06/01/2010 05:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Part 1: Acupuncture -- "Needles Talking to Each Other"

I'd been meaning to try acupuncture for years. Stuck in a low-paying, miserable job, I was looking for ways to alleviate the physical symptoms of anxiety that had started to manifest. But I could just never fit it into my busy schedule outside of work.

Well, as of late March, I have been unemployed, which was not a blessing in disguise, but a pure blessing, freeing me from feeling oppressed, immobile, lost, and even worthless. Now ready to start over, acupuncture was to be one of my first adventures on my path to a more fulfilling... well, everything! Because after two years of being completely miserable, I needed to take my life and turn it upside down. And this kind of mission calls for a little energy work. The kind of energy work that involves sticking needles into different parts of my body.

Through Borbay, whom I interviewed this past winter and who was recently featured at Painting Resurrected, I met Erin Hessel, an acupuncturist with her own practice, Esema Healing Arts, in New York City. And now, I'd like you to meet her too!

I interviewed Hessel after undergoing my own first acupuncture treatment. For anyone thinking about trying acupuncture, I can assure you that if you can handle a deep tissue massage, you can certainly handle acupuncture. You know when you have a really bad knot that the masseuse or masseur needs to really unwrench? Any discomfort is even less than that. But I'll tell you -- I have almost 20 tattoos, and as familiar as I am with needles, acupuncture still bugged me out a bit before I got it done. But I promise -- it's nothing to be afraid of.

The office that houses Esema Healing Arts prepares you for your appointment by providing a serene, calming atmosphere (helped by feng shui) that makes you forget almost completely that there are busy Manhattan streets on the outside. So even the moments of anxiety one might feel before trying something new are eased. Indeed -- the work begins by just being there.

Before the treatment, Hessel did an extremely comprehensive medical history. Acupuncture, as she will explain, places a high emphasis on preventive medicine, and the medical history serves as a reference once improvement (or a lack thereof) begins to show after treatment. On average, she recommends being treated about four times a year ("when the seasons change"). When we finally got to the actual treatment, I was brought into a small, comfy exam room. When the needles were inserted, I won't lie - you can feel them. But "pain" would not be a fair way to describe what it feels like. For one thing, it's different in different parts of your body; I felt the needles in my hands more than anything, but the sensation in my hands was different than the one of pressure that I felt in my scalp. And after insertion, I didn't even feel the ones in my knees, legs, and feet.

Once all the needles were in, Hessel left, dimmed the lights, and let me relax for 20 minutes, saying that the needles "might talk to each other." Some people might here that and be like, "WHAT??" but I was in meditation mode and got ready to "listen." When it was over, the needles were removed and I felt... different. In a good way. Not transformed, not transported to a land of lotus flowers and Zen. But as if a few pent up energies had been released. Lighter. Light enough to drive right into the lion's mouth of rush hour NYC traffic... and not care. Seriously.

Since my experience was so wonderful, I wanted to share it with you in the form of an interview to let Hessel tell you more about her practice and the benefits of Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

JF: What drew you to Chinese medicine and acupuncture?

EH: Well, for whatever reason, when I was a very little girl, I had this fascination with traveling, and I had a fascination with Asian countries in particular. Then when I was a teenager, I realized I was very passionate about health, and I really wanted to learn more about the body and how it works and how to alleviate things that were bothersome. And I had the opportunity to go to China for a year, and it was the beginning of my exposure to acupuncture. I had heard about acupuncture, but hadn't yet experienced it or understood it, and I wanted to.

So I went, and I signed up for a year-long clinical rotation at a Chinese medical hospital in Hangzhou, China, a town about two hours south of Shanghai on the eastern coast. That is where I became totally enthralled. I finished my undergrad education in complementary medicine in general, not in acupuncture, and I also got really involved with holistic women's healthcare, specifically labor and delivery, and worked with midwives in Central America. Coming back from that, I was left with these two fields that were very exciting to me. I couldn't quite pick, so I did a few apprenticeships. Later, I managed a Chinese herbal pharmacy for about a year in Minneapolis. Then, I worked with an OB/GYN as a surgical assistant. After comparing the two, I decided to go to Chinese medical school. That was my primary passion, yet I hoped to be able to pair it with prenatal work. So, I got my certification as a labor doula. And I've had my private practice in New York City for a year.

JF: A lot of people have gone into business for themselves because of the recession. Obviously, you had a career path in mind for Chinese medicine, but did the bad economic environment play any part in starting your own practice? Were you ever trying to just get a job as an acupuncturist at another practice, or were you always planning to start your own practice?

EH: I think there are a couple of answers to that question. I had always had the vision that I would have my own practice or be part of a practice with other acupuncturists where we were equal partners. I couldn't really envision being an employee at an acupuncture clinic. But I couldn't envision that because it's not really there. There aren't a lot of "job openings" for acupuncturists. The profession isn't quite in a space where a lot of acupuncturists have practices big enough to hire other acupuncturists, or where a medical facility is hiring acupuncturists to treat their patients. This area is growing, but it's not like the floodgates are open with jobs in acupuncture, so you have to get creative and figure out how you're going to make a living.

JF: Do you think that has to do with people not really believing in it yet?

EH: I think it is. I mean, it's an ancient, 10,000-year old medicine that's brand new to our culture. So it's got a long way to go to get the validity it has in China. It's growing, there are more opportunities for acupuncturists who maybe didn't have the entrepreneurial ambition it takes for a practice. But having my own practice was definitely part of my game plan. Having said that, I got very lucky in the sense that I met a mentor here in the city (Mike Berkley). Without him, I couldn't have started the practice I started. He really took me under his wing and helped me build it from the ground up, making it possible.

Tomorrow: More about acupuncture, Chinese medicine vs./not vs. Western healthcare, and what Esema Healing Arts and Erin Hessel can, specifically, do for you!