In Depth: Meet Our Practitioners. Melani Eichenbaum, Acupuncturist

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Melani Kwan-Yok Eichenbaum. I am a lover of all things antiquated and elaborate, a relentlessly loving wife, an awe-stricken Tia and a practitioner of Chinese Medicine. 

How did you come to do what you do?

I have a Bachelors of Arts degree in Feminist Studies from UCSC. There was no greater pursuit to me at the time but to study along the minds of women who were speaking from a subversive perspective. Some of my favourite Feminist Theorists include Karen Barad and Donna Harraway, both of whom really had an emphasis on applying a Feminist framework into the arena of science and health. Feminism within the academic world becomes very esoteric and critical. There’s a real inquiry into how context informs value; for example, how does a specific culture define different forms of gender, of class, etc…how does a specific context produce different forms of identity. I was most deeply moved by the questions of how concepts of medicine, health, and science produce specific bodies of identities, and how this informs how we define pathology and how does this informs the idea of healing. 

Secondly, I have always had a very sensitive health constitution. I grew up with all sorts of allergies, digestive issues, some pretty severe gynecological issues, and all the emotional volatility that would mirror the body in that state of constant vigilance and discomfort. 

Feminist Studies gave me a lens to question structure and frameworks and the kind of ideas that would emerge out of those specific containers. Within the container of Allopathic medicine, I was sick, on every level. I was given way too many pharmaceuticals at a very early age and used multiple prescriptions daily up into my early twenties. 

At some point, I just got fed up. I felt like there had to be another framework and language to understand health and the body that didn’t prescribe these static diagnoses and definitions that fixed individuals into pathology for the rest of their lives. 

I encountered Chinese Medicine, in both research as well as treatment, and found that it was a very complete and nuanced system of understanding life, natural rhythms, and health that allowed the individual and the body for more dynamic experience, expression and thus a more dynamic approach to treatment. 

I found a “new”, VERY OLD, VERY ANTIQUATED way to approach my health concerns and found that in this system, I could achieve a state of well-being through the means of proper diet, lifestyle and practices.  I felt very passionate about being able to share my experience with others who had similar concerns or experiences.

Why do you continue to do what you do?

…Because Chinese Medicine is DENSE and so incredibly nuanced!! There are so many methods and schools of thoughts and lineages within the medicine that the more I study it, the more I am humbled by the degree to which this medicine has been developed, studied, and artfully passed down through writing as well as through oral tradition. It is a vast sea AND abyss of information and practices that I know I will not be able to conquer in a lifetime. But that’s part of the excitement for me, it’s like a lover, I can never know, but I want to keep getting to know for the rest of my life because I feel so enlivened in her presence.

Also, well-being is very much a practice. I am still as sensitive today, if not more so, than I was when I was much younger. My context, my environment, my situation is constantly changing and I feel like I have to meet the moment half-way with my own particular needs and considerations for my particular history of health. I’m getting to know myself, constantly, and how I go about taking care of myself is informed by the moment. 

For those who are new to the practice, what is acupuncture?

To simplify the experience, to a very basic level, acupuncture is the insertion of needles into points that lay on meridians, that belong to the specific organs, that correspond to the specific disharmonies as informed by the individuals signs and symptoms. 

The idea is that within these meridians there is an obstruction of energy and it is either accumulating as an excess imbalance or it is cut off and is manifesting as a deficiency imbalance. If we stimulate the right points, with the right intention, we can hopefully re-introduce proper balance and ease in the body. 

That is a horribly simplified explanation of acupuncture as a practice as well as an experience. My clients give the most lush and descriptive explanations of their actual experiences and for everyone it is so completely different. 

What might an initial treatment consist of?

It is mostly an interview. I very thoroughly cover your list of concerns and then delve into your current experiences, lifestyle habits, medical history, etc…to paint a very thoroughly articulated painting of you as an individual, so I can tailor make a treatment plan for you specifically. There will definitely be acupuncture, sometimes cupping, sometimes, moxa, sometimes herbs…for initial encounters, I like to keep it pretty simple. 

