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Qi Gong and Beyond: Exploring Traditional Chinese Medicine with Lakan

In a December 2023 interview, Sunny, our Community Engagement & Volunteer Support Intern, explored the world of Chinese traditional medicine with Lakan. The conversation covered Lakan's journey into Chinese medicine, complexities of practicing in the U.S., and their commitment to trauma-informed approaches. Lakan shared insights into their Qi Gong practice, emphasizing pleasure in healing. The discussion also touched on the differences between Western and Asian traditional medicine. As Lakan prepares for a Qi Gong workshop with DVRP, they express anticipation for guiding participants through a transformative experience, inviting everyone to show up as they are for a journey of self-discovery and well-being.

The following is a transcript of the conversation: 

Sunny: 0:03  

So as I said, Welcome to this interview with DVRP. We just wanted to highlight some of the work, incredible work that you've been doing. And also just ask you a few more questions. And so I guess to first start off is, what inspired you to pursue a career in Asian traditional medicine?

Lakan: 0:22  

Well, my first introduction to Chinese medicine was at a community clinic. And I was having a lot of burnout working in the nonprofit sector. And I'd also didn't have a lot of access to medical care. I didn't have insurance at the time, and doing Chinese medicine in this kind of community setting was something that I could access financially. And it really helped to reset my nervous system, so it was treating multiple systems that I was experiencing, symptoms, and that was kind of my first introduction to it was through being a patient. And eventually, that led to, you know, further interest in actually being a practitioner. And I shifted my career from doing more nonprofit management to doing medicine as a different way to engage my community. And to, you know, like, really support, I guess, healing around the communities that I was part of.

Sunny 1:42  

Yeah, thank you. And I guess like, also, I saw on your personal website that you tried to have a lot of like trauma informed and decolonial approaches in your practice. And I was curious if you could expand a little bit about that and what it looks like.

Lakan 1:58  

That's a huge topic. On a very, like, large, more systemic level, a lot of Asian medicines are practiced in the US in a way that's very appropriative, where they are taken from those communities, like we'll say, acupuncture, for example, acupuncture and Chinese herbs. It's like, taken from the original cultures. And then, in some ways like the US, it's a very white dominated profession. The people who tend to access these services are [those] who have the money to do so [and] are often like white, affluent people. And so it is something that is, you know, like, taken out of the original context. Then there's barriers in place for people to use that because of appropriation and because of the idea of like, more European white-centric people going and taking something that isn't theirs. And doing nothing in reciprocity to uplift the community that it comes from. And I think it's very, it's complicated, because it is an open system—you don't have to be Chinese to practice it. But that doesn't mean there's no need for reciprocity. There is definitely a need for reciprocity. 

There's definitely a need to respect where it came from, and then understand how it's been, like, used in a colonial mindset to just kind of take this resource and guard it and hoard it. There's also a lot of complicated history about how Chinese medicine was practiced, or has been practiced in the US where, you know, it was practiced for a really long time in Chinese immigrant communities. And it was unregulated. Because that's like something that was just practiced within the community. And then I think it was in the 60s or 70s as white folks started noticing this medicine. It started to get more popular. Then regulations were introduced on the state and national level around this medicine that essentially, was trying to make it so that the Chinese folks who were already practicing this because they weren't licensed, then what they were doing was illegal. If that makes sense. So, like, white folks come in, they're like, “Oh, this is so fancy. We're going to make regulations so that only we're the ones who are certified and the people who have actually been practicing this for many, many years, and who, you know, like aren't licensed to our standards are now doing something criminal.” 

If you want to do more research on that, you can research Miriam Lee and her case. She was an acupuncture practitioner in California, who was basically brought to trial for doing all these illegal acupuncture treatments, even though she's a Chinese person [who] has been practicing this for a while and was very held. It is ultimately a very beautiful story because all of the people that she had treated that she had helped in the community stood up for her. And was like, “Nope, you can't do this. She's been helping us. She's been giving us medicine and healing this entire time. And you can't, you know, criminalize her for that.” So it's very complicated. There's a lot of history there that people just don't necessarily know. 

