Acupuncture for Sports Injuries

By Aaron Banfield, R.Ac.

Robin came to me the day after running a half-marathon. “My everything hurts”, he said, especially his legs. Most importantly, he couldn't bend his right knee. Since he had travelled to Victoria by bike, he really needed his knee working to get home.

Fortunately, treating exercise-related injuries is an important part of Chinese Medicine training. It has become very popular with amateur and professional athletes; there was even an official acupuncture program at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. I told him I would see what I could do.

Robin wrote me a few days later. "That is probably the best treatment I have ever received, and I've had quite a number of treatments from highly skilled practitioners.  Immediately after the treatment, there was significant improvement- and by the next morning, complete recovery."

Acupuncture treatment of sport injuries mainly involves the technique of releasing myofascial trigger points, combined with stimulating your body's natural recovery processes.

Fascia is a tough connective tissue that surrounds every muscle, organ, bone, nerve, vessel, and cell in our bodies. Ideally fascia is in a fluid/gel like state, but restrictions due to injury or stress (especially what sports therapist Whitfield Reeves calls “micro-traumas” to our tissue) can cause fascia to harden and create trigger points. It is an adaptive and protective change, helping prevent further injury to the area, but it causes pain and loss of mobility.

Once they develop, myofascial trigger points are essentially hyper-irritable areas within muscle that refer pain to other areas. Pain in a certain spot may actually be caused by a trigger point some distance away pulling on your tissue.

Fortunately, trigger points develop and refer pain in predictable patterns. A knowledgeable acupuncturist can quickly determine the trigger points involved in your situation and release them.
This involves inserting fine, small needles into your particular trigger points until the hardening there releases. This is, surprisingly, often a painless procedure as fascia has few nerve endings in it. Sometimes we need to go deeper into the muscle if knots have developed; this can feel like an ache similar to very precise massage on the area.

The effect of the needling is that the fascia recovers its fluid state and muscles regain their softness and elasticity.

However, sometimes there are many trigger points in a pattern of pain and dysfunction. Especially in cases where an injury happens in an area that has been chronically tense, there may be old trigger points that are chronically active and the “injury” is simply new trigger points showing up in the areas affected by them. In this case, several treatments may be needed as we release the new trigger points and then clear the old ones to prevent the same injury from happening again.

At the same time as treating with acupuncture, your practitioner may recommend herbal oils or even internal formulas to assist your body in relaxing the muscles, reducing inflammation, and promoting blood flow. In this way, the effects of the treatment are supported by your body's natural healing abilities

The 8 Branches of Chinese Medicine

By Aaron Banfield, R.Ac.

When I say to you, “Chinese Medicine”, you instantly think of acupuncture, right?  Maybe, if you ponder a little more, you remember there might some strange herbs involved too.

That’s all true, and boy are there ever some weird herbs we use (powdered hornet’s nest, anyone?), but there’s a lot more to the Chinese medical tradition.  In this post, I’ll take you through everything the classical doctors considered important for the maintenance of health.

8. Acupuncture.  For the uninitiated, acupuncture is the gentle and precise insertion of very fine needles into specific points on the body in order to relieve pain and stimulate healing.  By the way, the World Health Organization considers acupuncture a valid and effective treatment for over 300 medical conditions.  However, in classical China acupuncture was considered number 8 of 8, as in the least important.

7.  Herbs.  Chinese Herbal Medicine theory is extraordinarily sophisticated.  Each herb is categorized by flavours, energetic temperature (ginger is hot and mint is cool, for example), and the organs of the body it most affects.  And they are almost never used solo; there are synergistic formulas for almost every illness condition.  Some formulas are powerful and short-term, like those to relieve colds or headaches, while others are more like supplements and nourish the body in particular ways.  We even have herbal formulas for the mind to treat stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc.  Herbal medicine is a great accompaniment to acupuncture treatment.

