Leela: What’s always struck me about Five Element acupuncture is the way it’s got many levels to it. People tend to get better from the most obvious thing they’re coming in for–like menstrual pain, or headaches, or say chemotherapy support. And then they notice other things are happening along the way, like their anxiety is improving, or they just feel a little more solid in themselves, more centered. They begin to feel gradually more supported being themselves. I’ve had a number of people talk about frustrations they had with their partner say, “Oh, my frustration level is just coming down naturally.” And maybe they haven’t solved everything but they’re just able to go with the flow a little more. So they can feel that change in their life.
Sarah: Can you speak to the mechanism that allows that change to happen?
Leela: In Chinese medicine it’s all basically part of our qi or energy flow. Pain is actually translated as stuck energy. Our physical symptoms are the most tangible or apparent, while our emotions our subtler but still related to our physical body. We can notice: when our emotions are little bit off–that might be a sign that our energy is stuck too, just like when we have a physical pain in the body. So in acupuncture, when we’re working with that subtle energy, the emotions may sometimes shift a little bit faster because they’re more subtle too. That is where we get into preventive medicine, because we can treat imbalances in the energetic flow before they become more tangible or painful.
Part of the process of helping people improve from their symptoms is beginning to engage with that subtler level where they begin to have more personal control over their health. Seeing the symptoms improve relieves suffering firstly, but also helps develop that relationship with the medicine that ultimately becomes a conversation of self-learning. So I am paying attention to that.
Sarah: Do you specialize in treating certain conditions?
Leela: Generally I find that I’m less interested in the particular condition I treat than in looking at the bigger picture with my patients. When I first started getting my own acupuncture, my pain improved but I also started realizing that life could be a little different – I could have more energy and feel a little better, get closer to my life’s purpose. Chinese medicine is well known for helping with musculoskeletal pain so that’s one that’s easy for people to connect to, but many things that I’ve loved working with have been a little harder to pinpoint: someone healing from chemotherapy, chronic digestive issues, or post-viral psoriasis, for instance.
There’s a magic to Chinese medicine that sometimes gets overlooked and that I think can really help people. It’s the sense of how they’re relating to their life and the people around them. Are they feeling satisfied and nourished or is there somewhere they tend to get stuck over and over? Everyone has an authentic nature and in many cases feels some conflict between that nature and the demands of life and loved ones. It’s a given for me that I love to see people improve from their symptoms – shoulder pain, back pain, menstrual issues, skin, digestion – but what I really like to see is this kind of spark in their eye go up and for them to be enjoying their life a little bit more too. It’s the spirit of the medicine. Getting to know the individual person is most interesting for me as a healer.
Sarah: Can you say more about what that quality of the “spark in their eyes” is?
Leela: It’s a little more sense of ease with who they are and with the things that are happening. That can be powerful. Sometimes I get the impression that people don’t feel they have as much control over their lives as they would like. Like, “I may not like this thing in my life, but I don’t have the power or will to change it.” An example: I’ve occasionally worked with people with addictions. Their lives are pretty strongly affected by that activity–whatever substance they’re taking in. I find that as people feel a little stronger in themselves, they’re able to make some different choices, and just get their life to reflect their true intentions a little bit more. Acupuncture helps people relax a little more deeply into their lives and start to express themselves more fluidly.
Sarah: Tell me more about your work with addiction.
Leela: An addiction is a kind of compulsion to do something over and over again. It can get to the place where someone doesn’t feel normal or good unless they’re doing that thing. When people get acupuncture, most of the time they relax. I like to say that it helps people experience themselves differently. If they can relax for a moment, get a little bit of space, then maybe they can make a different choice and begin to believe that things can be different. See themselves in a different light. Almost everyone has been in the position of making choices they wish they hadn’t made, and so when we relax a little more deeply, we can start living closer to what is most meaningful for us.
Sarah: We start making choices from a deeper place, stepping out of programmed behavior.
Leela: Lots of people talk about themselves as if there are two thems. They refer to their higher self. But my sense is that what people basically mean by higher self is that deeper connection to what is really satisfying and nourishing as opposed to what’s going to make them happy just for a quick second.
Sarah: Can you say more about addictions, or other patterns of behavior, and physical disease?
Leela: It takes a while to develop physical disease, in many cases. By the time stuck patterns are showing up as physical disease, we usually don’t have much choice about it. So that’s where acupuncture steps in. We can help get the physical symptoms moving as much as possible because that’s where the patient really doesn’t have choice anymore. When we’re saying “I really wish I wouldn’t eat sugar every day”–that’s someplace where we can start to have influence on our choices. But if we’ve gotten to a place where we have diabetes, well, we need a little medical help to get those symptoms moving, or manage them. We’re not going to be able to choose our way out of that.
Sarah: You mentioned treating more complex conditions. Can you say more about that?
