Interview by Sarah Clark, LAc
Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Melissa Kuser, ND, LAc at Kwan Yin Healing Arts. We talked about her experience of “docere”, or doctor as teacher, and how she teaches her patients about the heart. Here is what she had to say.
Sarah: How did you find your way to being a healer, Melissa?
Melissa: Very circuitously. I actually started out as a teacher. I have an undergraduate degree in English Literature and I was teaching high school English. I took a sabbatical from that and did a little bit of soul searching, learning about sustainable agriculture and nutrition, and growing plants, and interacting with lots of healers around the world, actually. And I just came to a place of knowing that I didn’t want to be a high school English teacher anymore. And I started exploring all possible avenues of what it might look like to be a healer. I was reading about the six principles of natural medicine, one of which is “docere”, doctor as teacher. And there was just a moment of knowing. Because I deeply identified with the idea of being a teacher, and I was having a hard time understanding what to do after being in the classroom. And there was just a moment of resonance. I’ve always been passionate about my body. I was an athlete growing up.
Sarah: What sport did you play?
Melissa: I was a competitive swimmer through college. And I just had this moment of realizing I could teach people to get in tune with their bodies and with nature. It expanded the way I understood myself. I’d always ruled out medicine because I’d decided I wasn’t a sciency person. So, it was really an expanding sense of self that enabled me to embrace this and walk down this new path.
Sarah: And I’m sure you did some healing as a teacher too. That’s where it began.
Melissa: It did. It did, I’m sure.
Sarah: As an ND, LAc, you work with the physical heart and the emotional heart. I’m curious how you see the connection between the two in your practice.
Melissa: Honestly, I think it begins just with what we’re doing right now. Holding my patients in a really heart-centered space. But that’s really different from the space they’re held in at their cardiologist’s office or at any other conventional western medical space they go to. And that begins the healing. And then I do a lot of education about the fact that the heart is so susceptible to emotional stressors, physical stressors, and so we’re very directly talking about the mind body relationship. How stress impacts blood pressure. How grief can be held and stored for a long time in cellular memory and create a constriction on the heart. I use the gift of acupuncture and talking about the heart form a Chinese medicine perspective. And in doing Five Element acupuncture, we really address the emotional aspect of their healing.
Sarah: People with heart problems often develop emotional distress. Someone has high blood pressure, or an irregular heartbeat, or palpitations, and then suddenly they realize they’re in emotional distress. So, in coming to see you, they can address both.
Melissa: Exactly. And, one of the tools that I’ve been using with several of my patients is the heart math tool.
Sarah: How does that work?
Melissa: So the HeartMath Institute has done a lot of research around the concept of heart rate variability and heart rate coherence, and they’ve got like tomes of fairly accessible documentation basically looking at how the heart rate changes in relationship to stress. And that can be physical stress. It can be emotional stress. And they’ve created this technology to give patients immediate feedback. You’re using a monitor to look at the coherence of your heart rhythm and training your body through a sort of directed meditation to be able to more consciously bring your heart into a relaxed state, or a state of resonance. It’s been a fun tool to realize and to recognize that sometimes when we think we’re meditating we’re not able to quiet our hearts.
Heart math gives direct feedback to help patients realize what themes bring them back into a state of resonance. For some, it’s talking about feeling grounded and rooted. For some, it’s trying to visualize joy and feel that greater heart space grow. For some people, talking about joy as abstract concept doesn’t work. They can’t connect into it. But gratitude works. So, it’s just interesting, and it helps give them feedback for when they’re at home. You know, you can read a self help book and it will say, here, these are the things to do. But until you really learn what works for you, it’s not going to help. So it gives patients a tool they can learn and take home. And we’ll practice it repeatedly in the office to see, okay, what are the themes that are bringing your heart into resonance. And then they can practice it at home. So, that’s been really fun to explore.
Sarah: I bet! Tell me about your work with women.
Melissa: That has been a huge part of my practice, and I love working with women. It’s a pleasure. I have two daughters, so I’m in a women’s centered world already.
Sarah: How old?