And then with hilot, it is traditional medicine from the Philippines. And this is kind of a gory story. But basically, when the Spanish colonizers came to the Philippines, they basically, as part of their colonization, decided to destroy people in the communities there—Indigenous communities who held knowledge of medicine, of culture, who had very significant prominent roles in their communities. They decided to eradicate them, right? Like, these are the Babaylan, the Katana and the malarkey. Each tribe has a different name for those folks who are holding medicine, but it's not just medicine, it's a lot of other things. So the colonizers targeted them, and tried to murder all of them, basically, to get rid of this medical system and get rid of this social cultural support. And so it's really, now it's really beautiful that there's a movement to bring a lot of this medicine back that was almost completely lost through multiple waves of invasion in the Philippines. So yeah, like I could go on and on and on about that topic. There's so much to talk about there. But that's just kind of on the broader systemic sense, like what some of the history is.

Sunny 7:31  

Yeah, that's like, a really good fact. And like history to know and to acknowledge, especially that it's not just US based but also it's transnational, diasporic based. So yeah, so thank you also for giving me a little bit of that history because a lot of that I did not even know about. Yeah, and then I guess into your like qi gong practice, I did notice that you center it to be around for the queer, trans and bipoc communities. And I was just curious on how you're able to structure that for these various communities?

Lakan 8:06  

Yeah, I think a lot of that structure is just sort of built into how I teach because that's, you know, those are my identities in my communities. And so that lived experience really informs my practice. And a lot of us because of racism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, on a very, like, not basic, but like on a very collective level, a lot of us are excluded from different kinds of healing practices because it's not safe. I don't know how to say it more plainly than that where, like, so much of us have medical trauma, where we've been to doctors who don't believe our experiences, who don't take what we are bringing to them very seriously, who may have misgendered us, who don't take into account that there is often generational trauma that we're dealing with. 

And so what I try to do in my classes is try to make space for that. Like, there is no way that I can create 100% safe space, that's just not possible. But I do try to, you know, like we'll talk about pronouns, we'll talk about how we need to cultivate awareness of our bodies as the way to just, you know, as a way to survive but also to thrive. A lot of us are in situations where we have been in situations where it's not safe to be in our bodies. For whatever reason, and qi gong is a way to start exploring that and to come home to ourselves, to move in a gentle way. I like to encourage folks to move within the range of motion that feels good, rather than let's move to the point where we feel pain. So you might have heard like, “Oh, stop, if it hurts,” if you're doing an exercise or any kind of movement class, I go a little bit even less than that. Because a lot of the time, by the time it hurts for some of us, that means we've already injured ourselves. If you're someone who struggles with disassociation, they often don't feel their bodies very easily. And so, by the time they do feel pain, it's already that the injuries have already happened. They just didn't feel the lead up to the actual when the pain is manifesting. So I try to teach people to at least like, start looking for pleasure in how they move and how they are present in their body, and let that be the guide rather than pain. 

If we're working with, you know, maybe we're in bodies that have a really ramped up nervous system. Everything's really tight, everything's really tense. If you're introducing things that feel really uncomfortable or cause more pain then the body will tense even more. The nervous system will get even more activated because it's already looking for threats. So this is a very somatic way of reregulating things to have a more controlled way of exploring motion, of exploring presence in the body. Of exploring sensation where the person practicing it has a lot more control where maybe they don't have control in other parts of their life, but in that moment, in that hour, where maybe we're working together, they can be like, “Okay, we are a little bit safer here. We can be a little bit less tense. We don't have to be on guard the whole time.” 

And at least in that moment, there's a little bit of a break for the nervous system, which is super, super important. Because a lot of us, we have to have it a little more active to survive—that's very real. But it creates an opportunity for discernment, where we can say, in this moment, we can be a little bit more chill, and it's gonna be okay. It's kind of like saving up when you have to be on fight or flight for when you actually have to be in fight or flight. Right, like that fight or flight response is so necessary, and it's not sustainable to be in it all the time. It costs a lot of resources from our body, from our emotions, from our mental health.

