Spirit healing, Chinese Medicine, and the Subconscious Mind

Alternative healing practices are flourishing in the internet age, challenging Western medicine’s dogma with a toolbox of self-care, natural medicine, and mindfulness – and increasing vaccine hesitancy.

A rainbow-themed shopfront with emerald-green walls lies deep in the heart of the Shilin Night Market. On the “International Fortune Telling Street,” a dozen individual tables offer individual Yi Jing (an ancient Chinese divination text) and tarot card readings. Down a flight of stairs, in a room resembling a massage therapy locale, lies the home of International Light Program, a group offering spiritual and physical healing by connecting the heavens and earth to bring vital energy or light to the individual.  

A meteorite sits at the entrance to the basement. Before the start of a session, the rock is honored with a quick genuflection and three swirls of incense. A nearby bucket holds a half-dozen Qian Kun Wands (乾坤棒) – wooden dowels as thick as broom handles. Each has been blessed – or “kai-guang” (開光) – to allow energy to flow freely. The dowels are used for a brief exercise session followed by a massage with the wands and other implements such as metal cleavers and petrified coral. 

Talismans and tools like these wands are common in alternative healing and religious practice in Taiwan. According to a recent survey by the Ministry of the Interior’s Religious Affairs Section, 33% of Taiwan’s population identify as Taoists, and nearly as many ascribe to Buddhism.  

The International Light Program offers programs catering to “functional wellness” – a toolbox of Eastern self-care practices such as meditation and breath work, yoga or stretching, relaxation, and a vegetarian diet. RS Borealis, a group practitioner, describes self-care as akin to cleaning a house, encouraging everyone to spend a minimum of 10 minutes per day caring for their bodies and minds.  

International Light Program member gives a woman knife massage during the 2022 Europe Festival.

A graduate school psychology researcher from Canada, Borealis has spent the past 15 years in Taiwan studying chi and energy. She also leads a small group and private sessions in such practices, running at about NT$1,200 for an hour. 

Many alternative healing practices emphasize “light” and positive energy, although a darker side exists, as represented by the yin and yang and Tai chi symbols. Believers say that energy’s true nature includes the interplay of light and dark, matter and anti-matter, or female and male. Those pursuing the dark arts have at times been deemed “occult,” which is the Latin term for “hidden,” though they are simply a version of New Age beliefs.  

Internet-savvy millennials, such as 34-year-old Doriane Sarrasin from France, are prime examples of individuals drawn to alternative healing practices and beliefs primarily related to “yin,” or what Sarrasin refers to as “natural law.” After taking kung-fu classes as a teen, she was inspired to pursue Sinology studies at the University of Provence and graduate studies that brought her to Taiwan to do ethnological work with indigenous tribes. 

Sarrasin’s website, www.dorianegreens.com, is a mixture of body and wellness products, personal philosophy, dance videos, and an autobiography. She thinks of it as an art project, or a multiyear interdisciplinary pursuit. “I am trying to create a bubble within which I can be creative and inspire other people,” she says. Her website also highlights her involvement in permaculture, which produces the herbs and ingredients for her self-made line of soaps, candles, and smudge sticks. As part of the lifestyle, Sarrasin is committed to a vegetarian diet, which she says is connected to natural law as a moral way of eating and not causing harm.  

“A right action doesn’t cause harm to another being and can make food fuel for the mind and body,” she says. “The more living foods you eat (fruits and vegetables), the more efficiently the body works, and not only gives you clear thinking but also a healthier body. When you intake the death and suffering of sentient beings into your body, it will not contribute positively to your existence on any level. Our mind, body, and spirit will be affected over time.” 

Bloggers and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) like Sarrasin have fueled interest in vegetarian businesses such as Green Monday, which supplies vegetarian products that mimic meat and seafood. The company’s stated mission is to positively impact important subjects like climate change, resource scarcity, and animal cruelty.  

Besides influencing people to consider having vegetarian meals one day a week, Green Monday actively looks to break into the broader restaurant business through products offered at a low cost and high margin. The company’s big break came through its vegetarian dumplings offered by local chain Bafang Dumpling, of which it sells around one million a week. Now, Green Monday boasts a list of collaborations with giants like Starbucks, McDonald’s, and IKEA. 

TCM and a dose of skepticism 

A Ren Ai Hospital annex houses the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Department, a dozen individual clinics with interconnected acupuncture rooms. The department is almost always busy, and it typically takes a full morning for a patient to receive a diagnosis and a 15-minute acupuncture session on the table. A nearby TCM dispensary allows patients to have their traditional Chinese medical needs met in the annex. 

Yang Hua-mei, who is recovering from a brain stem stroke she suffered two years ago, comes to the hospital twice a week with her Filipina caregiver, Janice. Yang still struggles with dizziness and a range of motions. Her severe weight loss makes massage therapy dangerous but she has responded well to acupuncture. Although Yang has extensive experience with Western medicine because of her stroke, she prefers TCM, which she says “takes longer, but treats the whole body.” 

Rob Ogle is a devotee of an approach called Structural Integration (SI), which offers a holistic approach to back pain and healing.

