Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”
―F. M. Alexander
“It is not the degree of 'willing' or 'trying', but the way in which the energy is directed, that is going to make the 'willing' or 'trying' effective.”
The Alexander Technique (AT) is a little-known gem. Musicians and actors at the best programs around the country study it and recognize its value in bringing them to a higher level of performance, but it has had limited success in gaining entrance to a larger audience—despite being around for more than 100 years. But just as musicians and actors rely on their bodies for their work, so do acupuncturists.
F.M. Alexander developed his work as an answer to a perplexing vocal problem. What he ended up discovering are core principles that are broadly applicable to poise (not many speak of poise as something that can be learned) and life in general. One such principle F.M. Alexander called ‘inhibition.’
We understand inhibition in our normal use of the word as the ‘repressing,’ or ‘blocking’ of some process or action. But in the Alexander Technique, ‘inhibition’ simply means not to activate a process. F.M. Alexander said, “stop doing the wrong thing and the right thing will do itself.” This way of thinking of inhibition is clearly a different meaning from our normal understanding of the word. I believe AT’s teaching on inhibition has important implications for us in the acupuncture field in a number of ways, perhaps most importantly in acupuncture education.
In any new skill, we have to learn the specific actions of the skill: first find the point, then place the tube on the point and tap the needle in, then advance the needle to the proper depth, etc. (AT calls this the ‘procedure’). What we almost never pay attention to is the vast arena of what we should refrain from doing while performing the action (this is what AT refers to as ‘inhibiting’). There are many things we need to inhibit in order to learn a new skill: over-efforting, worrying about the outcome, becoming distracted, holding the breath, etc.
Let’s look at the example of a student trying to learn a needle, moxa, or teishin technique. Many of our techniques require a high level of manual dexterity. Some students seem to get on the right track fairly quickly while others struggle mightily for months, or in some cases for years. This becomes particularly obvious when students try to learn some of the gentle techniques developed in Japan. Many of these techniques look rather straightforward at first glance, but they are not at all easy to master.
Why do some students struggle so much more than others in learning manual techniques? If one watches their hands as they attempt these techniques, it becomes clear that the hands of the frustrated learners are doing too much; there is far too much muscular ‘efforting’ in what they are doing. They need to be able to simply stop—full stop—and ‘inhibit’ their current approach. That is a first step. What they want ideally is a sort of wu wei of the technique, a non-doing way of doing, an effortless ‘efforting,’ but they are doing the exact opposite. No amount of trying will get them where they want to go because ‘trying’ will always involve excess muscular exertion.
When I was taught point location in various seminars, iI was instructed to start with a completely relaxed hand (as much as I could manage) on my practice partner’s body. If we cannot let go of the tension in our hands, then we are already off to a poor start with any technique. With a tense hand we will miss subtle distinctions as we look for the precise point location. That is simply the reality of our nervous system. With a relaxed hand we can scan lightly over the patient’s skin and hope to pick up on interesting differences.
In the Alexander Technique, there is no such thing as a relaxed hand without having the proper balance of relaxation and effort overall. I remember one student in a bamboo tube moxa (aka Mizutani-style moxibustion) seminar who was so worried that she would burn her partner that her entire upper body was positively frozen in muscular tension. I jokingly referred to her grip on her moxa tube as the “Vulcan death grip,” and she appreciated the humor. She could recognize the pickle all her over-efforting had gotten her into. This is an extreme example in which wu wei was entirely absent.
I am reminded of one famous juggling teacher whose first lesson was to throw the balls up and let them fall to the ground without making the slightest effort to catch them. Brilliant. What this student needed was to simply sit with a relaxed hand on the tube and meditate, let the tube become a part of her sense of her body, an extension of her hand. Just relax and breathe and not even think of the next step in the technique.
This could be extended to needling techniques as well. Some students are so fearful of causing their patients pain, that they are almost guaranteed to do so. They simply have too much tension in their body. The insertions become so much more comfortable when AT-like inhibition takes place first, then the student moves forward with minimal effort and a well-executed technique.
The AT focus on inhibition is an invaluable step in learning any new skill. Of course, repetition has a role as well—every musician can attest to that, and it is no different with acupuncture. We need to log hours in practicing needle techniques. For us it is unfortunately not as obvious as it is with musicians; many people seem to think it is a simple affair to tap a needle in. Of course, at a certain level it is indeed simple, if the goal is merely to get the needle in, but it is not so simple if the goal is actual healing. But as we engage in practicing a skill over and over, we want to include Alexandrian inhibition. We can “just say no” to the habitual and make each iteration conscious. Our hands enjoy the automaticity brought on by sufficient practice, so that we do not need to put our conscious attention on the step-by-step details of a particular technique. But rather than falling into a machine-like dullness, we practice with full awareness. AT inhibition is a doorway to that awareness.