What might clients expect over time if they continue with the practice of acupuncture, with you?

Certainly, relief from their health concerns that they initially seek me out to focus on, but I often get a lot of feedback that sometimes some other health concern that was not as pressing that they perhaps didn’t mention also improved as a result of the treatments. More generally, I often have people tell me they feel more calm, relaxed, more vibrant, sometimes more uninhibited with their emotions and more energized. 

What is acupuncture good for? 

I am a primary care provider. Anything you would see your medical doctor for, you can also see me. And while Acupuncture is one large branch in the system of Chinese Medicine, we will also use other branches such as dietary recommendations, herbal formulaes, and lifestyle modifications in order to support your specific case. 

How does acupuncture work?

See Above, “…what is acupuncture?” 

Are you a 'healer'? What does a healer do? What does it mean to heal? What does it mean to be healed?

I’ve always had a very difficult time accepting this title for what I do. I am certainly not doing the healing, the client is. I have been given a very structured lens to help facilitate and translate what a person might be going through, so they can better integrate what they experience in order to achieve a more balanced state of equanimity. 

What does it mean to be “healed”? This is a difficult question. Only because, I don’t think what I’m going to say is what most people want to hear. Yes, some things, go away—some digestive imbalance that might be easily ameliorated by avoiding a certain food and giving the body a chance to recover a state of equilibrium is one form of healing. But there are certain traumas-physical and emotional that will leave the individual forever changed. And especially with severely traumatic emotional experiences, they become these omniscient forces that relentlessly accompany us into every context we find ourselves. I do not believe we can ever “get over” these experiences. Rather, I believe our relationship to these experiences can change and they can even act as tools to inform our present and pave our future. I believe “healing” is to be ability to dynamically relate to our whole selves, especially our darkest traumas and deepest fears. 

As a receiver of acupuncture, does it matter if I know how it works? Is there any particular intentional stance, or practice, I should cultivate while receiving acupuncture?

It doesn’t really matter how familiar a person is with Chinese Medicine or acupuncture before they receive treatment. In fact, sometimes I encounter individuals who have all sorts of preconceived notions as to how the treatment SHOULD play out, either as informed by reading something on the Internet or working with some other practitioner. The experience is then either very jolting or disappointing for them based on whatever expectation they held to the experience before coming in to see me.  Acupuncture will be different for everyone and the effects and effectiveness of the treatments can also greatly vary depending upon your specific dynamic with your practitioner. 

In terms of holding intentionality for the treatment, I think it is actually best to just go with where the experience takes you. Again, often times, it is not what you would expect to encounter and any practice or intention you hold might actually override the moment and cause a state of discomfort. A very simple example I have is a first-time acupuncture client of mine, once told me that they were fighting off trying to sleep the whole time, when in fact if their body needed to direct them towards sleep in that moment, it was probably the direction which was most conducive to their state of being. That’s a very simple example. I get other examples where people are transported to a very specific place in time in their past and they just keep trying to “clear the mind” and again, the treatment becomes this struggle, which is the last thing I really want someone to be experiencing on my table. 

I feel anxiety around the thought of needles being stuck into my body. What is that about? How might I relate to that anxiety?

Acupuncture is not for everyone. If you try it out and the needles just really freak you out, or you find that laying down for an extended period of time really makes you feel uncomfortable, I do not recommend coming back. Again, no one needs to struggle in order to attain well-being. There are a plethora of modalities out there that can help you attain the same goals that you might want to pursue with Chinese Medicine or acupuncture. 

When you stick the needles in, it often hurts, and a feeling of tension or constriction or holding arises around the needle. What is that about? How might I relate to that tension?

So, interestingly enough, that is the sensation we are going for when inserting the needle. This is the concept of “de qi” or “grasping the qi”. Depending upon the person and the specific point, “de qi” can be experienced as achy, tingling, heavy, tense or expansive. This sensation indicates that we have made contact with the qi or vital energy of the point. This is believed to ensure more effective treatments and results. The sensation can be a bit intense, but it should not be intolerable. I check in often with my clients as to how they are relating to the sensations they feel and if something feels way too intense, I often back the needle out the tiniest bit, and that makes the biggest difference in comfort. 