Sunny 13:12  

Yeah, thank you so much for that clarification on what that looks like. And it's so impressive how you're able to integrate a lot of  disability justice oriented things. This turn towards focusing on the body feeling good when the Western medicine industry is often very inaccessible and very professionalized. So I was also just curious if you could also illuminate us more about the differences that you've seen between Western medicine and Asian traditional medicine, and also your general thoughts about the medical industrial complex within the US. 

Unknown Speaker  13:54  

I think that the idea of Western medicine is so funny because, you know, pre-industrialization, a lot of Western medicine was more holistic. So every culture has had some kind of plant medicine, you know, like a more integrative approach to health where you're looking at the physical body and the emotional and the spiritual. All of these things, and I think it's really Western medicine, which I'm going to call it a holistic or allopathic medicine. That is relatively new, right? Like the invention of the pharmaceutical company is very relatively new. How we have medical systems now is very new. I don't think it's all bad. I think some of it is very necessary, but it is how I view the body and how I view healing is very relational. It's more about looking at the body and the context that the body is in, the external context the body is in, as an ecosystem. 

So it's like an ecosystem within an ecosystem. And in that ecosystem, there is health when things are more balanced. When everything has its role, it's in its place, everything is relational and working in that way. And I wouldn't necessarily, if someone was ill, I wouldn't be like, “Oh, we need to fight that illness. We need to eradicate whatever that is.” I would say, “Okay, is this part of the body that needs to be strengthened a little bit? Instead of spraying everything with pesticides, maybe I'm planting flowers that attract predators, natural predators of the pests that are eating the rest of the garden. Does that make sense? Right, like, we're balancing it in a different way. So that everything is healthy—healthy is not a great word—but everything is a little more harmonious. Whereas I think in more allopathic medicine, it's more like warfare. Right? Like, we cut it off, we burn it off, we, you know, eradicate it, we fight it. So that's more like let's spray pesticides on it to like all of the things are dead. But then that messes up the rest of the garden. So it's, are there times when that is maybe useful? Yeah. I'm not gonna say I can cure cancer with acupuncture. I'm sure there are doctors out there who actually have that ability. But it is not my first approach. And I think that allopathic medicine can have something to learn from medicines that have been around for 1000s of years.

Sunny 17:11  

Yeah, thank you for that. I know a lot about the cure concept. I really liked your analogy about the garden, and the difference between pesticides versus planting a flower or a certain plant that can ameliorate the process rather than trying to completely remove it. Because sometimes it's not possible for disabled individuals or with whatever disorder or background that they have. So yeah, I really liked your explanation about that.

Lakan 17:46  

We don't have to always look at the body or the disease or the issue as a problem, necessarily. I mean, you know, people can have whatever relationship they want to it. But I don't necessarily view it that way. I don't want us to be enemies of our bodies.

Sunny 18:11  

I really liked the concept. I also saw on your website that you talk a lot about healing work. So I was interested in how you're able to implement that not only in your professional life, but also through your personal life.

Lakan 18:28  

Oh, wait, can you be more specific? Healing work is a huge topic. 

Sunny 18:33  

As a practitioner, how you're able to help your clients and the folks who see you to implement the healing work. On the flip side, how you're able to also continue this healing work for yourself.

Lakan 18:59  

I would say something that has been guiding me a lot the last couple years is letting pleasure lead me. And using that as a guiding tool. Does something feel good in my whole body? When I make a decision about something, is that feeling good everywhere? Does that feel aligned? Am I moving in a way that brings more joy to myself and subsequently everyone around me? Or am I moving away from that? So I'm someone who is… I'm autistic and I have ADHD. And that has been super helpful for me for regulating myself. Because if I am moving against my nature, against the way that my brain works, against my neurotype, it doesn't feel good, right? Like I cannot force myself to work in a way that an allistic or neurotypical person works. And I have to use that internal sense of joy and pleasure to help me make decisions. And that, you know, spreads outwards from me. 