P.S. There are many books on the Alexander Technique. I recommend people who are interested start with the books from F.M. Alexander himself. His language is at first a challenge, but it is important to hear the core message from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I also like Michael Gelb’s book, Body Learning.
Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
This blog post was originally published in the North American Journal of Oriental Medicine; used with permission.
The bird’s flight annihilates East and West.
Can we talk of mind-body medicine as being Eastern or Western? I suspect not, though in my opinion the traditional medicines of Asia are better positioned to offer a viable avenue to genuine mind-body unity. However, there have been pioneers in the West with valuable insights that can help us, if we want to move in this direction of mind -body unity. In this article I would like to explore the ideas of a few of these trailblazers: F.M. Alexander, Moshe Feldenkrais, and Alan Watts. I leave it for others to explore the ancient roots of Western culture, as there is plenty of evidence that this mind-body unity was once upon a time well established here. The work of Peter Kingsley is one place to start. And this leaves entirely aside the cultures of indigenous tribes of the Americas; they also saw only unity where we modern people now have to struggle to unite what we earlier separated.
In the West “mind-body” is a catch-all phrase that is much in vogue. Many medical clinics in the US advertise therapies that purport to bridge the mind-body divide: yoga, biofeedback, mindfulness-based stress reduction, various movement therapies… Other non-standard clinics offer Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM) as being authentically (w)holistic and, thus, the genuine way to connect mind and body. All this deserves closer inspection. It is easy to talk of mind-body, but to achieve a genuine mind-body unity is the work of a lifetime. It is a profound challenge to confront our ways of thinking-perceiving and then change them. Simply because we insert acupuncture needles into a patient’s body does not in any way mean we are practicing a (w)holistic medicine that bridges the mind-body split.
How did we come to the point in the first place where we saw the psychic as being distinct from the somatic? Descartes famously said: I think, therefore I am. According to this view, it is the thinking side of a human, the mind, that is primary. Not only is it primary, it is separate and distinct from the body. Once this Cartesian view was accepted in the West, there was no end to the difficulties that followed in its wake, and it was then but a short step to seeing nature simply as a repository of raw materials for our industrial engine. Any sense that nature is sacred and that we are fully in nature, not outside of it, is lost. This should be a lesson to us to consider carefully the core propositions upon which we base our culture.
An Inseparable Whole
Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself. -Moshe Feldenkrais
I believe that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an inseparable whole while functioning. A brain without a body could not think. -Moshe Feldenkrais
A radically (radix means “root”) different view from the Cartesian perspective was offered by Moshe Feldenkrais, Ph.D. when he observed that a brain without a body was inconceivable, that it is in movement (of the body) that we identify the essential element of life. A brain without a body that moves, even if only in a limited way, would not be able to think, would be unable to encounter the world. We require these sorts of meetings rooted in movement for our nervous system to properly develop. Without interfacing with the world through our nervous system we would have no access to language, words would be meaningless.
I was shocked some years back when I heard Alan Watts, one of the early popularizers of Zen and Taoism, maintain that the ego was a pattern of muscular tension. I had to listen again to make sure I had heard him correctly. The ego, a pattern of muscular tension? My own view of the ego was completely different. I checked online and found that the accepted definitions of ego did not support his view and did support what I was thinking:
You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension. -F.M. Alexander
People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures. -F.M. Alexander
It should be pointed out that likely neither Feldenkrais nor Alexander would have much liked the term mind-body, because we are already in this phrase accepting the two phenomena as separate. Our language virtually forces us to do this sort of phrasing. We see a “mind” as somehow distinct from a “body,” and we see a need to unify them through some strategy. Both Alexander and Feldenkrais instead simply saw a unity; Alexander called it the “Self” and spoke of our “Use of Self” instead of mind-body unity. Alexander’s “Use of Self” included the physical and the mental-psychological-emotional. The work of both of these geniuses has had a profound influence on my acupuncture practice, albeit in indirect ways, but then the indirect way is often the most powerful.
What precisely have I carried over from these two teachers into my practice? I actually practice the work of neither of these geniuses, but their perspective on life has had a significant influence on how I see my work. To watch both of these men work was to watch the most refined touch, to see the most minimalistic interventions produce fundamental changes in the body-mind. This has been a big inspiration for me in my own work in Japanese acupuncture styles. They confirm for me from a Western perspective that “less is more.”
In our Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM) we have many ways to understand the deeper pattern imbalances of our patients. We might use yin-yang theory, five-phase theory, san jiao theory, or any of a number of other filters. Always we are seeking to understand our patients at a deeper level. This is quite different from modern biomedicine where lab reports, standards of care, and the constellation of signs and symptoms completely drive treatment strategizing.
But in TEAM we also put our hands on the bodies of our patients to discover layers of meaning. A wealth of information is available in this hands-on approach, but it takes a real investment of time and attention to nourish this capacity in us, in our hands. To investigate a genuine mind-body unity one needs to do real personal work, to delve into our belief structures and how we are comfortable thinking. We are as habitual and reflexive in our thought processes as we are in our movement patterns. Without a searching reflection one has no hope of achieving escape velocity from the consensus view of reality that is still so collectively dominated by the Cartesian split of mind and matter.
