• The Body Issue

    Heart, Healing, and Acupuncture with Andy Baker

    The Body Issue
    Featured real

    Photos by Hanna Hurr

    Meet Andy Baker of Yarrow Medicine, the queer acupuncturist and herbalist providing accessible and holistic healing in Brooklyn, New York.

    Heart, Healing, and Acupuncture

    Before Andy Baker moved to New York City from Durham, North Carolina last year, they secured a job and found a room to sublet. Besides that, a lot was unclear. They had been working as a practitioner of acupuncture, Chinese herbalism, and other healing practices for years, but in a completely different context: rural and suburban Southern towns. In those contexts, Andy had come across many misconceptions about the work they do: acupuncture is just woo-woo, acupuncture is only for white, middle class women, acupuncture is just placebo. As a queer person critical of the medical industrial complex, these misconceptions were disconcerting and Andy found them difficult to challenge, especially while just trying to make ends meet.

    For Andy, the weight of professional expectations in the medical and health industries – having to dress a certain way, cover themselves up for patients, or follow someone else’s rules of how to conduct their practice – just wasn’t working. However, in breaking the rules, and breaking out on their own, Andy has been more successful than they ever hoped. Since founding their own New York-based practice Yarrow Medicine in Spring of 2017, and launching their popular Instagram account, Andy has had an outpouring of support, with more bookings for acupuncture and herbalism sessions than they can usually fit on their schedule. With a $40-80 sliding scale for each session for the general public, and $20-80 sliding scale for people of color and trans folks, Andy has managed to build a following as an accessible healer, providing trauma-informed care for majority queer and trans people in Brooklyn.

    Despite their growing client-base, Andy still struggles with some of the same fundamental questions that they did when they lived in the South, how can I challenge the notion that acupuncture is inaccessible? If I operate on a sliding scale, will I be able to pay rent next month? And more, how can I redistribute what I know to ensure that there can be more practitioners of color? How can we make healing a threat, again? Andy Baker sat down with us to share what they think.


    Where are some places you’ve lived as an adult? What are some key differences providing care for clients in each place?

    I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina and went to school for Acupuncture in Asheville where I did a two-year long internship during my four year program. After I graduated in 2015, I moved to Durham, NC to start my own practice. There I sought out space at a trans-affirming collective that was dedicated to making health-care accessible to trans, black, brown and indigenous folks. This was a big improvement compared to the environment of the student clinic in Asheville, but the community that I was appealing to in Durham just wasn’t big enough to sustain my practice. I also found there to be a lack of interest in acupuncture, in part due to lack of awareness of the scope of what Chinese medicine can treat.

    There is a lot of differences between practicing in a rural versus a suburban town, and the South versus Northern cities like New York. For one, Asheville is far more segregated, so my client base was much more homogenous. I had to appeal more to straight, new-age types since that tended to be the demographic that sought out alternative medicine the most. I concealed a lot of aspects of myself from patients – how I dressed and carried myself, and also my feelings about politics and how it is connected to alternative medicine.  

    It was hard to make ends meet in Durham and I constantly felt unsure of my capabilities as a practitioner. I continued to conceal who I was around some of my patients because I felt I didn’t live up to the stereotype of ‘healer’ that is perpetuated by a lot of healing arts: a white, straight, skinny woman who is a pacifist and views anger and sadness as pathological rather than productive and appropriate [responses] in our times.

    A year into living in Durham, I moved to New York. Since practicing for myself in New York, I’m able to treat more people who I feel an affinity with. I can talk about social and political issues more openly with patients, not just with friends. I relate ailments to being symptomatic of capitalism. And in turn, patients are open with me about their plans to get top surgery, or the challenges that they are facing in polyamorous relationships. I like that these topics are coming up more during my sessions. 

    Since moving to New York and starting your own practice, you’ve created your own niche as a queer and trans healer. Why do you think acupuncture and other kind of healing are relevant to queer life?

    Getting to work with more with queer, trans, and gender nonconforming folks is huge because I think this medicine has a lot to offer the queer community. I view alternative medicine as exactly that, an alternate option to Western medicine, which I equate with the medical industrial complex. Diverging from this norm and seeking care that is outside the status quo is queering medicine, in my opinion. In fact, Daoist culture, from which Chinese medicine stems, has a tradition of recognizing folks who do not fit into the gender binary. Lan Caihe is one of the Eight Immortals who is depicted androgynously and whose age and gender remain ambiguous. I find this history really empowering. It’s also empowering as fuck to realize that you don’t have to depend on some doctor to play gatekeeper to your healing and possibly, probably, traumatize you in the process. I want to give people simple tools that they can incorporate into their daily lives, food therapy being a prime example. Chinese medicine, when viewed from this lens, is an act of rebellion and liberation.

