My first foray into Eastern Medicine and alternative healing therapies was at the age of twenty-eight. My body was shutting down, plagued with chronic fatigue and autoimmune disorder, I was desperate. I had been laughed at by gastroenterologists, endocrinologists, and various other -ologists, shipped from office to office as soon as I reached the edge of that particular doctor’s particular scope of knowledge. A vegetarian at the time, I was smugly told that a cheeseburger was “probably the answer to my issue.” Or worse, I was told that my “issue” didn’t really exist at all. But, intuitively I knew something wasn’t right. And so, I went on a quest for answers and for healing.
I am a skeptic by nature. An open-minded one, but a question asker. I always want to believe, but need to be shown a convincing argument in order to do so. Now, I am a practitioner in the realm of holistic health and nutrition myself, and I still like asking questions. But, I also still like being made to believe.
I’m no connoisseur of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and furthermore, no expert in acupuncture. But according to my research, acupuncture has been practiced in China for around 2,000 years, some experts even claiming that it’s been around much longer than that. And while the amount of time it’s been in use is up for conversation, so it seems, is its validity.
Like any good educated American doing research, I looked it up acupuncture on Wikipdedia. Of course, it mentions Traditional Chinese Medicine and explains the physical attributes that we all associate—thin needles being inserted at certain points on the body. But then it states, “…TCM theory and practice are not based upon scientific knowledge, and acupuncture has been described as a type of pseudoscience.” …hmmm.
The Mayo Clinic goes into more detail explaining acupuncture’s goal of balancing the flow of energy—known as qi (CHEE)—believed to flow through pathways—known as meridians—in the body. The Mayo Clinic also goes deeper, explaining acupuncture in terms of Western science, “…many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue. Some believe that this stimulation boosts your body’s natural painkillers and increases blood flow.”
I’ve always found an interesting tug-of-war between Eastern and Western medicine. They seem to exist in the world as mutually exclusive entities. A haughty, my-way-or-the-highway type of attitude coming from the West, and a softer more “look at me, ma! No hands!” sort of need for attention from the East. But like any true wanna-be-believer, I wonder if there’s validity to both arguments and a space where the two converge on even, healthy ground. And so in a quest, not unlike my personal one a few years back, I set out on foot, boots to Park Slope streets, to talk to a few practitioners and define acupuncture for myself.
My first stop was Brooklyn Acupuncture. I went up a small staircase and opened the door that was left propped for me after I rang the buzzer. As I waited in the tiny entrance area, out of one of the treatment rooms walked a woman a bit groggy and clearly in a relaxed state of being. Just after her, walked Zoe, all tattooed arms and chill vibes.
After setting up another appointment with her blissed-out patient, Zoe and I sat to chat. I learned she was once a dancer and baker in Portland, and years ago when she injured her back, acupuncture was the only thing that led her to find relief. Soon after, she decided to study.
It appears that her approach to wellness is as chill as her vibe. “Some people come in and want me to boss them around, give them strict rules. But, I don’t really work like that,” she said. Of the belief that extremes are part of our culture’s problem, she prefers a gentler approach. And, while she’s not against cutting things like dairy and gluten from the diets of some, she’s not the practitioner to put a patient into a box and take a singular course of action.
We chatted more about the state of health and the state of humans. We commiserated over our culture’s glorification of busy. Everyone’s living, “up here” she said, as she waved her hands above her head. “Even just sitting still and going into this rest-and-digest, meditative state, which acupuncture does, is probably incredibly beneficial for some.” But, Zoe emphasizes life outside of the treatment room, too, “diet and lifestyle is step one, that’s what keeps you well. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine is when that’s not enough.”
When I asked her about skeptics and non-believers, her response was simple, “not believing in it is like saying we don’t believe in what lots of other cultures have been using for lots of years.” And while she understands the importance of studies, she knows they can’t really be applied to acupuncture. “How do you do a double blind study on acupuncture? If you’re touching those points, you’re already energetically doing something,” she reasoned. A final chat about sugar in our food supply, I snapped a few pics and was on my way.