6. Massage.  In Chinese Medicine we view massage as a very important contributor to health, and all practitioners are expected to have proficiency in it.  We say that massage improves qi flow and can resolve areas of blockage and stagnation.  In classical China, most people learned basic massage skills to relieve tension and assist the healing of injuries.  We distinguish two types of massage: tui na which is intense and therapeutic, and an mo, which is gentle and relaxing.  Both have their place depending on the situation.

5.  Feng Shui.  That’s right, Feng Shui.  The arrangement of objects in your home and office is considered vitally important in Chinese Medicine.  I won’t go into too much detail (you’re welcome to ask me some time), but essentially the idea is that the subconscious experience of our environment has a subtle but profound effect on our overall vitality.  Think about how you feel when your home is messy-  everything feels a bit chaotic, and you can’t quite relax, let alone be nourished and inspired by your space.  In Chinese Medicine, we see this as very important.

4. Living in Harmony with the Seasons.  In Chinese Medicine we believe that your diet, activities, and goals should vary with the changes in the world around you.  For example, in Summer we recommend eating a lot of fruit, vegetables, and a good amount of raw food.  In Winter we recommend eating roots and grains, with lots of soups and stews.  In Summer we say vigorous exercise that challenges your capacity is best, while in winter we advise to focus on meditation and restorative exercise. Spring is the time for visioning and new ideas, while Fall is the time for reflection and introspection.  In these ways, we say that the dynamics of our life are in harmony with the changes of the world around us and balanced health will naturally result.

3. Exercise.  In Chinese Medicine, as in all other medical traditions, regular physical activity is considered vital for wellbeing.  We say that if you are not exercising, your qi (vital life force) will stagnate and diminish.  When this happens, aches and pains will develop and not resolve, and your basic energy level will decline.  Eventually, this can affect the organ systems  and the mind.  Central to Chinese Medicine is the concept of appropriate exercise.  For some people, those who are highly stressed and hold a lot of tension, typical gym workouts are considered unbalancing and will aggravate the person’s situation.  For these people, gentle and mindful exercise such as yoga or walking in nature is most beneficial. 

2. Diet.  Chinese medicine’s dietary theory is, like its Herbology, quite detailed.  In the absence of  advanced chemistry, the old doctors simply ate different foods and observed how they felt afterwards.  Over the centuries, this became refined, standardized and codified.  With modern science, we of course accept molecular nutritional theory; we simply see vitamins and minerals as being the things that create the foods’ energetics.  In addition to flavours, we categorize foods into different inherent temperatures (like with herbs above), and can use these theories to recommend foods to add, emphasize, remove or limit from a person’s diet.  In Chinese medicine, we believe that the energetic qualities of the foods we eat become the energetic qualities of our being- we literally are what we eat.

1. Mind.  That’s right, the most important determinant of health in Chinese medicine is the Mind.  We believe that without mental health, it is much more difficult to accomplish all the other factors.  When we are busy and stressed, we tend not to practice self-care.  When we are unhappy in life, we often engage in emotional eating or other activities that satisfy us in the moment but have a long-term harmful effect.  Chronic anxiety depletes the adrenals, and anger taxes the heart.  I’ve worked with many people who have a strong desire to improve their health, but engage in self-sabotaging behaviours due to sub-conscious stories around failure or self-worth.  Healing and cultivating the Mind will allow the obstacles to health to fall away, and will give us a clear and empowered perspective to create and maintain our well-being.

A Parable on Dealing with Shadow

A client sent me this, and I love it:

Eventually he returned with firewood to his cave, and found it invaded by five horrific demons with eyes as large as saucers. Shocked, Milarepa politely introduced himself and asked them to leave. At this, the demons became menacing, surrounding him while growling, grimacing, and laughing maliciously. Milarepa was alarmed and attempted the most powerful of exorcism recitations, to no avail. The demons became even more threatening. Next, the yogin tried with great compassion to pacify them with Buddhist teachings, but they still remained, more vivid and horrible than before. 