Many patients come to our clinics complaining that when they visit their doctor, they sit on one side of a desk and their doctor on the other side, and no touch ever occurs. I find that sad, even tragic. I think in many Japanese acupuncture styles, more so than in any other Asian country, we find palpation raised to an inspiring level. Perhaps this is due to the confluence of unique cultural factors in Japan together with the influence of centuries of blind practitioners and their refined palpatory sensibilities.
When Funamizu Takahiro visited our university five years ago to teach a class in the treatment of mental-emotional conditions, the first point he made to the students was that they had to start with the patient’s body itself, not with their words, though of course he was not advising the students to ignore what the patient reports. But their bodies cannot lie—if we know how to read the story written in the tissues. It was said of Feldenkrais, for instance, that he could look at a stranger across a room and watch them move a little, and from this scant information he could tell you quite a lot about that person and what their life had been like. This is the body and its movements as language, just as nature itself to all systems of traditional medicine was seen as alive with symbolic meaning. TEAM in its roots is rich in this view. One of my main mentors in herbal medicine and Chinese cosmology, Heiner Fruehauf, Ph.D., is famous for teaching that Chinese Medicine is an ancient symbol science, i.e., at its highest level to study Chinese Medicine is to learn to think symbolically.
TEAM holds the possibility of a truly unitive medicine (at least potentially)--unitive medicine might in fact be a better phrase than “mind-body medicine.”. My doctoral capstone writing was on the topic of “Wholeness in Traditional East Asian Medicine,” which is to say that this is a topic near and dear to my heart. But I caution against hopping on the current mind-body bandwagon without really assessing what we are doing. Our medicine is genuinely unitive when practiced at the level of the superior physician. It is up to us practitioners to cultivate and elevate our perceptual and treatment skills, so that we bring to our patients this genuinely unitive approach.
“One of the most remarkable of man's characteristics is his capacity for becoming used to conditions of almost any kind, whether good or bad, both in the self and in the environment, and once he has become used to such conditions they seem to him both right and natural. This capacity is a boon when it enables him to adapt himself to conditions which are desirable, but it may prove a great danger when the conditions are undesirable. When his sensory appreciation is untrustworthy, it is possible for him to become so familiar with seriously harmful conditions of misuse of himself that these malconditions will feel right and comfortable.” FM Alexander, from The Use of the Self
Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
The common perception of acupuncture is that it is a treatment for physical pain in the low back, shoulders, knees, and so on. In many countries, this is the usual type of complaint brought to acupuncturists. This is not, by any stretch, the full extent of acupuncture’s capabilities. In the US and some other Western countries the experience has been that mental-emotional complaints can also be well treated with acupuncture.
One of my teachers maintains that 100% of his patients experience anxiety, the only questions are the degree and the target. They might be anxious about their romantic life, their children, the state of the world, existential questions, and so on. The list of possible targets for our anxiety is virtually endless. And the degree of anxiety runs from mild to overwhelming.
Whether or not my teacher is correct that all people experience anxiety, it is certainly true that our culture finds itself in an epidemic of this condition. In Chinese medicine, anxiety is seen as an instance of “counterflowing qi;” (qi = “vital energy”) this means that energy which should be running downward in the body is instead moving upward. If you pay attention to your body when in an anxiety state, you will notice that there is indeed a sense of an upward tendency, i.e., “energy” going up that does not come down.
Here in the US, it is common to describe this in emotional terms (e.g., worry, anxiety…), while in Asia people often use somatic descriptors for the same phenomenon, perhaps calling it a sense of tightness in the chest or a vexing heat in the chest. The reality is that this condition is both physical and mental-emotional at the same time. The physical and the mental-emotional are not so separate as we like to think in our culture; they are inextricable from one another.
So, what can acupuncture do for anxiety? As it turns out there are numerous tried and true acupuncture strategies developed over many centuries of practice in China and other Southeast Asian countries that help the “qi” descend. Many of these strategies are exceedingly gentle and comfortable for the patient, involving non-needle therapies. There are also ways of using moxa (the burning of Asian mugwort on or near the skin) to send the qi downward in the body.
How quickly does anxiety respond to acupuncture? It depends on how longstanding the condition is and on the general health of the patient. We can suggest lifestyle changes, and the speed of response will depend on how regularly the patient does their “homework.”
If you, or someone close to you, experience anxiety, we at Onkodo Clinic invite you to come in and try a series of treatments. Any of our practitioners can help.
By Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
Most of the practitioners at the Onkodo Clinic have studied with Iwashina Anryu. He is affectionately called Dr. Bear. It is a name of honor bestowed upon him by a leader in the Blackfeet Native American tribe in the 1980s. Like many acupuncturists in Japan, Dr. Bear is blind. Japan has about as many blind practitioners as we have sighted ones. It is a long-held tradition in Japan to train blind people for massage or acupuncture.
