Good health and longevity can be yours — as long as you keep that inner balance in check. So goes one of the most basic tenets of traditional Chinese medicine. But what does it mean to have a balanced body, and how do we achieve and sustain this life-enhancing equilibrium?
A popular belief in Asian culture is that everything in the universe operates through the interaction of yin and yang — two opposite but interdependent forces. In the body, the Qi (pronounced chee) is the life-giving energy that fuels and regulates the body’s yin-yang cycles. Qi that becomes disrupted or blocked somewhere in the body — by stress, toxins, poor diet, trauma, negativity — causes an imbalance in the body, making it more susceptible to illness and discomfort.
Used for hundreds of centuries in Asia, acupuncture may restore and maintain that crucial balance and jump-start the healing process. The therapy involves placing sterile, thread-like needles in specific areas of the body to rejuvenate the corresponding energy channels so Qi can flow again. (The modern scientific explanation is that the needles stimulate the nervous system to release chemicals, which in turn alter the body’s experience of pain, or help regulate it.) Acupuncture is also favored as a preventative to promote relaxation and boost immunity before illness strikes.
In the U.S., mounting scientific evidence of acupuncture’s efficacy in treating and managing chronic pain, stress, allergies, reproductive issues and other ailments is prompting more nods from the allopathic community. A report by the National Institutes of Health, for instance, found “clear evidence” that the treatment is effective in treating nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, and in alleviating postoperative dental pain. And while the media continues trumpeting acupuncture’s curative promise, Valleyites don’t have to look far to find a qualified, licensed acupuncturist.
Yet, despite the spotlight on acupuncture, some holistic healers say that too few people have yet to experience its healthful benefits. The reason, they say, usually boils down to one factor: cost. Acupuncture is not cheap. A single session costs about $65 on the low end but can be more than twice as much depending on where you go.
Kingston acupuncturist Hillary Thing said many health conditions require two or more sessions per week for several weeks before the problem improves significantly. A maintenance plan — wherein less frequent but regular treatments are given to achieve optimal health and healing — usually follows. Taken together, acupuncture therapy comes with a price tag many people just cannot afford.
“Insurance companies are not really getting any better at covering it. And it’s not covered by Medicare or Healthy New York or any of the lower-income plans, not even the simple plans that employers offer their employees,” says Thing, of Earthbound Herbs and Acupuncture in Kingston. “Honestly, the people who have the type of plans that cover acupuncture are the people who could probably afford the high price anyway.”
After practicing for 10 years and seeing about 13 patients a week, Thing felt disheartened with a business model that kept shutting people out. So she shuttered her practice and started anew with a completely different approach: community acupuncture.
Instead of treating one or two patients per hour in private rooms with doors closed, Thing treats up to 15 people in a single large room, allowing each person to pay what they can afford based on a sliding fee scale ($20 to $40 per visit). Patients receive treatments while seated in comfortable lounge chairs or on massage tables, some clustered together, others strategically placed between Japanese Shoji screens for a little privacy. Plants and soft music contribute to a calm, soothing atmosphere. Patients simply choose a resting spot, roll up their sleeves and pant legs for the acupuncturist, settle in, and let the healing begin. And unlike private-room acupuncture, people can keep the needles in for as long as they choose.
“This is exactly the way acupuncture is practiced traditionally in Asia, where it has worked successfully for many hundreds of years — many patients per hour, and very little talking,” says Thing, adding that in the U.S., private acupuncture visits usually include a lot of unnecessary verbal exchange and counseling.
Ulster County publisher Jonathan Schein relies on acupuncture for pain relief, relaxation, and stress reduction. Although long-accustomed to receiving acupuncture privately, when he met Thing at a local farm market, he decided to try it her way.
“I was a little standoffish about it at first,” says Schein. “But at the end of the day it really makes sense. I like it. There’s this communal healing energy and well-being going on in the room.”
Peekskill acupuncturist James Lorr had feelings similar to Thing’s after several years in private practice: “In U.S. schools you’re taught the private-room model. It just got very compartmentalized and there’s always that whispered conversation, ‘How do you know what to charge?’ ” So Lorr opened Main Street Acupuncture, a community clinic he modeled after Working Class Acupuncture, a place he discovered in Portland, Oregon.
“I opened a coffee house and I realized the real product is community,” says Lorr who put the words “acupuncture” and “community” into a Google search and found the Community Acupuncture Network (CAN), a nonprofit organization that promotes the model. “It matched up with everything I thought. I was seeing maybe 13 people a week, now I see 60 or more — and I see results. That’s pretty satisfying.”
The owner of Working Class Acupuncture, Lisa Rohleder, founded CAN nearly three years ago after her clinic was “inundated by acupuncturists looking for information about it.” Of the communal-room setup, she jokes, “It’s a lot like Green Eggs and Ham: it works on a train, it works in the rain. It’s so flexible.”
Community acupuncture has other benefits as well. “Because it’s less expensive, it affords people the ability to go more often,” says Evan Schwartz of Hudson Valley Acupuncture. “When people are going for $80-$100 private treatments, it’s hard for an acupuncturist to say, ‘I’d like to see you three times this week.’ ” Community acupuncture also allows friends, families, couples, parents, and children to experience healing together, a very appealing and comforting prospect for some. “I think people find it a relief to have other people around, especially those who are new to this,” Lorr says. “It’s just great.”
Regardless of whether or not one can afford private treatment, there are some intangible reasons to try a community acupuncture clinic. “The whole room gets this vibe,” says Lorr, “which is something we really don’t have a lot of — except maybe in church or during a meditation class.”
“You have to give up your preconceived notions,” says Schein, who revealed that cost was never a deciding factor for him. “I’m not opposed to doing private again. But I just think this is wonderful — I’m a total fan of the whole thing.”
Earthbound Herbs and Acupuncture
504-516 Broadway, Kingston
Sliding scale $20-$40 (First-time consultation is additional $10)
Main Street Acupuncture
32 N. Division St., Peekskill
Sliding scale $15-$35 (First time consultation is additional $10)
Free “acupuncture parties” are held on the third Thursday of every month (5-8 p.m.)
Hudson Valley Acupuncture
69 Main St., Cold Spring
Sliding scale $20-$40 (First time consultation is additional $10)
For more information, visit the Community Acupuncture Network on-line at www.communityacupuncturenetwork.org.