Why Liberation Acupuncture?

No one knows exactly where or when the practice of acupuncture originated. It has been most fully developed in China, in conjunction with other forms of Chinese medicine, but acupuncture as a practice has always been strikingly diverse, with a multitude of styles and schools of thought taking shape over the centuries, both in Asia and around the world.

In North America in the 1970s, the Young Lords and the Black Panthers introduced the use of acupuncture in the context of social action and community health as part of a response to what liberation studies term “structural violence”. Initially acupuncture was used in community settings to treat addiction; it was later expanded to treat all kinds of conditions. The contributions of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers to the spread of acupuncture in North America are often overlooked and underestimated.

While the Black Panthers founded one of the first acupuncture schools in the US ( Harlem Institute of Acupuncture), most acupuncture schools went in a different direction, seeking to establish acupuncture within mainstream culture and to build up the social status of acupuncturists to compete with other medical professions. The result over the next four decades was that acupuncture became so expensive that it was not accessible to people of ordinary incomes. The community acupuncture model, a clinical and economic model designed to make acupuncture accessible and self-sustaining in working class communities, was introduced in 2002 to address this disparity.

Most acupuncturists working in North America today, including the authors of this website, were trained in Chinese medicine schools that teach that a distinguishing characteristic of Chinese philosophy and cosmology is that nothing can be understood in isolation: everything can only be understood in relationship to other things. Chinese medicine in particular is based on the observation of natural phenomena in relationship to each other and human beings in relationship to their environment. A basic tenet of Chinese medicine is that it is the task of practitioners to observe and reflect on what they see in the world, and particularly what they see in their patients in relationship to the world.

Well, we did. We observed and reflected, and Liberation Acupuncture is the result. We had to ask ourselves, how is it possible for an acupuncturist to believe that people's health is connected to the seasons and the elements of the natural world, and yet unconnected to their social environment?

We have found that the other schools of thought that we were trained in (Traditional Chinese Medicine, Classical Five Element Acupuncture, and Japanese Meridian Therapy) while sometimes useful and certainly beautiful, are not adequate to explain what we noticed. We live in a very different world than the authors of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. And of course, what you perceive depends not only on your era but on your position in society.

As a conceptual framework, Liberation Acupuncture embraces the basic principles of social medicine:

  1. social and economic conditions profoundly impact health, disease, and the practice of medicine;
  2. the health of the population should be a social concern, not just the health of individuals;
  3. society should promote health through social means as well as individual means.

Liberation Acupuncture asserts that our thought and analysis around acupuncture must begin not with abstract ideas and concepts, but with experience and social engagement. Using the community acupuncture model with hundreds of thousands of people over the last decade has provided us with that experience and social engagement. We have found that the theories of the schools of thought that we were trained in often do not reflect how acupuncture works in the lives of real people, especially people who do not have socioeconomic privilege. If acupuncture theory is not based on real experiences of people living today, both acupuncture practice and acupuncture theory will be irrelevant in our society.  If we want to be relevant, we need to take into account the life experiences of a wide range of real people, not just a narrow and economically privileged segment of the population. Liberation Acupuncture maintains that acupuncture must be practical, by being based on experience and by having a positive impact on society.

Putting out the sign.
Photo courtesy of
Dave Hudson