Learning acupuncture

You can choose to study the traditional or the modern system. You can learn numerous “points” and “meridians” by heart or you can ignore them all. You can use a “cookbook” approach to selecting treatments or you can acquire a grasp of the underlying principles and apply them as you go. You can concentrate on body acupuncture or you can branch off into the byways of ear acupuncture, scalp acupuncture, or Ryodoraku. You can use elaborate and expensive equipment of various kinds or you can concentrate on “old-fashioned” manual acupuncture.
There is no one “right” way to practise acupuncture. To some extent, the way you choose to go about it reflects your own interests and temperament. Confident claims that this or that kind of acupuncture is best should be viewed with caution, given the almost total lack of adequate scientific studies comparing the different methods. For the type of acupuncture described in these notes and taught on this course I would claim only that it works at least as well as any of the others in vogue and that it is simple and practical to learn for Western health professionals. This is because it builds on what you already know; in other words, it is an extension of your already existing medical knowledge.

This way of practising acupuncture is meant for people who don’t necessarily want to be presented with a book of rules to follow blindly but who like to try to understand what they are doing and are prepared to think for themselves. It isn’t supposed to be a radically new departure, but rather an extension and development of what you already know. On the whole, your level of success in acupuncture will approximately reflect your general level of medical knowledge and experience.

The acupuncture in question is non-traditional. That is, it makes use of existing concepts of neurophysiology and pathology, although it is certainly true to say that the phenomena of acupuncture imply that our present knowledge of these things needs to be extended in various ways. Anyone practising acupuncture will quickly encounter experiences that are difficult to explain in the light of our existing knowledge of how the body works. But this isn’t to say that we have to scrap all this knowledge and adopt traditional Chinese ideas to explain the experiences.

It is difficult to practise acupuncture in an intellectual vacuum. Most of us feel happier if we have some kind of mental framework in which to categorize what we do. we try to provide the basis of a framework of this kind, but there is no need to take it over-seriously or to regard it as a full “scientific” explanation of acupuncture. We are a long way away from being able to provide any such thing. For Chapter 3 I would claim only that it supplies a set of ideas that are at least compatible with what we know at present about the nervous system.

Before we come to these ideas, however, we need to look at some of the basic concepts of traditional Chinese acupuncture. This may seem a little surprising, in view of what I have already said. However, there are good reasons for doing this, apart from any feeling that we ought to make a polite bow in the direction of the originators of the technique. If you attend acupuncture meetings, even those that are avowedly scientific in content, you are likely to hear the speakers referring to named acupuncture points and to common acupuncture phenomena such as teh chi. Unless you are familiar with these you are likely to feel lost and “out of it”. One reason that people use these terms is because they are a convenient form of shorthand. To anyone familiar with acupuncture terminology, the statement that a needle was placed in Gall Bladder 21 conveys an instant piece of knowledge; to say instead that the needle was placed in the midpoint of the trapezius muscle would be more cumbersome. Similarly, to say that teh chi was elicited would immediately tell an acupuncturist that certain sensations were produced in the patient and would also imply that certain consequences might be expected to follow; there is simply no Western equivalent for this expression.

These are some of the practical reasons why any acupuncture course worth the name ought to include at least a brief outline of the main traditional concepts. There is an additional reason which applies especially to a course designed to teach non-traditional acupuncture. Unless you know roughly what the traditional system consists in, you will be unable to realize how the modern version differs from it.

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