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Tiny Revolutions №93: The Importance of Energy
an Interview with acupuncturist Alex Bruehl
This summer one of my recurring themes is the importance of doing things that make me *feel* good. Simple things, you know — early morning hikes with my dog, making my favorite gazpacho, lying down on the cold tile floor when it’s hot outside. I spend so much time online and in my head that counterbalancing it with sensual pleasures is critical.
To that end, since I often talk about mental health in this newsletter, I wanted to devote some space to taking care of the body as well. I am excited to share this interview with one of my good friends who also happens to be an extremely gifted healer — licensed acupuncturist Alex Bruehl. It covers a lot of ground, from how she found her way to acupuncture after academia, to what she sees in her patients’ bodies, to the “woo-woo” stuff that she’s gotten into since embarking upon this path. Enjoy.
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One of the many benefits of being your friend over the years has been to witness your career evolution. Your story is remarkable because, as far as I can tell, it was driven mostly by curiosity. Can you tell us how you went from being an academic/anthropologist to being an acupuncturist and functional medicine practitioner?
Well, I realized pretty early on in Anthropology grad school that I didn’t want to be there. There were a lot of brilliant, interesting people doing great work, but there was also the academia BS that I couldn’t deal with. My dad convinced me to stay until I got my Masters and that made sense, so I did that. But then there was just the fieldwork left, and I’d always liked that, so I decided to go for it, but then that wasn’t great for me anymore either, so I jumped ship. There were very many people at the school that had a hard time with that. They clearly thought I was making a terrible decision, like I was a 30 year old who was unable to decide what was right for herself.
I moved back to LA and got a government job while I figured out what I wanted to do. Having been a professional student for so long, I had no idea what people with “real” jobs did, so I did a ton of informational interviews and took a bunch of quizzes. I worked as a production assistant at nights for a while. And then one day in the middle of this, I happened to get acupuncture for the first time. I was lying there on the table and thought, “What about this?”
I should back up and say that what I studied was Medical Anthropology, and, while this wasn’t my direct focus, part of Medical Anthropology is looking at other cultures’ medical systems. So for me, it wasn’t that out there to consider this, but I knew it would be when I told other people about it. Anyway, I took my acupuncturist to lunch for an informational interview and decided to go for it. Worked for about six more months to save up money and then quit my cushy job, got a job waiting tables, and went back to school.
The Functional Medicine part: I have never been a person that was anti-Western medicine per se, but I do think that so many of its treatments are Band-Aids on deeper issues and when I learned about Functional Medicine in a continuing education class, I was hooked, and signed up for another year of training for that. I really like school, if that’s not already apparent.
Another benefit of being your friend is hearing (anonymously, of course) the stories your patients’ bodies tell you. This seems like an aspect of self-awareness that we simply can’t do for ourselves, you know? I would love to hear about some common ways stress and other psychological phenomenons show up in the body.
Oh man, there are two things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. One is how so many people are convinced that whatever ailment is their lot in life. I fully understand that people may not know there may be a way to fix it and I also totally understand the impetus of just adjusting your life to minimize the impact of the ailment — I get migraines and one thing that always gives me a migraine is trying on glasses. I have therefore been wearing the same sunglasses for roughly 20 years! But that’s pretty minor. There are people out there that feel like total dogshit all of the time and truly believe that that is the way it’s gonna be forever and that is no way to live! There are also people that have been told that there are things they can do about it, but they don’t want to do those things because change is hard.
The other thing I’ve been thinking about, which is the actual answer to your question, is the report cards our body gives us that people frequently ignore. These are those signs of how stress (and other things) are impacting us. Your period is a report card. The state of your bowel movements and stool is a report card. Your skin is a report card. Whether or not your shoulders seem to be made of stone and the distance they are from your ears is a report card.
Our bodies tell us when something is amiss, but the vast majority of us aren’t listening. I think some of this is because things have been normalized. For example, your period is not supposed to be awful! But so many people’s is that we don’t think it’s a big deal. Your poop is supposed to be formed and, judging from the porta-potties I’ve been in, most people’s isn’t. But they don’t want to talk about it (or maybe they don’t think it’s off because they’ve seen the same porta-potties I have!).
You practice mostly in central LA (sometimes on Zoom), which means you’re dealing with a lot of people with big city problems. What are some common complaints you see that most people struggle with?
Pretty much everyone I treat works too much. Like way too much. They are stressed out by being asked to perform at an unreasonable level, work overly long hours. I think 40 hours is too much, by the way, and plenty of people are out there doing 60-80. They have sedentary jobs and smart phones and are expected to be available at all times. A lot of people work from home now, so I see a lot of insomnia because there’s no clear delineation between work time and relax time.