     

    How did you get involved in your practice of Acupuncture and Herbalism?

    I decided to study Chinese medicine because I was searching for answers to my own health problems and felt like Western medicine not only failed me, but traumatized me as a young-adult. 

    I have suffered from depression, anxiety, and disordered eating since puberty when I started getting picked on in school, in part for appearing too androgynous and being into Sailor Moon. Sailor Uranus is still my avatar, but that doesn’t win you very many cool points as a late blooming, self-conscious adolescent. I started faking sick a lot in order to avoid school. I also developed pretty bad acne as a teen, and the anxiety that accompanied my breakouts would often cause me to have panic attacks that prevented me from leaving the house for days at a time. Faking sick meant having to go to the doctor a lot. I was put on antibiotics for my skin as well as birth control and finally, accutane. After I started accutane, my skin got better, but my mental health worsened. This also probably had a lot to do with the fact that I was raped but never knew what to call it and never told anyone.  

    This time in my life was really tumultuous. I ended up dropping out of school and running away from home. I was raped again, this time more violently, and all of this left me feeling so disconnected from my body that I didn’t care much about what happened to it. I decided to start doing sex work. My few experiences were even more damaging, not because I think sex work is inherently traumatizing, but because, as a naive 16 year old navigating it for the first time, I was taken advantage of and didn’t have the self-esteem or knowledge to advocate for myself. 

    Once my parents found out that I was doing sex work, they checked me into a rehabilitation center. This place was the opposite of a healing environment. It was a last recourse before prison for teens, and a lot of the people in there were sentenced by the court system. I was pumped full of pharmaceuticals and not allowed to interact with anyone outside of group therapy. I couldn’t read, go outside or even look out of the window for the first few months. Often all we were allowed to do in a day was sit on our beds. I didn’t feel like what I said was taken seriously, and after a while I just said whatever I knew the counselors wanted to hear to make them think I was getting better. 

    My parents took me out of treatment after five months so that I could finish high school. From the age of 17 to 22 I was constantly in therapy, twelve-step programs, and on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals, some of which made me so physically ill that I broke out in a rash all over my body and couldn’t leave my bed. I had such an awful time with doctors and psychiatrists because they didn’t listen to me. I was written off as crazy for what I now understand to be a completely reasonable reaction to all the trauma I had gone through as a young person. I understand now that my mood swings were a side effect to some of the medications that I was prescribed. I only began to get some clarity when I took myself off of birth control at the age of 22. The difference was undeniable. I felt a lot less anxious than I ever had in my adult life, because I had been taking this supposedly benign drug since age 14. After realizing how much the drugs had been effecting me, I began to ween myself off all of my meds. I quit smoking and became more and more interested in empowering myself by learning about food therapy and herbalism. 

    Another experience that really drove me to seek alternative models was working briefly as an interpreter for Spanish speakers in a low-income clinic during my last semester in college. While working there I was privy to other folks’ nightmare experiences with health care, or lack thereof. I came to realize that the whole medical system was completely fucked. Most of the doctors were overworked, overwhelmed, bad listeners and wrote patients off just as readily as they wrote them scripts. The few doctors who did care were held back by red tape. My role as an interpreter demanded that I remain neutral in session but this seemed unjust, because my silence felt like complicity in a system that I found offensive and violent. I felt like there had to be something better than what I had experienced and what I was seeing other folks experience.

    By age 26 I decided to go back to school for Chinese medicine. I wanted to stop having to rely on doctors who were always going to immediately write me a script for whatever my symptoms were. I wanted answers so that I could empower myself and possibly share knowledge with other people. I still suffer from anxiety, depression, and anorexia, and I think this will be something that I deal with on and off for my entire life, but medication never solved these problems for me. Some people find things like birth control for hormonal imbalances or SSRIs for depression work for them, and I am by no means saying “get off these meds, they are poison” if they are helpful for you. Medicine is not one size fits all.

