Acupuncture, Low Back Pain and the Power of the Yang
Lower back pain is a widespread problem. It’s probably the most common ailment treated by acupuncturists in America. Sometimes low back pain can be due to an injury, however much of the time it is due to a state of deficiency in the body: vitality that has been lowered by wear and tear or decline of the body’s warm “Yang” energy, which is rooted in the lumbar spine at the level of the kidneys.
“Yang” is the term given to the warm vital energy associated with strength, vitality, immunity and physiological function. When we feel cold or weak, or when an aspect of our physiology like digestion isn’t working well, this is often due to a decline of “Yang” in the body. Yang is the root of our vitality. It is like a savings account; when it has been depleted we lack the fund necessary to function well in life.
Low back pain can also have a psychogenic root to it. In Chinese medicine, the “Yang” energy of the kidneys is associated with the Willpower and our sense of personal capability. Sometimes the amount of strength felt in our spine and back muscles is a direct reflection of how we feel about ourselves and our ability to be an active force in the world. Our Yang can become depleted by physical overwork or injury, but also by a “blow” to our willpower or self-esteem.
Low back pain has association with our immune and endocrine functions. It is often accompanied by endocrine disturbances like low metabolism or insomnia, or low immunity and increased vulnerability to allergens and viral agents.
Chinese medicine views the body as a collection of systems, but in a different way than we do in the West. 12 main organs are said to “rule” all the physical and mental-emotional function of the body. The Kidney system and its partner the Bladder “rule” the low back, as well as the Yang energy. The energy of this system, collectively called the “Water Element” is the root energy of digestive function, immunity, willpower, physical strength and brain function. When the “Water” energy of the Kidney and Bladder has declined, symptoms can appear within any of these areas.
Low back pain is a condition often associated with the geriatric population – it is commonly considered a condition of aging. It is common for Yang energy is decline as we age. Aging as a form of physical decline is often true. However, Chinese medicine sees aging as a direct result of stubbornness and stagnation. They often say a person ages when they suffer from psycho-sclerosis: hardening of the attitude and fixation of the mind. Those who find a way to stay interested, curious and “light of spirit” often suffer less from conditions associated with aging. Their Yang energy remains strong and activated. For many people, the root of their problem is not that they are deficient in Yang energy, but that it remains unactivated. This can be likened to having the strength but lacking the will to engage in life. This can manifest as depression or laziness, which often involve a stagnation or retrograde of the Yang energy.
As an acupuncturist, when I’m treating a person who suffers from low back pain, immune deficiency, endocrine problems or other conditions associated with aging and physical decline – I make sure to investigate where their minds seem to have become fixated. I find it necessary to identify what stories they are telling themselves, where they feel they have been victimized: where they have experienced a loss of personal power.
One of the oldest and wisest Chinese medical classics, called “The Spiritual Axis” teaches that for many stubborn, chronic conditions the doctor must help the patient heal their spirit and change their mind. If the mind is constantly recreating a state of disempowerment, disappointment, victimization, internal pain and suffering – there is no way the body will be able to let go of its tension, inflammation and weakness.
“The Spiritual Axis” says in order for the internal organs of the body, the muscles and bones to have the capacity to detox toxins and release fixation, the “sense organs” of the face and the elimination portals of the lower body must be opened. There needs to be a way for the person to get rid of old toxic material. The person must also have the capacity to let in new visions and experiences through the eyes, nose and ears. This is both a practical treatment strategy as well as a philosophical statement. We cannot adequately activate our Yang energy of power, vitality and will unless our eyes, ears, and noses are open to the world. When we remain stubbornly fixated in a small way of thinking this will naturally lead to a decline in our body’s strength and vitality. Or, it will cause a stagnation of our Yang which can also cause back pain.
The endocrine and immune systems are especially influenced by our senses, along with our thoughts and our emotions. The thymus gland for example is often called “the great educator.” It teaches us what is good and bad. It is a gland that deals with morality. Many great thinkers always consider morality to be relative. We what learn to be good and bad is implanted into our thymus through socialization – this educates our immune systems. Some of us have hyper-vigilant immune systems – we react to everything as if it was toxic. Our thymus has somehow gotten the message that the world is dangerous, and we need to constantly protect ourselves, creating a frequent immune reaction to that which we come in contact with. Others have immune systems that attack the self. Perhaps there was a message that got created somewhere along the way that some part of the self was “bad,” and needed to be attacked. When this happens emotionally or behaviorally, many of us call this “self-destructive behavior.” The mind and body are not separate. Chinese medicine has always believed that mind and body influence one another. Problems of the body can be direct expressions of imbalances in the mind. Just as the mind can suffer when our bodies are not well.
