Interview by Sarah Clark, LAc
Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Classical Five Element acupuncturist Kimberly Klingele at Kwan Yin Healing Arts. She told me about how her own healing journey led her to become an acupuncturist, how she uses Five Element acupuncture to restore balance and health within her patients, and how to live in harmony with Spring. Here is what she had to say.
Sarah: What led you to become an acupuncturist?
Kim: Well, about four years before my first acupuncture treatment, I had returned from living in Europe for a few years, and just a month later became very ill and was rushed to the ER. To make a long story short, my homeostasis was almost gone, and they told me later that I had almost died. I was only 27. It happened very quickly and I remember being surrounded by white coats in some sort of heated room; I was hypothermic. The next thing I remember was waking up the following day still in the ER. They diagnosed Addison’s disease, which is a relatively rare autoimmune disease of the adrenal glands, fortunately very treatable. One way of describing it in our medicine is kidney yang collapse. After this, I tried to live more healthfully because the doctors told me I had to avoid stress at all costs. My efforts didn’t last long and I was back to running wild only a few months later. But about three years after that I finally made a complete turn around in my life and began a body-mind-spirit healing journey that continues today.
Around this time I returned to school full-time to do an MA in French. I was also teaching classes at the university, and working at a restaurant three nights a week. I always lived at this velocity in one way or another. My life and health became unbalanced in new ways, because I had unconsciously replaced running wild with overwork and perfectionism. Needless to say I developed excruciating back pain, and a friend gave me David Berkshire’s card. When I called to make an appointment, I made it clear that I was not going to stop drinking coffee! Can you believe that? People who know me will laugh: completely quitting coffee is still like the last frontier. I had so much healing in only a few treatments though. It blew my mind. I was also deeply immersed in a yoga practice at the time, and I think that despite the overwork and back pain, my energy body was really open to receiving. I began having the most beautiful and poignant dreams about the points and the elements. It was as though the spirit of the medicine was communicating with me in a different realm, and I fell in love with it. My back pain improved, but healing around everything else began happening too, and I started to understand the holistic connections in my health.
I finished my MA and taught French for 6 more years after that but continued to feel a strong connection to five-element. I finally took the terrifying plunge of leaving my career in education and going back to school to study this medicine. This was such a difficult transition. You love the spirit of the medicine so much, but in the academics, the spirit of it gets buried, and then you get lost. You’re in the dark, disillusioned, and you can no longer remember why you turned your life upside down for all of this. It took some time to reconnect to the spirit of the medicine in my heart again.
Sarah: As a Classical Five Element Practitioner, how do you view illness?
Kim: Put simply, we view and treat illness holistically. When illness, trauma or emotional stress begin to impact us on the levels of body, mind, emotions or spirit, it weakens us and creates a block or deficiency of qi (and blood), or a partial or complete disconnect from the Shen (spirit). Health is created when qi and blood are flowing freely and smoothly with strength and vitality through our bodies. This also allows a strong rooting of the spirit.
Illness and disease are created by not living in alignment with the heart’s deepest desire, its mandate, the rhythms of nature, the Dao, as we say. But that’s an end statement. There’s a lack of awareness or knowledge generally that leads up to illness. There is often emotional wounding or trauma underneath that we’re trying to avoid or cope with. Healing in my opinion is a process of unlearning and relearning. We need to develop a new and different relationship to self, others and life. It’s an ongoing journey with many layers. For me, Addison’s continues to be one of my biggest teachers in life. When we’ve lived in ways that haven’t been loving or truthful to ourselves, I think a process of self-forgiveness and acceptance is important in healing as well.
Sarah: How do you help your patients come into their fullest potential in your healing practice?
Kim: In Classical Five Element Acupuncture (CFEA), we are taught to hold our patients as being whole and complete in body, mind and spirit as they walk their path to healing and reaching this within themselves. Our founder, Professor J.R. Worsley, taught this as a foundation in our medicine. I enlist them in their own process too and try to help them see that the ways in which they live are connected to their health and emotions. As practitioners we can’t take for granted how much guidance some people need in learning even the basic tenets of emotional and physical health, such as drinking enough water or having enough fun!
Also, I try not to focus on pathology. People aren’t their illnesses–but they are usually quite identified with them when they begin treatment. So I try to continue to focus on their virtues, what they are doing right, and their potential growth, while supporting them and treating the imbalances. I give homework in alignment with the treatment, so they can facilitate their own healing and growth in their lives and learn awareness. People need to be committed to their own healing process, but we also might have to help them get to this point of commitment.
Sarah: Can you say more about how the elements inform the way you work with patients?
Kim: We forget that we’re all a part of nature. And, as such, we have the energetic movements within us of all of the elements. This is such a big question, but working with the expression of the elements and spirit is exactly what we are doing. The primary diagnostic training in five-element is sensory observation and pulse. This means being able to assess color, sound, odor, and emotion (CSOE) on the level of the energetic movement reflected within the person. We work endlessly on developing those skills, and that development never ends. Once we diagnose the element that is at the root of the imbalance in that individual, we treat that core element to bring everything else back into balance.
Spending time in nature is important for me. Observing and understanding the interactions of the elements helps to understand and embody this medicine. A simple example: how do we control a wildfire? We can do this with water, or by setting a backfire. It’s the same in this medicine. I might use the water in fire points, or fire in fire points to calm an anxious or panicked fire type person. I am always looking for what we call the Spirit of the Points when in nature too. When I’m blocked in the treatment room, I might ask my patient a clarifying question using nature in it. It can give insight into what elements or qualities need to be engendered or nurtured and whether they need their yin or yang nourished on that day. Those are a few examples of how I work with the elements.
