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Why It’s Important to Understand the History of Wellness Practices From Asia

by
Andrea Cheng
Author
May 24, 2021

Chances are high that you’ve participated in, or at the very least, seen dozens of influencers on social media participate in wellness practices that have deep roots in Asia: yoga, meditation , gua sha, drinking matcha, cupping therapy, acupuncture, herbal medicine treatments—the list goes on. And with so much focus on self-care throughout the pandemic, the popularity of these practices has only grown. But, it has also become abundantly clear since the start of the pandemic: When it comes to Asian-derived health and wellness practices, they’re often consumed without acknowledgment of the culture or the people.

“The ability to dissociate products or practices for the benefit of a particular demographic at the expense or erasure of the other is what I find the most troubling,” says Genevieve Clutario, PhD , a cultural historian and assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College. “There’s a fascination with Asian culture, but only when it’s taken up by someone not Asian, then it becomes acceptable. And when you compound that with capitalism and make a profit off of it, two things can happen: the historical roots get completely eliminated or you perpetuate this ‘mystical’ Asian myth.”

With more people prioritizing their health and wellbeing than ever before (the global health and wellness market reportedly hit $3.31 billion last year ), it’s only inevitable that they’d seek out alternative approaches to health and spirituality that are largely missing from the American conventional healthcare system. Many of these have roots in Asia, the reason for that, Clutario explains, can be pointed to the reach of its diaspora, specifically populous countries like China and India.

“People are realizing that you can’t take a pill for everything; people aren’t happy with traditional Western medicine, and they’re looking for another route to help get to the root cause of their issues,” says Ruvini Wijetilaka, MD , a physician at Parsley Health. “You can take Tylenol every day to relieve back pain, but that’s just a Band-Aid.”

Participating in these practices is all well and good, but it becomes a problem when consumers buy into the “idea of an unchanging, centuries-old ancient wisdom, but that’s a fantasy, a mythology, and it says more about Orientalism and our romanticization of Asia than anything else,” says Pierce Salguero, PhD , associate professor of Asian History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. “The actual history of Chinese medicine, as one example, is constantly changing in relation to new discoveries, new theories, political and cultural influences, and development within the field.”

So to participate without committing appropriation is to educate oneself by understanding the history of the practice, how it transformed over time, and how it became embedded into American culture. And to that end, Salguero, who has dedicated his career to studying the histories of Asian medicine, breaks down the three most popular Asian-derived health and wellness practices in America: Chinese medicine, yoga, and mindfulness. (Editor’s note: While there are countless practices, including reiki and Ayurveda, we’re focusing on the top three in this article.)

Chinese Medicine

Chinese medicine, which encompasses acupuncture (believed to be the regulation of qi by inserting needles into specific points located along lines in relation to organ systems), herbal medicine, qi gong, and others, was introduced to the U.S. in the 19th century (and quite possibly during the Gold Rush era in California) by immigrants from East Asia. In the 1960s, it was embraced by the Black community —specifically, Black Panthers who were interested in acupuncture as a less expensive form of community health (an acupuncture clinic existed in Harlem for this reason). It wasn’t until a 1971 New York Times article by James Reston that detailed his experience of having his appendix removed and receiving acupuncture, that the practice entered mainstream consciousness.

In the ‘80s, acupuncture licensure became more prevalent; schools dedicated to the craft became a professional organization. And now, Chinese medicine is accepted as a complementary medicine category within the biomedical healthcare infrastructure in the U.S., making it the most formalized practice recognized by the mainstream medical community.

Salguero stresses the fact that acupuncture practiced today is not the same as it was 2,000 years ago: Records from China indicate that acupuncture has constantly transformed and evolved over time, with many different schools of thought. One monumental change was during the Mao era when acupuncture underwent a process of modernization and hybridization with biomedical scientific methods—this is what we refer to as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), an approach that’s under 100 years old, much less centuries old. TCM is commonly practiced in the U.S., along with 5 Element , a modern, hybrid form of acupuncture that derives from Japan via Europe.

Dr. Wijetilaka, for one, recommends acupuncture to about 85 percent of her patients. Acupuncture, she says, is one of the few Asian-derived health and wellness practices that has undergone clinical trials and boasts evidence-based data, specifically for four conditions: migraines , low back pain , hot flashes, and knee osteoarthritis . “I love acupuncture,” she says. “I recommend it to anyone who has pain, migraines, fertility issues or irregular periods , or is under a lot of stress. Especially during the pandemic, acupuncture has been a lifesaver for some, and it’s a great complement to traditional medicine.”

