Category Archives: acupuncture

Moving through acupuncture school (while Fat)

At my school, one of my requirements this first semester is Qi Gong class.  Qi Gong is a movement practice that comes from the large and dynamic body of theory and practice that we call Chinese medicine.  It has to do with energy, electricity, meditation, and a lot of other things that I am just beginning to understand through studying them in acupuncture school.  I love it so much and it also makes me nervous all the time.  It’s not that I have qualms about taking Qi Gong—in theory, it’s really exciting.  I just have qualms about group movement* class, what it means to be a fat person in group movement class, over and beyond what it already means to be a fat person in acupuncture school in a world that systematically equates health with weight loss.   One of my learning-to-love-my-body practices is figuring out how to incorporate movement in my life that involves as few other people as possible (or making sure I time my lap swimming with water aerobics classes—universally one of the movement classes I have witnessed that contains the largest diversity of differently-sized bodies).

Group movement practice is something stolen from us fatties by a society that has decided there is one kind of acceptable body, and it’s not ours.  I’ve been to a million yoga classes in my life, and still every time, the teacher without fail assists me too much or not enough. Or I get weird looks—sympathy, pity, anger.  If you are not fat, you might be surprised how much maliciousness people feel towards fat people in group movement settings, like we are their personal internal enemy, which I suppose, when the diet industry frames weight loss as a battle, is true.

There is a deep-seated cultural myth that tells us fat is the opposite of health.  This just isn’t true.  Not only are more and more evidence-based biomedically legit research studies coming out that question this widespread assumption, but most of us could spend five minutes and find ample anecdotal evidence to counter this rampant and destructive belief.  Saying that fat is the opposite of health implies that all not-fat people are healthy, implies that “healthy” practices (a whole other bag of worms, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it some combination of taking care of ourselves in ways that work best for us, having love and support, time with people we care about and time by ourselves, food that gives us energy and nourishment, sleep, water, movement) change our weight or the size of our bodies, that health is about appearances more than internal experiences of wellness.  I am a relatively healthy person and I am fat.  I’m not a paradox or even an anomaly.  It’s just that you can’t tell by looking at me how well or ill I feel, despite institutionalized attempts to the contrary.

We didn’t always think this way.  We know that there are times, whole systems of medicine and wellness that understood health as something attainable by people with a wide diversity of bodies, that didn’t create some fake epidemic in order to hide the fact that it is the stress and trauma of oppression  or corporate pollution that makes people more prone to the “lifestyle diseases” of Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, heart disease.

In my Qi Gong book, interwoven with a history of this particular movement practice, is a brief history of vitalism-based movement in the West, how it was informed and augmented by Qi Gong practice.  It talks about the history of gymnastics, how over time western scientific materialism (read: nothing exists but what you can put your hands on, no spirit, no emotional body, etc.) replaced a system of movement based around cultivating energy, life force, vital energy, what have you, with one that was based on the appearance of that hard-to-name quality via the trappings of stamina, flexibility, strength.  It’s a profound difference: movement that is based on feeling better as opposed to looking better, like we know work towards.  Though Gymnastics as a sport is now far from its vitalist roots, this means we all have something to go back to, a place in our collective embodied memory when we moved together to feel better, not to look better.

I want to move with other people, and I want to do it in settings in which movement is about building together, collaboration instead of competition, in which different bodies are respected for what they can and can’t do, more than that maybe that different bodies’ capacities aren’t even the point. What it feels like individually to do the movement as more important than anything else.

In the post-industrial capitalism of the Global North that I live in, group movement practices have been stolen from almost everyone by the institutionalized systems of oppression in place, which include fatphobia, and also ableism, patriarchy, white supremacy.  Moving together to move towards health and wellness has become a luxury commodity as opposed to a basic necessity.  It’s a far cry from what it should be, could be: movement for wellness as a way we build solidarity with each other, as a way we come together in embodied community that doesn’t ask us to leave any of our selves behind, as part of the creating of other kinds of dynamic movements.  Qi Gong was banned from public practice in China during the Cultural Revolution, which tells me that there are many points in history when group movement practice, when growing our collective wellness together, has been considered subversive.  Maybe it’s because it’s related to the building of strength, the building of armies, guerilla forces ready for uprising.  Maybe it’s also because when we are well together, we have it in us to build the world we need, no matter the forces against us.

It’s not just group movement that has become more about cultivating a look than about cultivating an internal experience of health.  The history of colonialism on traditional medicines is one that is constantly shifting the focus to practitioner’s diagnosis and away from client’s experience.  Just think about this taken to an extreme: one thing it might look like is almost complete reliance on technologically sophisticated diagnostic tests and then practitioners spending five minutes with clients, mainly reporting on the results of said technologically sophisticated diagnostic tests.  Sound familiar?

