A Comparison of Acupuncture Schools
In North America
By Lauren Stomel
For thousands of years, there were no schools of Chinese Medicine as we know them today. To understand the development of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine as it is taught today in the west requires a brief look at Chinese history.
Well over 2000 years ago, Chinese Medicine existed within the body of knowledge known as the Taoist Healing Arts. As healers, the ancient Taoists did not make a distinction between science and spirit. They saw the human body as a combination of physical matter, spirit, and Qi (which can be roughly translated as vital energy). By focusing on balancing one's Qi, one can develop the ability to synchronize oneself with the balanced Qi of nature, which serves to restore and preserve one's health. The oldest book known to describe Chinese medicine in detail is the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine, which dates back to perhaps 300 BCE. Acupuncture is first described here as a practice that restores the normal flow of Qi through the channels (meridians) by stimulating acupuncture points.
As the Taoist Healing Arts were refined over thousands of years, the secrets were passed down orally and through hands on experience within a student-master relationship. Acupuncture Schools, as such, did not exist. In some cases there were families of master healers who amassed a great body of special healing techniques and integral practices. Generation upon generation were taught and, in turn, contributed to the wealth of healing knowledge. By the 20th century, there were several outstanding lineage-based styles of Chinese Medicine whose depth of knowledge and styles of treatment went far beyond what is taught today as Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The Great Divide:
Chinese Medicine undertook a drastic change in the 1950's. In an effort to standardize a national medicine of the Marxist state, The People's Republic of China stripped the ancient teachings and practices of its spiritual dimension, which was deemed 'superstitious?. In turn, the government created a single form of teaching that more closely emulated the western biomedical model and censored much of the knowledge gained over thousands of years within the lineage-based styles of Chinese Medicine.
The resulting form of Traditional Chinese Medicine is taught today in Universities throughout China. This is also the model taught in most acupuncture schools in North America. Although it is based on traditional models of Chinese Medicine, it is only a small portion of the wealth of technique developed by healing masters and handed down during the past 2,000 years
Types of Acupuncture Schools
Today, there are roughly 3 styles of accredited acupuncture schools in North America:
1. TCM schools that follow the standardized curriculum of state run universities developed in Maoist era China. The curriculum is vital, but homogenized to produce western style practitioners.
2. Complementary and Alternative Medicine schools that teach an abbreviated form of acupuncture for those who use it as an adjunct to their primary practice. Primarily M.D.'s and D.O.'s may practice acupuncture with as little as 300 hours of formal training.
3. Lineage-based Schools of Chinese Medicine that teach both the standardized curriculum required for national TCM accreditation plus the ancient teachings and healing techniques that require a spiritual dimension to understand and practice.
About TCM Schools:
While it may seem a harsh judgment, most of the TCM schools represent an Americanized version of Chinese Medicine that bears a growing resemblance to western biomedical training. As Mark Seem (President and CEO, Tri-State College of Acupuncture) notes in the article below, "acupuncture is about to be lost and scattered to the four winds of the health care world." He continues, "The Oriental medicine or TCM style of acupuncture taught at most schools and practiced by most practitioners (especially on the West Coast, where TCM had its biggest influence) is a watered down version of acupuncture in which informed touch plays virtually no role at all."
More to the point, the study of Qi is fundamental to Chinese Medicine. While Qi is not a religious concept, it does have a spiritual dimension simply defined as: the energy of nature that also exists in the human body. Practitioners who have balance and mastery of their own Qi will be better healers, and most TCM schools do not recognize or emphasize this.
When you evaluate a TCM school, look into the tradition and teachings of the founder and senior instructors, as well as the curriculum. If the founder is a western businessman, the school is less likely to teach healing technique from ancient Chinese masters. If the curriculum does not include some form of Qi cultivation for its students, it will most likely be limited to the western biomedical model of Chinese Medicine which does not recognize the body of teaching developed from ancient times.