    What are some things you see as the main hindrances to people having access to the services and care you and your peer practitioners provide? How are you working to combat these roadblocks?

    In the US, acupuncture has become synonymous with care that white, middle class, cis women of a spiritual leaning seek out. The fact that this field is dominated by white cis-women perpetuates the problem. This homogenization makes spaces where acupuncture is practiced unsafe for black, brown, indigenous, trans and queer folks. I don’t think we will see much change until systematic racism and white supremacy are truly addressed, because until they are, most roles of authority are going to continue being occupied by cis white people. I include myself in this critique. It’s not only a problem in my field, but also in psychology and medicine as a whole. I don’t have many answers, but I have some ideas for how to make the practice of acupuncture safer and more accessible.

    For one, we have got to be clear when it comes to what aspects of Chinese medicine are relevant to our practice and what aspects are not. I think that once practitioners start feeling entitled to all aspects of Chinese culture, it becomes really problematic and appropriative. Even more so when that entitlement extends to any non-occidental spiritual tradition, including Tibetan prayer flags, singing bowls, yoga, and indigenous music.

    I think Chinese medicine, especially used in tandem with Western medicine, is a potent and powerful tool that should be treated as such. According to some statistics, Chinese medicine is used alongside Western medicine in as many as 95 percent of hospitals in China. In a lot of ways it can be argued that Chinese medicine is more comprehensive because it acknowledges the mind-body connection rather than compartmentalizing the physical from the mental from the spiritual. I think the spiritual elements of Chinese medicine and Daoism are fascinating, but in my own practice, I try to keep things rooted in my own life experiences and culture.  

    It’s important for us acupuncturists to practice what we preach. If an acupuncture practice says that they welcome everyone, then they better be thinking about how to make everyone feel comfortable. If a practice has multiple people on staff, it’s important to note if everyone is white (or white passing), cis and hetero-normative. If so, what is being done to uplift black, brown, indigenous, trans and gender nonconforming voices? Are we making sure that we are fostering visibility of various identities in our practice? When I worked in Durham, we made sure to have media in the waiting room that took into consideration a variety of audiences, not just a white and cis audience. Are practitioners dedicated to getting people’s pronouns right and asking for them on the paperwork? Are all the bathrooms in the facility gender neutral? Another thing to consider is having English and Spanish bilingual paperwork and website copy. 

    Creating spaces that are accessible to folks with physical disabilities is also huge. I just got into a building with an elevator, so I’m really happy to finally be able to say that my practice is more wheelchair accessible.

    I know you work with a lot of people with chronic illnesses and pain. What are some day-to-day practices that you recommend folks do in addition to regular appointments?

    Be gentle with yourselves. Take rest when you need it. Treat food as medicine but also allow flexibility with your diet. Allow yourself creature comforts and cartons of ice cream while you binge watch your favorite TV show. Don’t hold in your tears. Masturbate, if that helps ease anxiety. Extend the care to yourself that you would give to your loved ones. Extend the care to your loved ones that you would give to yourself. We need to prioritize taking care of one another because if we don’t, then who will? We must prioritize taking care of ourselves, too. There’s always something else we could be doing, but if we aren’t taking the time to do things that nurture us, we will be overwhelmed by the things that don’t.  

    I want to challenge the idea of wellness as looking one way for everyone. For me, I don’t know that I’ll ever live a life where I don’t experience some sort of anxiety over food. I want to push against the binary of sickness or wellness. Healing is a process and sometimes we just have to be patient with ourselves and one another while we are going through it. There is no finish line.

    In what ways do you see “professionalism” aiding or hurting your capacity and ability to provide accessible and holistic care to your clients?

    I think professionalism is a symptom of patriarchy and capitalism. It perpetuates norms of whiteness and wealth. It is designed to keep people from actually feeling comfortable while they are at work, because there’s a false idea that if you’re comfortable at work you are less productive or you might just get feisty and stand up to your boss.

    At school  I had to dress in a way that felt completely incongruent with my identity. My school claimed that the reason for such strict professionalism was because they wanted everyone to feel comfortable, the implication being that who I was underneath the dress code would make people uncomfortable. It reinforced gender stereotypes that I found problematic – namely that if you don’t dress extremely conservatively then it gives people license to sexualize you and that this is your responsibility to combat rather than theirs. I even joked with other queer friends that getting dressed to go to clinic was like performing drag. My drag just so happened to be Chloë Sevigny’s character in Big Love. I internalized the idea that being myself around patients was wrong for a long time and it made me question my abilities as a healer. 