 Finally Milarepa realized that his approach was mistaken, and that he needed the most direct means possible. Supplicating his teacher Marpa, he acknowledged that the demons, and all phenomena for that matter, were of his own mind, which is of the nature of luminosity and emptiness. The demons were his own projections, and seeing them naively as external demons served as an obstacle to his practice. At the same time, their malicious nature was actually radiant and transparent, no different from awakening itself. If he could respond to them appropriately, he could reap great spiritual benefit. Milarepa then applied his guru's instructions and sang one of his famous dohas, or songs of realization. 

In it he proclaimed his lineage of wakefulness and the mastery of his own mind. He prayed to Marpa, who had himself conquered the Maras, referring to him as a queen snow lioness, a golden Garuda (intrepid master of all birds), and as the king of fishes. Then, professing himself as Marpa's son in each of these forms, he proclaimed his meditative maturity and unshakable fearlessness, leaping from the snowy precipices, flying in the lofty heights of the sky, or swimming the thundering waves of the ocean. Finally, he spoke of himself as a Buddhist meditator, son of his guru's lineage. Faith grew in my mother's womb. A baby, I entered the door of Dharma; A youth, I studied the Buddha's teaching; A man, I lived alone in caves. Though demons, ghosts, and devils multiply, I am not afraid .... I, Milarepa, fear neither demons nor evils; If they frightened Milarepa, to what avail Would be his realization and enlightenment?  Having proclaimed the fearlessness which he had discovered in his practice, Milarepa followed the training given him by his guru. He invited the demons to stay with him and to receive his hospitality. He also challenged them to a friendly contest of teachings. 

"Ye ghosts and demons, enemies of the Dharma, I welcome you today! It is my pleasure to receive you! I pray you, stay; do not hasten to leave; We will discourse and play together. Although you would be gone, stay the night; We will pit the Black against the White Dharma, And see who plays the best. Before you came, you vowed to afflict me. Shame and disgrace would follow If you returned with this vow unfulfilled."  

We may notice that when Milarepa invited the demons, he displayed several moods successively. This can be understood in terms of the Tibetan tantric expression of four enlightened stages of skillful, appropriate action, called the four karmas. These karmas are the strategies employed by the realized yogin when working with intractable situations, whether they be in practice or in daily life.  These methods are based on "not accepting, not rejecting" in the sense that the most threatening situations are excellent opportunities for practice. The first karma is "pacifying," in which one opens fully to negativity, with the line "I welcome you today!" When we open to the shadow in this way, we reverse the habitual tendency to ignore or hide it. Next, the yogin inspires the unacknowledged aspects with confidence by creating an atmosphere of celebration, free from aggression, in an action called "enriching" ("It is my pleasure to receive you!"). Taking the attitude of enriching, we affirm the power of the shadow rather than discounting it as we usually do. Then, with the third karma of "magnetizing," the yogin draws the negativity toward him or her with an actual invitation: "Do not hasten to leave; we will discourse and play together ... stay the night." In this way, the shadow is charmed into relationship and its power is harnessed. The last karma, "destroying," is the final resort for an accomplished yogin like Milarepa. Often the shadow material does not require this final step, for its ferocity has rested primarily on our denial of it, and the inviting nature of the first three karmas removes its threatening qualities. However, when negativities are entrenched in conceptual justifications and defenses, we must employ "destroying," in which we challenge and threaten the crystallized, residual negativity with extinction. Milarepa did this with the challenge, "we will pit the Black against the White Dharma, and see who plays the best." 

