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Acupuncture Today – January, 2007, Vol. 08, Issue 01

Working Class Acupuncture: Conference Report

By Jordan Van Voast, LAc

Approximately 40 acupuncturists from 22 states converged on Portland, Ore., in late October 2006 to learn more about a powerful new energy wave within the American acupuncture profession - community acupuncture.

What is community acupuncture? Three basic principles were outlined and woven into the presentations and panel discussions over two days:

  1. lower acupuncture fees;
  2. simpler treatments; and
  3. community building.

The logic is simple.

As Lisa Rohleder eloquently explains in her latest book,1 acupuncture in America is languishing in a dysfunctional health care system, divorced from its Taoist roots. Acupuncturists who still have an active practice five years beyond graduation are in the minority; among those few who survive that long, not many are happy with our profession's marriage of convenience with the corporate insurance system.

Once a peasant medicine available to the masses, we find ourselves increasingly stuck within a very small socioeconomic client pool (upper middle class). Even when an acupuncturist is lucky enough to develop a stable clientele, the baggage that comes with a third-party-payer system works to block an effective healing process in many ways.

Michael Horowitz, DO, a panelist at the conference, gave the frog analogy: "You can't kill a frog by putting him into a pot of boiling water; he'll jump out. But if you start with cool water and slowly turn up the heat, Froggie, in attempting to get comfortable, eventually gets boiled alive." Hearing that story made my hair practically stand on end; my nine years of treading water in the lily pond of the acupuncture profession suddenly were feeling mighty uncomfortable.

So, what's the solution? Saying no to insurance? Lowering prices? Simpler treatments? How could that work? Simple: When treatment cost is no longer a limiting factor, several things happen. First, clients have the freedom to get better, coming in with whatever recommended frequency a particular condition requires in order to get results. Two, the practitioner learns to streamline treatments. By seeing up to six clients per hour, jettisoning nonessential chit-chat, placing the needles and then stepping aside, the client is able to easily tap into the communal energy of many people resting deep within their qi.

Supporting that communal energy is the goal, not building a stage for practitioners to parade their professional egos. In doing so, an inviting atmosphere is created in which everyday, run-of-the-mill people do not feel out of place. White-coated pretense is nowhere to be seen, allowing folks to let down their guard and enter the sacred space within, where all healing begins. The practitioner, fed by this broad river of healing qi, focuses on his or her simple art, playing the game of arriving at nothingness, whereby everything is achieved, instead of hassling with insurance companies over payment or having to pay someone else to do it.
Building community really is the lynchpin to making it work, though. That message was repeatedly emphasized. You can't just get a bunch of recliner chairs, charge less money and call yourself a community acupuncture clinic. (Community acupuncture utilizes recliners, as opposed to massage tables, for reasons of economy of space, as well as for physical and mental comfort.)

Building community involves a conscious paradigm shift away from traditional health care in America - with its private treatment rooms and medical elitism, all of which alienates community-minded people. Business consultant Alanna Hein gave an enlivening presentation on diversity and social justice. Like many acupuncturists in the U.S., I come from a place of privilege, Conventionally speaking: I am white, male, U.S. born, heterosexual, able-bodied, under age 50, and the product of an upper-middle-class upbringing. That's a lot of privilege and, potentially, a lot of unseen boogers on my face when it comes to developing a clinic atmosphere that feels inviting to people without those pieces of the pie in their lives. [Editor's note: For more on the topic of privilege, see "Widening the Door: Privilege and Access," by Lisa Rohleder.]

I'll be the first to admit this might be the most difficult requirement of all, at least for me - removing the mental walls which separate me from people I might unconsciously label as other. But without this piece, how can I call myself an acupuncturist, let alone a community acupuncturist? How can I pretend to objectively cultivate an awareness of patterns if classist oppression is obscuring my vision? And without addressing this, how can we cultivate hope for the future of the world?

According to Bill McKibben, the noted ecologist, "The technology we need most badly is the technology of community - the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done."2 In the many conversations in groups and between individuals, participants at the conference tapped into the powerful energy of the emerging community acupuncture movement. (Log in to the national forum of this movement at:

I shared with the group that what community-supported acupuncture (CSA) is creating on the local and national level, has parallels with what Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) aspires to create on a national and global scale. (See my previous article in Acupuncture Today.3) Community is relative. We all share the same planet, and we need to learn to act more cooperatively if our species is to survive another century. The toast is burning and the frogs are disappearing, literally.4 It is time for the humans to wake up, before it's too late. Acupuncturists in America can play a huge role. For more information on future conferences hosted by Working Class Acupuncture, you can contact them at


  1. Rohleder L. The Remedy: Integrating Acupuncture into American Health Care. Kulia Waiwaiole, 2006.
  3. Van Voast J. "One Thousand Eyes, Hands and Needles." Acupuncture Today, November 2006.
  4. amphibian_populations.

Jordan Van Voast, LAc serves on the board of directors for Acupuncturists Without Borders. He lives in Seattle and is in the process of opening a community acupuncture clinic there.


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