Leela: It’s something that’s happened organically. I didn’t choose it, but I tend to have an elaborate mind so I’ve found those cases interesting when they’ve arrived. I’ve been willing to keep trying. Chinese medicine and Five Element methods are a different way of thinking and of viewing the world, so I keep developing those tools to get at what is a medical condition. And I like that there’s a little bit of unknown to it.
Still, I do love more straightforward cases like musculoskeletal conditions because there’s a way–in treating back pain, for instance–that I just let go. I let my fingers do the walking, and by this time I just feel where to put the needles. It’s not as theoretical. That can be very satisfying too. But I love when I have to really go into the Chinese medicine part of it and the Five Element part of it and find out how does this medicine make sense of a living human being? And does it actually work? And if it’s not working, well, what more do I need to see about the medicine to explain this human being and how they work?
Sarah: Can you tell me about a specific case?
Leela: I had someone come in who was really suffering from her chemotherapy treatment and had neuropathy and was just feeling terribly ill. You know, there’s no “chemotherapy” acupuncture point, you really have to be with the patient and perceive how this is affecting this unique individual. So, I applied my Five Element training to her treatments and she had such strong improvement. And she herself was able to articulate a lot of things: that she felt not only better from her symptoms but that she could feel that deeper sense of reconnecting with who she is. So it’s this sense that the bigger picture acupuncture can offer has been utilized. It’s this wonderful tool out there that I see and I want people to know about. I love it when that gets received.
Sarah: What other modalities do you use?
Leela: I also prescribe Chinese herbal formulas and practice biotherapeutic drainage, a particular homeopathic method of helping the body’s natural detoxification process.
There is no solid rule for when I will suggest herbs, generally it’s when I feel there is an issue of building strength and vitality or there is something I don’t think needles will quite get at. Say in a case of insomnia or fatigue where there may be an issue of underlying deficiency of blood. They say that you can’t add to the body using needles, only move qi, which certainly counts for a lot. I also generally use herbs when people have a cold or flu.
Biotherapeutic drainage functions from the idea that the body has all the functions it needs to maintain health, and our job as healers is to reinvigorate functions that have been compromised rather than targeting the symptom. I’ll use these generally when there is toxicity having a hard time getting out, it can be with skin or allergy issues, sometimes with inflammation or digestive trouble. Often allergies are related to the liver not detoxifying as well as it could. I’ve had good success with allergies using drainage homeopathy.
Sarah: Can you say more about the liver’s role in allergies and liver in drainage homeopathy?
Leela: The liver and kidney are the main organs that process toxins to be released out of the body. Ideally all the toxins in the body go out through the urine and bowels, and some through the skin and lungs. If the processing of toxins is inefficient you can get toxins building up in the body and leading to symptoms. People also have patterns in how they release toxins. Some people push them out really strongly. Some people take them in and store them in little pockets; there are different patterns. I’ve seen allergies frequently with people who push toxins out strongly, it’s good but the body can over-function in this way. Biotherapeutic drainage helps the organ cells to function a little better, almost like a little traffic cop reminding the liver to send the toxins to the bowel.
Sarah: What a great alternative to suppressing the symptoms.
Leela: Yes, because the ability to push out toxins is actually part of health. So down the road, if we suppress that, they will suffer consequences.
Sarah: Can you say more about Five Element acupuncture in management of chemotherapy side effects?
Leela: Part of how we diagnose on an individual level is to determine which of the Five Elements is the person’s point of coming in and out of health, and that’s their core element, basically. So say I determine that this patient is a fire element, that guides how I choose points. Within the range of points that are appropriate for this person, I can support functions that will help, for example, with fluid and cleansing from within that element. We find that if we treat on the element, we often get results on more than one level because we’re dialing into who that person is as an individual. Meaning that we treat the mind and spirit in addition to the body. Chemotherapy is often tremendously challenging on an emotional level on top of the physical pain.
Physically, people tend to experience a lot of heat signs with chemo. The body has a natural thermostat function to regulate heat, so I’m supporting and reminding the body to do that. I get the qi moving and look at where the body’s natural functions of regulating fluids might have been compromised. The point is to get the body to regulate itself. The patient I spoke of was really an ideal case, because her body just responded and took charge.
Sarah: What do you do when you’re not in the clinic?
Leela: When I’m not in the clinic, my favorite things to do are to be outside and hike, to dance, to spend time with my partner. I love food a lot. I love to cook and explore new places to eat. I also have a deep spiritual practice and a wonderful group of people that I’m able to practice with. That’s satisfying in my personal life and also helps me a lot with my acupuncture practice. I have a daily meditation practice. The intent of my practice is to always be integrating it with life–so off the mat practice too.
Sarah: Do you practice while you’re treating patients?
Leela: Sometimes I will hold a meditative space while I’m treating patients. It helps me to put myself aside if I have a worry happening. And it helps me to stay present with that person and what my intention is.