Here he was referring to the black magic and sorcery of his past training, his central shadow, directly confronted by the white magic of Buddhism, which can accommodate and purify the black. Having challenged the demons, Milarepa arose and rushed with great confidence directly at them. They shrank in terror, rolling their eyes and trembling violently, and then swirled together into a single vision and dissolved. With this, the destroying was completed, and Milarepa the black sorcerer was reclaimed by Milarepa the white sorcerer. It is important, however, to understand that in Buddhism the motivation to reclaim the shadow can never be in service to the ego, or fulfilling only one's own personal potential. The "white sorcerer" Milarepa was the great Buddhist yogin who harnessed the powers of the destructive magician, who was interested only in egocentric ends, and brought them into the service of the Dharma, the egoless aspiration for the awakening of all beings.


On Technology and Well-Being

"Machines which ape people are tending to encroach on every aspect of people's lives, and ... such machines force people to behave like machines. The new electronic devices do indeed have the power to force people to 'communicate' with them and with each other on the terms of the machine. Whatever structurally does not fit the logic of machines is effectively filtered from a culture dominated by their use.

The machine-like behaviour of people chained to electronics constitutes a degradation of their well-being and of their dignity which, for most people in the long run, becomes intolerable. Observations of the sickening effect of programmed environments show that people in them become indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical."

-Ivan Illich 

I see every day in my clinic the effects of our computer-dominated society.  There is the obvious impact of the overuse of our small forearm muscles that were never designed for such constant, repetitive action, and the tension in shoulders that easily arises from even the smallest ergonomic problems in one's desk setup.

There are shifts in consciousness as well, and these arise out of the disconnection from the subtle and intangible aspects of the human experience.  Our minds are vastly more intricate and profound than the "intelligence" of computers.  Shrinking our consciousness to fit the limits of programmed applications results in an extraordinary disempowerment that we don't even realize is happening.  We lose touch with our resourcefulness, our adaptability, our intuition, our creativity.  We lose touch with ourselves.

The impact of this on a person's healing journey is powerful.  Many times I have worked with clients for whom a major part of their recovery is to re-establish their relationship with their body and their feelings, to learn how to listen to what parts of themselves are saying rather than look for some "program" to follow in order to fix themselves.

I realize the irony of using a web blog to decry computer-mediated communication.  I'm going to go meditate now.  I invite you to do the same.

A Quote from My First Master

“If you want to truly do this work, then you have to BE medicine.  It is not enough to practice skillfully.  You must go through the world in such a way that through their everyday interactions with you, people are healed”.

-Dr. Michael Smith

Mike Smith

Chinese Medicine and the Heart

Summer.  The season of fire.  In classical Chinese Culture, summer is associated with the South, the direction of prosperity.  Ancient Chinese maps had South at the top, and moving South is associated with ascension.  Summer is the time of year where our souls are exuberant and we revel in the fullness of life.  If, that is, our Fire is in harmony.

Fire is the most Yang of the elements; it is the flourishing that comes after Wood’s focused growth.

What does this mean for us humans?  We are manifestations of the Elements and the patterns, movements, and experiences in our life are deeply influenced by the shifts in the energetics around us.

The organs associated with Fire are the Heart, Pericardium, Small Intestine, and San Jiao or Triple Burner.  The Heart is the home of the Shen, our authentic self-nature. The emotion classically associated is Joy.  Joy is what we feel when our life is in accordance with the expression of our Shen, simple as that.  

In this season we reflect on the question, "What brings me joy?".  And we examine our life to see how much we are doing these things.

When I was in my late teens, a woman came to speak to the environmental organization I was working with.  She spoke on the topic of careers and life path- we were a youth-run organization and such things were part of the training mandate.

One thing she said has stuck in my mind all these years:

"When you are trying to decide what you want to do with your life, don’t think about a job that seems like it would be really cool, or even something you think you’d be good at.  Don’t think about jobs at all.  Instead, your work is to identify the behaviours that really fire you up, the kinds of activity that truly rouse your passion and bring you joy to do.  And THEN, look for a job that allows you to engage in those behaviours as much as possible."

