Mexican Indigenous Healing Inspires Acupuncture Project
By Sara Calabro
Jeya Aerenson, an acupuncturist in Eugene, Oregon, really wanted to learn Spanish. Now, the Mexican people who helped her achieve this goal are learning from her. But rather than offering language skills, Aerenson is teaching acupuncture. In February, she’s temporarily shuttering her private practice to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, where she will educate local healthcare providers on administering the NADA protocol, five designated acupuncture points in each ear.
In a recent conversation with AcuTake, Aerenson talked about pioneering and paying for the Oaxaca Acupuncture Project, the impact of acupuncture on underserved Mexican communities, and why everyone should care about indigenous healing traditions.
AcuTake: Why Oaxaca, Mexico?
Jeya Aerenson: I started going to Oaxaca in 2008, for Spanish immersion school. My second year there, I met with some curanderos, indigenous healers, and crossed paths with Terry Crowe from University of New Mexico. She leads groups of medical students and practitioners to Oaxaca to learn from indigenous healers as part of their allopathic studies. The idea clicked for me that this would be beneficial for acupuncturists.
This past February, through Acupuncturists Without Borders’ World Healing Exchange Program, I led a group of 12 acupuncturists to Oaxaca. We studied with indigenous healers and set up free community-style acupuncture clinics in the city and four rural villages. These clinics were very popular—we had 80 people in just one. After the clinics, people would come up to us and ask, “When are you coming back?” And the local healthcare providers expressed a real interest in learning how to do it themselves. I made a commitment to going back to teach them, which is what I’ll be doing on this trip.
How are you making this happen logistically?
Initially, I got in touch with the people in Oaxaca who Terry had used to guide tours. I scouted potential clinic locations and connected with an NGO [non-governmental organization] called CECIPROC. This NGO works with many indigenous Oaxacan communities by bringing health, nutrition and ecological programs to the villages. CECIPROC is organizing the logistics for this upcoming training. They are arranging transportation, lodging and meals for participants from the mountain and coastal pueblos. The Oaxaca Acupuncture Project is covering the expenses for those logistics.
Which leads to an important question: How are you supporting the project financially?
So far, everything I have done has been out of my pocket. I haven’t had the time to do a large fundraiser or apply for grants. I am currently looking for financial and in-kind donations. The Trauma Healing Project, a non-profit in Eugene, Oregon, is acting as my fiscal agent, so all donations are tax-deductible. I knew I didn’t want to start my own non-profit so I was looking for a 501(c) to be a fiscal agent. By coincidence, the director of the Trauma Healing Project was in my local Spanish class. We got to talking and had one of those “ah-ha” moments. Their mission statement fits our project perfectly. Donations can be made on my website, through PayPal, or checks can be made out to Trauma Healing Project-Oaxaca Acupuncture.
Why are the Oaxacan people good candidates for acupuncture, and specifically the NADA protocol?
Oaxaca is the second-poorest state in Mexico, so there are a lot of socioeconomic challenges. They also are susceptible to many natural disasters. They get earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and landslides. There is a lot of trauma, and many people suffer from PTSD. The effect of the NADA points on both the physical and emotional symptoms of PTSD—everything from stress to insomnia to pain—is so impressive.
In general, these communities have limited access to healthcare. There is a lot of discrimination, particularly against some of the people in the coastal villages. They are morenos, dark-skinned descendants of Africans. They are a small, tight-knit community that has been treated very poorly. The effects of empowering them with access to healthcare could be exponential. Teach one person to fish and the village eats for a lifetime.
Who within the Oaxaca community will you be training?
We will be training the promotores, which means health promoters. These are not conventional healthcare workers as we think of them here, but rather, people that the pueblos consider promoters of health. Their background and training vary a lot.
What will be the format of the training?
It will be a four-day workshop. I’m going with Julia Raneri, a bilingual NADA-certified trainer who has also led trainings through Acupuncturists Without Borders, domestically and in Haiti. Ours will be a similar model to that of Acupuncturists Without Borders, teaching people the NADA protocol and about PTSD. We’ll also teach some acupressure points. The main workshop will take place in the city of Oaxaca and CECIPROC will bring people from the pueblos to the workshop. The third member of our team, Rico Vallejos, has been leading the effort to develop Spanish-language materials. He also handles communications and logistics in Mexico and will make a documentary about the training.
I am staying in Oaxaca after the workshop. A few weeks later, once the trainees have had a chance to use the protocol on their own, I will be going out to the pueblos to give follow-up support. The long-term plan is to have myself or someone else—ideally a Mexican acupuncturist, if I can make a good connection while I am there—do another follow up after a few months. Fortunately, we have a Spanish-language training manual, which will be a very valuable resource in our absence.
Once you leave, how will NADA-trained promotores continue to get supplies?
Supplies will be distributed through CECIPROC based on number of treatments performed. The trainees will be required to keep track of their treatments. Keeping CECIPROC supplied is up to me. I am always looking for donations of half-inch detox needles. Surprisingly, there seems to be a big connection between Oregon and Oaxaca. There have been a high number of Oregonians that study in the language schools there, and there are a lot of Oregon ex-pats living in Oaxaca. This could be helpful for getting needles down there. The detox needles that come five in a blister pack don’t take up a lot of space in someone’s suitcase.
What are your expectations for how Oaxacans will perceive acupuncture?
In Mexico, there is such a trend toward wanting allopathic medicine. A lot of the traditional ways are being lost. The elders do not have people to pass on their knowledge to. The midwives are really noticing this, because so many women are going to the hospital to have their babies now. The culture is changing. Compare this to the pendulum swing that we have seen here in the United States. For years, people here were going more and more toward allopathic. Now it’s swinging back to where natural healing is growing bigger and bigger. In Mexico, they are still in a different stage of the pendulum swing. With acupuncture, we fall somewhere in between. We are a form of natural healing, but we’re not the healing their grandmothers used. We fit a different niche, which I think is part of why acupuncture will be very accepted there.
How has your experience in Oaxaca, and with indigenous healing in general, influenced you as an acupuncturist?
I have always integrated what I’ve learned from other cultures into my acupuncture practice at home. My exposure to indigenous healing has enhanced my intuition, compassion and empathy. In most places in Mexico, when they do a healing, it is called a limpia, which means cleansing. There are many different styles of limpias, but that’s always what it comes down to—energetic cleansing. In other cultures, the emotional and spiritual are so connected to the physical. As acupuncturists, we know that, but seeing it first hand in other cultures really affirmed the way I’ve been practicing for 18 years.
What advice would you offer to other acupuncturists who are interested in this kind of work?
Volunteer! Get out of the office. Experience natural indigenous healing. See how alternative medicine works in other places. The way we practice in our offices in the United States is very different than how it’s done around the world, especially in third-world countries. By getting out, you’ll see many things you won’t ever see in the sterile office. A wide range of experiences will enhance your practice. There is such a parallel to Chinese medicine in many forms of natural indigenous healing. When I explain to these cultures some of the theories of acupuncture—for example, that we have Five Elements—they immediately get it. It really is a worldwide language.
Photos courtesy of Oaxaca Acupuncture Project