Directing the Qi Breeze

This article is about Toyohari acupuncture and how it works to balance the Qi in our meridians. I wrote it in 2008 and it was published in the Cumbria green handbook.

Acupuncture? Ugh!! Can’t stand needles!”  – How often I have heard similar remarks, and it always makes me feel frustrated that people have such limited and negative image of this wonderful system of health care. There is so much more to acupuncture than “sticking needles in people”. My patients are often surprised at the range of techniques and tools that I may use during a treatment, and even more surprised at how relaxing and painless the treatment is. I hope to show in this article that the manipulation of a needle is only one part of a complex array of interactions that make up the healing process.

People frequently ask me how acupuncture works, and this is not an easy one to answer. The more modern “scientific” or “medical” acupuncture often involves the use of a small electric current applied to the inserted needles, and in this case there is probably a direct stimulation of nerves, leading to messages to the brain and perhaps release of chemicals into the blood stream. Most traditional forms of acupuncture however, work at a more subtle level than this, and it is helpful to view the body not so much as a physical entity with solid bones, nerves, blood vessels etc., but more as a network of energy flows which function to keep the body and mind alive and working properly. This “life-force energy” or Qi is everywhere, but in our bodies it is associated with specific pathways or meridians. We can’t see it and most people are unaware of it, unless they have trained in Qi Gong or similar practices. So far no scientific method has been devised to measure it, or to define exactly what it is. What we do know is that the concepts of Qi and the meridian system have been around for thousands of years and countless people have benefited from medical practices including acupuncture, which are aimed at restoring the balance and flow of Qi.  Basically, if our Qi is abundant and flowing properly, we are healthy. But what is Qi? How can we find it and how can we affect it to improve our health?

Along the meridians there are places (acupoints) where Qi is more easily accessed. A skilled practitioner can sense meridians and acupoints with his fingers, and their existence has now been scientifically verified using special probes which register the tiny changes in electrical conductivity at a point.

At a biochemical level, all cellular functions and the regulation of our body’s various systems basically depend upon minute electrical charges and microcurrents, which in combination create electromagnetic fields (EMFs). The EMF of the heart is the strongest and can be detected anywhere in the body. This is what is measured when we have an ECG, and it reflects the heart rate and rhythm, which are regulated by the body’s autonomic nervous system.  Research studies have demonstrated that when one person is touched by another, specific changes occur in the heart activity of the person touched, which imply that some kind of resonance is established in the EMFs of the 2 people. Thus some kind of information transfer is occurring that can trigger physiological responses in the other person. We cannot say simply that Qi is electricity; but it seems likely that Qi enables communication within the body by some sort of electrical means. But our energy body does not end at our skin; our Qi extends beyond our physical body into our aura, and therefore it can be affected by things outside our body – for example the Qi of a very angry person sitting close to us can make us feel uncomfortable, even if we can’t see or hear him. On the other hand, even as we approach or gently touch someone with a compassionate intention to help them, our Qi can affect theirs in a very positive way.

If just touching someone is enough to affect their heart activity, then perhaps it is not so hard to understand that when a fine tip of a metal needle is placed in an acupoint where Qi is very active, this is going to have an effect on the EMF. Again, research has shown immediate changes in heart activity and other physiological functions, as an acupuncture point is needled. By calming and relaxing the heart, all other systems can benefit indirectly.  A feeling of relaxation and release of tension is one of the main generalised effects of acupuncture treatment. In addition, local effects and changes in specific body areas or systems can be induced by choosing to needle particular points. Most of the points commonly used are on the hands and feet, often nowhere near the symptom being treated; for example many headaches and eye problems are treated using points on the feet. Thus by stimulating the Qi in one place some sort of message is passed along the meridian to the targeted area. As I now know from my work, it is not even necessary to pierce the skin with the needle tip in order for this to happen, so it is definitely not a direct stimulation of nerves.