I see a lot of back pain, particular upper back/neck/shoulder pain from being at a computer, staring at a phone, and/or working from one’s couch. Basically everyone has some level of anxiety. I mean, it makes sense — the past few years have been a total nightmare on many levels. Most people’s digestion is off.
Here’s the thing: from an Asian Medicine perspective, we have various resources in our body (blood, qi, fluids, etc.) that keep us going on a daily basis. Some of these are finite and some can be replenished in healthy times. But we have all been using a huge amount of these resources just to survive the pandemic, the fear, the isolation. It’s normal and adaptive to do that at any time of stress, but this time of stress is two years and counting and we just don’t have the resources to keep up with that.
I saw a huge uptick in people saying they were losing their minds right after the holidays, a time when people started engaging with the world again, which also was a time when there was another huge Covid spike. People had just tried to do the holidays like everything was normal when it most definitely was not. And everyone was doing this with depleted resources. It takes a lot of energy to go outside and engage with others, especially after not doing that for so long. And everyone was doing it on an empty tank and it showed up in my office with a number of meltdowns, a lot of tears, and a bunch of pep talks on my part.
What do you see as the most impactful things we can do to take better care of ourselves?
Honestly, I would say it’s to be mindful and to honor our bodies, to recognize when our bodies are sending us a message. When you feel badly, where do you feel it? Is your anxiety in your chest? Where are you holding it? What preceded it? How can you mitigate that? Are you breathing right now?
In terms of concrete action steps that people don’t want to hear: go to bed earlier (like, 9 pm), chew your food more, stop with all the wine (or any booze), and put down your phone. (The phone is a real issue. The best method for me is to just physically not be in the same room as it.) Eat less sugar, move your body, and drink lots of water. Up your fiber intake and poop every day. Go outside and put your bare feet in the earth and just stare at the sky for at least five minutes, but ideally an hour. Find a hobby that you lose yourself in. Do your best to find a work/life balance. If you have any type of chronic pain, stop eating gluten — no cheating.
A lot of people have the valid criticism that Acupuncture and Functional Medicine are prohibitively expensive. I once heard an acupuncturist say, “You can do things the easy way or the cheap way.” The easy way is going to acupuncture or anything else you pay money for. The cheap way is the above lifestyle changes I mentioned. No one wants to do those because change is both hard and scary. But I (and many of my patients) have made some significant lifestyle changes and we can tell you it feels a lot better. It often takes a very long time and a number of relapses to realize that. That’s fine. Beating yourself up about it will only make things worse. But at the same time, you can’t let yourself off the hook constantly.
What seems like the hardest thing for people to do, health-wise?
Any of the above.
As an ex-partier (we partied a lot together during our younger, wilder years!) if you’re gonna indulge — weed or booze? Neither?
Oh, definitely weed. Back when I was a Medical Anthropologist, my research focus was on drug use and the cultural construction of what was considered illicit and how hypocritical that is because the narrative has typically been that hard/illegal drugs are very bad for you. The two drugs that caused the greatest morbidity and mortality at that time, by far, were alcohol and cigarettes (this was before the opioid crisis, so I’m not sure how that all fits in now, but when it was just heroin on the scene, alcohol and cigarettes were far deadlier). All of the data show it.
We should, of course, examine what makes us want to check out at all, with anything. But people have been getting intoxicated since the beginning of time. Animals get drunk and high! It just happens to work out that way with our brains’ reward systems. But, in general, we should be looking out for the things that activate those systems in a healthy way. Nothing will ever be as powerful as a drug, but, to take an Asian medical perspective, extremes are never good.
I would like to preface this question by saying you’re one of the most rational people I know, which is why it’s especially interesting to me that you’ve gotten into some pretty woo-woo shit in this journey. Can you talk about anything(s) you’ve come to believe that you feel like most people would scoff at?
Hahaha well, I am not sure that I can even distinguish levels of woo-woo-ness anymore. There was a time when I was going to take a training on a type of energy healing that is basically a laying on of hands. I didn’t because the pandemic struck, but there was compelling data that this method cured cancer in rats (google Bengston research if you’re interested).
I guess, in general, it’s the importance of energy. Every now and then, I’ll get a new patient that just has some kind of bad vibe that I can’t really put my finger on. When that patient leaves, I will physically brush that energy off of my body, starting from my head and working my way down. I just don’t want it on or around me. There are certain acupuncture treatments that are specifically for removing bad energy and I do not turn my back to the patient/the bad energy when I do those in order to keep it from getting in me. And my teacher has taught me that intention is the most important part of an acupuncture treatment. If you are very clear about what you are trying to achieve and how the acupoints you select work towards that goal, then your treatment will be successful.
