Although developed thousands of years ago, maps of the body charted by healers in ancient India and China continue to inspire.
Any therapy involving touch, pressure, heat, needles or magnets on specific bodily points most likely originated in these traditions. Think acupuncture, shiatsu, acupressure, polarity therapy, etc. The point (pardon the pun) is always to encourage proper flow of life energy (also called "qi" or "prana") in the body. If the energy flows well, say practitioners, good health follows.
Science doesn't know how these therapies work, but respects their effectiveness - both the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. have released lists of illnesses treatable by acupuncture. Proponents of the Eastern way say that as we increasingly come to understand our bodyminds as complex bioelectric systems, qi will begin to make sense to Westerners.
If you're new to these practices, how to decide amongst all the offerings out there? Here are some pointers, so to speak.
What the experts say
"I believe it's the practitioner you choose, not so much the therapy. If you're deeply scared of needles, though, don't come for acupuncture. Whatever therapy you choose should be comfortably uncomfortable. We should work at a speed that pushes our envelope a little, but not so much that we revert to our original position. The body's reaction to pain is to get tense, and that's counterproductive. Everyone's relationship to pain is different. If you can't relax and breathe during treatment, you're pushing yourself too far."
KALEB MONTGOMERY , doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, Toronto
"Jin Shin Do uniquely integrates Japanese acupressure technique with Chinese medical theory and Western bodymind focusing techniques. One of the big differences between us and other therapists who work with the Oriental energy systems is that we are trained to work with the psychoemotional healing process. In addition, we focus on the first energetic pathways that get formed at conception. When we help people get back in touch with these deeper parts of themselves, they're able to make new choices based on that deeply centered place."
ALEXANDER TOWNSEND , authorized Jin Shin Do bodymind acupressure teacher and practitioner, Guelph, Burlington and Toronto
"In Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) people tap on points themselves. There's a prescribed sequence. You use those while concentrating on whatever the issue is. There's a website, www.emofree.com, where a manual can be downloaded for free. EFT works very well because it's targeted (through mental focus), but if you've mistargeted you may not see results. For example, to clear a headache, you may need to tap on the emotional issue underlying it. In cases like that, it can be helpful to work with a practitioner."
NINA BREGMAN , Emotional Freedom Technique practitioner, Toronto
"In terms of keeping well, shiatsu and acupressure are excellent. I have some exquisitely sensitive clients. The fear of the needles was causing anxiety and was counterproductive. With acupressure, they're able to relax and get great results. Some people crave a needle in particular places. It's a personal thing. For deep and internal issues, such as problems with body systems, e.g., gynecological or pulmonary problems, acupuncture is more appropriate."
MIRIAM ERLICHMAN , traditional Chinese medicine practitioner
"Polarity therapy captures more of an Ayurvedic understanding, from India. It works with chakras and the various energy currents that link them (rather than the energy channels emphasized in Chinese traditions). For there to be movement, there must be a positive push and a negative pull through a neutral space. We make bipolar contacts (working with two points simultaneously) with our hands or fingers to encourage energy movement. It can be a very deep touch to disperse energy, a second type that stimulates to encourage energy flow, then there's a very light touch which encourages a gentle calm, balancing effect.'
TOM RUSSELL , polarity therapist, director, Ontario Polarity Therapy Association, kundalini yoga instructor, Toronto
"By touching the body (vs using needles), we're working at the emotional level in shiatsu. People with emotional problems are helped by touch. Acupuncture does very well with recent and acute conditions, but shiatsu is better for chronic conditions. Shiatsu is good in those cases where the person isn't feeling right but doesn't know what's wrong. Shiatsu is also good for any problems related to stress or tension."
CARLOS PRANIAUSKAS , shiatsu therapist, director, shiatsu program, Shiatsu School of Canada, Toronto
On a personal note, this will be my final Alt Health contribution. I send my wishes for a richly healthy life to everyone who helped me produce my columns: my readers, the experts and my NOW editors. I'm glad the column will continue in others' capable hands.