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Needle Point
Cheap, accessible, comfortable. A new acupuncture clinic is radically changing how patients experience traditional Chinese medicine.

Ash Yoon was a busy 23-year-old community organizer – she worked with the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre and Metropolitan Committee on Violence Against Women and Children, among others – when she was one day overcome by vertigo. In bed for a week, her illness unexplained and effectively untreatable by conventional medicine, she turned to acupuncture and traditional Korean medicine.

It wasn’t a stretch – both Yoon’s maternal grandfather, and his father before him, were practitioners. Two treatments at a student clinic banished the vertigo (as well as a persistent case of eczema), and Yoon was hooked. While continuing to work for progressive non-profits like the Stop Community Food Centre, she spent the next five years studying at the Toronto School of Traditional Chinese medicine. After graduation, while most of her classmates sought work at high-end spas, Yoon discovered the Community Acupuncture Network, a non-profit consortium of some 200 North American clinics committed to making acupuncture affordable and accessible. Realizing that Toronto didn’t have a single clinic that is doing just community acupuncture in a dedicated space, Yoon decided to open her own (somewhat incongruously beside the Hurricanes roadhouse at Bloor and Ossington).

The Standard spoke with Yoon over tea at Saving Gigi.

So, what’s the difference between the Toronto Acupuncture Studio and a conventional acupuncture clinic?
The big difference is that we’re treating people in a communal setting. Which means, lots of people being treated in one big open room. Privacy isn’t compromised though, because we only insert needles in the limbs, face and scalp. The other big difference is that the cost of treatment is very low, from $15 to 35 per treatment.

What’s normal?
The median is right now about $75. It can go as high as $195, especially at fertility clinics.

How can you keep your prices so low?
Volume. I’m seeing multiple patients an hour. I can do that by keeping conversation to a minimum and really focusing on the person’s ailments. Often, when you go see a regular acupuncturist, you’re talking to them for like forty minutes; there’s an emphasis on psychotherapy, counseling, nutrition. I’m coming from the perspective that a lot of people already have this information, that they’re actually suffering from information overload.

So how many people can you accommodate at once?
Eventually, we’ll have two or three acupuncturists working simultaneously so we’ll be able to treat up to 30 people at once. I want it to be busy. Would you eat at an empty restaurant? Getting acupuncture is a bit different than having a meal, but in a society where we’re so isolated the studio offers this third place between work and home. Where you can be among other people but maintain your own time to sort your stuff out.

How long is a typical treatment?
I want the needles to be in for a minimum of half an hour. If you try to withdraw a needle before the body’s done, it can be difficult to do. It can become stuck. After thirty or forty minutes, the body just naturally pushes it out and it comes out easily. Beyond that, you can stay as long as you like. That’s another beauty of the community model; you can relax much longer.

What illnesses or conditions do you treat?
Back pain, shoulder pain, all types of pain. Psycho-emotional conditions like insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression. A lot of gastro-intestinal issues: Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohns. Gynecological stuff, like painful periods, menopause, infertility and labour induction.

And how successful is the treatment, honestly?
For people who are able to sustain frequent treatments, 90 per cent. That’s why the community model’s so perfect. In Korea and China, where treatment is so accessible and cheap, people with serious conditions are seeing acupuncturists once or twice a day until their condition stabilizes.

So how frequently should you have treatments?
It depends on what the condition is. For back pain that is 8 out of 10 on the pain scale, I’d like to see you three times a week for a couple weeks. For chronic stress, a minimum once a week until the stress subsides. Everyone is different, so we are checking in and re-evaluating on a regular basis. Acupuncture is great because it fosters mind-body connection. You start to recognize patterns in your life, lifestyle changes you might need to make to prevent illness. The more frequently you’re able to do this, the better the decisions you’ll be able to make for yourself. A lot of disease occurs because we’re pushing ourselves to the limit, ignoring signals our bodies are giving us.

What kind of people are you hoping to attract to the studio?
Mainly people who have never had acupuncture before. The Portuguese grandmothers that live on my street, for example. The studio’s not going to be a spa, but it will be a super-friendly place where people will feel comfortable. And with the sliding scale, I hope we’ll be able to attract a wide range of people. My focus is on reaching out to folks who want access to this medicine but would never dream of paying $75 for a treatment.

And how are you going to reach out to them?
I’m going to offer lots of free days, a couple every month. Just by welcoming people into the space and having them experience it.

People who haven’t experience acupuncture are obviously going to approach it with a fair bit of skepticism, even suspicion. How do you deal with that?
I approached it with skepticism myself. I can take an approach and try it out on somebody and, if it doesn’t work, I discard it right away. Acupuncture is really empirical medicine that’s been refined over thousands of years. So I say to someone who’s skeptical, just come in on a free day and experience it for yourself.

What about people who are nervous about the possible pain?
When people think of needles, they usually think of hypodermic needles. An acupuncture needle is actually very thin, the width of two hairs. The actual gauge is .18 millimeters. Very flexible, sterile, individually packaged, stainless steel, from Korea or China. You feel just a slight pinch or heaviness as the needle goes in. And for somebody who’s experiencing a lot of pain or stress, it’s the least of their concerns. Once the needles are in, people go into a state of deep relaxation, even sleep.

You call it “adult nap time.”
Yeah, about 80 per cent of people fall asleep during treatment. It can be a problem in a communal setting because some people snore. People can bring ear plugs if they like. We’re always in this fight-or-flight response mode, because of stress, because of intense competition. I think when you have this moment of relaxation, when you can take the time out, that’s a beautiful thing.

Do you wake up people who snore?
My policy is no wake-ups.

The Toronto Acupuncture Studio opens April 16 and will offer free acupuncture that day from 10 am to 2 pm. For more information, visit www.torontoacupuncturestudio.com.

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