How I Came to Liberation Acupuncture

A POCA Volunteer's picture

Acupuncture school was challenging for me. I was hit hard by the pervasive culture of sexism and heteronormativity at both acupuncture colleges I attended. My five years studying acupuncture & TCM in British Columbia included an unapologetically homophobic anatomy & physiology professor and sexual harassment from more than one male student.

I loved learning about TCM, however, and was one of the busiest practitioners in the student clinic. My patients were almost all members of the queer/trans community and I treated a range of symptoms related to trauma: depression, anxiety, body pain, insomnia. I was happy to be busy, and I was also woefully undersupported. Confidentiality agreements required that I didn’t speak to my friends about my work in clinic. Peer support from other students or supportive clinical supervision from my teachers were unattractive options. I didn’t want to confirm anyone’s suspicions that gay people are basically unwell. There was no one I could talk to about my suicidal patients, my self-harming patients, my patients with night terrors. I carried that alone.

There was no discussion at my acupuncture school(s) of structural violence, of the impacts of normalized trauma, of who becomes chronically ill and why. We were encouraged to give importance to diet and lifestyle counseling (“You can’t help someone who won’t help themselves”) with no comment on how living with a constant threat of transphobic violence, for example, might give someone a case of gastric reflux and how that patient might then be actively harmed, not helped, by a lecture from a practitioner on avoiding coffee and other acid-forming foods. There was a deep and unspoken disconnect between what happened in the classroom and the reality of my work in the student clinic.

As a queer-identified young woman with a trauma history myself, I was trying to offer trauma-informed care and harm reduction to highly traumatized members of my community in an educational setting which was re-traumatizing to me on a daily basis.

Like so many of us, I graduated from acupuncture school with an expansive sense of relief, and no solid notion of how to make a job for myself doing acupuncture. I knew that charging my patients upwards of $50 per treatment would not work for me, ethically or practically. The people I wanted to treat – friends and family – would not be able to afford my services at those rates. I spent a few years traveling and working overseas after graduation and pushed the question of how to practice acupuncture, someday, to the back of my mind.

Returning from overseas, I discovered a community acupuncture clinic in my neighbourhood and the clinic owner gave me a job. I was simultaneously elated and relieved to have found a way to offer acupuncture that was affordable & accessible to communities I was a part of and allowed me to actually make a living.

My first few months working in community acupuncture involved extensive re-training as I learned how to give distal style acupuncture treatments in a group setting, and, just as importantly, spent hours reading posts on CAN (POCA's predecessor), and Lisa Rohleder’s first two books:

  • “The Remedy”[1] is Lisa Rohleder’s first book-length venture into explaining why community acupuncture is necessary in the context of class inequality in the U.S.
  • “Acupuncture is Like Noodles”[2] explores in greater detail the relevance & importance of community acupuncture, offering a deeper analysis of the burgeoning community acupuncture movement, and includes a comprehensive how-to guide for acupuncturists, including point combinations.

These books and online conversations gave me a broader context and deeper meaning for what I was doing at work. I was treating hundreds of people and I was also a part of an international movement, connected through my work to hundreds of other practioners and thousands and thousands of patients.

In June 2010, a few months after I began working in community acupuncture, the g20 conference took place in Toronto. Police forces purchased hundreds of cages well in advance of the conference. Thousands of people were arrested, “kettled” (kept in one place by a ring of police for hours, sometimes in the pouring rain, not permitted to leave to use the washroom, get food, water or medicine) beaten, hit with rubber bullets, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed. Protestors read as LGBTQ were kept in separate cages from the rest. Many women reported sexual assault by the police. For days during the conference, white vans patrolled the streets of Toronto picking up protestors - or people who “looked suspicious”. It was a gross violation of human rights on a massive scale.

In July and August of 2010, as people trickled back home after the protests, I worked with another community acupuncturist in town to offer a free g20 aftercare drop-in acupuncture clinic, three times a week. Over the six weeks the clinic was offered we treated upwards of 50 people dealing with the emotional, psychological and physical consequences of incarceration and police brutality. Some came three times a week, some came only once. We treated shock, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and physical injuries.

This was a formative time for me. We were using 5NP (aka the NADA protocol: 5 needles in each ear) as well as at most a few points on the limbs. Our patients, almost without exception, had never had acupuncture before and were often too overwhelmed to speak, sitting on folding chairs or crowded onto a sagging couch in a dim storefront in an unfashionable part of town. This was not how I had been taught to use acupuncture in school. But we saw phenomenal results. One regular attendee had a thick knot of scar tissue on their ankle from an animal bite, years ago. We were perhaps equally astonished at how quickly it melted away after two weeks of regular treatment.

The effects of unresolved trauma have fractured families and friendships as well as movements. When a group is calm and quiet together, hope and resilience rise powerfully. More than one person commented that after their first acupuncture session they were “more relaxed than they’d ever been.”

The g20 aftercare group underscored two important things for me: 1) an adequately trained acupuncturist can treat a lot more than we ever covered in school, and in a much wider variety of settings, and 2) it is not complicated to offer trauma-informed care in a group acupuncture setting. Liberation Acupuncture is the widest and broadest vision of the movement to date.

The single thing that has stayed with me most from my reading in the earlier days of my career was Rohleder’s retort to (yet another) acupuncturist accusing her of devaluing The Medicine: “You know what I value more than acupuncture? My patients.” This comment distills much of my re-training, and points towards the fundamental principle of liberation acupuncture. Liberation acupuncture is adamant about placing the needs and perspectives of our patients first. Accessibility is about much more than financial availability or the width of a door. Liberation acupuncture is more than just an innovative business & treatment model. It is a different paradigm altogether. Acupuncturists, acupuncture theory, and business practices that do not prioritize our patients are, at best, of little use, and at worst are actively harmful. It is because of this that we are in deep conflict with the rest of the acupuncture profession.

Community acupuncture is growing more slowly in Canada than in the US, but it is spreading. As the Canadian healthcare system (currently) allows a much higher percentage of Canadians to receive basic medical care without paying out of pocket, most of our patients here are choosing to use acupuncture as well as western medicine, not instead of. This is no egalitarian utopia, however. The gap between the wealthy and the deliberately dispossessed in Canada is widening, and many of our patients are repeatedly traumatized by their encounters with western medicine and the bureaucracies accompanying it. There is a need for health care that begins with the needs and perspectives of the oppressed, the exploited, the excluded, a need for health care that incorporates a harm reduction approach, that meets people where they are at and considers them experts on their own lives, and there is a need for trauma-informed care. Liberation acupuncture, and the panoramic perspectives of inequality, structural violence, trauma and healing it offers, is deeply necessary.


Photo courtesy of
Vanessa Tignanelli