Thomas Jahn

An Interview with Thomas Jahn, On Acupuncture and South Africa

Thomas JahnI was connected to Thomas Jahn, an acupuncturist in South Africa by a mutual acquaintance.  Originally I had planned to do an interview more on how acupuncture is viewed in South Africa.  I was so taken by Dr. Jahn’s response to his background that I had to cut and paste his email in it’s entirety.  I am struck by how many of my classmates dreamed of the education he was able to follow up on.  I am also struck by the opportunities that so many practitioners dream of, but he has been able to create in his life.  It is my hope that Dr. Jahn will write more on his experiences as an acupuncturist and his thoughts on the profession.

In his words, the rest of this is written by Dr. Thomas Jahn:

“My first exposure to Asian culture came with the time I relocated with my parents to Tokyo, Japan when I was twelve years old. The philosophy aspect started with my study of martial arts about a year later, practicing the Japanese art of Kempo. At age fourteen I started regular classes at an internal martial arts school in Tokyo, practicing Qi Gong, Tai Ji Quan and eventually Xing Yi Quan. The time spent here furthered my sense of how our actions relate to their consequences, and so started to see how the practice of these sorts of disciplines actually support an ever-increasing awareness of this – this is where partner exercises such as ‘pushing hands’ are very insightful.

This I pursued for four years at the end of which I was increasingly frustrated to still not have been able to sense any real ‘internal’ changes in my body after that time. As ‘fate’ would have it, through a good friend of mine I was introduced to a Chinese man who was teaching Qi Gong and Shao Lin boxing weekly on Sundays. Conveniently, he was looking for someone to teach him English.

Consequently I joined his class on Sundays and would meet with him during the week for English classes. From the beginning I was quite curious as to what he did for his livelihood, since teaching a class once a week was not it. It turned out that he is a Chinese medicine doctor, at which point I became even more curious, and so our English sessions subsequently revolved exclusively around Chinese medicine. This relationship developed over three years, during which time I honed an ever-growing desire to pursue Chinese medicine more seriously.

My Japanese language skills were not quite appropriate to allow me to attend school for oriental medicine in Japan, and so on recommendation of a Chinese medicine doctor in Tokyo, I applied to several schools in California, to then move to San Diego in 1997 to eventually attend Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, later receiving my degree, and subsequently my California license to practice Chinese medicine.

The time spent in San Diego was beyond what I had hoped, and must say that I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend PCOM, along with all the incredibly meaningful clinical experience gained, especially also the off-site clinics and the voluntary assistantships throughout my time there.

My studies were wonderfully complemented with the tutelage of my martial arts teacher, Dr. Justin Ehrlich, who also exposed me to the specialty of ‘hit medicine’ – Chinese trauma medicine.

I still went to Tokyo every year to visit my family and my mentor, which eventually compelled me to continue my Chinese medicine studies in China once having graduated in the U.S. and had sat for the California licensing examination, to gain more exposure to the medicine in its cultural context.

In 2003 I moved to Beijing, with the intention of attending advanced Chinese medicine studies at the Beijing Chinese Medicine University once having completed one year worth of intense study of spoken Mandarin Chinese – I have been very lucky in that my time spent in Japan had allowed to gain an ever-increasing proficiency in the Chinese written language, so that was one thing I thankfully no longer had to be concerned about. My language studies ensued, during which time I started to regularly meet with a Chinese medicine doctor Dr. Li Xin to start getting some more insight into the medicine from a ‘local’s’ perspective. Through him I was introduced to a colleague of his, Dr. Xu Wen-bo, who in turn introduced me to her brother, Dr. Xu Wen-bing, who founded the Hope Insitute of Chinese Medicine, Beijing, where he runs a busy clinic as well as teaches foreigners various classes in Chinese medicine.

When I met Dr. Xu Wen-bing I was quite taken by his very open and honest account of his experience as a Chinese having grown up with Chinese medicine in China from a young age through his mother, herself a Chinese medicine doctor, to then later study at the very university I had originally planned on attending myself, and work there as an associate professor. He had a definite authentic feel about him which had me realize I was standing at the next crossroads in my life, and whole-heartedly continued with Dr. Xu, and not with the Beijing Chinese Medicine University as initially intended.

Dr. Xu introduced me to my new Qi Gong teacher, Mr. Ma Shi-qi, who guided us through various solo and partner Qi Gong exercises for two hours prior to each class with Dr. Xu, since it was extremely important to Dr. Xu that his students have a sound understanding of Qi in their own bodies before attempting to interpret that of their patients, and must say that this heavily influenced my enthusiasm to take Dr. Xu and Master Ma both that much more seriously. So much so, that after the first few months of classes I devoted myself entirely to my two new teachers. Subsequently, Dr. Xu offered me a personal assistantship, which also included doing a lot of translation work, functioning as teaching assistant to Dr. Xu and also Master Ma during his Qi Gong classes. The following year Master Ma offered me an apprenticeship to be fully included into his circle, as I had expressed many times my wish to some day be able to teach others.