This teaching came to me very powerfully in mid-march of last year, when I chose to close the clinic I was running and move to a simple private practice.  I had what alcoholics refer to as a “moment of clarity” and realized how far from my life’s path and my authentic self I had diverged.  Instead of living my passion for Chinese Medicine, I had become a manager.  I was holding on to this business due to an attachment to a vision I had, and I reveled in the profile in the community it brought, and I was deeply unhappy.

There and then I chose to close my clinic and move to a simple private practice.  And I am so much happier.  My life has so much more of that which brings me joy.  I had to let go of a lot of the ideas I had about what success means, and who I was in the community.  It was a big transition.  And I love my simpler life.

So in this season of Fire, I challenge you to take a courageous (meaning 'from the heart') look at your life and see what you are doing that brings you joy, and that which doesn't, to see what you are holding onto due to fear, pride, or simply out of habit.

Some new (old) wisdom about sleep

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This is one of the most fascinating things I've read in a long time.

In Chinese Medicine, we know about a particular type of insomnia that follows this sleep pattern

How to Be Sick

You might like to print this out and put it on your fridge

How to Be Sick

On my decision to pursue this work

I wrote this when I was 21, shortly after choosing to leave my first career in the Environmental movement.  It was published in a youth magazine; you can read the whole thing here (there's also a comedic piece I wrote called "Diversity Sucks").

I want to save the world. I’ve decided to become a doctor of Chinese Medicine. In this essay I’m going to attempt (that is what “essay” means, after all) to explain my perhaps puzzling decision.

My decision came from a progression of realizations.

Realization one: The world is in a pretty messy state right now. Some people just get this, some people just don’t. I’ve never really been able to figure out what the deciding factor is. Whatever you think, however, you’ll probably agree that...

Realization two: The primary influence on the state of the world is human civilization. We can alter the environment in pretty much anyway we want, and we’re energetically extremely influential, if you believe in that sort of thing. A lot of people stop here at realization two and start raging against The Machine. I was there for a while. It’s pretty disempowering and frightening, really, to imagine yourself up against some monolithic, ubiquitous, abstract monster of a system. There are so many manifestations to try to fight. After a while it just seems hopeless, but what else can you do? Well, I thought a little more and realized...

Realization three: The primary influence on human civilization is humans. This seems pretty freakin’ obvious but is very important and deserves thought. Humans build machines and set up systems in order to help them achieve their goals. It’s like the National Rifle Association says,

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Guns are a great way to do it, sure, but the guns themselves don’t really care what they happen to be pointing at. To further the analogy, if you snapped your fingers and made all the guns disappear, people would just build more, and they’d do it pretty quickly, and in the meantime they’d bonk each other with clubs. This would seem to indicate that...

Realization four: Most humans are in a pretty messy state right now. I used the analogy of brutish—“I’m going to get my way, and if you’re in the way of me getting my way I’m going to hurt you, and if my way itself ends up hurting you I really don’t care”—types of people. These types of folks seem to be in charge these days, but if the sullen, bitter, stagnant in a way—“everything sucks and everything’s really hard to do, and everything would be good if only we lived in an absolute utopia tomorrow or the day after at the latest, and did I mention that everything sucks?”—types of people that I often encountered in the protest movement and to a lesser extent in the social justice field somehow managed to work their way into running the show, we would be just as screwed as we are now. Differently screwed, but still pretty badly off.

So, it occurred to me that the only way to effect real positive change in the world is to heal people. Healthy, happy people would create healthy, happy systems and from these healthy, happy systems would spring a healthy, happy world. I think Lauryn Hill put it well when she said, “Love ourselves and we can’t fail to make a better situation.” It will take a long time, certainly, and there may not be enough time, but I don’t see how this can do anything but help.

I wrote that 9 years ago, and while I consider it somewhat unpolished and simplistic, the fundamental message remains absolutely true for me.  I consider my work as an acupuncturist to be a direct contribution to the healing of our society and our world, and this global consciousness is a major part of what fuels the passion I feel for my work.