Interview with Aaron Banfield

acupuncture interview


Aaron Banfield, is an Acupuncturist and Jin Shin Do Acupressurist
 based in Victoria, BC. In this first section Aaron explains how he became interested in his field, and gives us an introduction to acupressure, acupuncture and Tui Na massage.


NHW: How did you get involved in acupressure / acupuncture?

Aaron: At age 9 I developed what was later diagnosed as Crohn's Disease, a serious inflammatory digestive disorder.  For many years I underwent consistent medication and periodic hospitalization to manage my health.
 At age 19 I met Dr. Michael Smith, an acupuncturist and herbalist.  Within 2 months of starting to see him, I began to experience huge changes in my health and after 8 months I was able to stop using Western medicine.  Around the same time I was working for non-profit environmental organization and was looking for a new direction in my life that still involved making a powerful, positive difference in the world.  Dr. Smith encouraged me to pursue acupuncture as a career and took me under his wing, teaching me his style of medicine as well as martial arts and philosophy.


NHW: What would you say makes your business unique?

Aaron: There is an old saying in China, "the tree of medicine has 1000 blossoms".  Every practitioner has a unique approach based on their educational background, life experience, and schools of Chinese Medicine they're drawn to.  It is part of what makes acupuncture so endlessly interesting, and also so maddeningly difficult to conduct reliable research on.
Dr. Smith was (and still is) an ordained priest of the Huan Yuan Daoist tradition.  His approach is very spiritual, meaning in this case a lot of discussion about the patient's relationship with themselves and their experience of life.  I have adopted much of this approach, and also use a lot of the counselling techniques from Jin Shin Do Bodymind Acupressure, which was created by a western psychotherapist.
Additionally, I employ a lot of hands-on techniques such as acupressure and Tui Na massage in order to activate points without needles and to iron out knots in muscles.  I have found that this synergistic blend of acupuncture, bodywork, and counselling is very effective.


NHW: Most people know that acupuncture involves being stuck with needles.  What does acupuncture involve exactly?  Does it hurt?

Aaron: Great question.  There are so many different ideas out there about what acupuncture entails, and a lot of things can lead to misconceptions.  TV shows like to exaggerate the number of needles for visual effect; you'll never see a real acupuncturist leaving someone looking like a pincushion.  In fact, one of my teachers said, "if you use more than 8 needles, you don't know what you're doing".  Many people's only experience with needles come from blood work or vaccinations.  Acupuncture needles are 1/8 the diameter of a standard blood donation needle and create much less sensation.  Some may have had a physiotherapist use Intra-Muscular Stimulation (IMS), which can be incredibly painful- like people scream and cry- and it is sometimes labeled as "acupuncture".  I wish this didn't happen, because I've met people who won't try classical Chinese acupuncture due to IMS experience.

Does acupuncture hurt?  I am asked this all the time, and the best answer I have is, "yeah, a little."  I would compare it to a mosquito bite that lasts for about a second and a half.  Some acupuncturists manipulate the needle until the deeper nerves activate.  This sensation is like a sudden dull ache- not painful per se, but sort of odd and occasionally uncomfortable.

For many people, the idea of the needle is what holds them back more than the physical sensation itself.  Even the word, "needle", is kind of unpleasant and harsh.  I wish there were a different word for those pokey metal things I use.


NHW: You also use acupressure and Tui Na massage.  How do these differ from one another and how do they work together for someone’s healing? 

Aaron: Acupressure is a way to activate acupoints by hand rather than through using needles.  It is static, meaning the practitioner doesn't move their hand around once they've contacted the point.  Tui Na means, sort of, "pushing and pulling".  It does not work with acupoints but rather is concerned with moving blockages or releasing tension in tissue itself.  Tui Na is dynamic, involving skillful and sometimes quite precise movement along the muscles and tendons.  It can be looked at as the Chinese style of Deep Tissue Massage.

The two work together very well.  Sometimes an acupoint is having trouble releasing because there is so much tension around it.  In this case, using Tui Na to soften the tension can greatly facilitate release.  In the other direction, muscle tension can sometimes be stubborn or recurring because a very specific acupoint (sometimes not even at the site of the tension) is blocked.  In this case, activating the acupoint can allow a long-standing pattern to finally resolve.  There are also certain points that promote overall relaxation in the body or a in specific area such as the shoulders or the hips.  Activating these points makes Tui Na more effective with less effort.

I often flow back and forth from acupressure to Tui Na, using one to facilitate the effectiveness of the other.  This is an advantage of acupressure; with needles in the practitioner's freedom to use massage is constrained.  The disadvantage of acupressure, of course, is that a limited number of points can be activate at once.


NHW: How do those two compliment Acupuncture? Are there specific problems that acupuncture helps more then acupressure or massage?

Aaron: Fundamentally, Chinese medicine is about restoring balance and enhancing vitality.  It is an approach to healing more than any particular technique, though nowadays acupuncture is intimately associated with the term "Chinese Medicine" in people's minds.