Yoga

Yoga started as a religious practice, as part of Hinduism and Buddhism spiritual development—the transformation into an enlightened self. There’s the Hindu version from India (which is the most well-known, and the one practiced in the U.S.), and there are Buddhist versions from countries like Tibet and Thailand. Yoga in India was largely an esoteric practice—one that was never standardized nor made public, but rather, exclusive to those with knowledge of it—but in the 19th century, it was frowned upon by British colonial rule as something that was superstitious, dangerous, and possibly seditious. Yoga was suppressed until the late 19th, early 20th century when it was revived as a form of fitness, which removed the stigma and positioned itself as a more “respectable” practice.

Yoga went on to become a part of the training program for competitive bodybuilders, and from there, it was taught at fitness clubs and at the YMCA all across India. It was introduced to the U.S. through YMCA’s international network as a form of fitness. But it took a subversive turn in the 1960s when it became a part of the counterculture, along with mantra chanting and other Hindu practices, among hippies and celebrities.

By the 1990s, yoga hit mainstream recognition, and it was offered in health clubs and gyms everywhere; now, “it’s a part of American health, a part of the fabric of the health industry in the U.S,” Salguero says. “But know that we’re not doing yoga the way it was done 500 or 1,000 years ago. It’s a modern, hybrid form of yoga that’s been transformed into a fitness practice.”

Yoga is something that Dr. Wijetilaka also suggests to her patients as an adjunct to more high-intensity workouts and as a way to reduce cortisol levels for those who are experiencing immense stress and anxiety . “Yoga can have a calming effect on the body,” she continues. “And it’s a great way to alleviate muscle tension, but be careful if you have injuries—make sure you modify poses.”

Mindfulness

Mindfulness as it’s known in America today has origins in Buddhist meditation, which was practiced by people living within monasteries in order to attain spiritual enlightenment. It was very infrequently done by lay people—but that changed in the 19th century in Southeast Asia when then-Burma, now-Myanmar was under British colonial rule. The monastery felt that the Buddhist tradition was being threatened by colonial powers, and as a result, they started to teach a simplified form of meditation throughout the lay population in order to preserve the teachings of Buddha in case the temples were destroyed.

In the early 20th century, there were efforts to link meditation, which at the time was still thought of as a religious practice, with psychology in Japan, the U.S., and Europe. By the 1940s to 60s, it became increasingly common to talk about meditation as something that was beneficial for mental health.

The big, landmark moment came in 1979 when professor Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, a standardized form of mindfulness that could be used for clinical trials, making it possible to conduct more research on the psychological and medical benefits of meditation. Since then, mindfulness has become a cultural phenomenon for its ability to reduce stress (Salguero says he’s found more than 19,800 research studies published on mindfulness), and it’s for this reason that it’s widely practiced, from psychologists to leaders at meditation centers to everyday people through apps on their phone or group classes. (And, it works, which is why Parsley clinicians often prescribe meditation to patients.)

As for its benefits, Dr. Wijetilaka says practicing mindfulness can reduce stress, anxiety, and cortisol levels; boost grey matter (the area in the brain where memories are formed); and help with sleep . She suggests trying an app for meditation or even something as simple as queuing up a favorite song and taking five minutes to reset.

The takeaway

“There’s an irony to people delving into Chinese medicine, yoga, or mindfulness without appreciating that these are traditions from other cultures that have been adopted and adapted in this country,” Salguero says. “The contributions of Asian Americans over the last 150 years have been so tremendous and also so ignored. Asian Americans are often painted as foreign when the truth is, they’ve been an integral part of our society for 150 years, and the more people understand that history, the more empathy and understanding they will have toward the Asian American community.”

But it’s not just on the consumers to learn—Salguero is adamant that those who are practicing have a responsibility as well, whether that’s the doctor of Chinese medicine, the teachers in yoga classes, or the facilitators running meditation programs. “The onus is on them to educate themselves about the practices they’re learning and promoting,” Salguero says. “These practitioners need to educate themselves so they can participate and educate the consumers about the origins of these traditions.”

by
Andrea Cheng
Author

Andrea Cheng is a New York-based fashion & beauty writer with bylines in publications, including The New York Times, Glamour, Elle, and Refinery29. 

Read full bio
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