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  • Ted Hall, L.Ac.

What is acupuncture and how does it work?

What’s commonly referred to as Acupuncture or Oriental Medicine is a system of medicine from Asia that influences health through interaction with the body’s energy via a number of different treatment modalities (including acupuncture, bodywork, and herbs) – this is energetic medicine.

Acupuncture is in fact one of several branches of Oriental medicine. Together they respond to disease in a holistic manner, promoting efficiency and harmonious relationships between the different functioning aspects and capacities of the human body so that the body is best able to take care of itself.

There are five categories of treatment modalities of Oriental medicine, the specifics of how it is used clinically:

Acupuncture & Moxibustion

This category includes acupuncture and related surface stimulation techniques, such as moxibustion, cupping, electrical & magnetic stimulation, and various tape-on devices, all designed to stimulate areas at or near the surface of the body.


This includes the intake of teas or decoctions of specific herbal combinations, as well as powders, pills, and tablets for internal usage, along with topical applications.

Bodywork Therapy

There are numerous traditions of bodywork from Asia, including various Shitasu styles from Japan and Tuina from China, that address the body’s energetic relationships, rather than simply focusing on physical form.

Energy Exercises

These are exercises focusing on the body’s energy, such as Taiji, Qi Gong, certain martial art techniques, and various types of meditation and breathing exercises that involve activating and/or consolidating the body’s energy.

Diet Therapy

This category includes the specific application of food as medicine, along with various lifestyle modifications used to influence health.

How do they work?

By influencing the body’s energy patterns. acupuncturists are basically influencing health and functionality of the body by making suggestions about how the body can use its energetic resources to do a better job of taking care of itself.

The Oriental medical viewpoint holds that the body is energy, an evolving collection of interrelated activities, and acupuncture effects health by influencing these levels of activity in the body.

There’s a great deal of theory and information involving the details of that activity and how it all works, information that has been developed and written about over the last 2000 years, and there is no shortage of books one can find to learn more about those details if interested.

This medicine does not really work by primarily interacting with or changing the physical form, as we typically understand allopathic medicine today, but rather by changing that which determines form. The body’s energetic patterns are what determines its functionality and resulting form, i.e. symptoms or the lack thereof.

Oriental medicine works via the body’s energy, also referred to as Ki (pronounced like “kee”) or Qi (pronounced like “chee”). This concept of life-energy is the foundational concept of acupuncture, so let’s look at it a bit more closely.

What is Ki?

Ki is life activity, movement, energy, productivity, doing. Ki is a verb, Ki is The Verb, it is process, functionality, momentum, the motion that carries life forward.

Everything is Ki – if we ask a physicist what makes up the body, or a tree, or a building, or pretty much anything else we can conceive of as having some sort of manifestation in physical form, we will get one answer: atoms. And what is an atom? It’s a bunch of dinky things spinning around another dinky thing. And it’s almost entirely empty space. In fact, the human body is 99.99% empty space, as is a stone, or your car, or any other object. And when we go down to deeper and deeper levels, we end up with little more than vibrating particles in empty space.

In actual truth, there’s no such thing as matter; everything is really just vibrating energy in empty space, and that vibrating is Ki. Ki is all of the activity and motion of the universe at every level. It’s you fixing a sandwich, digesting that sandwich, and talking about it later. It’s everything we do and are, everything we encounter. It is the activity of existence, the energy of life.

Ki is also momentum, the direction of life. Ki seems to want to move forward – procreation, carrying the cycle of life forward as it evolves & changes. Everything that we define as exhibiting properties of life does the same thing: adaptation in order to survive and procreate, the Darwinian mandate, carry it forward. All life activity, be it the life of an organism, the life of a stone (geologic evolution), or even the life of a thought, an idea, or an intention, that is Ki.

Ki exhibits negative-entropy – the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics describes the ubiquitous influence of entropy: all systems of order will move to disorder; everything is basically falling apart. Your body, your car, the building you’re sitting in, the continental plate you’re riding on, they will all eventually become dust.

So the question then arises, if everything is falling a part, how come there are still things in form, things that haven’t fallen apart yet? Where’d they come from? Indeed there must be something creating all these things that are falling apart, so there must be something that exhibits negative-entropy.

And that something is Ki. It is the activity of manifestation. It’s the force that turned your body from the single cell it once was into the complicated multi-functioning gizmo that’s now wearing your clothes. Ki is basically the active process of creation, the mechanism of manifestation.

