Acupuncture Has An Image Problem

I was sitting in my long underwear at home on my day off, reading my copy of Acupuncture is Like Noodles
when the door bell rang. Quickly, I jumped up, put on the first pair of
pants I could find, and went to the door. There was the Pastor from the
church down the street.

I intuited immediately what it was about. As a member of a local
group of acupunks wanting to start a clinic for Veterans with PTSD, I
had submitted an application for a room at his church. I invited him
in, and after exchanging a few pleasantries, he said that our
application had been declined. He said that there was concern about the
Taoist roots of acupuncture and that it felt incompatible with the
culture of devotion to Christ which is the defining theme of their

Internally, my jaw was dropping. I live in one of the most diverse and
liberal parts of Seattle (Capitol Hill) and here was someone – highly
educated – who, though a little aware of the benefits of acupuncture,
was operating under one of those weird unexamined premises which
unfortunately, is quite common – the idea that one has to hold a
certain belief system to benefit from acupuncture.

Why is that? Well, it’s because of how the culture of acupuncture
has been shaped by the profession in America. Our teachers, and I do
not mean to finger point or be disrespectful here, got too distracted
by the cultural packaging of acupuncture. It was a convenient way to
make it exotic and therefore charge a lot of money for, and therfore
justifying large tuitions at acupuncture schools.

Gently, I explained to my fellow human that while I accepted their
decision to act as they see fit, I respectfully disagreed with the
logic. You see, acupuncture is like noodles. There are Italian noodles,
Vietnamese noodles, Chinese noodles…but it’s not important what kind
of noodles you eat, just that people are fed. 

We chatted for about 45 minutes over tea, shared our mutual
experiences of travelling in India and the importance of interfaith
dialogue. We talked about community and the importance of listening.
The difference between service and missionary zeal. I told him that the
acupuncture profession is changing, that I wasn’t surprised by his
perception, and that in many acupuncture clinics in America, there is
too much emphasis on the practitioner and not enough on the patient,
and the community. I invited him to think about it and discuss it with
his Board and we could talk later. I almost gave him my copy of the
book but selfishly I held back, wanting to finish it this very

I was truly grateful for having learned from his impression. I didn’t
feel rejected. He was just holding up a mirror and telling me…”hey,
this is what acupuncture looks like to us”. I bet he and his
congregation are not alone in what they see. Anyways, buy the book
if you want to learn to see the elephant that may be standing in your
clinic – maybe going poop on your chances of running a successful
clinic. Buy it to learn how to see what separates you from your
community, and how to dismantle those walls.

It will also make you laugh, and maybe cry.


river Jordan
Author: river Jordan

After graduating from the Northwest Institute of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine in 1997, I had a hobby practice for a few years before moving to Northern India to study Buddhism. During this time, I volunteered in a local clinic, giving acupuncture to Tibetan refugees and Indian nationals. <p> Returning to the U.S. in 2002, I started a typical insurance based acupuncture practice catering to the upper middle class. In 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, I volunteered with <a href="" target="_blank">Acupuncturists Without Borders</a>, using community style acupuncture to treat trauma victims in a natural disaster setting. </p> Inspired by the power and efficacy of acupuncture in a post-disaster setting, I began to contemplate issues of socioeconomic class. What could be done to make acupuncture accessible to everyone and still provider a livable wage for an acupuncturist? After attending WCA's first conference in October of 2006, I had found the answer to that question. In January 2007, together with my partner Serena Sundaram, we founded <a href="" target="_blank">Communichi</a>, Seattle's first dedicated community acupuncture clinic. <p> As a Buddhist, I believe that healing begins in the mind. As the positive qualities of wisdom and compassion are cultivated in the mind of a practitioner, this...

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  1. It’s an interesting

    It’s an interesting question.  in one sense, it sounds like they feel they  are just being true to their mission statement and core values, “devotion to Christ”.Many of the large, successful CA clinics are very clear in their mission to do acupuncture only, and not get bogged down in an integrated (“interfaith”) practice, or let the space be used for other things. On the other hand, Christ had a documented ministry of tending to those in ill health and to those in need, with some pretty miraculous circumstances involved at times.  Best lesson for me from your story, answer the door with your pants on.   I can only imagine how the conversation would have been different sans pants.  🙂


  2. It’s
    difficult to know if

    difficult to know if that was even the real reason, or a convenient
    excuse. Liability fears are often lingering in the minds of people
    responsible for an organization, and if they think acupuncture has a religious (or perhaps anti-religious?) component to it, they may very well think it is dangerous and risky too.

