Acupuncture as a Conversation With the Body: An Interview With Joanna Present Wolfe, LAc  

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Interview by Sarah Clark, LAc 

Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Joanna Present Wolfe, LAc, at Kwan-Yin Healing Arts Center. She told me about the joy she takes in the creative process of being a healer, about the way she perceives and moves blocks in the meridians, and about the fulfillment she finds in working with addictions, with cancer patients, and with families. Here is what she had to say.


Sarah: Tell me about your patients.


Joanna: I see a lot of different kinds of patients. I would say that what they all have in common is that they’re all dealing with some kind of pain. It’s very rewarding for me to be able to help people move through that pain, whether it’s manifesting as something physical–like back pain, or shoulder pain, or neck pain–pain from a car accident or from sitting at a desk too long–or whether it’s manifesting as something emotional, like depression or anxiety. Also, a lot of my patients have internal issues, problems with digestion or menstruation, for example. So, people can have blocks in all these different ways, and my role is to help create movement in all those places where things aren’t moving. Beyond the acupuncture, I use Chinese herbs, nutritional supplements, and dietary counseling to make the shifts we want to see.


Sarah: Tell me about your approach.


Joanna: The first thing is listening and hearing the patient’s entire story. I always want to work with whatever symptoms are presenting. So, if someone’s coming in with back pain and also has anxiety, we’ll work on whichever symptom is most pressing for them. I would say that different types of pain affect different layers of their systems. So, I try and work with both the things that are on the surface and obviously bothering the person, along with the deeper core issues. When we work with those core issues, then oftentimes people will experience deeper change in their lives, which manifests as freedom from symptoms for the long term.


Sarah: Can you work with the deeper issues even if someone’s not in touch with them?


Joanna: Yes. But I think the more a person is consciously working on living an intentional life, taking things like body pain or emotional setbacks as learning lessons on a larger path toward personal evolution, the more quickly they’ll make progress in that direction. I have some people where we’re just working on musculoskeletal pain, and sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes that’s all that person really needs to work on. So, I try and meet the person where they are, and challenge them, and work on their growth at the level where they’re ready to work.

It can be a bit tricky. Sometimes people come in for smoking cessation or are working on addictions–and I love working with those patients. I’ve had a lot of success helping people come off their medications–working in conjunction with their medical doctor–or coming off of antidepressants, for example, or pain medications. It’s really exciting to see people slowly come back to being themselves and remembering what it’s like to inhabit their own body and their own mind and have it be safe and comfortable in a way that it wasn’t before they were on the medications. That’s one of my favorite types of patients to work with.

But there are also other types of addictive pictures, like when people are coming in and they want to quit smoking and they say, “Oh, I heard that acupuncture’s good for smoking cessation.” And, yes, acupuncture’s good for helping to re-educate the body, to change both mental and chemical patterns. But to really quit an addictive pattern like smoking there are these questions of “What need is that addiction meeting for you? When you’re smoking, on what level is it nourishing you? On what level is it feeding something in you? And in what other ways in your life could you meet those needs instead of smoking?” A lot of people come in ready to do that work of self evaluation–ready to live a bigger, fuller life. Sometimes people just want me to do it for them. And those patients don’t get the same results.


Sarah: But what work do the needles do in either scenario? Whether someone’s willing to really engage in a process or not, what work are the needles doing?


Joanna: Well I see the needles as a communication system, and I often tell my patients this. Often they’re afraid of needles, or they’re worried that the procedure itself is going to be painful. You know, the needles themselves are about the size of a hair. They’re very tiny. And I really feel like they’re a language for speaking with the body. Just like we use words to send a message to the brain, when I needle a certain point, or a certain combination of points, it’s a way of having an active conversation with the body. I often choose points based on how a patient responds, how their somato-sensory consciousness responds. Some people seem to understand right away, and their body responds really quickly. For others it’s like acquiring a foreign language. But everyone gets it. And it’s exciting to see people start to feel different because their body is having this conversation with the needles.


Sarah: You’re a writer. For you, healing is a creative process. There’s an artistry in it for you.


Joanna: Absolutely.


Sarah: Can you say more about that?


Joanna: Sure. Well, I think it’s interesting that we talk about the practices that we do as healing arts. We work here at Kwan Yin Healing Arts. Yet, a lot of the language we use around what we do is more scientific, medical-doctor-type language. It’s all relevant. People take different approaches to healing. When I work with people, there’s an element of composition. There’s an element of design. There’s an element of tuning in to what the patient is presenting with as a creative problem and trying to figure out how to bring harmony to their system based on what their unique needs are.

I work with multiple styles of acupuncture to meet people, meet the body, meet the system in different ways at different times. I need to mirror each person is different ways. One person might need to be soothed by an impressionist painting, and someone else might really need to be stimulated with cubism or something.


Sarah: So you, yourself, are a kind of medium through which your patients receive themselves.


