The Importance of Herbal Medicine
Dr. Matthew Fellner DACM, L.Ac.
In this blog I want to address students of Acupuncture and emphasize the importance of herbal medicine for professional development.
When I began my training in TCM 20 years ago, I went in, like most students, bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to change the world one needle at a time. It became apparent rather quickly that as much as acupuncture is a crucial part of TCM and constitutes the majority of our time and effort in clinical practice, it is secondary in importance to herbology with regard to understanding the entire scope of this wonderful medicine.
Without hyperbole I can say that TCM practitioners who are trained in herbal medicine are better TCM practitioners than their counterparts who are only acupuncturists. Notice I did not say they are better acupuncturists, but rather, better TCM practitioners. It is important to remember that Chinese medicine has its roots in Shamanism and herbology, with acupuncture becoming more refined later in history as the needles themselves became more refined and precise. The entire thought process of TCM is based in the understanding gained by studying herbs and formulas. Many of the most seminal Chinese classics, such as the Shang Han Lun & Wen Bing were written only with formulas in mind. When you only study acupuncture, you are missing half of the story.
I am reminded of a story I read from music that relates quite well here. A very well-known and successful guitarist was recounting how his music teacher gave him a very difficult musical piece by Bach to practice on the piano. This guitarist was well versed on the piano but did not play it regularly. He was confused why the teacher wanted him to practice something so difficult and intricate on his non-primary instrument. The reasoning was that if he can work his way through that Bach piano piece, even if he struggled, he would be a far superior musician. The skills he would develop through that practice would automatically translate to him being a better guitarist. This is the same thought I have regarding herbal study in TCM. It is difficult to digest, and nearly impossible to master, but engaging in the process automatically makes you a better practitioner because you will think the medicine more clearly and thoroughly.
TCM sets the foundation for your studies throughout school because it has systematic and repeatable principles that can be taught in any academic setting. That is why schools tend to rely upon teaching TCM and employing TCM trained instructors. Once you are well versed in the principles of TCM, then you can branch out to any other type of acupuncture and succeed without having to readjust your entire understanding of the medicine. That includes being well versed in the principles of herbal medicine. In order to be successful as an herbalist, it is imperative that you have mastery of disease cause, patho-mechanism, pattern differentiation, and treatment principle. Each formula requires a complete understanding of each herb, each channel, temperature, taste, and how each herb works with the other herbs in the formula to create a harmonious balance. As you develop this ability, you are automatically training your mind appropriately to be a better acupuncturist as well.
I strongly encourage all acupuncture students to explore the ESATM herbal program to become a more well-rounded and insightful practitioner of TCM.