Kill your Acupuncture teacher: And why it’s not the end of the world if you can’t do an apprenticeship

Shaolin versus lama

Kill your Acupuncture Teacher? Not literally…

The above image is from the classic kung fu movie – Shaolin versus Lama. One of this movie’s themes is about the apprenticeship model.

The hero, Sun Yu Ting is a martial artist who travels across the country seeking a master who’s kung fu is better than his to learn from him. On his quest, he visits different kung fu schools and meets with the teachers of those schools.

However, in order to find out if a teacher’s kung fu is better, he must first challenge him to a fight. This often annoys the teacher who feels disrespected by this request. But as Sun Yu Ting is a capable fighter, trained in several styles, he feels it is the best way to find the right teacher for him.

What has this got to do with Acupuncture? A common desire at acupuncture school, was to somehow find a great Master to apprentice under and who would pass on his knowledge to them and they would become a great practitioner.

Some people pursued such a dream. They went to an asian country for several years and found someone’s clinic to apprentice in. Or they found someone closer to home who was willing to take them.

However, I would say the majority in the West don’t. They learn on the job and develop their skills with workshops, seminars, and lots of self-study.

Do you want an apprenticeship? With such a dream, it is worth asking:

If you are an acupuncturist and you have the chance of an apprenticeship with a Master, would you really be ok with doing it?

Do you want to be an apprentice?

I ask this because becoming an apprentice is not necessarily going to be as great as it sounds.  It means submitting yourself to someone else. It means making cups of tea, changing linen, emptying rubbish, following ‘a master’ around, observing treatment but never treating (except after a few years), listening, always being respectful even if your master is an ass. And some masters can be asses.


On the plus side, You will learn many things. The most valuable is being able to observe an experienced practitioner at work, learning as well as being able to ask questions and gaining useful knowledge. A system of acupuncture can be ingrained into you, which is helpful for when you do start practicing. You can learn a lot and even attain a higher level of skill than someone who doesn’t undergo an apprenticeship.


On the downside, all those years being an apprenticeship, are years when you are not working your own clinic – seeing patients, making mistakes and learning from them, getting good results, getting great results, getting bad results and feeling like sh*t and more importantly – running a business and making money. As well as building your own reputation up. Some of that may be delayed. And there are lessons to be gained from even the most painful experiences.


Perhaps if you are young – in your twenties after qualifying, then an apprenticeship is good. There is no rush then. But what if you are older – in your 30s, 40s, even 50s. You’ve  experienced some of life – the good and the bad – work, relationships and other stuff. Do you have time to be following someone around? You may have a family or a mortgage. You’ve may have obligations and bills to pay. Maybe its time to get started with your business. It takes years to build a practice and skill, so the sooner you start the better.

Eventually, as an acupuncturist, you’ve got to take the plunge and do your own business. If you are lucky or plan it well, you can do an apprenticeship and work your clinic at the same time – the best of both. This may not be possible if you apprentice abroad, especially if the host country does not recognise your qualification.

The apprentice model is typical in Eastern arts

I wrote about one of the grandfathers of acupuncture – Waichi Sugiyama, in my book – The Tradition of Blind Acupuncturists in Japan.

Waichi, is accredited with inventing the guidetube. He founded one of the first acupuncture schools and was favoured by the Shogun (military ruler of Japan). This was way back in the 17th century. Oh, yes, and Waichi was also blind.

Waichi came from a wealthy family. But to pursue the path of acupuncture mastery, he undertook, not one, but two apprenticeships with acupuncture masters during his time.

There is a myth that he was so stupid and slow to learn that he was thrown out by one of the teachers. This is a problem that can occur with the apprenticeship model – dealing with the wrath of a teacher. But in Waichi’s case, this story was likely not true. Read my book to find out more.

The apprenticeship model has continued in Japan right to this age. Kodo Fukushima, the founder of the Toyohari Acupuncture system (also blind) took many apprentices. And in fact, some of the current senior figures in the Japanese acupuncture world (both blind and sighted), undertook an apprenticeship with Fukushima at some point when they were young men.