All the great acupuncture masters I have had the chance to study with have remarkable hands. They make a big deal of this in Japanese styles, and for good reason. But my point remains the same for the Chinese masters I have studied with as well: our hands are the most important tools of our trade. I used to think the needles were the most important, but I no longer believe that - it is our hands.
Whenever I have studied with Dr. Bear, he has taken the time to talk about how acupuncturists should care for their hands. He uses high quality hand-care products every day. He also insists his students NOT engage in activities that would toughen their skin, e.g., rock climbing, guitar playing, golfing, and so on. From the first time I studied with him I took this advice to heart and have cared for my hands just as he advised. And it is true, we do end up with much softer, much more perceptive hands. In addition, I have added some hand qigong exercises to my daily regimen and they have further softened my skin and increased my sensitivity.
When we study acupuncture, it is like we are joining an ancient craft guild. As in all guilds, the key to advancing one’s skills is refinement through long years of focused practice. One must make one’s hands like the hands of a jeweler, or a bookbinder, or a stone mason, or whatever the craft might be. Whatever our hands are like when we start to study acupuncture, we need to cultivate them into perceptive tools capable of refined assessment and treatment.
When Dr. Bear first treated me seven years ago, I had an uncomfortable sensation of heat locked in my chest. Some very good herbalists and acupuncturists took a shot at helping me, but the results were quite limited. In just 35 minutes Dr. Bear was able to eliminate this condition that had plagued me for some years, and it has not come back in the seven years since. Here is the surprising piece: he never put an acupuncture needle in my body. Not a single one. Instead, he carefully palpated my body to find “the presently alive points” that needed to be treated. Then he treated me with a tool that looks like a thick needle touching the skin at each of those points (we call these tools teishin---see our Onkodo Clinic store page for images). In that first treatment he touched perhaps 15 points in this manner. When he was working a point on my lower right leg the heat suddenly emptied out of my chest, never to return!
The success of this first treatment sold me on his approach to acupuncture, even though I did not yet understand much of it. Over the years my understanding of his way of working has slowly grown. Now, I often treat my patients without putting any needles in, just as he did when treating me seven years ago, in that first meeting in San Jose.
I look forward to welcoming Dr. Bear back to Portland in the spring of 2019. Anyone interested in Mr. Iwashina’s work can learn more at www.thebookofdrbear.com.
Photo by Elizabeth Meyers on Unsplash
Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
It was 23 years ago when I started my Chinese medical education; I came equipped with a lot of assumptions, most of which are widely shared in our modern culture. Many of those basic assumptions amount to what could be called “common sense.” Keep in mind though what Albert Einstein said about common sense: “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18.” That’s right, he said common sense concerns prejudices, not the way things actually are. Most would define common sense as offering a shared bedrock view of reality, but that is not the case. Simply because a view is shared does not make it true.
One assumption I brought with me into my acupuncture training concerned the amount of stimulation needed to make a change in the body. At the time I was a fan of deep strong massage techniques, and so it was not a stretch to extend that type of thinking to acupuncture. Our needling techniques (so the thinking goes) need to be strong or else nothing much will occur.
I no longer think that way, and more importantly, the best acupuncturists I have studied with also do not think or practice that way. In fact, the best of the best acupuncturists I have watched employ acupuncture techniques that are unbelievably gentle and minimalistic. If I had had the chance to watch these masters back in 1995, I think my assumptions would have won the day though, i.e., I would have dismissed this sort of gentle treatment as an interesting oddity but probably not so clinically useful. Such is the power of assumptions.
Slowly over the years I have seen enough to convince me that my original ideas of appropriate levels of stimulation were nothing but a cultural bias I had picked up. We live in a culture in which louder, bigger, stronger, brasher, brighter is appreciated and celebrated. The still, the subtle, the quiet do not enjoy the same sort of acceptance in our society. It has taken quite a bit of work to move against this cultural current, but in studying classical Japanese styles, this is what I have been faced with, and I have made some progress.
Even as I started to open to a place for the subtle in how I practice, I was confronted once again by my assumptions when I first saw shonishin demonstrated. You see, shonishin is gentle beyond gentle, and I once again had to ask myself how such minimalistic and gentle techniques (no needles are inserted at all!) could be sufficient to significantly change conditions in a child. Shonishin is a style of pediatric treatment in which tools other than needles are used to tap, stroke, vibrate, scratch, and rub on acupuncture points and meridians. These tools are generally made of various metals and deliver a comfortable level of stimulation to the child. In fact, most kids report it as pleasurable, not just acceptable. Most of these patients love coming in for repeat treatments, which is half the battle won. Generally speaking, taking children to doctors is no easy chore for parents; kids resist with all of the tools and strategies at their disposal. Who wouldn’t; it hurts when someone jabs you with a needle!