Energy Medicine

To work with Oriental medicine is to help the process of activity happen. We can see what Ki wants to do, it wants to do it’s negative-entropy thing, it wants to follow its forward momentum, it wants to grow, adapt, succeed, evolve, create, activate, move. And for the practitioner of Oriental medicine, our basic job is: How Can I Help?

The body knows what to do, it’s in our genetic code – if we twist an ankle, it’ll be swollen & sore for a week or two, but pretty soon, it’ll be more or less like it was before. The body knows how to take care of itself, it just loses its way a little bit sometimes (for a variety of different reasons), and then it doesn’t necessarily utilize its resources with the greatest efficiency.

And what acupuncture does is remind the body of a more efficient way to use it’s existing resources to do the jobs it knows how to do so it can take better care of itself.

Acupuncture doesn’t fix people, they fix themselves. We can make helpful suggestions to assist the body to do it’s work, but we can’t solve anyone else’s problems. As anybody who grew up with siblings can tell you, you can’t fix other people. They have to discover their own process and do the work for themselves. Everybody’s health and happiness is their own responsibility. Acupuncture is in an excellent position to help.

The body is a vast sea of operation, a complex interwoven network of processes & events. It is in constant motion, the body is actually a verb, not a noun. Despite it’s apparent noun-ness, the body is really a complex series of events and activities, happenings with specific detailed purpose and intention. The purpose of acupuncture is to facilitate the activity that is the body.

Ki Precedes Form

This is the single most basic tenet of acupuncture medicine. Energy happens before form. Anything that exhibits form in physical reality is necessarily “slower” than the manifestation of energy without physical form. Energy precedes form, just as an idea or inspiration precedes action in the outside world. Everything that exhibits form (such as a human body) is the result of preceding energetic processes.

So symptoms are results – whatever we’re experiencing within the greater concept of the body: my (blank) hurts, I can’t sleep, my digestion blows, my periods are painful, I have anxiety, diabetes, alopecia, whatever – these are all results of the body’s ability or lack thereof to do it’s jobs. Ki is a priori– what we experience in our form is the result of what we’re doing energetically. Ki happens first; form is the result of that activity.

Ki is all the active processes that create and determine our form. If we feel okay, it’s because our energetic processes & relationships are harmonious & functional enough to manifest outward into an okay version of form. If we feel not-so-good, it’s because our energetic processes & relationships are disharmonious enough to manifest outward into an not-so-good version of form.

We can change the form itself, that’s largely how Western allopathic medicine works, by altering the physical form (that’s basically how surgery & pharmaceuticals function). But if we do not address the forces that are producing the dysfunctional form, then the causative forces remain in play and the body will simply recreate the same problems. Whereas if we address the energetic patterns that are producing our form, we will end up with different results, ones that ideally do not produce symptoms.

Addressing results is a relatively simplistic approach to medicine. As I’ve mentioned before, there are plenty of good ways to practice symptom alleviation, but the greater issue is to address the situation so that we don’t continue to produce symptoms.

Pharmaceutical intervention may address the headache, or inflammation, or menstrual pain, or whatever process as it’s happening, but since all they do is alter physical form, that approach won’t address the energetic mechanism behind the headaches, and the symptoms will simply recur.

Well rounded health care does all of these things at once – it will address symptoms while at the same time reorganizing the body’s energetic resources so that it can re-learn how to do it’s jobs without producing symptoms in the first place. When you feel good, it’s because your body is not producing symptoms.

The Body is Perpetually Creating Itself

Acupuncture is energetic medicine, which means that we are looking at conditions based on the energetic patterns producing symptoms, rather than just focusing on the symptom itself. Asthma, for example, is a disease in western medicine, but in Oriental medicine asthma is not a disease, it’s a symptom; the disease is the energetic pattern of disharmony that’s allowing the body to produce asthma-type symptoms.

Acupuncture seeks to influence how the body is doing the things it’s doing, all of the jobs & processes that make up the body’s activity & functionality. The body is constantly creating itself, and in observing the details of how it’s doing all those jobs, we can influence those processes so that the outcome is less pathological. The process of health and disease are fundamentally the same, the outcome lies in how the body is able to use its resources.

If as patients and practitioners we can interact productively with the body’s energetic patterns & relationships, then we can influence the processes that produce the form we experience, and address many of the issues of health & disease before they occur. The opportunity to create the ongoing experience of good health is continually available.


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