Melissa: They’re five and two. They’re very sweet. So, yes, I do general women’s health. I can do anything from an annual exam and a pap smear to more specialized care. Some of the modalities that I’ve incorporated into my practice are Maya abdominal massage and holistic pelvic care. Maya abdominal massage is a tradition out of Belize that helps with alignment and blood flow and lymphatic circulation. It’s a beautifully grounding treatment and experience for women. And there’s a self care component that I teach them. I really enjoy the ability to teach my patients things that they can do to perpetuate and continue their care at home.
Sarah: So they can touch themselves and bring that healing to themselves.
Melissa: And that’s really interesting. I’ll notice I’ll teach the self care to them. And then they’ll come back and say, “Well, I tried it for a week or two, but it didn’t feel the same as when you do it, so I just stopped.” And then I will teach it to them again and we’ll talk about it. And, you know what? I’ve learned that people aren’t comfortable touching themselves. They sort of say, “I’ll touch just with my fingertips.” It’s interesting to just have them reflect back that it doesn’t feel good. And I’ll ask them to show me what they did. And it’s clear that there’s a distrust or fear around touching themselves. It’s just something that we’re not taught early on–how to lovingly touch ourselves. So, we talk about flat hands and using the whole surface. And I show them how to do that and they say, “Oh, yeah, that does feel different. Okay.” So, that’s kind of fun. Because then it just creates a more loving relationship for a patient with their own body.
Sarah: It gets them into their hands.
Melissa: And then the pelvic care work is more internal work and that’s more specifically for people who are having pelvic pain, tailbone pain, urinary or fecal incontinence, any sort of prolapse, postpartum healing a certain amount of time away from giving birth. It’s pretty powerful work and I think the thing that I love about both of these modalities is that both of them have given me the gift of helping bring women more into the place of power in their bodies. But it’s a place that culturally we’re taught to sort of remove ourselves from. We’re taught to live in our heads, maybe our hearts, but never in our pelvis. No one says, “Come down to your clitoris.” And I do. Especially with the pelvic care, when I’m inserting a finger, and I’m asking them to breathe their breath all the way down to where they feel my finger. That’s a foreign concept for a lot of women. It’s hard to do. But women find it really transformative. Both on a physical level and on an emotional level. So, it’s been a real gift to be able to educate and empower.
Sarah: To bring women into their roots.
Sarah: So, a lot of women will say, “I have incontinence, so I’m just going to do kegels.” Do you want to talk about why that doesn’t always work?
Melissa: For some women it does work. And it just depends on what is going on down in the pelvic floor. One of the problems that can manifest is that the pelvic floor muscles are actually too tight. When any muscle is too tight and is in a constant state of contraction, then you have a limited range of motion for contracting it. So, then when a woman has the urge to go to the bathroom and she needs to contract that muscle, if it’s already contracted, if it’s already 50, 60, 70% contracted, she can only squeeze 30% more. So, the contraction can actually manifest as weakness. And, in that case, kegels aren’t going to help. So, by doing holistic pelvic care to help some of the muscles to relax, then you can retrain them to learn how to fully contract. Then they have that full range of motion. So, yes, it’s a bit of a re-education, on a physical, cellular level, and also it’s just around dispelling the myth that kegels are for everyone. Because really it is an individual thing–how to make sure women know how to completely contract and then completely relax.
Sarah: And I’m imagining that the relaxation part is actually the harder part for most women.
Melissa: It is the harder part. I think it’s again paralleled by society. There are a lot of people out there who don’t know how to relax on vacation.
Sarah: And we often aren’t aware of how much tension we’re holding in our roots.
Sarah: So, as healer as teacher, do you have some simple healing advice –or teaching–that people can integrate into their daily lives?
Melissa: Take time each day to check in with yourself – your body, your mind, your spirit. When we run our lives on autopilot, we often miss the more subtle cues that things are not right. It takes more of a “hammer” to wake us up to make changes instead of just minor course corrections. I teach my patients how to do this with their breath, bringing mindfulness to parts of their bodies and lives that have been previously inaccessible. If you’ve never had a breathing practice, just start by bringing your mindful attention to one part of your body and gently guiding your breath to that area. It doesn’t have to take very long – just a minute or two of conscious breathing can go a long way. Doing it outside in nature can be even more powerful. Give it a try. Blessings on your journey.