A group of people hanging out in a room together with needles in their arms looking all blissed out isn't usually a healthy scene, but "acupunks" like Paul Kohlmeier are working to change that.
The Winnipegger is among a small but growing number of community acupuncturists on a mission to make the ancient Chinese healing art available and accessible to as many people as possible.
"Our goal is to eventually treat a person every six minutes," says Kohlmeier, 40, who opened Straight to the Point at 83 Sherbrook St. in early January.
With its apple green walls and orange and green slip-covered recliners -- and reclining clients with their pant legs rolled up -- the place looks more nail salon than treatment clinic. Except, perhaps, for the five-deep shelves of plastic containers filled with leaves, bark, dried earthworms, cicada shells and other ingredients used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Kohlmeier, a massage therapist for 17 years, retrained as an acupuncturist and TCM herbalist after some old hand injuries began to flare up and give him trouble.
The former co-owner of Symmetry Massage was searching for a business model compatible with his values when he came across the People's Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA), a multi-stakeholder co-operative based out of Portland, Ore. Its logo is a red, power-to-the-people fist. POCA created the Community Acupuncture Network (CAN), which lists more than 300 community clinics across the United States and Canada.
"Every newsletter begins 'Dear comrades.' They're way over the top, but I liked how they organized their clinics," says Kohlmeier, who's wearing blue jeans, running shoes and a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Acupunks get straight to the point!"
Acupuncture is the millennia-old practice of inserting fine needles at specific points on the body to achieve a therapeutic effect. These "acupoints" are found along meridians or channels that are believed to be the pathways by which energy or qi (pronounced "chee") flows through the body. Illness and disease are said to be caused by imbalances or blocks to this invisible life force.
Acupuncture is one of the oldest healing practices in the world. And although it has been a people's medicine in Asia for thousands of years, it has only started moving into the Western mainstream in the past few decades.
So while people are increasingly turning to it for help with conditions such as infertility, menopause, depression and chronic pain, and Western doctors have started warming up to it -- the World Health Organization (WHO) has tentatively endorsed its use for certain conditions -- acupuncture remains a largely out-of-pocket form of health care.
And it's not unusual for an acupuncturist in a big city to charge $65 to $175 per hour-long session (Winnipeg's going rate seems to be around $45), on top of an initial assessment fee, putting it out of reach for many people. Plus, acupuncture is a therapy and it needs to be frequent to be effective.
"We often tell our clients they need to come one to two times a week for problems that aren't dramatic," Kohlmeier, who trained in Winnipeg under a veteran TCM doctor, says.
Community acupuncture's key to affordability is volume and simplicity. Although most clinics offer treatments on a $15 to $35 sliding scale, Straight to the Point charges a flat rate of $35 for initial assessment and treatment and $25 per subsequent session.
Community acupuncturists focus on "distal" points (below the knee, elbow, head and neck), so the patient can remain fully clothed during the treatment, except maybe for socks.
Despite the group setting, however, there is neither stitching nor bitching -- or talking, period, ideally -- in this needlework circle. This is how acupuncture is traditionally practised in Asia, Kohlmeier says: a room full of patients sitting or lying in stillness. It is believed that treating several people simultaneously creates a collective energy field -- "community qi" -- that enhances the effectiveness of each individual treatment. At the very least it promotes relaxation.
"People fall asleep in here all the time," says Kohlmeier, adding that patients can stay in their recliners as long as they want.
Yumi Falk didn't grab a nap on a recent visit, but she did get several chapters of her novel read while the needles worked their qi-boosting magic via her left leg and right arm.
"I think it's great," says Falk, who comes to the clinic twice a week for her sore shoulder. "It's an opportunity for more people to access the treatment, and this makes it very affordable."
For more information, go to www.sttpca.com.
Treatment should make you prick up your ears
SUPERMODEL Kate Moss is said to have used it to battle cocaine addiction, and former British first lady Cherie Blair reportedly turned to it to relieve stress.
And now some Manitobans are now lending an ear to the age-old therapy of auricular acupuncture.
The outer ear acts like "a switchboard to the brain," according to the Society of Auricular Acupuncturists, and contains more than 200 acupuncture points, which relate to organs and other parts of our anatomy. Stimulating these points with acupuncture needles sends healing electrical impulses via the brain to the part of the body being treated.
"It works more on the brain level than regular acupuncture, and so can have a quicker influence on the body's energies," says Winnipeg practitioner Carson Hill, who offers group-based auricular acupuncture at Hollow Reed Holistic Centre every Wednesday from 7 to 8:15 p.m. Cost is on a sliding scale of $10 to $20 per treatment.
While based on the Traditional Chinese Medicine form of acupuncture, ear acupuncture has its roots in modern Europe. In 1957, French neurologist Dr. Paul Nogier observed a locum doctor treating sciatica by cauterizing an area of the ear.
Hill, who trained in Ontario, does something called the NADA AcuDetox protocol. (NADA -- Spanish for "nothing" -- is also the acronym for the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association.)
In the mid-1970s, a medical doctor in the South Bronx area of New York modified an existing system of auricular acupuncture into a simple technique that could be used in the treatment of common drug addictions, as an alternative to methadone.
During a session, which lasts between 30 and 45 minutes, five needles are inserted into specific points on each outer ear as the client sits in a quiet, comfortable room. The NADA protocol is delivered in a group setting, especially in the treatment of addictions, to build support among those being treated and to break down isolation.
"This is a nice therapy because people can go into that quiet place and not have to divulge their stories," says Hill, who also offers ear acupuncture at Resource Assistance for Youth (RaY), a street-level agency offering assistance to at-risk and homeless young adults up to age 29.
Addictions Foundation of Manitoba began offering auricular acupuncture to clients as a complementary and optional treatment in 2010 as part of a pilot project in the women's program.
Feedback was positive to the point that AFM began offering the treatment in other programs, and has since trained more than a dozen practitioners, said CEO Yvonne Block.
"The evaluation showed it's hard to measure this kind of thing, but what we understand from clients, and what staff also noticed, is that clients have fewer cravings, and they're more grounded and open to programming," Block said. "And it does seem to have some impact on anxiety and depression."