If you can be with the intensity of it, I recommend being with it. During the treatment, you will often times find that the sensations will change drastically and move throughout the body and to different points. As tiny and thin as these needles are, if you hit the right points, some very drastic shifts can happen in the body in a very short amount of time. This is why so many people attribute acupuncture as a reliable source of pain relief. 

I report symptoms or issues or concerns that I take to be located in a specific part of the body. You stick needles in seemingly unrelated places, far removed from the seeming source of the symptom. What are you doing?

So there’s a saying in Chinese Medicine, that if the head hurts, you treat the toe. Often times, sharp, acute pain, is an over accumulation of energy in one location. When you work on the furthest point of the body from your affected area, you draw that excess energy into the rest of the body to recreate a more steady and even flow of energy, which will reduce the accumulation and energy obstruction, which is causing the pain. 

But really, what technique I use will completely depend on that individual’s presentation, pattern of disharmony and how long they have been experiencing their pain. There are so many different causes of physical pain including trauma, repetitive motion, nerve damage, tissue damage, joint inflammation, etc…every single one of these presentations will elicit a different kind diagnosis and thus treatment.  

As a regular receiver of acupuncture, how might I support or integrate your work with daily practice or lifestyle choices? What do you the acupuncturist need from me as a patient?

I usually write out a list of recommendations for each person after their initial appointment. My hope is that they will try some of the recommendations and see if their issues improve. Coming in regularly and often to acupuncture is also key, especially during the first few weeks of treatment in order to really get an idea as to how well the acupuncture or herbs are working. Ideally, the incorporation of my recommendations during the time in between the appointments and taking the herbal formulas regularly, will elicit the best results. 

Do you receive acupuncture yourself? Why?

Yes, I do. I get it regularly in order to be reacquainted with the role of playing receiver of the modality that I practice. I also look up to my acupuncturist, as a practitioner and as an individual, so it is powerful to receive her perspective as well as her care. 

As to the reasons why I go, that’s a bit personal to discuss within an interview. I’m a bit more dynamic with my answer with individuals in session though; if I think it is appropriate to their case. 

What are you trying to embody/cultivate in your own life/ being? Do you have practices, teachers, traditions etc. that support you in this cultivation?

Wild dynamism and grounded consideration. 

I believe that life is a relationship of polarities and everything in between. I believe that we should strongly consider the things that we are drawn towards as an indication of our broadest ability but also place value on the things that limit that expression or direct our focus. 

My main container for this cultivation is my marriage. I was never drawn to the idea of marriage until I met my husband. We became best friends very quickly as we realized we could spend hours together just talking about anything. We shared a lot of common esoteric interests and had similar ways of relating to them. We realized very quickly that we could be our full selves with one another and that the boundary of our relationship could act as an intense, yet very loving container for our inevitable evolution as individuals. 

I used to be a dancer and performer for the last 11 years until I stopped recently, to focus my life more inwardly. I replaced the highly technical, extremely physically demanding practice of Odissi with Mysore Yoga, just in the last few months. Mysore has a very structured container in terms of its sequencing, but within that structure, there is a lot of room for refinement in strength, flexibility and awareness, if you allow it. There’s a level of engagement that is demanded of me which makes me feel like I need to show up fully. It’s challenging, like a long-term relationship. ;) It also really allows me to engage with my edges, the limits of my body and to see those edges change.

How does your own cultivation relate to the work you do as an acupuncturist?

I think any job that requires social interaction and job performance requires some dance of personality and professionalism. I think 50% of the effectiveness of acupuncture lies in the relationship between the client and practitioner. If you as a client, do not feel comfortable with your acupuncturist, your treatments will not be as effective as when you do feel really understood as an individual and receptive and trusting of your practitioner’s care. With that in mind, I know I cannot be everyone’s acupuncturist. But with which the people, I do get along, it becomes a mutually inspiring as well as dynamic space of interaction, where the focus is their process of well-being as a client, and the deepening of my understanding of myself as a practitioner.