I had been qualified as an acupuncturist for 2 years when in 2001 a colleague encouraged me to go on an introductory weekend course to Amsterdam, to learn about a Japanese style of acupuncture called Toyohari. The experience provided amazing insights into a much more subtle side of acupuncture than I had known, and changed the whole course of my career. Eighty students from all over Europe were gathered together to be taught by 3 senseis (senior masters), who had flown over from Japan. The senseis were all blind and spoke no English. Sitting at the front of the large conference room in their white coats and dark glasses they looked very stern and intimidating, rather as one might expect the Japanese version of the mafia to look (though as I soon learnt, this was a very mistaken impression!). Communication was enabled through interpreters. Much of our time was spent in practical sessions, working in small groups where one person was the “patient” while the others practised diagnosis and treatment, giving feedback on each others’techniques by sensing subtle changes in the patient’s body and pulse as the needle was applied. This method of studying is known as Kozato, and is central to Toyohari practice. It trains students to increase their awareness of tiny changes in the Qi of the patient as well as sharpening their skills of diagnosis and needle technique.

I was fortunate to be the “patient” when one of the Japanese teachers came to our table. That day I’d been suffering from painful abdominal bloating and was glad when my turn came to lie down. The teacher stroked the skin on my belly and leg very gently for a couple of seconds then pronounced his diagnosis. I felt the gentle touch of his fingers near my knee while he applied a needle very swiftly. After that he chose a point on my other leg, then took my pulse and pronounced the treatment over. The whole thing took only about 2 minutes. I got up from the couch and was amazed to feel light, painfree and not at all bloated! After that weekend I knew that I must learn this wonderful system of acupuncture. Despite worries of expense and time away from home, I embarked on a 9 weekend course in Amsterdam. It completely transformed the way that I practise, and I now use Toyohari for most people who come to my clinics.

Toyohari translates literally as “East Asian needle therapy”. It is a form of meridian therapy, based on theories of Chinese medicine that are thousands of years old. Acupuncture first came to Japan in the 6th century. The practice evolved and developed over the centuries, and since the 17th century it has been a skill traditionally of blind practitioners.  During the cultural revolution in Japan, as western medicine and drugs became popular, the teaching of traditional forms of medicine was banned, and by 1920s only blind people were allowed to practise acupuncture. This led to a backlash of dedicated practitioners who saw in their clinics that there were many modern illnesses which did not respond well to western medicine but which could be helped by acupuncture. Desperate to prevent the loss of traditional medicine, they studied and revisited the original Chinese texts and through extensive experimentation and clinical observation, came up with a revived model of acupuncture known as Keiraku Chiryo (meridian therapy). In 1959 the much renowned Kodo Fukushima, himself a blind practitioner, established the Toyohari Medical Association to teach blind people these skills. More recently he realised the importance of spreading this wonderful tradition to the western world and teaching sighted people to use it. Now Toyohari is flourishing in many countries outside Japan, and 50% of practitioners are sighted.

Being developed by blind practitioners, Toyohari diagnosis is based largely on touch. Working with blind teachers is tremendously inspiring. Their sense of touch and their awareness of qi is extraordinary – in fact, I feel as if I am the blind person when I work next to them!  But gradually, by constant practice and training I am learning to develop my sensitivity, and this plays a huge part in the success of my treatments.

As a meridian therapy, Toyohari aims to harmonise the body’s systems by balancing the qi flow in the energy channels (meridians). The treatment process involves subtle and extremely delicate techniques. It is quite different from most peoples’ idea of acupuncture – probably lying on a couch for 20 minutes with needles inserted in various places. In Toyohari the needling is very quick and gentle. The pressure on the skin should feel “like a fly landing” and the needles are very rarely inserted through the skin. Qi in the channels can be accessed not only inside the physical body, but also where it flows above the skin surface. A high level of concentration and sensitivity is required to find the right points where qi is active and to manipulate the needle effectively. Typically I use silver needles only 0.1 mm diameter – not much thicker than a hair! – but in addition to these, Toyohari is unique is its use of different metals to activate the qi, and many other sorts of needles and other implements such as small discs, magnets and tiny metal pellets may be applied to the skin.

The gentle approach of Toyohari makes it very appropriate for treating children and people wary of needles. Babies respond very quickly to minimal treatment (typically a session would last about 2 minutes – if they are not too fidgety!). Patients often ask me if I have actually used a needle because they didn’t feel anything, and nervous people tend to be immensely relieved after the first needle, when they realise it isn’t going to hurt!  On the other hand, sensitive people can feel strong and deep sensations (usually pleasant) as the qi moves, and are amazed if I tell them the needle didn’t actually go through the skin. 

The more I study and practise Toyohari, the more I am impressed by how much can be achieved by the correct manipulation of the tip of a tiny needle, combined with mental focus, sensitivity of touch and awareness of the patient’s needs. 

Posted in Articles, Cumbria Green Handbook.