If you’re trying to select a Licensed Acupuncturist for your care, you may not think much about needle technique — but once you’ve made your choice of Practitioner, you will encounter it! And, much of the efficacy of the treatment you receive will depend on it. Like an archer, intent on having an arrow find the center of a target, the Acupuncturist’s aim is to effectively needle the center of the acu-point. As an old darts player, I like to say: I want more than the bull’s-eye. I want the double-bull, in the center of the center! That’s where the Qi is.
First, an overview of the intricate skills required to needle even a single point:
Imagine: the target is invisible! A well-trained Chinese Medicine Practitioner finds a particular acu-point by using anatomical landmarks, feeling for the the tiny openings that dot the body landscape. (In Mandarin, these little holes are called men, which means “cave.”) Indeed, the points are like a network of tiny little caves, leading to the system of channels that circulate Qi and blood to the body. Three to four years of medical school training is needed to prepare a Practitioner to be able to accurately locate approximately 450 points on all sorts of bodies. Most points are about the size of a sesame seed, if the tissue is healthy. But dysfunctional points may be different: tender on pressure, oddly-shaped, or like spongy sinkholes more the size of a pencil eraser. The point may have hard nodulations near it, or be a reservoir for heat or coldness coming to the surface. There is much medical information to gain from simple palpation.
I examine the point with one of my index fingers, sizing up its condition — and now the target becomes a picture in my mind. I see it as is, presently – and then, in a sort of inner conversation, I envision what I want to happen, and see the pulse changes that will come as a result of that shift toward balance. It’s a dialogue with the Qi, more of a request. Intention comes before action. Qi follows intention.
Now comes “mastering the Qi” — directing it. Interfacing with an individual’s bio-field requires that I be well-grounded, focused on the vibrational center of the point, and supremely conscious of the greater field of Qi that encompasses both of us: the patient’s physical body, mental body, emotions, and spirit – and my own presence. Watching my patient’s breathing, all my senses must be relaxed but awake. Listening, smelling, touching, seeing… with a calm inner smile, that reflects a state of harmony within me. Indeed, the consciousness of the Practitioner matters.
Think now, of a surgeon’s need for instrumental precision, and an exceedingly steady hand. It’s a bit like catching lightning in a bottle — for I must be deft enough to draw the Qi to my needle — Qi that is is moving at the speed of light, Qi that may be severely depleted and therefore hard to obtain. By virtue of the way I manipulate the needle, I can tonify (strengthen) the flow of Qi – or I can disperse it, eliminating blockages or redirecting the Qi to improve the flow of another channel. Decisions on how the needle is angled, and the depth of insertion are aspects of technique.
Some of my best instructors have been elderly, blind Japanese Acupuncturists who practice a style known as Toyo Hari. Through the advantages conveyed to other senses by lack of sight, these Masters developed their style of treatment by being able to feel the subtle changes in the field of Qi just above the body’s surface. They developed a method that uses exceedingly-flexible silver or gold needles to treat the body’s acu-points without inserting the needles! I became fascinated with this highly-refined style of treatment, and spent a year of intensive study to become certified as competent in Toyo Hari. I found that it taught me how to connect with the points at the more-subtle level of the etheric body – and how to really use the needle as a tool, at each and every layer of the bio-field. In the late 90’s, for a period of nearly 2 years, I performed thousands of treatments but seldom inserted a needle.
But gradually, I wanted to again construct multi-faceted treatments that allowed for insertion of needles. Stressed-out and severely-compromised bodies needed time to relax on the table – and the synergy of point combinations became equally critical in what I wanted to deliver. With Toyo Hari, one could only treat acu-points in serial fashion; but with a number of different needles placed strategically in the skin, a different effect on the body, mind and spirit could take place. While my patient was resting with needles, I could also handle other components of care: deciding what herbal medicines to prescribe; doing manual therapies such as tui na or gua sha; applying liniments or essential oils; or discussing diet and lifestyle factors. In true Chinese Medicine style, we first imitate the Masters of our medicine — then, as we advance, we integrate — and innovate. In this regard, I was right on track!
Much to my surprise, as I returned to the use of very fine-gauge, stainless steel needles, I found that my ability to “get the Qi” had been catalyzed. Now, I could sense the Qi arriving at the tip of the needle, before I inserted it. It was a bit like dowsing for water – something drew the needle in a subtle way toward the target. The tiny micro-adjustments I was making with my needling hand while zeroing in on this well of Qi were seldom perceptible to my patient. But most could feel the engagement between the tip of the needle, just above the skin – and the swirling vortex of Qi within them – and many could describe the movement of the Qi, up or down the channel, or sometimes feel it spreading through the local area. It would give me great delight to show them that all this action was happening while nothing had yet been inserted! Truth be told: I never tire of that demonstration.
Suppose I were needling a foot point, for example: a fraction of a second before I might insert the needle, my patient might say, “Oh my God – it just went up my leg!” And they would trace with their fingers the path they felt — along meridians which have been on charts since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE.) Then I would actually insert the needle, anchoring the change that had already occurred. This fusion – this dynamic engagement with the field of Qi above the body became part of my needling style – and has continued to develop, year by year. I’ve learned to “get the point” before the needle enters the flesh. Patients in my care attest to the “aliveness” of the connection they feel with their Qi during a treatment – and begin to understand that “spark” as something that is not determined by insertion. They experience its non-material nature — and it’s a terrific lesson in Energy Medicine — in understanding how much of our deep power is literally insubstantial.
All of these aspects of technique mean nothing, if a Practitioner is not holding – and guiding – their needle. You might be wondering: How else could this be done? Well… in fact, the majority of Acupuncturists in the U.S. are not holding the handles of their needles! They are holding a plastic tube, in which the needle has been placed (at manufacture). The diameter of the so-called “guide tube,” is significantly larger than the electrical center of the acu-point — so one must approximate where the center of the point is, position the guide tube, and then tap on the top of the tube, to discharge the needle into the skin. A second drawback: Many needle manufacturers began in the mid-90’s to substitute a plastic handle for more-costly metal handles. Plastic is not only a form of pollution, but is also a relatively-poor conductor of Qi, and becomes more of an insulator; the Practitioner feels less, and perhaps transmits less during needling, without the hand-to-metal contact. In either situation, Practitioners may not fully “get” the point. The arrow misses the center.
A couple of years ago, it was brought to my attention by the head of a local Acupuncture school clinic that he believed me to be “the only person he knew of” (here in Tucson, AZ) who did “hand-needling.” Although I find that to be possible, it’s probably not true. But I’ve tried to urge all Chinese Medicine students I’ve taught to try the exquisite, copper-handle needles I use (Asiamed, by the way) — and to learn my 1-handed style of insertion. Maybe one day I’ll have the time to teach the complete technique more formally. I believe it can improve the efficacy of treatment outcomes, as it does with my own patients.
In summary: An effective needling style is a skill that develops over time, as a Practitioner develops his/her relationship with the world of Qi. And perhaps, it’s one of the skills that consumers of Chinese Medicine will gradually think to ask about, when figuring out who – or how – to get to the point of their problem, and find lasting solutions.
May you all find that sacred center!