One of the hurdles for me in watching shonishin performed was that a treatment is so brief. In almost no time it is over. Little patients just respond so much more quickly than adults that we need to be more aware of the danger of overtreatment than we do of not enough treatment. And that can easily happen. With shonishin it is better to do too little than too much. But to a perceptive eye, a lot is improved in these few short minutes of shonishin treatment. The children calm down quickly, their skin takes on a healthier luster, their elimination improves, their appetite improves, spitting up decreases, and their problem symptoms decrease. It is a wonder to behold. From doing next to nothing, a whole lot of good stuff happens. Frankly, it still surprises me.
Usually in shonishin a series of treatments will be the best bet. When I say this, I am referring to treatment for common childhood conditions: bedwetting, poor sleep, tantrums, tummy aches, low appetite, nursing difficulties, repeated ear infections, and conditions of this sort. If the condition is more serious, it might well be that ongoing treatment of a semi-regular nature will be required.
At the Onkodo Clinic we have five acupuncturists well trained in shonishin: Daniel Silver, Lauri Elizabeth, Emily Ryan, Bob Quinn, and (soon) Vy Similes. This gives a parent ample scheduling options in finding a practitioner for their child. We look forward to helping your family!
P.S. Onkodo Clinic has its own line of high-quality shonishin tools—we call it the Gentle Spirit shonishin tool line. These tools are made in collaboration with two traditional Navajo silversmiths in a labor-intensive manner that no one else duplicates. Some of their work is actually in the Smithsonian Institute collection. See our store for photos and ordering.
Written by Bob Quinn, LAc, DAOM
I recently returned from Arizona where I visited the father-son team that makes our Gentle Spirit tools (see our website Store button at the top of this page---more tools are soon coming, by the way!). Ernie and Jon-Michael Lister are Navajo (Dine) silversmiths that work in the most traditional ways. Sadly many other traditional silversmiths are now taking shortcuts, some even outsourcing a good part of their work to India and China. That’s the world we live in. There are however no shortcuts taken by Ernie and Jon-Michael. Ernie’s work is actually in the Smithsonian Institute collection. In this short blog post I want to describe what goes into our Gentle Spirit tools and how they differ from others available.
It is common in making teishin to work with silver wire as a starting point or to have a mold manufactured. I am not criticizing this practice—many good tools are made in this way— but Gentle Spirit tools are made in a much more time-consuming way, resulting in a higher quality product. Ernie and Jon-Michael smelt their own silver and cast it into silver ingot bars. This alone distinguishes them considerably.
Perhaps in reading this some of you might think: what difference does it make to cast your own silver ingot bars? Silver is silver is silver after all, isn’t it? The short answer is: no. There is a difference between custom furniture and Ikea furniture; there is a difference between $200 wines and Trader Joe's special bargain wine. And there is an obvious difference between our Gentle Spirit tools and ones that are mass manufactured on industrial equipment.
From these silver bars they chisel off sections of workable size (see photo). After that many hours of repeated heat, hammering, filing, chiseling, and polishing are involved in fashioning a Gentle Spirit tool—and, perhaps the most important ingredient of all, prayer. All this time spent working on the tools allows the silversmiths to hammer “spirit” into them. Ernie often attends traditional curing ceremonials on weekends, usually a 6-hour drive each way, and can sing many of the healing songs. There can be well over 100 songs in a given ceremony, and all must be sung precisely and in the right order. His brother is a Navajo healer. In short Ernie is both a modern man and a traditionalist.
It is interesting to note that their main business is in making custom bracelets, mostly for Japanese customers. We love this connection to Japan, because it is in Japanese acupuncture that one finds teishin use raised to high art. Ernie and Jon-Michael manage to stay busy even without a website. People who know and appreciate quality find them, and there is a strong word of mouth effect when someone in Japan wears one of these bracelets. Others who see them want one for themselves. Ernie has a beautiful way of combining the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic with his tribal symbol system, and visitors to his shop recognize right away his unique mastery. To make just one of these bracelets requires two weeks of work for two people. That sort of approach is almost unknown in the modern world of shortcuts and quick fixes.
Ernie and Jon-Michael bring this same commitment to the making of a Gentle Spirit teishin and when one holds them the quality is obvious. I have even seen one sensitive person break down in uncontrollable tears when she first held these tools! That is the strength of the prayers that have been hammered into the silver.
In Japan it is possible to spend $1400 on a gold teishin; many options available there cost much more than our tools. I mention this because some balk at the cost of a Gentle Spirit teishin at $295. I am amazed actually that we can sell them at the price that we do, when one considers what goes into the making of these tools. I have shown these tools to three Japanese master acupuncturists and all three immediately recognized what special tools they are.