I walked quickly to make my next appointment. Garden Acupuncture’s office was big and much more medicinal in its feel. It sits on a main drag of the Slope, near some other health and wellness focused businesses. In the window, a large statue of Ganesh presides—the Hindu god of wisdom and good luck, known to clear obstacles and difficulties.
It isn’t clear at first, but throughout conversation it becomes evident that Alex and Lisa, the co-founders of Garden, are husband and wife, and they seem a balanced team—Alex answered questions technically with a formal and even cadence, while occasionally his wife would chime in with a warmer, more personal tone.
Garden has been around for seven years, and the two know their stuff. Alex started training with a doctor in his teen years after being treated personally, and then later he and Lisa met while in school in Ohio. They see patients for a variety of things, but their self-proclaimed specialty is fertility. “Personally, that’s all I do,” Alex said. When I mentioned that within the context of fertility, “success” is pretty definitive—you either you have an extra human or you don’t—they were very happy to tell me that their success rate is very high. “We’re happy to say we see a lot of extra humans,” Lisa said with a smile.
They employ many different types of TCM practitioners, are open late, and soon will be open seven days per week. This allows for frequency of visits, as they stress that acupuncture is accumulative and requires multiple and consistent treatments. It’s clear that the team is dedicated to becoming a neighborhood kind of place.
A few blocks walk and I arrived at what Helene Kostre has named, Acupuncture and Healing Arts of Park Slope. Upon walking in, the space is welcoming. Helene was warm, her thick Brooklyn accent a nice surprise. She feels familiar. I was offered water in a cute little paper cup, the kind I remember from the dentist when I was a kid. I was shown down the hall to the treatment rooms, and all elicited that same feel—oddly familiar and reminiscent of some distant relative’s home.
We sat down in her office in the back. Our conversation was very natural and flowing. You can tell she loves talking about health and alternative healing as much as I do. She made it clear pretty quickly that she incorporates many modalities in her approach to healing and attributes this to her realization that sometimes she “needs to go deeper, on an emotional, physical, spiritual level.” And so, she’s also proficient in nutritional counseling, emotional therapy, kinesiology, and what she calls, “clearing trauma.”
I quickly came to understand why she calls her practice, “Acupuncture and Healing Arts,” she takes a creative approach to an individual’s health and you can tell that she’s interested in figuring out the root cause of her patients’ ailments. “I treat the whole person because it’s all connected. The thing they came in for may be the last thing to get fixed. There are just so many layers.” She explained. And you get the sense that she sees layers that others don’t, “Everything is energy. It’s a flow.” She also mentioned the body’s innate ability to heal itself, but that there’s so much stress and so many environmental toxins that things go wrong and it gets past the point of knowing how. The body needs direction. Acupuncture, she says, and the rest of her work tap into the body’s natural ability to mend itself.
We talked about kinesiology and how miraculous I think it is. The use of muscle testing for diagnoses and treatment of the body is a bizarre approach that I probably wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t watched it work on my own flesh and bone. To me it was like magic, but Helene was less enchanted than I. To her, kinesiology just makes sense. “You aren’t testing the muscle,” she explained, “you aren’t testing strength, you’re testing the brain’s response to various nerve endings and muscles. The body—it’s all connected.” It doesn’t surprise me that Helene keeps using the word, “connected”.
My last stop was on the border of Gowanus. The entrance to Park Slope Acupuncture was the epitome of quaint. I knocked on the door and was greeted by a cheerful and animated, Sarah Rivkin. She welcomed me in and gave me surprisingly comfy slippers in exchange for leaving my shoes at the door. Her office is small, but like any good New York space, well executed. It was brightly colored and cheerful, and it made sense later in the meeting when she mentioned that pediatrics are one of her specialties.