While I am super rational, as part of that rationality, I realize that it is a mistake to not believe in something just because you can’t see it or explain it. For most of history, we didn’t understand many illnesses because we didn’t have microscopes to see bacteria and viruses. That doesn’t mean bacteria and viruses suddenly came into being when someone invented a microscope. We just haven’t invented — and may never invent — the thing that lets us see how acupuncture works, how the energy a person puts off affects (or infects!) their surrounding environment. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
What else do you want my readers to know about taking care of their bodies?
Without consciousness, you don’t have choice. You continue to follow the same patterns without even realizing it. Slow down and listen to your body. Find out what it likes and doesn’t like. When you know that, you can make the mindful decision about whether it is worth it to stay up late/eat at McDonald’s/have four margaritas.
Most things work on a threshold basis: if you are near your threshold, any little thing you do can put you over the edge. When you are at that point where everything seems to impact you, that means you’re at your threshold. That is the time to radically cut out all the bad stuff you’re doing and give your body time to heal. While this advice is true, my ulterior motive is to give you time being healthy to recognize how good that actually feels and how it is worth it to be nice to your body. Because, as mentioned, any sort of extreme is bad, according to Asian Medical theory. It’s ideal if you’re never or rarely anywhere near your threshold.
What do you wish more people knew about acupuncture?
Acupuncture is amazing. It doesn’t really hurt (and any pain is brief). Sometimes you feel profoundly tired afterwards and that might be because that is what it feels like to not have a keyed-up nervous system. Sometimes acupuncture fixes issues in one treatment, but that is not the norm. Acupuncture (and Functional Medicine) works much better when you engage your own consciousness and become more mindful.
When I was first thinking of going into Asian Medicine, one thing I thought about a lot is the fact that it has been around for thousands of years, among what is basically the most populous group of people to exist. People don’t do things that don’t work for thousands of years. They just don’t.
Do I think that Asian Medicine is better than Western Medicine? Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes, no. But we live in a time where we can have both, so why not use what you can? I would also like to note that acupuncture school is typically four years and almost half of that is Western Medicine, so your acupuncturist should be able to understand your issues from a Western perspective and is also required to know when to refer patients to an MD. I have for sure told patients before that I won’t see them again until they see an MD.
There are very many styles of Asian Medicine, which makes sense given its historical and geographical context. This is all to say that if you go to one acupuncturist and don’t like it or get results you’re looking for, that style or practitioner may not be right for you–don’t write it off. Most people don’t post on their sites what style they practice, but you can ask them. I practice using primarily the Extraordinary Vessels. I have friends who practice Five Elements and some who practice Japanese style.
How can people find you?
Physically, I’m in East Hollywood, at HelMel (Los Angeles loves a portmanteau! That’s Heliotrope and Melrose, right behind LACC). Virtually, I’m at coveacupuncture.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and @cove_acupuncture on Instagram. I also have a newsletter, The Cove Report. As you can see, I like to answer questions, so feel free to send me any!
Here are some other things I found worth sharing this week.
I have seen, over and over, the connection between tuning in to what brings aliveness into our systems and bring able to access personal, relational and communal power. Conversely, I have seen how denying our full, complex selves—denying our aliveness and our needs as living, sensual beings—increases the chance that we will be at odds with ourselves, our loved ones, our coworkers, and our neighbors on this planet.
I’ve been enjoying the work of adrienne maree brown lately, whose book Pleasure Activism explores the idea that getting in touch with what brings us pleasure offers a key to making the world better on a grand scale.
Embodiment for Thinkers
Those of us who learned to game the Western education system think we are “smart.” We value the ideas inside our heads—they seem both important and insightful! We convince ourselves that we can reason our way through any situation.
The revolutionary aspect of embodied practice is the realization that thoughts are not the end-all-be-all. There are no ‘good’ thoughts and no ‘bad’ thoughts. Thoughts are merely clusters of energy that erupt into our conscious awareness without effort. After about 500 milliseconds from the moment our bodies first register this energy, we then impose a crude representational system on it—Language.
And yet, what we are capable of translating into words is only a sliver of our consciousness.
I liked this post from Alex Olshonsky, who describes embodiment practices like meditation and yoga as “an invitation to directly experience life rather than just interpret or intellectualize it.”
I have definitely posted this poem before, but it’s apropos this week.
A Tiny Assignment
What is your soft animal body telling you? Can you listen?
That’s all for this time. Thanks for reading, as ever.
p.s. Tell me in the comments about your simple pleasures this summer.
p.p.s. Tiny Revolutions is free to read for everyone, but if you’d like to support my work, you can do so by becoming a paid subscriber. You can also share this with someone who’d appreciate it, or just like this post!
Tiny Revolutions is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.