Sarah: Can you talk a little bit about rapport in Five Element acupuncture?
Kim: Rapport is really at the center CFEA, along with sensory development and the foundations of the system. If rapport isn’t at the center of what’s going on in the treatment room, the healing process will be limited. It’s that simple. We learn different ways of working with each of the elemental energies. An example might be boundary differences. This is a generalization, but a metal person might need to connect with more space and in a different way than a fire person, who might connect through energetic intimacy. I had a teacher who said, “I’m friends with all my fire patients…but it’s on purpose”. That was so funny. He was talking about getting rapport with fire. I have to adapt to the patient in front of me and respect their energetic, because it’s about the patient, not me. I have a patient who is a fire type and we are usually very serious during her treatments, but the other day I said something funny without meaning it to be, and she started laughing hard, and then I did too, and then the whole room was filled with joy for the rest of the treatment. This joy is her rightful nature, and lack of joy is her struggle. It was a good reminder that it’s my job to help ignite her fire, to bring her into the joy of the heart. We can do this with acupuncture points, and we can do this with rapport. This is healing.
It’s important that rapport comes from an authentic place though, it’s not acting. If it feels organic in the moment we can work with any of the elements to work with a patient therapeutically or to test where they are. But if something isn’t arising in me naturally, I just listen and hold space. What’s said in the treatment room should only be in service to the patient’s healing or to deepening rapport: we say this in Five Element. Good rapport takes a lot of self-discipline, presence, and practice. None of us do it perfectly. Luckily it’s called a practice. When I watch one of my main teachers Joe Soprani, do intakes, the way he gets rapport and tests the elements is so subtle and organic, you hardly notice he’s doing it. It’s brilliant. When we’re present and connected to ourselves, we’re present and connected to the patient, and this allows them to open up with ease into who they really are. Then the color, sound, odor and emotion become clear. Joe once said that in order to be open to receiving this sensorial information, we need to be present like an animal in the woods listening for the crack of a stick. We want to be with our patients in a way that gives them permission to drop the mask. It’s also important to remember that there’s another spirit in the treatment room aside your own. The patient-practitioner relationship is sacred, and it’s at the heart of what we do.
Sarah: How can we live in alignment in spring?
Kim: Wood is the element of spring. Wood is about rebirth, new growth, moving forward, and is preceded by the dormancy of winter: the water element. There’s a fast surge of growth upward and outward, and there’s a feeling of hope that arrives naturally after having survived the winter. There’s a creative vision for what can be, and a plan for how to get there. One of my teachers once said: “The liver’s job is to peer down into the vast potential of water, and through its creative vision, come up with a plan.” I love that. It’s the plan to fulfill the heart’s mandate, which is why trees and plants reach toward the sun (the sun is akin to the Heart in Chinese Medicine). We want to see these same movements happening in our patients.
Sarah: How does disharmony in the wood element manifest in people?
Kim: This could be so many things, but often people who have a disharmony in the wood element can feel depressed, stuck, or hopeless, lack the ability to have a plan to move forward, or be lost in details with no clear perspective. There could be a lack of appropriate assertion or inappropriate anger. Irritability, frustration or impatience can often show up when the liver qi needs to move (liver being one of the two organs associated with wood and spring).
Anger is the emotion that we associate with wood, but my understanding is that assertion is a better translation. It’s the energy that it takes to be born or to give birth, or the energy that it takes for a little green sprout of grass to find its way up through a crack in the sidewalk. To be reborn in spring–to come up through the soil out of the dormancy of winter–takes a real assertion of energy. I was weeding in my yard the other day and there are the most miniscule holes in the tarp we have laid over the ground, and there were huge weeds growing right through those practically microscopic holes! It was impressive.
Wood in balance should have some moisture in it to allow for flexibility too so that it doesn’t crack and split–and this is the same in a person. So, we assess all of this with our patients and ask: do they need their wood strengthened, moved, toned down, or unblocked? We want this energy to flow freely in our patients so they can be constructive, hopeful, creative, and forward-moving.
Sarah: Can you talk about Addison’s disease in particular within the context of wood (or wood and water) imbalance?
Kim: Wow, what a question. I suppose the obvious connection is that the adrenals are a part of the water element (kidney yang), and water precedes wood in the creation cycle. So we say that water is the mother of wood, and because she’s deficient herself, she’s not able to feed and nourish her child. My herb practitioner explained that likely in my case, water was deficient for so long that she was pulling from wood, trying to get her needs met. I’d never thought of it backwards like that, but it makes so much sense.
In my personal experience with this, I tend to need more treatment in spring. It’s the hardest season for me because it triggers some deficiency type blocks as that movement from water to wood tries to happen. An example is that appropriate assertion or expression can be difficult and exhausting for me at times; just the thought of it can cause me to freeze up, go into an adrenal stress reaction, or want to just disappear (all water deficiencies or reactions). The type of bursting forth energy required just isn’t always there. If I’m angry or frustrated, and I’m telling you about it, sometimes you won’t hear assertion at all in my voice. I’ll just drop into a groan. Groan is the sound of water. We need to stand up for ourselves. That’s an important part of healthy wood.
This is all a good example of a water-wood imbalance, but it’s also somewhat myopic, because the rest of the elements in the sheng (creation) cycle are also implicated in some way. One part of my own homework currently is to take a nap or a rest during the day to nourish the yin. It’s been mildly revolutionary, this resting phenomenon. Getting still and quiet and connecting internally during the day isn’t something I’ve done a lot, and it’s bringing a lot of awareness to what’s going on with my energy body. It also feels like an amends to myself for working and playing too hard my entire life. I love setting aside all the worries of the day for half an hour now. I feel like a little child who’s been assigned a nap. It’s really lovely.