All of this makes me realize that part of the goal of me writing this blog is accountability:  over the next four years, I will be schooled in how to diagnose people.  It’s a useful skill, and also a slippery slope.  Healthcare schooling teaches us to disregard people’s experiences for our own external perceptions of them; sure acupuncture school probably does this less than med school, but it’s still covertly and not-so-covertly part of the curriculum.  It’s my third week of school and I can already see how it can sweep over a person—I’ve already heard numerous teachers and students rant about how Fat people are automatically unhealthy.  This systematic silencing of peoples’ experiences of our bodies is a slippery slope and yet those of us who dedicate our lives to learning how bodies work do have something to offer, if we can combine that with listening and shifting the power dynamic ever towards empowerment of those we treat.  Fat is just one of the ways that we are taught we know about a person’s health just by looking at them, by using our far-from-objective observation skills without any sort of dialogue with the real expert in the room, the person seeking healthcare .

And one more thing: fat healthworker friends, where are you?  The first day of qi gong class, my teacher rhetorically asked, “who would want a 200-pound overweight chain-smoking doctor?”  In my head I automatically answered, that’s exactly who I want to be my doctor, and I realized that I have a lot of friends who do healthwork and none of them are fat.  I can imagine a million reasons for this, but I also know you are out there.  Fat healthworker friends, come to me.  We have some things we need to talk about.  In a body shaming, fatphobic culture, we are doing something powerful, transformative, even revolutionary—we would do it better if we were doing it together.  Doing health and doing movement together is part of collective liberation: it’s how we get to the world we need.

*I have used the word movement instead of exercise throughout this rant.  Partly that’s because the word exercise makes me think of all the ways white supremacist capitalist patriarchy frames the ways we move our bodies: that it is more about the appearance of health than the experience of health.  There is no monolithic experience of health.  Partly because as movements for collective liberation, what are we working for except broadly, a world in which everyone gets to live well and healthy, whatever that means for them?  Isn’t part of that learning how to move together?  We march and we dance and we eat together, sometimes we sleep together and we care for each other.  There is another basic pillar of wellness, and I want us to do it together, in anti-oppressive spaces that are working towards access and safety for all bodies.  I want vitalist movement practices together, as part of the world we want to create.
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Healing can bring us together: why I’m going to acupuncture school

Because I’m really lucky, four of my best friends came together a few nights ago to hold me a ceremony as I am about to start acupuncture school.  They are some of the most important people in my life for lots of different reasons, including playing integral roles in my developing my thinking and practice as a radical healthworker, the intersections of story, healing, and justice that are my life’s work.   As I start acupuncture school, which is a big deal step towards making the work of health and healing and collective care central to my life, I’m thinking about lineage and humility.  Of honoring where I come from and who and what has shaped where I’m at.  It feels like part of a direct challenge to the privilege that is making it possible for me to become an acupuncturist, in a world where holistic health practice and service is reserved for those with access to vast amounts of resources, like me.  I know that the healthwork I do in the world and will continue to deepen is intricately linked with the continual undermining of systems of power and privilege that currently barricade the way to collective liberation.  Part of that personal work for me, as a white person with class and educational and ability privilege, is honoring, bringing to the forefront, centering where I come from: the people and movements that have struggled before me and opened the space that I now inhabit, complexly, lovingly, always striving towards humility and freedom for us all.

My entry into acupuncture was learning the NADA protocol, a group ear acupuncture treatment with a revolutionary history.  When I had graduated from college about seven years ago and was just beginning to acknowledge and pursue the ways that healing and trauma recovery work intersected with the more conventional social justice organizing work I had been engaged in, my dear friend Lee said, “hey, come with me to this training in New York.”  And I did and it changed my life.  I was trained in the NADA protocol at the Lincoln Recovery Center, primarily by Michael Smith and Carlos Alvarez.    In 1970, the Black Panthers and the Young Lords in the South Bronx came together to occupy a wing of the local hospital in order to create a community-based drug detox center, the only service for folks struggling with addiction in the area.  Originally, the clinic used methadone in order to support people through withdrawal, but soon started using ear acupuncture, a uniquely innovative approach to supporting people coming off heroin without the use of another addictive substance.   The NADA protocol (5 points in each ear) was developed and used in conjunction with political education classes, peer support groups, and workshops in how to advocate for services from medical and social service providers.    Something about this community-based holistic model for addiction recovery led by people of color was so threatening to those in power that Lincoln was surveilled by Cointelpro, and raided and shut down by the New York police and accompanying SWAT teams, while the then-Mayor of New York claimed that “Lincoln Detox was a breeding ground for revolutionary cells.”

Lincoln still provides revolutionary client-centered care and support to people struggling with addiction in the South Bronx today, through a daily NADA clinic, 12-step groups, and the first drug detox program for pregnant women and mothers with young children in the country.  These days, they more quietly shift the paradigm of recovery by doing the amazing work that they do within the bureaucratic world of detox that has grown since they began.

The NADA protocol is easy to learn and to teach, is often performed by lay people/community members, and can and has been practiced anywhere: in parks, community centers, people’s living rooms, make-shift tents erected in recent disaster areas, refugee camps.    It is meant to be given in a group setting: part of the treatment is being around other people also receiving the treatment.  Since its development, NADA has been used successfully to aid people struggling with trauma, depression, anxiety, stress, and insomnia, as well as addiction and withdrawal.  It’s been described as “community self-help:” healthcare for the people, by the people.