She and I bonded a bit over our shared histories in the performing arts—she was an opera singer before going into TCM, and organically Opera fell away as her practice began to grow. Like the other practitioners, she seemed a bit skeptical of me when I mentioned skeptics. She, too, explained acupuncture with a Western twist, citing studies and putting it in the context of nerve endings and pathways, more so than qi and meridians.
Her pediatric specialty was intriguing. Sarah works with a lot of teenagers, because “there’s a lot of stress with school work and expectations.” It was nice to hear someone talk candidly about teens without rolling their eyes and mentioning hormonal shifts and erratic behavior. We all remember how hard it was being a teenager and, acupuncture aside, her presence and compassion I’m sure are welcomed by that age group.
A few more opera recommendations and we said goodbye. I had one more phone call with Kimberly Kulseng of Compass Acupuncture and Wellness before my research was complete. And, like the other practitioners, Kimberly, too, seemed a bit skeptical of me. The repeated caution I encountered made me wonder how often these practitioners have to explain or defend their chosen profession. Kimberly and I chatted about her offerings, as she also involves other modalities including reiki, and what she calls, “the usuals,” when it comes to TCM—Chinese herbs, moxibustion, cupping, and gua sha. She sees patients for a variety of things, but said she deals with a lot of stress management and anxiety. We agreed that life is very stressful these days.
When I asked her, “Why do you think acupuncture works?” She laughed loudly and warmly and replied, “Well that’s a loaded question!” Her explanation was familiar with reference to studies and nerve bundles. And, she went deeper to say that a lot of doctors are making the connection between acupuncture and the body’s fascia, or connective tissue. But what stuck out most in her explanation was that at one point, she took a moment to think, and then said, “You know, the body’s just a miracle. It sounds cheesy, but the human body is miraculous. How everything works synergistically. We take it for granted all the time.” I couldn’t argue with her there.
My acupuncture adventure over, I let the notes of the day settle in my mind as I found my way home. Visiting so many practitioners back to back highlighted differences that are less discernable with space and time. And the difference didn’t come in the form of experience, schooling, or the level of care that patients receive. It was more that each practitioner had such a specific vibe and (taking a tip from acupuncture) energy.
And energy is interesting. We have no problems talking about this force in our daily lives—about whether we have high energy or low energy, about the energy in a room, or the energy that’s given off by certain people. But for whatever reason, we bring that idea to the topic of health, and somehow it loses all relevance.
Our Western minds need science. Things like qi and meridians are uncommon, a stuff of magic, and maybe even nonsense. But every practitioner I spoke to had the same approach when explaining the stuff of acupuncture: “You bring it to the Western mind,” as Alex of Garden Acupuncture put it. He and his wife equated it to a circuit within your body and electricity. And Helene explained it like this, “you can send a text on your phone to print something from halfway around the world. You, personally, don’t know how it works. But it just does.”
So, it seems, that there might also be a fair amount of faith in acupuncture and alternative healing, accepting knowledge that can’t necessarily be explained with a double blind study and Harvard educated doctors. But when it comes to your health—when the worst adverse reactions to treatment are a little bruising and grogginess—it seems to make more sense to me to be skeptical of prescription medications than of acupuncture.
While you can say what you will about the science, there was one thing that stood out about all of the practitioners—they each exuded a deep willingness and hope that they can help. And sometimes, when you’re looking for answers, finding someone that’s on your team, listening, and fighting for you to win is enough. I don’t know how long I would have been sick if I hadn’t opened my mind to alternative schools of thought. And while Wikipedia may include “pseudoscience” in its definition, the trusty Urban Dictionary calls acupuncture, “A jab well done”. And laugh if you will, but it may be beneficial to suspend disbelief when it comes to health, which we can all agree is no laughing matter. I was a skeptic. And while I could look to explain acupuncture in terms of nerve endings and neurological pathways, Kimberly Kulseng put it best, “the body is a miracle.” And really, all the science aside, we simply can’t argue with what works.