Those of you who have struggled with chronic constipation will know what I mean, and how thrilled I was. My bowels still don’t function like they did when I was 20, or even 40, but I haven’t even considered taking a laxative since that time.
Six weeks after my “constipation breakthrough event,” I went to Washington, D.C. Normally my large intestine shuts down when I’m away from home—but on my second day in D.C., it came through! (As I wrote this, it occurred to me that maybe my large intestine thought it was home because it remembered the D.C. area from my having grown up there. This is absolutely not the kind of thought I would ever have had before I started studying qigong.)
I don’t know what my future with acupuncture will be. As with massage, it costs money—and I’m still supposed to be learning to move my qi around by myself with qigong. But each time I have an acupuncture treatment, it seems my qigong practice and my life improve in some way.
Tulsi and the teachers at Wu Hsing Tao say that acupuncturists try to wean you from your need for acupuncture—which, of course, isn’t the best business model for them. You might start out getting treatments once a week, or even more often, but then, as your qi becomes more stable, you can increase the intervals between sessions until perhaps you go only when the seasons change, or during rough spots in your life.
But we shall see. I’m at every other week, and I think I still need more than an occasional tune-up.