Students Get Dose of Eastern Wellness Practices

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Students Get Dose of Eastern Wellness Practices

Attendees honed in on their Tai Chi skills last Friday during the demonstration at the Knoll.

Attendees honed in on their Tai Chi skills last Friday during the demonstration at the Knoll.


Attendees honed in on their Tai Chi skills last Friday during the demonstration at the Knoll.



Attendees honed in on their Tai Chi skills last Friday during the demonstration at the Knoll.


MIDDLEBURY — You can generally expect a distinguished professor from a neighboring university to headline the Environmental Studies Department’s Woodin Colloquium Series, a weekly forum for conservation research and discussion. Chris Kiely, last Thursday’s guest, doesn’t fit that description: he’s a licensed acupuncturist and founder of a Tai Chi school now based in northwest Connecticut.

His recent visit, which included a Tai Chi demonstration at the Knoll’s spring opening last Friday, represents the College’s small but growing recognition of Traditional Chinese practices of wellness (also called Eastern medicine in this article) in academic and student life.

Traditional Chinese Medicine includes practices of acupuncture, martial arts (Tai Chi among them), herbal and dietary therapy, among others. This article focuses on Tai Chi and acupuncture as Eastern practices that are making their way onto the fringes of campus.

During his Colloquium, Kiely asked his audience in the Franklin Environmental Center’s Orchard to reimagine wilderness as being within the self. He presented English definitions of wilderness and nature, highlighting the abstraction and disconnection that the words have undergone, forbidding us from linking our humanity and that which is wild in us and all around us.

His message reflected themes of Daoist thought: if the individual can achieve balance with their nature (wilderness) through cultivation and practice, the natural world will benefit equally, given that the individual and the “environment” cannot be separated. Achieving this unity at the level of humans, communities and societies is key to correcting the obvious environmental imbalances in our world today.

That’s a very different proposal for environmental solutions than past and future Colloquium talks about plastics pollution in the sea or urban redevelopment. It’s logic that’s easy for students and faculty alike to push aside, but Kiely wants to see subjective thinking be more welcomed. “Chinese medicine, for example, has just as good a track record of cure—but as far as most doctors are concerned, it’s just another sort of hypothetical, alternative medicine based on nothing . . . Even though it has 3,000 years of experience and research and development,” Kiely told this reporter after his lecture. “But a lot of that science is based on subjective findings: what you feel inside yourself.”

For years, Kiely taught a devoted group in a Mill Street studio in downtown Middlebury and in Bristol. Since moving to Litchfield County, CT, he continues to teach constantly and also provides acupuncture. He feels that our emotions get unfair treatment when they enter scientific conversation. “As a culture [we are] insanely subjective in a way—we love our opinions and thoughts. Yet at the same time we don’t give it any real power.”

Kiely’s life has been profoundly influenced by Qigong (chee-gong, “energy work”), attending his first Tai Chi class when he was in high school. “It interrupted, it gave me another path, another option,” he said. He slowly learned where that path led to a community of practitioners, and he had found his place. “It’s their life’s work, they’re happy, and they’re my neighbors.”

The life-altering possibilities at hand with Tai Chi are only available to those with intense commitment to both a practice and paradigm. “You can’t be looking outside yourself while you’re doing the movement,” so it requires effort to learn the physical sequences of slow arm movements, weight shifting and choreographed steps called “forms” that make up the practice.

The physical practice is one thing: “It’s that commitment to an ideology, a paradigm or philosophy of cure, that’s difficult.” That said, it doesn’t need to be your life’s work to be beneficial. “Most generally, people come to Tai Chi for healing or just relaxation in general. A little bit of tranquility.”

Rachel Edwards, a Provider of Acupuncture at Mountain Health Center in Bristol, stewards the slow integration of Chinese Traditional Medicine into the local system, and has specialized training in treating patients in addiction recovery. “[Acupuncture] has been around for so long, and there’s been enough studies done, and it’s so effective, that doctors are [referring patients to acupuncturists] all the time now.”

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese practice of healing that, Edwards says, “uses needles to tap in to the body’s own natural mechanism for balance.”

Integrating Eastern practices with standard Western medicine means more than using different treatments; it embraces a new philosophy of care. “It’s a shift away from, ‘Give me the drug and I’m good to go,’ to ‘How can this medical center support you in your own self care?’” she explains. It’s all part of “empowering people to be their own agent for change.”

Edwards laments the absence of these values from Western medicine today, which is, according to her, “vacuous of mind-body connection.” Acupuncture is preventative at its best, and you don’t need a specific problem to take advantage of the care. The practitioner’s focus is bringing balance to imbalance wherever they may find it.

“I often liken a practitioner to a detective. So I’m looking for clues that will help me determine how I’m going to work with you. It’s looking at all of your system . . . your whole life really.” This imbalance may be physical or emotional; to the provider, it’s all connected anyway.

“There’s nothing that’s untouched by acupuncture, because everything’s connected. So for example, if you come in because you have headaches, the needles aren’t necessarily going to go into your head—you’re using points that will enhance the flow of a balanced energy to the head. If you’re having gynecological problems, digestive issues, different pain in the body—you’re addressing the pattern of imbalance to bring the body back to homeostasis.”

How do they do it? Oh, right, the needles. “The needles are tapping in to specific points along meridian channels that is a network of the whole body’s energy, of movement, of blood, fluids, nourishing, every cell in the body.” They are small, and you can feel them, but pain is not the right word to use. “There is sensation with the needles, and that’s good because you want to feel an experience of your body in a different way.”

The numerous college students suffering from very common mental health problems may find some relief with acupuncture. “Acupuncture is extremely effective for mood disorder. It depends on the nature of the depression/anxiety, if it’s long term, short term, episodic, we’ll vary the treatment, but it’s very effective.” It’s possible that regular treatment can help patients cut back on prescriptions with high costs, undesirable side effects, and other drawbacks.

Edwards is able to accept a good amount of health insurance plans and charges a discounted student rate at the Illuminate space in MarbleWorks on Tuesday afternoons, 3-6pm. Under the Daoist teaching of interconnectedness, the patient-provider relationship becomes one. “Keeping you healthy is keeping me healthy, and that is just how it is, it’s a principle of nature.”

The treatment takes about 45 minutes and, unlike Tai Chi, which requires immense focus, “you don’t have to ‘do’ anything.” Patients lie down with the needles in them for 20 or so minutes. Edwards explains that  “it’s a time to rest, and tap in to your body’s own capacity for healing, and own desire for balance.”

The College has made small efforts to integrate Traditional Chinese practices into its offerings for students as part of general wellness and health services. Graduate Counseling Intern Brian Tobin offers Thursday night Relaxation and Meditation sessions in the Mitchell Green Lounge. Sue Driscoll, a Falling Waters instructor with Chris Kiely, offers an open Tai Chi hour on Fridays at noon.

According to practitioners in the College community’s periphery, there is earth-shattering potential for Traditional Chinese Medicine to alter one’s perception of reality. “You realize that you’re becoming closer to some authentic self that is beyond the world, actually,” Edwards describes. “You are transcending the world, the mundane, in order to experience a more cosmic connection.” Both hail the philosophy of a self-guided path to health.

Chris Kiely says to just try. “The description of it never really does it justice,” he says of Qigong. No matter your level, however, “you’re getting centered, you’re learning about yourself, you’re healing.”

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