    One of the reasons the Pastor probably felt comfortable coming to my door, is that I had gone to their Sunday service a few weeks prior, and introduced myself, just to see what they were about. They recently started hosting meetings to explore how they could become more of “an urban church”, serving the community in different ways. So they seemed the perfect candidate for hosting a Vets treatment center – Vets are often seen sleeping in the neighborhood…on their very steps at times.

    As if to confirm that their reaction was….unique….another church that I had contacted weeks prior, called me with an hour of talking to the Pastor and immediately adopted a very different tenor in the conversation….”how can we make this work?”

  3. Interesting post.

    As we know, Chinese Medicine does have some Taoist roots. The pastor was right about that. I have had this same objection to acupuncture before from some people. Hank Hanegraaf, of the Bible Answer Man fame on radio, has said this same thing every time someone calls in with a question about acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, and whether a Christian should be involved in it.

    As I wrote Hank H. re this topic, and as I try to explain to those with this objection to Chinese medicine, what acupuncture/OM schools teach in the U.S. is TCM, which is  50 something years old. As we know, Mao Tse-Tung, an atheist, had TCM developed because CM  was  cheap, effective medicine. Being an atheist, Mao ordered all religious (Taoist) influences be purged from Chinese Medicine. What resulted is TCM, devoid of Taoist influence.

    I also wrote Hank H. that to be consistent with his line of thinking, which is that no Christian should be involved in any activity which has non-Christian or superstitious origins, then no Christian should use Western Medicine, because WM had, for many years, used bloodletting (a superstitious belief, the way WM used to practice it) in attempts to cure many different diseases.

    It takes time to explain this to people, and not everyone will listen to the explanation. Not everyone will be reassured by it, either.

    Good luck on your work with veterans.

  4. excuse my cluelessness but

    excuse my cluelessness but what does TCM and CM stand for?  i see it used here a lot and have just waited for the meaning to appear or become clear but it never has…



    @community acupuncture

  5. welcome to acronym soup

    Hi Deer,

     TCM – Traditional Chinese Medicine

    CM – looks like Chinese Medicine in this context, though sometimes “conventional medicine”

    WM – Western Medicine

    maybe more than you wanted to know….

  6. I like this thread, it helps me to keep in mind that

    many Christians and probably other faiths have a concept of acupuncture as being rooted in “otherness.”  It makes acupuncture that much less accessible.  While certainly many Christians do not have that filter, it may be incumbent upon our profession to consider ways to be included.  So that whittles down our accessiblity factor by how much?  How many people will stay out of acupuncture for fear of its affect compromising values?

    Is this a publicity problem or something that is a truly a value dealbreaker?  It makes me feel sad that people would be able to find simpler solutions to what ails except for the fact that our way of helping people seems inconsistent with what they believe.  

    The discussion may have to start with the common goal of “helping people.”  Who would not help a drowning man even if they knew he was not a believer?

  7. Presence CA’s chief demographic is Muslim — currently >50% and growing.  A few weeks back i did an afternoon lecture at the closest mosque to my house (i usually pray there on Fridays); i brought 3 La Fumas and wound up treating 18 people in 2.5 hours.  My patient load doubled within days.  I’ve gotten several subsequent invitations to go to different mosques — i just came back from a fundraiser at one (the imam and his wife are current patients) and there was a lot of interest from people there.  It helps that i have the same religion, but quite a few had gotten acupx previously from a non-Muslim chiro or a Chinese doctor.
    I generally don’t talk much about the philosophical underpinnings, i talk more about acupx as a type of reflex therapy, how it stimulates release of endogenous chemicals, normalizes function, etc.  Even if i mention Qi, none of them seem to mind.  They just care that it works, it’s affordable, no drugs, the women who cover can stay covered, they can get treated together, etc etc. 

  8. Is acupuncture “Taoist?”

    This issue is less of a problem for acupuncturists than it
    used to be 20-25 years ago although it obviously persists to some degree. Around 20
    years ago, some church groups looked into acupuncture and sent word-out through
    their networks that using acupuncture was contrary to Christian values. I had several
    prospective patients ask me about this at that time and I would point out the
    following to them: There are many
    Chinese Christians who use acupuncture and even practice it. My first clinic
    partner was a devote Christian from Shanghai
    who saw absolutely no problem with this as she better understood acupuncture’s
    history than Christians in the West did. This practice sprang from well before
    the time of Christ after many generations of trial and error experimentation of
    how to stimulate sore spots therapeutically before any Taoist theory was
    eventually attributed to its effects. Even once Taoist underpinnings were
    applied, Buddhists, Legalists, Confucius – who all strongly disagreed with the
    Taoists – used this medicine. No one thought back then that it was “Taoist
    medicine.” Even today, top scholars like Paul Unschuld argue that it was herbal
    medicine that was Taoist medicine and that Taoists would not use acupuncture
    because it was unnatural (I think he is wrong on this as he bases it on a
    passage from Chuang Tzu’s teachings while ignoring other passages that
    contradict the one he sites).