    Another alleged reason my school enforced such a strict dress code was because they wanted acupuncture to be viewed on par with Western medicine. I also think Chinese medicine should be respected just as much as Western medicine, but I don’t think practitioners need to emulate all aspects of Western medicine in order to prove it’s worth. People who are seeking out alternative medicine are often seeking alternatives to Western medicine and the unsavory aspects that come along with it, including professionalism. One of the best parts of Chinese medicine, in my opinion, is that it fosters more of an equal relationship between patient and practitioner. Professionalism, on the other hand, is meant to promote hierarchy. The person who wears the lab coat is the person who holds the power. I want to break down these boundaries. I want to trust that my patients know their bodies best. I want to listen to people and never approach them from a place of superiority.  

    For a lot of people in the medical field, professionalism has become synonymous with upholding a code of ethics. I think that how I dress has little to do with how I treat patients. And there are plenty of professionals who dress the part, but continue conduct themselves with zero integrity. I dress the way I want in my private practice, which is pretty casual. My style is somewhat edgy and flirty, but I think my sexuality is something to be celebrated rather than denied and hidden. I respect my patients enough not to sexualize them and I expect the same in return. How I dress has no bearing on my commitment to respecting everyone who walks through my doors. I also think visibility is important for me. As a queer healer who by no means has their shit together, I think it’s important for people to see that I am not perfect. I like to go out and party. I have my own neuroses that I deal with on a daily basis. I hope that exposing my rough edges will feel more comfortable for folks. I don’t want to perpetuate the expectation that healers be perfect and live up to an unattainable, capitalist standard of health.  

    Is there anything coming up for you that you are excited about?

    I have been talking with a few people here in New York City about the potential of collaborating on a monthly donation-based clinic where all proceeds will go towards bail funds for political prisoners or relief-funds – whatever feels most important in the moment. In these ways, I want to keep strengthening bonds with other radical healers here in New York City and foster community. At the end of the day, I think healing is a communal effort, and I want to be held just as much as I want to hold and uplift others. 

    Are there any projects or people you want to shout out?

    I find the work of Dr. Mutulu Shakur, a black revolutionary who has been incarcerated since 1986, to be really inspiring and relevant to the practice of acupuncture. Dr. Shakur worked at the Lincoln Hospital Detoxification Program in the Bronx in New York during the 70s and 80s where he treated people with acupuncture for alcohol and drug addiction. Dr. Shakur later went on to co-found and co-direct the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America (BAAANA) and the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture. His work is a wonderful example of how acupuncture’s history is connected to a revolutionary context that doesn’t center whiteness.

    Johanna Hedva’s “Sick Woman Theory” resonates with me and how I want to practice Chinese medicine. Hedva does a really good job of pointing out the fact that wellness and sickness are a dichotomy that is upheld by capitalism: 

    “Because, once we are all ill and confined to the bed, sharing our stories of therapies and comforts, forming support groups, bearing witness to each other’s tales of trauma, prioritizing the care and love of our sick, pained, expensive, sensitive, fantastic bodies, and there is no one left to go to work, perhaps then, finally, capitalism will screech to its much-needed, long-overdue, and motherfucking glorious halt.”  

    I share her words with my patients who deal with autoimmune disorders and ongoing anxiety. Recognizing certain ailments as ‘the canary in the coal mine to capitalism,’ as my friend, India, so succinctly puts it, reframes what was once pathological as being a completely normal symptom of living under capitalism and today’s world that is so fraught with injustice. There’s empowerment in this rephrasing and reclaiming.  

    Rae Swersey is a transgender, genderqueer herbalist practicing out of Asheville, North Carolina. Their practice is called Take Care Herbals. Rae inspires me tremendously. It was Rae who first introduced me to the concept of Androgenic and Estrogenic herbs for transition and Dori Midnight’s herbal protocol for preparing for surgery. I am constantly inspired by Rae’s writing and their ability to weave the political into their practice of Western herbalism. I am hoping to collaborate with them on a zine and I’ll be using some of Rae’s tinctures and herbal blends in my new space once I’m settled in.  There are always blind spots that any one practitioner or modality will have, so working in together is really important.


    For appointments with Yarrow Medicine, contact Andy Baker by visiting their website.

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