Who should buy a Gentle Spirit teishin? I would not advise one of these tools as a starter teishin. It makes sense to first convince yourself that working with non-insertive techniques is something you really want to carry forward. That might involve a year or so of experimenting. Once you know though that you want to work in this gentle way, then it makes sense to purchase a quality tool. Your hands and the techniques they execute will always be the most important ingredients in the clinical recipe, but a good tool is crucial. We are proud to offer these Gentle Spirit tools and hope you consider them when you are ready to invest in a life-long healing tool.
I add my prayers to Ernie’s and Jon-Michael’s that these Gentle Spirit teishin and other tools bring healing to your patients.
Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
It must be eleven years ago now since I first took a lesson in the Alexander Technique (AT). It’s hard to believe that much time has gone by. I have benefited in so many ways, and yet it is still difficult to describe exactly what the technique is and how all this change occurred.
When I first explored this technique I had only a hazy idea about what to expect. I read a little in advance, but that was not much help. You see, AT is pretty hard to capture in language. I will attempt to explain why I think that is so, but first let me share what has changed from all those years of regular lessons.
Chronic low-grade back pain had been a feature of my life experience for many years. I first hurt my back when I was 17, and it has been on and off since then. That is no longer the case. Now it is rare that I experience any discomfort at all in my low back, even though I am a regular runner and lead an active life in general. In fact AT has been scientifically researched to see if it is of benefit in the treatment of chronic low back pain, and it performed quite well.
I have been a runner since 1973 when I first joined the track team at my high school. I am now 62. For most of those intervening years I have been out on the roads and trails logging mile after mile. That is a lot of wear and tear. I have injured hips, ankles, and my back many times. Since I started to take AT lessons though I have not injured myself running. That is quite an improvement!
There is one other interesting result of the AT lessons: I was never a good hill runner, no matter how much I trained on hills, they would always kill me, and other runners in road races would pass me on hills like I was standing still. At one point, perhaps after 7 years of AT lessons, I ran up Mt. Tabor in Portland, and it was effortless (relatively, that is). For the first time in my life I could run hills. What had changed?
Here we come at the difficulty of capturing in language what the AT does for a person. What had changed was “my use of self.” What this means is that my overall organization had come into a more efficient relationship with gravity. My “parts” were cooperating in a new way, a much more efficient way. I had had no sense that my “organization” was faulty, by the way, and this is something that F.M. Alexander wrote a good deal about. In fact my “sensory appreciation” (a good turn of a phrase I think) was wrong; my sensory feedback mechanism had broken down from years of chronic muscle tension. I was not getting accurate information from my nervous system.
This is more common than one might think. We see it in acupuncture and bodywork all the time. Someone’s neck will be tilted to one side or the torso will be twisted in some obvious way, and the patient will have no sense of this whatsoever. Fascinating!
F.M. Alexander was a pioneer in a field that did not really yet exist. Was he a bodyworker? No, not really, though at a point in an AT lesson one is on a table and one’s body does get moved around a bit. Some have described AT as the science of poise. That is not bad as far as descriptions go. Many actors and musicians swear by AT lessons and how it has helped them in their careers. F.M. Alexander was after making his students aware of the habitual patterns they had gotten themselves into. He taught a way to say “no” to these habits, thereby offering a new degree of freedom and improved function.
Lauri Elizabeth is the AT teacher at the Onkodo Clinic, and it is she who has helped me with AT lessons all these years. She is also an acupuncturist trained in a number of styles, including Toyohari, one of the most refined and gentle styles practiced. She is adept at this style, I think, in large part due to her years of AT training and practice. AT gave her hands a sensitivity that others in the Toyohari training did not have.
I encourage all to explore the Alexander Technique. I have focused on my running in this blog, but there is so much more to it than that. It opens up many insights when we start to bring our habit patterns into view to work with. We end up changing for the better in both overt and subtler ways.
Photo by Bettie Newell Photography @sirensongcreative
Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
In 1994 I took off an entire year and traveled around the US visiting acupuncture colleges. In the end I had visited ten of them. I knew I wanted to study Chinese Medicine, and I wanted a well-rounded education. I was leaving behind a solid career in high school education and sought the best training available. In the end I chose to stay in Oregon and attend OCOM. The reason I did so was because of their shiatsu teacher, Jim Cleaver.
I was interested not only in herb and acupuncture education but also saw a place in my future practice for bodywork. It was a great training with Jim, and I then went on to study traditional Thai massage with Paul Greenbaum, DC, L.Ac., LMT. This was followed by training in Sotai, a Japanese system of neuromuscular re-education. In turn training in Feldenkrais and Taoist qigong tuina followed and is ongoing. At this point all of these systems can be seen in how I work.
At Onkodo Clinic we have the great good fortune to have on staff Fig Aiamune, a talented Zen shiatsu practitioner. I first met Fig a few years ago and have continued to receive regular treatments from her since then. Together with daily exercise and a sensible diet, this is actually the most regular part of my strategy for staying healthy. Her treatments help me so much and feel so great.