Yang is part of a large group of people looking for treatment through TCM, as shown by the approximately 40 million TCM visits that occurred in Taiwan in 2019, according to industry group Taiwan Bio Industry Organization. The group also reported 6,692 registered TCM doctors, with five dedicated hospitals and nearly 4,000 clinics in the same year. While TCM treatment is covered by National Health Insurance, such payments represented just 0.033% of total reimbursements, a number that does not reveal the full picture as TCM is mainly used for minor health ailments and at times is classified as food. Meanwhile, in Europe and elsewhere, where TCM is often called Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), the industry is growing despite the lack of inclusion in state-funded health insurance programs. 

In the West, wellness communities have regularly overlapped with anti-vax groups that advocate against the use of vaccines. Although far from every yogi refuses the shots, the media has frequently reported anti-vax narratives spreading in natural parenting and alternative health groups on social media in countries like the U.S. and New Zealand. These intersections can be found in Taiwan, too, particularly among parents. Although the island’s COVID vaccination rate was at over 84% in August, the rate among children aged five to 11 was less than 50%, and around 12% for children aged six months to four years.  

Yang’s weak physical condition made her distrustful of COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, she regularly consumed a concoction of TCM herbal medicine that she believes can protect her against COVID, and so did her caregiver, who remains unvaccinated (to Yang’s approval) due to severe allergies.  

Yang became a vaccine skeptic due to videos and testimonies she saw on the internet. Cases of severe reactions to vaccines led her to be more cautious as she’s prone to be influenced by personal testimonials and experiences; a friend, who works as a TCM practitioner, also encouraged her to be hesitant. Eventually, Yang gave in to family pressure and received two doses of the vaccine without negative effects, though she still harbors suspicions, especially for her children.  

“You can’t undo negative effects of the vaccine, and the clinical trials are still relatively young,” she says. “I am very worried about giving vaccines to children as side effects can include infertility. I want to use my own brain to make a decision.”  

Yang is regularly kept abreast of COVID-related news through her social media feed and LINE message groups associated with her children’s elementary school. While most parents in Taiwan trust the vaccines, that trust does not extend to vaccinating their children, and they scrutinize vaccines for safety, often waiting weeks for BNT or Moderna shots to be available.  

Massaging the mind 

In a nondescript apartment block near Taipei 101, a second-floor apartment has been transformed into the Pain Release Clinic, operated by massage therapist Lu Chi-yu. His specialty used to be sports medicine, treating national team athletes and ailments such as frozen shoulders. However, many of Lu’s customers are office workers and the elderly, whom he treats on two traditional massage beds. His business has been irreparably damaged by COVID as many of his clients are unwilling to travel for non-essential activities. As a result, Lu was forced to raise his rates – a normal session running 60 minutes now costs NT$1,000 – and estimates that his business is down by around 30%.  

Physical and emotional health are intimately intertwined in what’s known as the mind-body connection, making a holistic approach suitable for many ailments.

Most of the ailments Lu treats result from extensive time in front of a computer, poor posture, and lack of exercise. He corrects his patient’s posture with a table full of rocks ranging from a selection of grapefruit-sized stones to a cloth bag stuffed with small pebbles. At times, he pounds the patient’s vertebrae with various degrees of force. The two main points he concentrates on are the lower spine and the neck, sometimes cradling the patient’s head with his forearms.  

While Lu’s massage practices can be crude and rudimentary, the same is not true of a new generation of massage therapists who pursue specialized therapy treatments and fiddle with psychotherapy. Rob Ogle, a Texas native who moved to Taipei 20 years ago, offers a holistic approach to back pain and healing. He is a devotee of an approach called Structural Integration (SI), a therapeutic school that looks beyond muscles and bones to consider supporting systems such as fascia, blood vessels, tissues, and organs. A typical course of treatment runs for two hours and costs NT$2,300, while an in-depth treatment involves 12 sessions for the price of NT$25,000.  

“I treat about two or three people a day and concentrate on connective tissue as well as past personal trauma,” says Ogle. “Most people wait until the last minute to help them escape patterns of physical and emotional pain.” 

On his website, www.effortwithouteffort.com, Ogle writes that he entered the business as a yoga teacher, soon realizing his limited knowledge about anatomy and pain relief. After reading the book Anatomy Trains, he considered many of his questions answered and began to practice SI as a type of bodywork that focuses on the connective tissue, or fascia, of the body. 

“Mental and physical pain is the same – it’s in the subconscious,” he says. “Our nervous system holds onto stress, and then it goes into the fascia. I also do psychotherapy and unconscious work with people to change their lifestyle and move beyond being a victim or control freak, which taxes their thyroid and immune system.”  

Not unlike Yang, Ogle has so far resisted getting the COVID-19 vaccine due to his belief that everyone’s nervous system is different. “I am not anti-vaccine,” he says. “I just couldn’t do it myself because it goes against what I stand for.” Ogle adds that he did come down with COVID-19 while in the U.S. last year, but his case was mild and treated with vitamins, a nebulizer, and lots of liquid rather than Western medicine.  

Ogle encourages his patients to show vulnerability and surrender control, as many have trust and anger issues. “I believe in transduction, which is basically the physics of energy conversion as stored anger can result in particles and waves stimulating our fight or flight response,” he says.   

Ogle’s maxim is simple: “dis-ease means we are not at ease.” He encourages everyone to relax through massage, meditation, or even aromatherapy or contemplating deep thoughts such as “body is mind, and mind is body.”