About Complementary and Alternative Medicine Schools:
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Schools primarily represent an effort to bridge and blend both eastern and western healing arts. In most cases, they do not offer the curriculum that meets the national standards for certification to practice acupuncture, unless you already have an M.D. or D.O. license.
One notable exception exists, however, in Tai Sophia, Institute, Maryland. Tai Sophia Institute is a graduate school for the healing arts offering three graduate programs in Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine and Applied Healing Arts. Under the guidance of Bob Duggan, M.A., M.Ac, the Institute has been recognized as an anchoring academic institute for the nation's emerging wellness system, and sets the standard in the field of CAM study, as well as an excellent acupuncture program.
(For more information on CAM, read "Complementary and Alternative Medical Therapies: Implications for Medical Education" by Miriam S. Wetzel, PhD; Ted J. Kaptchuk, OMD; Aviad Haramati, PhD; and David M. Eisenberg, MD)
About Lineage-based Schools of Chinese Medicine:
While the lineage-based schools encompass all of the modern medicine required for national accreditation and licensing individuals to practice acupuncture, they also include ancient wisdom that is essential for self-development of the healer. Their approach differs from the western biomedical model in that the essential art of Chinese medicine is the foretelling and prevention of disease rather than the treatment of illness after it has manifested as painful or distressing physical and mental symptoms. Their teaching is more focused on Qi Cultivation and the subtle laws of energy response. In the ancient tradition, the healer must become the medicine. In addition to learning the appropriate clinical skills, the student must refine their personal energy before one is qualified to practice.
In a study called Tracing the Contours of Daoism in North America published by the University of California Press, Louis Komjathy says, "the connection between Daoism and health in North America finds its culmination in the establishment of Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Los Angeles) by Ni Hua-ching and his sons; and Liu Ming's (then Charles Belyea) involvement in the founding of Five Branches Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Santa Cruz)."
He further identifies all of the lineage based teachers active in North America, including Jeffery Yuen who is currently the academic dean of acupuncture at Swedish Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Studies (New York). Other teachers are active at schools focusing on the teaching of Taiji quan, Qigong, Daoist meditation, Daoist philosophy, and traditional Chinese healing methods, however they are not accredited to license acupuncturists.
(For more information on lineage-based schools, read "Tracing the Contours of Daoism in North America" by Louis Komjathy)
Differences in Curriculum:
While the lineage-based schools draw from a greater body of knowledge and tradition than other TCM schools, one can also expect to find a slight difference in curriculum. For example, the student handbook of Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine states, "At Yo San University, Taoism is a guiding philosophy, not a religion." It further states, "Yo San's Qi Development curriculum emanates from our belief that practitioners who have balance and mastery of their Qi will be better healers. The study of Qi is not just an academic exercise but is cultivation through daily practice, The program is designed to provide students the opportunity to heal and cultivate themselves and also to directly experience the balance and harmony that underlie Taoism and the medicine that has developed from it."
About the Author: Lauren Stomel
Mr. Stomel has made a serious occupation in the study of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, particularly in the Five Eements Chinese tradition. As both a student and patient of Acupuncture, Acupressure, Tai Chi and Chi Gung for over 25 years, he has both a solid empirical understanding and personal understanding of benefits from the Mastery of Chi movement throught the body. However, he does not hold a Doctorate degree in these sciences. His information is presented here simply as the common person viewpoint. Please consult your personal physician before attempting a cure through Alternative Medicine.
1. Komjathy, Louis. University of San Diego, Department of Theology and Religious Studies: Tracing the Contours of Daoism in North America, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240760274_Tracing_the_Contours_of_Daoism_in_North_America
2. Miriam S. Wetzel, PhD; Ted J. Kaptchuk, OMD; Aviad Haramati, PhD; and David M. Eisenberg, MD. Complementary and Alternative Medical Therapies: Implications for Medical Education
3. Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, https://yosan.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/YSU-MATCM-Student-Catalog-Handbook-2016-2017.pdf
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