Zen shiatsu is a fascinating system. It was started in Japan by Shizuto Masunaga, a very interesting character. Masunaga was also a psychology professor. Shiatsu involves numerous techniques, but the most commonly employed is the use of thumb pressure along the same meridians used in acupuncture. Masunaga further developed the traditional meridian system, finding “extensions” of the meridians on the arms and legs. He also formalized a system of abdominal diagnosis.
The Onkodo Clinic just recently welcomed Joseph Kairos, LMT into its stable of practitioners. Joseph is widely trained in many styles of bodywork. A very avid athlete himself, Joseph is adept at sports massage, medical massage, deep tissue-myofascial massage, and also the wonderful Hawaiian lomi lomi system. He gladly works with motor vehicle accident patients. I have received massage from Joseph and can say from personal experience that his skills place him among the elite practitioners in Portland.
I encourage those who are interested to do what has worked for me – include regular bodywork at Onkodo Clinic into your lifestyle. You won’t regret it.
Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
I have a few patients who will not take any Chinese herbs, simply on the basis of safety concerns. Are these safety concerns reasonable? They cite a recent death in the US due to the consumption of unprocessed aconite (a Chinese herb that professionally is always used in the safer “processed” form), concerns over environmental degradation in China, articles in the popular press about Chinese people with financial resources buying much of their food from foreign countries due to perceived corruption in the food safety system in China, earlier articles about hidden drugs in Chinese patent medicines, and so on. For patients who are well informed, there are legitimate concerns to be allayed. And they can be if the time is taken to learn about the natural products industry.
It is true that environmental degradation in China has had an impact on herb quality. There can be no doubt of that. I have many years experience being involved in importing Chinese herb extracts, and the big concern is heavy metals, likely attributable to industrial pollution. Pesticide-herbicide residues were generally not a problem that I encountered—with the exception of fungicide residues on ginseng, but China has mostly dealt with that now. But once the air and water are so polluted, as it is in many Chinese cities, it is impossible to keep the rain from carrying those pollutants down into the herb fields, often many hundreds of miles away.
Believe it or not the main way to deal with this problem in Chinese herb manufacturing plants is by thoroughly washing the plants again and again and again before processing them into extracts. If heavy metals are still a problem after that, there are more costly ways of removing them. Even with all that, in my earlier experience, we would still occasionally have to reject some imported Chinese material because it exceeded US heavy metal limits. This was not often.
Note that our systems on this side of the ocean are completely capable of catching problems before they end up in products sold to the public (our patients). Heavy metal testing is done routinely and effectively in hundreds of labs across the US. These testing protocols are all harmonized and totally trustworthy; luckily this test is quite inexpensive, meaning companies of all sizes can easily absorb the cost of testing. The same is true of testing for pesticide and herbicide residues. A company can test for literally hundreds of these residues for an affordable cost.
The safety record of the professional side of Chinese herbal medicine is an admirable one, especially when compared to the safety of prescribed medications. Iatrogenic disease is after all one of the leading causes of death in the US. No survey of the Chinese medicine field to my knowledge has shown our professional lines to EVER include hidden drugs. Where this practice has been observed, it has always been in non-GMP products, mostly ones sold in Chinatown shops.
GMP refers to “Good Manufacturing Practices.” GMP designation is given to a factory after an auditing visit by an accredited external agency, such as the Australian TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) or others based here in the US. These visits are rigorous and look at all stages of manufacture from procurement to preprocessing storage, to manufacture, and post-manufacture handling, packing and storage. Additionally the US FDA has in recent years visited many Chinese manufacturing facilities on official inspections. As a result we can have solid faith in the products that come from these GMP companies—and this means all of our most trusted professional lines available in acupuncture offices across the US.
Many people are unaware that Chinese herb and natural product manufacturers now dominate the world market, and perhaps if so informed it might give them a little more confidence in our products. Many of the ingredients you likely thought would come from Europe or South America, now come primarily from China, e.g., milk thistle, echinacea, many vitamins and so on. Because of all these foreign sales Chinese manufacturers have ample capital to invest in the very best manufacturing equipment. The Chinese government has helped with additional investment. As a result Chinese herb manufacturing plants are among the best in the world. It has been many years now (maybe 20 or so) since the Chinese government drove many small producers out of business, because they were not able to invest in the most modern equipment so as to meet global safety concerns. This was not an easy policy to implement, as it put many companies out of business. Now Chinese manufacturers have been among the best—along with Japanese, German, French, and Italian companies.
This is the conversation that we need to have with our patients. Systems have been put in place for the products sold through the offices of Chinese medicine professionals. Where a patient is at risk is when they go into herb shops where it might be possible to buy non-GMP products (most products in natural food stores are also GMP-certified, but not all)—these products would be the ones likely to have unallowable levels of heavy metals and possibly hidden drugs. It is safest to purchase through the offices of professionals where only GMP products are carried.