In the 1200's, a physician named Sun Si Miao put forward a theory called "The 8 Limbs of Medicine", outlining everything a doctor should be able to work with to assist their patients.  Acupuncture was one of these, acupressure and Tui Na another.  Acupuncture, as I said previously, stimulates certain processes in the body.  It is almost never a bad idea to use acupuncture (the exceptions are very weak people for whom the needling is a shock to the system, and those are are traumatically needle-phobic).  Acupressure compliments it by allowing for a greater number of points to be activated without needing to use a large number of needles.  Also, if needles have been placed on someone's front then the practitioner can reach under the patient to use acupressure on points on their back.

Tui Na assists acupuncture in that it allows its effects to manifest more quickly, and can be used to identify blocked points.  I will explain.  Often, people come to see me with a sore back.  I will first massage their back with Tui Na to start it releasing, and also to locate where the focal points of tension are.  Then I will place needles in their hands, feet, and legs because there are special acupoints there that promote circulation and relaxation in the back.  Then I will place needles directly in the tense spots I identified with Tui Na.  After some time (15-20 minutes), I will remove the needles and massage the area again.

To answer the second part of the question, Acupuncture is specifically good for complex patterns that require a sophisticated, synergistic combination of things to happen simultaneously.  This cannot be accomplished with acupressure alone, because not enough points an be activated at once.


NHW: How is the standard form of Acupuncture different from your style?  Is there any benefits in the standard model?

Aaron: There’s an old saying in China, “The Tree of Medicine has 10,000 branches”, meaning that there are myriad styles of acupuncture and all of them are valid. 

The standard form of Acupuncture is called “TCM Acupuncture”, and it was developed in the 1970’s under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party within the context of the Cultural Revolution.  It is what we learn in Chinese Medicine College, and it is what the licensing exam is based on.

TCM is materialistic (as in, it doesn’t pay much attention to energy or spirit), pathology-focused, and very systematic.  Beautifully and brilliantly systematic.  If you learn it properly, you can reliably come up with a treatment in every situation.  It was designed such that it could be taught to a great number of people in a short period of time, and those people did not need any particular qualities other than reasonable intelligence.

Treatment wise, TCM is similar to conventional Western Medicine in that it goes Symptom->Diagnosis->Prescription.  Very logical.  TCM views patients as collections of signs and symptoms, not as unique individuals with life stories and worldviews.  Again, it is very communist.  It’s about restoring function so people can get back and be productive members of the proletariat.  And it’s often quite effective for that. 

If students do not pursue further education in other styles of acupuncture, or come to Chinese Medicine from a background of experiencing other styles, then that’s automatically what they will practice.  Therefore, many acupuncturists have TCM as their style.

I think you can infer from the content of many of my earlier answers the ways that my approach differs from the standard.  Frankly, if I were practicing in China during the Cultural Revolution, I probably would have had to flee the country.  Many doctors from the spiritual traditions did, my teacher’s teacher among them.  You may also be aware of the “Five Element” school of acupuncture; it was likewise created by exiled doctors.


NHW: How do you see the future of Acupuncture and Eastern Medicine in the Western World?

Aaron: Well, this is certainly an interesting question to ponder.  There is no doubt in my mind that the future will bring a greater acceptance of Eastern Medicine- all trends point that way.  In April of 2010 the Provincial Government started offering minor coverage for acupuncture for people on Medical Premium Assistance, and my clients keep getting more money in their insurance plans for acupuncture.  I see two scenarios as likely:

1.    We will be recognized as a fundamentally distinct yet equally valid approach to healing and will be supported by the Public Healthcare System but left to practice in our own unique ways.

2.    Chinese Medicine will become increasingly standardized and materialistic (see TCM above) and we will be assimilated into the healthcare system, vastly increasing our presence and influence but losing our autonomy and compromising much of the creativity and spirit that makes this medicine what it is.

I, unsurprisingly, hope for the former.  It all depends on how our society evolves, which is a huge question mark.  Are we become more programmed and regimented, or are we becoming more creative and open?  There is ample evidence for both, in my view.  Only the future will tell.  In any event, my commitment is to providing my clients with the most effective treatment and support that I am able to provide, and to carrying on the lineages of my teachers, regardless of the external situation.  When I was born, Chinese Medicine was illegal in Canada.  Now it is flourishing, and people from all walks of life are discovering its benefits.  This is reflective of a profound shift in public consciousness.  I look forward to the future very much because regardless of which way it goes, an enhanced role for this beautiful medicine is certain.


If you're interested in learning more, or would like to get in touch with Aaron his details are:

Aaron Banfield, R.Ac.
Registered Acupuncturist
Past President, B.C. Acupressure Therapists' Association
(250) 589-2684

aaron banfield interview on acupuncture and acupressure