Years before I began to study Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture, I practiced and taught yoga. From this dual-perspective of yoga teacher and registered acupuncturist, I’d like to share with you some of the many ways that yoga and acupuncture overlap, and some practical advice about how to combine them effectively.
Limbs and Branches
Firstly, what we currently refer to as yoga in the West is actually a small part of a larger system, and the same is true of acupuncture. Yoga as it is taught in most yoga studios is mostly “hatha yoga” which means the practice of postures, or asanas, which is actually only one of eight limbs of yoga as outlined by the sage Patanjali. The other limbs of yoga are ethical standards (yama), self-discipline (niyama), breath control (panayama), withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and ecstasy (samdhi).
Similarly, acupuncture is only one of eight branches of TCM, one piece of evidence that leads to some conjecture about the shared origins of yoga and Chinese medicine thousands of years ago. The other branches of TCM are herbal medicine, massage/bodywork (tui na), exercise (qi gong, including tai ji), diet, cosmology, meditation, and environment (feng shui).
Energy Prana Qi
No discussion about yoga or acupuncture would be complete (if such a thing is even possible… they are both HUGE subjects that people study for decades!) without some mention of “prana” (Sanskrit word), or “qi” (Chinese word, pronounced something like “chee”, sometimes spelled “chi” in the old system of English-Chinese). Both prana and qi are usually translated as “energy”; sometimes something like “life force” or “vital flow”.
Both systems conceive of prana/qi as a constantly moving thing in various forms. As the old saying goes: “It’s all qi, man.” Prana/Qi is everywhere and everything, and although it may manifest differently in the case of a rock and a human being, everything that is, is qi. In order to make sense of the universe, however, some divisions and descriptions of different manifestations of qi are necessary for most of us.
Practical Advice for Combining Acupuncture and Yoga
I get asked quite a lot whether it’s a good idea to combine acupuncture with other therapies and activities, and the answer is generally “Yes, it’s a great idea.” One reason acupuncture is so useful is its almost complete lack of negative side-effects and contra-indications, so it can be performed alongside most other treatments, conventional or otherwise. The major concerns are, of course, blood-clotting disorders such as hemophilia, and needle-phobic patients. However, even within these conditions, there is possibility for some patients to modify the conditions under which they receive acupuncture so that it works for their particular situation. They may also choose to focus on other modalities to stimulate acupuncture points and channels, such as massage, acupressure, cupping, moxibustion (heat therapy), and scraping (gua sha). Yoga can also be a great way to stimulate acupuncture channels and points, both as an alternative and a simultaneous practice to acupuncture.
Should I get Acupuncture Before or After doing Yoga?
It is generally advised that after an acupuncture treatment you should allow the body to rest, or at least, not work too hard. I usually tell my patients something like “Don’t go run a marathon, and don’t do an intense cross-fit or vinyasa three class.” It is still possible, even sometimes ideal, to practice yoga and receive acupuncture in the same day, however, when possible try to get acupuncture AFTER a yoga class, especially if it is a very active or challenging class. This is for three main reasons:
1. Acupuncture tends to leave the mind and body very relaxed, even a little spacey. For more challenging yoga classes you want all of your attention and focus available to make sure you practice with safe alignment and mindfulness.
2. Acupuncture creates micro-traumas in the body, by piercing the skin, muscles, and connective tissue and leaving small injuries behind for the body to heal. This is in fact part of the therapeutic mechanism of acupuncture. Strenuous effort after an acupuncture treatment might theoretically put strain on these micro-injuries and slow the healing response. However, keep in mind this would have been of greater concern in the past when acupuncture needles were significantly larger than the needles most practitioners use today. (This is also likely why some practitioners advise against having a bath after an acupuncture treatment… large needles would have left larger injuries, clean water would not have been as accessible, and so being submerged in water might not be the best idea after an acupuncture treatment under these conditions.)
3. Yoga is really good at getting prana/qi moving, and within an acupuncture treatment, the goal of the needles is to direct and stimulate qi in very particular ways or directions. Some people consider more moving modalities like massage or yoga to over-ride the subtle influence of acupuncture needles, so it’s best to get things moving before an acupuncture treatment, and then direct that movement with the needles afterwards. (This might also be justification for advice not to take a shower after an acupuncture treatment, as standing under running water is a great way to wake up and move qi!)
But as with all rules in yoga and TCM, there are always exceptions. If you plan to follow up an acupuncture treatment with a modified, gentle Moksha class, or Yin or Restorative, that can be a great way to continue the work begun with your acupuncture treatment.