Bob Quinn is one of the owner-founders of Onkodo Clinic. He is also a full-time Assistant Professor in the School of Classical Chinese Medicine at NUNM. In the past he was the Marketing Manager for China Herbs and Natural Products International Corp. and co-founder of People’s Herbs, a professional supply company.
Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
“If we can really understand the problem, the answer will come out of it, because the answer is not separate from the problem.” J. Krishnamurti
Yesterday I taught an all-day shonishin seminar for the Oregon State Association as a fundraiser. I was helped by Daniel Silver (also of Onkodo Clinic). For those unfamiliar with this term--shonishin—it is a Japanese style of pediatric treatment that does not often use inserted needles. Instead techniques of stroking, tapping, scratching, and vibrating acupuncture points and meridians are used. Various interesting tools are employed to do this work.
How can it be that such minute levels of stimulation as we find in shonishin are often enough to bring about the kinds of change infants and children need? It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain these positive outcomes given our current understanding of the human body. The amount of contact pressure is often only 5 grams or so, and yet this is enough to bring surprising shifts to many conditions commonly encountered.
In this seminar we had three patients come to receive treatment, ranging in age from 2 to 8. All three really enjoyed the work—that much was clear. It is possible to talk kids into needles, and it is possible to needle them painlessly and to have this be very helpful (indeed this gentle needling is part of shonishin training as well), but I have never encountered a child who LOVED being needled. Some rare 6-year olds think it is sort of cool to see a needle in their arm, but none of them think that it feels great—not the way the stroking techniques of shonishin do.
I worked for a famous math educator for a year at the University of Oregon as her grader. She was fascinated by questions, and she infected me with the same curiosity. When I first saw shonishin performed, my assumption was that it would not be enough stimulation to provoke positive change. When it became clear that that was not true, that shonishin treatments actually produce impressive clinical outcomes, then certain questions presented themselves, questions that I could not ignore.
In one old article in the North American Journal of Oriental Medicine Dr. Yoshio Manaka, MD wrote that with every patient we have to ask how much stimulation is needed to get the desired outcome. He maintained that this question never gets easier, even after we have practiced for many years. The patient who looks like an NFL linebacker might best be served with a very gentle treatment style, and the thin 70-year old woman might experience the best results from a much heavier-handed approach. It is a tough question.
It was 18 years ago when I first saw shonishin performed. I started to wonder about how this gentle stuff would work on adults. I started to think about Dr. Manaka’s question. Could it be, I wondered, that many of our treatments offer much more stimulation than is really needed to get the job done? I started to think about this, and it still occupies my thought. With children though the question is easily answered: They universally need the gentlest of the gentle treatment. Strong techniques often make already challenging conditions worse.
Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes can enclose the same cubic space as a standard box home with 30% fewer materials used. That is a lot, a big difference. A dome needs no internal supporting walls like our square buildings do. The larger the dome, the more stable it is. This is just one example of how our basic assumptions can be challenged. Of course in our culture a house is supposed to be square. Really? Does it have to be, or is it the case that we are simply used to houses looking like this? How many animals build square nests like our houses? How locked in are we to a certain kind of thinking? In a similar way we believe that of course acupuncture treatments need to include a significant amount of stimulation, whether for adults or children. Really? How would we know the true answer to such a big, big question? All we can say is that we have an opinion about this question based on quite limited experience. No one knows the truth of how much stimulation would be ideal.
My point here, beyond making the point that Onkodo Clinic practitioners love working with children in this shonishin system, is to promote the practice of asking tough questions, ones that get to the heart of our most cherished and basic assumptions. Of course this is no way to make friends, and I feel obligated to let readers know that up front. That University of Oregon professor I worked for was not popular with her students, despite the fact that she was an exceptionally lovely human being. Her questions were difficult, thought-provoking ones, and the students did not welcome such tough work.
In shonishin my initial doubts were long ago banished. Over the years I have seen too much to doubt the power of this gentle pediatric treatment system. I no longer doubt that there is something in the human body that we do not yet understand that would explain how such minute inputs can bring such blessed changes in difficult health conditions. I can’t explain in any modern way how the body does this, but it is possible in shonishin.
In general people do not like their long-held assumptions to be challenged or questioned. This is as true for acupuncturists as it is in any other field. If you become a questioner of this sort in Chinese medicine, you can count on a certain amount of push-back. People defend their ideas and assumptions as if their lives depend on it. But you will benefit in many ways from this sort of questioning, as will your patients. In shonishin it is infants and children who benefit, and this is a great joy for us shonishin practitioners.
Bob Quinn, DAOM, L.Ac. is one of the owner-founders of the Onkodo Clinic. He is also a full-time Assistant Professor in the School of Classical Chinese Medicine at NUNM. He and Lauri Elizabeth and Daniel Silver offer shonishin treatments at the Onkodo Clinic.
p.s. Onkodo will soon offer its own line of one-of-a-kind shonishin tools! Look for more developments on this soon!!