There are often two main treatment strategies applied when treating low back pain. If the problem is one of deficiency and weakness, the “Yang” qi or warm circulatory energy of the kidneys must be tonified and strengthened. Philosophically this means boosting the person’s sense of personal power and vitality. The goal is to fill up the lower areas of the body where the “Yang” energy is rooted. But in order to build anything in the body successfully, there also needs to be focus on circulation. The blood for example will not build unless it is allowed to successfully circulate. The “Yang” energy is no different. We must act on what we feel we have a sense of power about, or that power will stagnate and turn against us. We must be engaged in the world to build back our spine and low back. “Yang” energy requires action.
This brings up another aspect to treating the low back. Sometimes a state of fear or timidity can be associated with low back back. Invigorating the “Yang” energy of the low back requires addressing the person’s sense of courage. The low back is associated with the will. Does the person have the will to become active in the world? Do they have the courage to become the master of their own destiny, to be the hero of their own lives? Do they have the courage to look honestly at themselves? Can they breathe in a full breath, fully accepting the world? The diaphragm, which anchors into the lumbar spine is the mechanism by which we are able to breathe deep, boosting our immune function and feeding all of the cells in our bodies. To take a full breath requires courage and a strong will to live. Some of us are constantly caught up in survival mode. We never really get the chance to “live,” as we are always merely trying to survive. We can never take in a full deep breath. Building the “Yang” energy of the kidneys, strengthening the lumbar spine and deepening the breath will begin to address this. Life can feel so different when we have true strength in our kidneys, low back and spine.
The other day I myself was suffering from an achy, weak-feeling low back. I was surprised, as it is not usual for me to have low back pain. I checked my radial pulses: this is the main diagnostic tool of the acupuncturist. On the wrists, an acupuncturist can read the functional energy of each organ system in the body. I noticed my Kidney “Yang” energy was particularly low. In my case, this was due to a busy period in my life where I overworked and overextended myself. Being a healer, I sometimes have a tendency to take care of everyone else, and sometimes forget to take care of myself. I have to constantly work on keeping this balance in my life. I spent many days treating my Kidney “Yang” energy: I ate walnuts, black sesame seeds and goji berries – all foods that tonify the Kidneys. I treated myself with acupuncture and moxabustion (a gentle technique of warming specific areas of the body to fortify “Yang” energy). I put myself on a dose of Kidney-fortifying herbs. I made sure to get to sleep by ten pm. And I reduced my work load. In a few days my Kidney pulse was stronger, and I noticed a big change in my outlook and behavior. When my kidneys were weak, I felt a lack of interest in the world. I felt I could hardly handle my life – it all seemed so overwhelming and taxing. I was feeling a bit confused about what I wanted to do – unclear about my mission in life. I just wanted to stay home alone and do nothing. Once my kidneys became strong again, my desire to engage in life returned. I remembered the joy I felt being an acupuncturist. I was eager to get back to my writing, and Tai Ji practice, and all of the things that made me excited about being me. I also felt I could handle things again. I felt strong and able and excited.
The “Yang” energy of the Kidneys is the energy of power. It is the root of all vitality in the body. It is the energy that pushes us to engage with the world. It allows us to feel protected and guided and led. My low back pain it turns out was merely a message from my body that I had gone out of balance in my behavior and thinking. My achy back was asking me to pay attention to me. It was reminding me to focus on the things that I really loved, the things that made me unique. I was led to see that I was distracting myself too much. And the sense of joy and peace that came when I let myself be led back to my true desires, my mission and sense of personal power! It felt so good!
Healing is always about more than just the symptom. It is a process of self-examination.
We get unwell so we can find our way back to balance and vitality. Each time with a bit more of an understanding of who we are and what we are meant to do in our life. The illumination of self-discovery could not exist without the pains of life that accompany them. When we are unwell, we must stop and address whatever is out of balance. In most cases it requires a bit of self-reflection for true healing to occur. This is always the focus of acupuncture treatment as I practice it. This is the root of healing within the classical Chinese medical system. It is arguably one of the reason acupuncture has become so beloved and popular in modern America. It is one of the main reasons I love it as my profession and chosen healing modality.