Joanna: That’s the idea, yes. I try to be a mirror. My practice before I go into the treatment room is to empty myself out and to try to hold the clearest space possible to reflect back to the patient their best self and their highest potential. It’s the same thing when I’m listening to the body, hearing that still center in the midst of the noise. Talking to the body about how to get back to that balance that I believe we all innately have. But life circumstances and stressors can throw us off and make it so that we can’t hear ourselves clearly or see ourselves clearly. So, sometimes having a mirror is helpful.


Sarah: We all so deeply need that kind of mirroring.


Joanna: I certainly think so. When I can receive that from someone, it always helps me!


Sarah: When you’re going in to treat someone, and you become aware that there’s a deeper trauma that needs to be mirrored, how do you work with that?


Joanna: Well, I feel like people show me what they need to work on. I don’t feel like I get it by accident. When people are ready to do deep work, then that’s what I see, and sometimes people want to keep things really straightforward, and the body just says, “Here’s my knee pain.” It’s like a closed door, like, for now we need to stay in the foyer, and maybe later we’ll go deeper into the house.


Sarah: Can you say more about the idea of seeing, and how you see?


Joanna: Well I do actually see a lot of imagery in people. I see colors. I can see the qi going down the channels. I can tell if there are blockages in different places through the needles and through the pulse. So it’s kind of like I’m in a forest, and I can see if there’s a shadow in the pathway, or a rock or a tree. Most of the time I’m trying to move the blockage that’s there. The tool I would use to move a rock would be different than the tool I would use to move a shadow. But I feel like most of what I’m doing is clearing. Most of the time it’s clearing out shadows and cobwebs from people’s systems. Sometimes that’s something more physical, like an obvious inflammatory condition, or sometimes it’s much more spiritual, like, “Wow, this is my deepest soul conflict.” Or, “This is something that happened in the past that really changed me.”

It’s not like I’m seeing scenes with people, their specific memories. It’s more like going through landscapes. Sometimes I see and feel that they patients have grief in their hearts. Or I can see and feel that there’s a lot of fear that’s being held in a certain place. So, I guess there’s an element of feeling different emotional states that people may not even be aware of themselves–especially around emotions that block them from being present in the here and now. It’s not like they’re walking around thinking to themselves all the time, “Oh I’ve got grief blocking my heart”. But instead, they just feel disenchanted with things in ways that they can’t explain. Or they feel disconnected in ways that they’d like to shift, but they don’t really know why. And we don’t necessarily have to explain why. We don’t have to tell a story to move the energy. It’s much more like I said. There’s a shadow or a stone. It’s getting in your way. Let’s move it out.

People make sense of that in their own ways. Only the person can name the story. I don’t feel like that’s my role. I might just let them know, “I notice there’s some grief here.” And people can reflect on what that’s about, and when people can see it and name it for themselves, it tends to move them forward in their lives in this really accelerated way, which is exciting to see.


Sarah: So what you’re expressing may give people permission to come in just because they know that they’re not living from their highest selves. Somehow there’s something blocking them. And that’s a beautiful reason to come in and receive.


Joanna: Absolutely. You don’t have to be struggling with clinical depression to feel blocked in your life. I see a lot of progress with people who are going through life transitions, for example. I feel like I’ve been able to really give some beautiful support to people who are dealing with the death of a loved one, who are going through a divorce, who are quitting a job, starting a new career, having children, not having children. You know, all of those changes in our lives are these crossroads for us where we have a chance to really grow. And the acupuncture can help people receive clarity about what that next step is going to look like for them.


Sarah: Tell me about your work with cancer patients.


Joanna: I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to work with cancer patients. Acupuncture is really helpful for the physical symptoms like neuropathy and dealing with the toxins from chemo. There are all sorts of side effects from that, headaches, sleep issues. I really enjoy being able to support people in that physical way as they’re going through this process. But I also think that cancer is this incredible spiritual opportunity for people. Cancer patients are confronting their mortality, so there’s this component of shedding fear, and embracing life in a really raw and courageous way that is amazing to me. My cancer patients have been some of my most inspiring patients. Because I think when you’re in that place, you have no choice but to become conscious and to shed the extraneous. I would love to see more cancer patients. It’s hard to go through that journey, but I think people who come out on the other side of it are in a place of accelerated evolution. They’re some of the brightest people I’ve seen.


Sarah: Tell me about your work with mothers and teens.


Joanna: I love working with teenagers and getting to be a safe place for them to share and explore how they are changing. It is so gratifying to help them get some relief from those hormonal moods! Another group I love working with is mothers at any stage of the process. I love working with pregnant women and supporting the relationship that is being formed between the mom and baby. Getting to witness that is such an honor, really. I enjoy  supporting moms in dealing with the physical symptoms of pregnancy, and in getting their energy back postpartum. Actually, I am happy to work with all moms, even the ones whose children are grown up. Moms never stop giving. I have two daughters of my own, and I just feel like it is so important for moms to be supported so they have the energy to keep giving. In the end, that’s the whole point, right? Whether we are moms or not, we all need to find the energy to keep giving in whatever way we do in life. I think really that is the ultimate goal of my work, to help people find the energy they need to bring to their lives and to the world.

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