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Acupuncture Today
September, 2003, Vol. 04, Issue 09
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Innovations in the Art of Teaching Asian Medicine

By Pamela Ellen Ferguson, Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), AOBTA® and GSD-CI, LMT (TX)

My shiatsu colleagues and I felt like kids again. We gathered together to "texture" Five-Element meridian charts on behalf of our new blind student, Juliana Cumbo. We spread a large table with charts, and sorted out groups of textures ranging from yarn and tomato bags (Fire), to thin branches from my pecan trees (Wood); tinfoil (Metal); beads (Water); and sandpaper and string (Earth), using scissors and glue to attach the materials.

At all times, we were guided by Juliana's sensitivity to different textures. We avoided yarns that felt too similar, and experimented by shaping tinfoil in different ways for the Lung and Large Intestine meridians.

Juliana has been blind since the age of 10, but breaks many stereotypes. She's a champion swimmer who attended mainstream schools and college, and is a music graduate (classical guitar) now starting of her zen shiatsu, acupuncture and herbal training in the Academy of Oriental Medicine at Austin's Master of Science program. I've advised her to develop the sort of relationship with the meridians she enjoys with her guitar strings: the way they feel, the way they sound, and her ability to move dissonance to harmony with a subtle shift in touch. During an initiation class I taught on Hara diagnosis, she amazed us all when she placed her hands on her partner student's abdomen and sensed problems in his left shoulder!

Listen and Learn

We arranged for the major texts to be recorded at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired's recording studio. These texts will now be available internationally to other blind students of Asian medicine for free through blind library networks. My past experiences of teaching a blind student in Switzerland, and of preparing the way for Juliana, helped me to develop a special protocol to discuss at our AOBTA (American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia) national convention in Boston to encourage other schools to meet this unique challenge.

Blind practitioners have a long history within traditional Japanese medicine, in shiatsu and in acupuncture (toyohari), where the emphasis is on developing extraordinary qi touch and diagnostic skills, a minimum of needles, and an ability to treat without actually penetrating the skin. My former student Ginger Hunkin, LAc, CP-AOBTA, is currently a PhD student at the University of Virginia. She also practices toyohari, and talks with awe of one of her blind instructors who advised her to "bend her knees slightly and angle her needle differently" to maximize qi flow as he "observed" her working on a patient.

Juliana will start her training in my shiatsu intensive as a useful "boot camp" to give her the in-depth experiential grounding; meridian stretching; meridian function; location; and diagnostic prepping, prior to studying the philosophy of Chinese medicine. This is a win-win situation for all of us. Students who partner with her can learn from her amazing tactile and auditory skills; her ability to read inflections in speech; and the sound of footsteps, all invaluable diagnostic tools for the future.

My advice to other instructors similarly engaged is, never make assumptions. Listen and learn from your blind students. When we prepared the charts, Juliana insisted we use accessible, everyday materials (tinfoil and sandpaper) and not go to expensive lengths buying fancy materials from craft stores. Secondly, only offer help when sought. Don't leap up and "guide," because this can interrupt her radar. Her dog, Xylo, serves as her "eyes" and is not a pet to be cuddled. Only intervene if Xylo seems to be leading her into oncoming traffic or a pond! Also, don't move objects she has placed around her or by her feet.

I have always found it useful to invite blind students to rest their hands on mine as I demonstrate and teach Hara diagnosis, meridian location or a subtle stretch. I'll also encourage Juliana to trace a textured meridian on the chart, then feel the actual location of that meridian on the body. Terminology related to compass directions or time ("Raise your arms to show 3 pm") helps enormously when describing a particular movement or angle.

Debbie Valentine Smith, an AOBTA certified instructor of Jin Shin Do, and the editor of PULSE, the AOBTA journal, has had similar experiences teaching blind students. She advised us to place an object such as a bell on the chart for initial orientation. Ah, how appropriate! I thought. We'll glue tiny bells over Lung 1 to help teach the front mu points, and our front mu and back shu point charts will have textures similar to those used on the meridians. I believe our sighted students (especially those who aren't rote learners) also benefit from this Montessori-style approach. These new insights and solutions inspire us all.

Imagery is equally important. I teach the front mu points using the image of a beautiful fountain, visualizing a jet spray moving up the mu points on the central ren meridian, then streaming out bilaterally to Lung 1, and descending like two waterfalls in a bilateral sequence down to Liver 14; Liver 13; GB 24; GB 25; and ST 25. This helps students locate and diagnose the qi qualities of the points more easily, and certainly more gracefully, than when their fingers leap back-and-forth or side-to-side like balls in a pinball machine!

Maximizing the Demo: To See or Not to See?

My own challenges with dyslexia have made me especially sensitive to my students' similar problems. I love to tell them about the time I played college field hockey and lost my orientation, and actually shot a goal for the opposite side! When I teach a brand new crop of students, I always encourage those with dyslexic problems to stand alongside me, rather than opposite me, when I demonstrate a sequence of techniques and exercises. I encourage them to move around me when necessary to get a multi-angled perspective of the demonstration. Mirrors help, as long as you ensure a clear, central view, and the students aren't cluttering the space between you and the mirror.

Some of my students (dyslexic or otherwise) actually find it useful to stand alongside me and mimic the movements step-by-step as I demonstrate. I find my American students generally learn very well with their eyes (because of TV saturation perhaps?), but need to be encouraged to take notes. My German students are quite the opposite. They take endless notes and often sketch jaunty little stick figures to describe techniques, postures or stretch positions, but they have to be encouraged to drop their notebooks sometimes and just watch. The late Masunaga, who created the zen shiatsu form, wouldn't even let us take notes when he demonstrated. "No notes," he'd bark. "No notes. Watch!"

The demonstration quickly pinpoints different learning skills in students, as much as it reveals the assorted teaching skills of instructors. Even those of us who are sighted have experienced well-meaning instructors who seem blissfully unaware that half the class cannot actually see what is being demonstrated. I remember one tai chi instructor who actually turned her back to us while demonstrating a movement, so we all had to leap around her to see what she was doing! I recall another famous Asian bodywork instructor who allowed students to "but in" to his demo with assorted questions that had nothing to do with what he was demonstrating. The poor student who was modeling for him experienced painfully disrupted qi as a resulted of his fragmented approach.


Creating a central area for a demonstration, and encouraging students to encircle the demo, is far more effective than teaching a technique in front of a large class. Some students learn well when they are used as demo models by the instructor; others don't.

Dyslexic students often find it difficult to transfer skills from receiving to giving ("Was that proximal or distal? Medial or lateral?). It's vital for the instructor to use, say, eight different models for eight different techniques, not the same model for every technique, to maximize the learning experience for the whole group. All students (visually challenged or not) find it helpful if you talk them through a demonstration, and break it down step-by-step to give them plenty of time to practice and keep the qi flowing. In short, a multisensory approach maximizes the learning process for a range of different students. Often, the most challenged students can prompt wonderfully innovative solutions out of a creative and open-minded instructor.

I encourage anyone who has developed fresh teaching methods for special-needs situations in Asian medicine to e-mail me your experiences to be included in future columns.

Click here for more information about Pamela Ellen Ferguson, Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), AOBTA® and GSD-CI, LMT (TX).


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