I have practiced with many teachers of martial arts and Qi Gong in the past in numerous countries, and can without doubt say that Master Ma is second to none in his level of personal development of Qi ‘refinement’. With the commencement of the apprenticeship our classes took place on an almost daily basis for almost two years. With my fortune at the time of having no other commitments, I was also able to invest that much more time in the day to practice on my own.

Since my family was in South Africa, and I have had such a long connection with this country, I had already planned years before to move back, which I then did with my wife-to-be in February of 2007. I started working in private practice, relying on house calls, to then eventually sit for the South African licensing examination for Chinese medicine and acupuncture. It was at the exam venue that I met my new friend and soon-to-be colleague, also taking the exam with me, who was telling about a hospital clinic outside of Cape Town where he regularly performs acupuncture treatments. My ears perked up when I heard this, as I had fantasized about at some point in the distant future to being able work in such an environment, and there it just fell into my lap. I tagged along the following week and have been active there on an ongoing basis right up until the clinic was very coldly shut down end of November, 2011. We are currently still involved with legal proceedings and can tell you that corruption is in no short supply.

You had asked about how people in South Africa view acupuncture / Chinese medicine – mind you, I prefer to rather refer to it as ‘Chinese acupuncture’, in that too often ‘acupuncture’ by itself is often misconstrued as purely a physiotherapy tool – well, if you ask the people that came to the hospital clinic, among them diabetics, stroke patients, HIV patients, people with arthritis, kidney disease, liver disease, skin conditions, digestive conditions, addictions, depression, lupus, trauma, asthmatics, post-operative pain, etc., etc., then many will tell you about how their medications were reduced, others will confirm that their prescriptions were not renewed since they were no longer warranted, yet others about no longer needing walking aides such as canes, crutches, walkers and wheelchairs.

In fact, the popularity of this clinic was such, that there were just too many people to treat and not enough people to do the treatments! Originally there were three people active in the clinic, then about six months later two discontinued which left me to run the clinic for another one and a half years until I was joined by a new and very committed colleague. At times we saw 20, sometimes over 50 people during a shift. For a time I also had the chance to treat people in the in-patient wards of the hospital who would be struggling with the consequences of their medications, pain, constipation, phantom limb pain, etc.

We were fundamentally reliant on acupuncture in that the majority of patients simply do not have the financial resources to afford the regular use of herbs, although for several people this was an option at times. This is also where the inclusion of Qi Gong therapy in the form specific postural and breathing principles had proven to also be extremely effective. For a time there was an actual medical Qi Gong clinic that I ran at the hospital which was very popular, giving people a heightened sense of empowerment over their health situation, along with meaningful effects on their health.

Many other people one asks here about acupuncture will have experienced it in the form of ’dry-needling’, which, since the point prescription is not based on Chinese medical diagnostics, has nothing really to do with Chinese medicine per se. Hence why many people in the western world will understandably not associate it with an actually medical modality, particularly in internal medicine.

This is something that greatly bothers me with the legislature in the U.S. – which I must admit am not current with – that one receives the title of “Licensed Acupuncturist” on completing a full-course of study in Chinese medicine. This is obviously extremely misleading to the general public and therefore very undermining to the scope and very legitimacy of our profession – but that’s politics for you. Mind you, it’s obviously not a very lucrative business to actually promote a healthy society.

Interestingly, here in South Africa one is granted the titles of “Doctor of Acupuncture” and “Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine” on fulfilling the respective licensing requirements – certainly does more for one’s sense of credibility in terms of being an actual health care provider.

I have recently been a regular guest on a tv show called “Open Studio” produced by a local NGO tv station Cape Town Television hosted by a great friend of mine, with the topic of health and wellness, using Chinese medicine as a treatment tool and just as much also as a preventative tool, allowing more of the general population to have more access to Chinese medicine. Considering the overall socio-economic situation here in South Africa, modalities like Chinese medicine have HUGE potential in significantly bringing down the burden of illness amongst the masses – my experience at the hospital confirms this. The rest is just a matter of schlepping through all the darned bureaucracy to allow for things to happen!”


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Bonnie Koenig has been a licensed acupuncturist since 1999. She is passionate about helping people find real healing and real health. In the process she keeps asking about our attitudes towards sickness and health. Only by being clear on what sickness is, can we ever find health.

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