Receiving healthcare in a group setting begins to undermine the conventional power dynamics that inherently exist when a client, a person receiving care, is alone in a room with a practitioner, a care provider.  By depending on group healing, NADA becomes a trauma-informed practice, one in which there is minimal touch involved, no moments of privacy with an “expert,” and can be performed by a friend or a comrade just as easily as a licensed acupuncturist.  NADA is rooted in a community’s collective response to oppression.  Oppression harms everyone in its path, creating stress and trauma, chronic disease and lack of safe and recuperative spaces, compounded by the criminalization of traditional healers and the turning of holistic healthcare into another marketable commodity available only to those with access to wealth.     I see NADA and Lincoln as one of the most notable models we have of health and healing justice in action, of the trauma- and oppression-informed healthcare that we need in order to create collective care, collective liberation, resilient communities that can overcome capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, challenging individualism and power and expertise in healthcare.  As a practice, NADA is not just accessible or holistic but revolutionary.

Through the work of NADA, I get glimpses of what it is like to be a healthworker in solidarity and alliance with a grassroots movement for collective liberation.  I recently watched this video of the late and great Wangari Maathai, about being committed to small acts of change even in the face of overwhelmingly huge catastrophic destruction and oppression, about being a hummingbird.  I had a moment of hummingbird insight a few weeks ago, getting to participate in and experience a microcosm of what deeply transformative and politicized health and healing work can look like.

I have had the honor of offering ear acupuncture at two health fairs at the Arizona Worker’s Rights Center, a worker-led organization fighting wage theft and unjust labor practices that harm day laborers and other workers whose human rights are so often trampled.   Their health fairs are amazing and inspiring, with people involved with the Worker’s Rights Center and other community members coming together to engage with their health with the support of nurses, doctors, physicians assistants, midwives, community organizers, massage therapists, and health and healing educators.  There were dental exams, resources about accessing services, a survey about people’s health needs and priorities, workshops about mindfulness and meditation, people coming together to share a meal, some peace, get their blood pressure checked for the first time in 30 years, some conversation and connection, a chance to recharge in the face of daily violence, criminalization, targeting, oppression, and attempts to dehumanize whole communities of people.

Providing healthcare that is accessible and client-centered is always a political act in this country, where corporations greedy for profit have turned our healthcare system into more about money-making than care-giving.  Here in Arizona, it’s downright revolutionary to extend services to everyone regardless of immigration status, given all the blatant hostile racist attacks on people without papers, including an attempt last Spring to turn emergency rooms into immigration checkpoints.

What moves me so much about the health fairs that the Worker’s Rights Centers hosts, though, is something beyond access.  Free care that recognizes oppression and that not all people and communities are the same, free integrative care, that includes services other than conventional “western” medicine, is a rarity and we need it, all the time.  Health and healing that encourages individual empowerment, informed consent, folks taking charge of their own health needs and learning how to advocate to is also a rarity and we need it, all the time.  Health and healing that is both of those things AND based in community, in movement building, in coming together to connect and to struggle against capitalist white supremacist heteropatriarchy, is something we need all the time and something I, for one, have never seen or experienced before in my life.  Even though I have been schooled in NADA and its history, I had never before felt in my body the possibilities of moving beyond individual access and empowerment to truly liberatory, transformative, movement-building healthcare.  It’s a huge part of what’s made it possible for me to start acupuncture school tomorrow, knowing that I can be of service to movement building, collective care, to tearing down white supremacy culture so often created when white service providers try to show up for communities of color, of actively creating the world we need in which we are all free to be well together.  It’s something that Lincoln’s history, the Black Panther’s health programs, have made me dream of it.  It’s like Arundhati Roy famously said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet dayI can hear her breathing.”  It’s a real and crucial part of the answer to some of the questions we need to answer, like:  What does it mean for health and healing to deeply, intrinsically be a part of movement work?  What does it mean for movement work to be deeply, intrinsically a part of health and healing?

I don’t think I ever really got it before, the true depth of what NADA was developed to do, that it is a healing modality that was designed to go beyond accessible holistic care, beyond individual empowerment to health and healing grounded in collective access and transformative, community-building social change work.   Health and healing as a site of politicization, of coming together and organizing and unifying and figuring it out, of gathering strength for the struggle, like the way things are supposed to be, like revolutionary movements have slowly built and struggled for, time and again.

And now I know what it is I need to do, and what I can aspire to, and what learning I need to pursue in order to get there.  Acupuncture school, here I come, for so many reasons: so that I can teach and support more people practicing NADA in more settings, so that I can support people in their unique individual and collective processes and healing, so the work I do in the world to support myself is in line with what my passion is, for a start.   Tomorrow, I begin that process.  Tonight, I am thinking of how I got here, on whose shoulders I continue to stand.

We are where we are because of the people that surround us, the ones we know intimately and the ones we have never met.  We are here because of each other, always.

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