So if I'm working in a way that I'm burning myself out all the time, that leads to me getting a lot of fatigue, a lot of mental brain fog. I have a lower threshold of stress, all of this stuff that means that my work with other people suffers from that. I'm not saying that never happens to me. But the more I can work in alignment with myself, the less that happens, the easier is to do what I love, and what I love is doing medicine. If I can balance my own ecosystem, the more I can do that, the more the ecosystem that I am part of that's outside of me, the more I can engage in that in a more harmonious way, right? I can't give it to anyone if my cup is not full. So I tried it as much as I can—move from a place of abundance. And that being said, there are times when I can't because of circumstances. But, the more I move from a place of abundance, the easier it is to recover from those times where I don't have much of a choice.

Sunny  21:42  

Yeah, that's such a great mindset and outlook to have throughout your life. Because I feel like pleasure is not something most people prioritize, or, I don't know, I feel like it's sometimes looked down upon in our capitalist society. Or it's like something kind of, like we don't think about in the forefront of our brain. So that's actually a way to guide your life. 

Lakan 22:07  

If you don't have that, then it's easy to become, to believe the illusion that your oppression is normal. Right? Does that make sense? Again, if you are not in touch with your own pleasure or your own joy, then the illusion that is happening around you, that, you know, it's like fine to be oppressed. It’s like we don't deserve relationships that are mutually loving and reciprocal. If you are not in touch with that, it's hard to discern, if that makes sense.

Sunny  22:50  

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I guess the last question I had for today was a bit more about the qi gong workshop you're doing with DVRP. And I was just curious of what folks can expect for this workshop.

Lakan 23:06  

If you've never done qi gong before, it is a movement practice that originates in China. Qi gong, you can roughly translate it to cultivation of qi, or qi being vital energy. It's a very low impact/no impact. If you've ever seen sweet Asian elders in the park kind of moving really slowly and gracefully, we're going to do something like that. They're just very gentle movement exercises. It's very easy to modify what we're doing if people have different physical needs. The forms come from martial arts, but the difference is we're not training the body for combat. 

We're training the body for wellness. We're training the body to be more in touch with itself and for our qi, or vital energy, to circulate better. And that spreads out to different benefits, depending on who's doing it and what's going on with them. So folks might experience some calm, some tranquility, physical or mental. Sometimes people feel kind of warm and tingly afterwards because their circulation has improved and it's moving a little bit better. It can be very helpful for pain relief. That's another thing that can happen with qi gong. Different, better energy. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, my energy level has increased and I feel like I can do more things.” And on the very basic level, you will be inhabiting your body more. You'd be home for a little bit, at least.

Sunny 25:06  

That sounds really exciting. And also, just like a follow up on that is, what is the thing that you look forward to most for this qi gong workshop with DVRP?

Lakan 25:18  

I always love teaching qi gong because it's really fun for me, as I also get some movement, I also get these benefits. But every time I've taught a class, people are kind of surprised at what they experience about what their bodies can do. When they're like, “Oh, I'm doing this very simple movement, you know, a few times and all of a sudden, I noticed that I feel my feet again. Or that tension I had in my neck was gone.” I get to accompany people on a little self discovery about what is possible with their bodies and the sensations that they feel and where they're at. And that to me is always a little bit of a miracle. Right? It's very magical because here's one circumstance that you enter with, enter the session with, and then at the end, something has changed. You were in this session and your reality altered a little bit, and you're coming out a little bit different. And sometimes you notice something small, it’s wonderful. Sometimes you notice something big, also awesome. But no one experiences nothing.

Sunny 26:35  

Yeah, that sounds like so much fun. I was wondering if you had any final questions or comments that you wanted to give? 

Lakan 26:49  

It's just show up as you are. It is not a practice where I demand perfection. To me, it's a very low demand thing. The only thing is that you show up. You show up as you are and we can work with where you're starting from.

PLEASE NOTE: You need to register for each of the workshop dates separately. Please select the date using the drop-down menu on the zoom page.

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