The calmest revolution: Making alternative medicine more affordable

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It was during one of those strangely mild days in February that Maggie Radford really wanted a drink. She’d been sober for months and knew the cravings would come and go, but this one was lingering. She was already anxious — a Family Day reunion with her estranged son was imminent — so she did the one thing that could put her overworked mind at ease: She took five needles in the ear.

“I went into a kind of dreaming mode,” Radford says.

She was given a simple acupuncture technique called the NADA protocol, an insertion of fine gauge, stainless steel needles into five particular points of the ear, and when she opened her eyes 45 minutes later, Radford says her mind was much calmer.

“I could’ve stayed there all day,” she says.

Her acupuncturist, Ash Yoon, said she could stay as long as she liked. Yoon runs the Toronto Acupuncture Studio (TAS), one of two full-time community clinics in the city. She ministers to up to 16 people in a single session. Unlike the private model, which charges up to $150 per hour, TAS offers a more langorous and affordable option. Payment is on a sliding scale, from $15 to $35 per session, and it is this type of flexibility that allows someone like Radford, who lives off $950 in Ontario Disability Support Payments (ODSP) each month, to receive treatment.

“There’s no other way I could afford this,” says Radford, who has previously attempted private treatment but gave it up as too costly. “No matter how many times I arrive in a funk,” she explains, “I always leave feeling much better.”

Radford, who also suffers from crippling arthritis in both feet, was recovering from surgery when she first sat in Yoon’s La-Z-Boy last fall. The bones in her big right toe had been fused together; the screws were still in. Yoon inserted needles in points at the hands and fingers that ease foot pain and Radford fell asleep for two hours. “It was such a relief,” she says.

“Acupuncture is so important to everyday health,” explains Yoon, who estimates that just under half of her 150 weekly visitors are low-income clients. “The idea behind the community clinic is to make it available to everyone.”

Health and wellness practices such as acupuncture, yoga and Pilates are so ubiquitous these days that it seems silly to keep referring to them as alternative, but they remain distant possibilities for anyone struggling to make ends meet. It’s a sad irony: Practices that are so adept at pain relief and stress management are not easily accessible to those burdened by the corrosive effects of chronic illness and disadvantage.

Some practitioners have begun offering innovative programs with the goal of correcting this imbalance. In 2009, Caren Cooper-Bridel established NOW 4 Youth, a charitable organization that offers yoga and Pilates training for at-risk youth. “It was time to give something back,” the 37-year old instructor says.

Cooper-Bridel put the word out through programs such as Covenant House and SKETCH, the street youth art studio. Thirty applications came back. Due to space and time limitations, they were only able to accept two, but NOW 4 Youth’s 150-hour pilot program was a success: Their first graduate is now a Pilates teacher herself.

“I never really felt athletic or even capable of being so,” says Jen Stewart, who was 26 when she began to study proper breathing technique, kinesiology and exercises to strengthen core muscles. “Now I feel much more comfortable within my body.”

The idea of a strong core offers an explicit analogy. Pilates and yoga develop a deep bodily discipline; the same process that gives greater inner balance and range of motion can also create greater opportunity beyond the mat. “The thing we wanted to do was to work with the body, then help them incorporate that into their lifestyle,” says Cooper-Bridel, who aims to accept six students from the current crop of 2012 applications. “The biggest eye-opener for me was to watch someone like Jen not only learning how to move, but how to change.”

Change comes at the community level. According to Reducing Disparities, a report produced by the Wellesley Institute, an urban health think tank, one of the major determinants of wellness in any major city is the degree to which its most vulnerable can find empathy and connection.

Yoon is keenly aware of this. She knows the major challenges some of her clients face — food and shelter — can sometimes overshadow all the minor insults of daily living — the long lineup, the dehumanizing gaze, the missed bus — that subtly erode well-being. One of her clients, who lives in a transitional shelter for abused women, comes to TAS because it is the only place she feels safe enough to sleep.

“Some of these people live in a very heightened environment and while we can provide immediate relief from acute pain, it’s sometimes more important to help them through a very raw emotional period,” she explains.

Yoon sees the soothing nature of her discipline and other wellness practices as an essential part of building community. She and fellow practitioner Naomi Frank, whose east-end clinic opened last October, are both members of the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA), a U.S. co-operative movement that fosters affordable clinics across North America. There are 300 clinics in the United States but very few in Canada, especially Ontario, where there is yet to be a regulatory college. Still, Yoon see progress: recent openings in Kingston, Hamilton and, soon, Barrie.

“We want to take over the world,” she says, quoting the POCA literature. “It will be the calmest revolution ever.”

Author: Howard Akler

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