  9. I think that you should get recruited to write some articles for

    Christian magazines.  It is clear and concise and a good way to stimulate conversation and perhaps dispel myth.  I remember my Chinese teachers poo-pooing the Tsaoist root questions…now i see why.

  10. good points

    IIRC, Unschuld identifies the acupuncture of the Su Wen/Ling Shu as more specifically Confucian, with all the comparisons of a healthy body to a healthy nation-state: the zangfu as Emperor and Ministers, the channels as distribution routes, etc.


    Your post also reminds me of the many Korean students i had in Chicago,
    many of whom were Christians — not surprising, given the huge growth
    of evangelical Christianity in Korea and the Korean immigrant
    communities.  None of them seemed to have a problem reconciling the two.

  11. So interesting…

    Larry, your link reminds me yet again of the mind-bending number of topics that have been put to print – and referenced.

    I just never would have guessed.

    FWIW, easily 50% of the number of folks who found my former BA practice and at least that percentage of our CAP had been directly or indirectly informed by this woman (story @ page bottom, front page). 

    At 93 years-old Sr. Agnes remains a vital cog in our front desk staff from the start, while a Sister of Mercy for 75 years.

    Likewise, many congregants of a particular Catholic parish in our city have become regulars, as word spread of affordable and effective choices for their illnesses and struggles.



  12. As far as I know, none

    of the people (about 4 total, in ~3 years) who have brought up with me the objection/or question about the Taoist influence on acupuncture were Catholic. All were born-again Christians. Two were Chinese-American. Even among the born-again Christians I know in my area, some have had acupuncture and have no problem with its past.

    It is wise though to have a ready response to it when the topic comes up.

  13. My experience has been similar

    I have a growing number of Muslim women coming to my clinic, the only concern was staying covered around men which was easy for me to accommodate.  Some tell me there are also muslim men interested, but they have the common male tendency to not want to seek health care, and that has nothing to do with religion. There were no other religious concerns with chinese medicine that I heard of.

    They seem to understand acupuncture from the modern scientific point of view which is how I tend to approach and explain it.  They tell me the people in their community are most interested in it because of the lack of side effects, and my clinic is becoming popular because of the affordable prices.

    The chiropractor who owns my building is Catholic, and that is part of his practice. We have priests and nuns who come in, and they don’t have a problem with acupuncture.

  14. you’ll get more…

    the Detroit area has a huge Muslim population, the biggest in the US.  I actually get quite a few brothers coming in, but the vast majority here in my neighborhood are Caribbean where they are mostly of Arab descent in Detroit, IIRC, so maybe a cultural difference.

  15. Yeah, the word is spreading,

    Yeah, the word is spreading, a good recommendation from someone in such a tight knit community goes very far.  It’s really fun to get to know people whose culture is so different from mine.  We laugh and have a good time during treatment because they will come together and fill up my whole room

  16. Similar experience and my solution

    Because I do not profess to believe in anything in particular (in other words, it’s really only my business), if I am asked “are you a Christian”, I say no.  I had a potential patient call a few years ago – she was referred to me by several happy former patients that she worked with.  Her question, and my answer, made her ask more questions – among them, “would I have to give up my religion?”  Again, no.

    She came for a consultation, but it became clear that she wouldn’t be comfortable with a treatment by me, so I did not charge her, and referred her to a colleague whose beliefs were more like hers.  I think it’s helpful to cultivate a community of colleagues (whether CA or BA) with diverse backgrounds so that you can find a good fit for people whose needs are specific.  I also had a couple of friends who had largely gay/lesbian/trans practices, some who specialized in cancer or hospice, elder care, etc.

    I know I can treat all these people and conditions, have done so successfully, but I think the patient’s comfort and confidence in the practitioner makes a large diff in their successful outcomes.

    It seems that CA can be a levelling influence on religion, class, ethnicity, culture that I am looking forward to since I’m now going to be practicing in a place where there’s not another acup for 40 miles in any direction.  Different definition of community.