So, with this in mind, it seems the apprenticeship model is the way to go forward in Japan. But what if you are a Westerner? Or at least influnced by the Western education and way of learning and life?  Is the apprenticeship model right for you?

My own feelings

I would very likely struggle with being an apprentice. I had some opportunity before, but I couldn’t quite take to the idea. So I never became one. I know that this will limit my skill and ability and possibly consign me to being a ‘mediocre’ practitioner forever. Oh well.

I want to learn from teachers but if I am honest, I do not want to submit. This goes against the traditional apprenticeship or master student relationship which makes up a lot of traditional Oriental Training.

Difficult to commit

For example, Attending workshop and seminars is great as well as participating in training courses, but the idea of working for a ‘master’ or having an apprenticeship does not fit well with me. I have known several acupuncturists over the years who say they would love the chance to apprentice with a master, which is great if this really fits you, but for some people, this may not be suitable for them. Especially if they are more independently minded. Bear in mind, some people look to get away from the world of traditional work, organisations, 9-to-5 and bosses, by training in acupuncture. Do you want a new boss?


Many people prefer to be managed or guided. Or told what and how to do something. In some ways it is easier. Taking full responsibility can be scary. For these people, the idea of  self-employment, which can be less stable with higher risk is not desirable. Despite, the greater chance of freedom and potentially higher (or lower) income.

You have to explore what kind of working suits you best. A lot of people learn acupuncture to be their ‘own boss’. But even among acupuncturists, there will be some that are totally ok with working for organisations or employees and some that are not. Or you may want to do both as I have done.


I discussed this idea with a friend and colleague Miro. He is an acupuncturist and a powerful healer. On his own journey, he has undertaken short training and workshops but never a formal apprenticeship.

When he told me about his interest in an apprenticeship, I mentioned that he would likely have to do other jobs like making cups of tea, cleaning the treatment rooms or toilet, rolling moxa cones and other types of work as well as generally acting submissive.

My friend Miro answered:

“I will say to the teacher ‘You go to hell. You go to hell and you die” I am not making the tea. You make me the tea. I will do the treatment instead”

Miro is nearly 7 feet tall and looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Conan the Barbarian days. Just imagine someone like Conan saying the above line to you in a thick European accent .

Screenshot 2019-08-28 at 23.13.20
You Go to Hell. You Go to Hell and you Die!

Miro was joking (I think). He was quoting Mr Garrison from the animation ‘South Park’ – “You go to hell and you die”.  Here is a YouTube video.

You go to hell. You go to hell and you die

I visited one well-known Western acupuncturist in Japan. He had a busy clinic and bustling learning environment with several acupuncturists who volunteered to come into his clinic to learn from him. He was very knowledgeable and fluent in Japanese.

I was amazed with his clinic and what he had worked hard to build. He had several apprentices – Westerners and Japanese, who volunteered on set days doing either full days or half days. He would have them at work setting up the rooms, cleaning, rolling moxa cones, greeting and dealing with patients and making tea. At the end of the day, they would then have a practice session together, giving them all a chance to learn more. It was really impressive. He had built a thriving clinic learning environment for Western students who would otherwise struggle to find an apprenticeship in a foreign country. I am sure these students would all go on to become highly capable acupuncturists.

Pai Mei

Unfortunately, there was a darker side to this practitioner, which I ran afoul of. He had an antagonistic attitude and I have heard of him upsetting other people. In this way, I liken him to Pai Mei, the antagonistic, but genius Kung fu teacher in the Kill Bill 2 Movie who had an unforgiving attitude to his students.

Screenshot 2019-08-28 at 23.16.57
Pai Mei in Kill Bill

I got the Pai Mei Treatment and received some rude comments, somewhat personal in nature, and left his clinic feeling quite negatively about it all. In hindsight, I see there was a learning experience for me. I was unprepared for this meeting and not respectful enough about his accomplishments. Though, I also think this guy had some issues.

Since then I have always thought about ego. Ego is important. You need it to make a living in this field. But how much before you become big-headed? I thought there was a lot of ego with him as he was unfairly critical of Western acupuncturists, who he seemed to see as inferior. He seemed critical of other systems of acupuncture, ignoring that we are all at different levels of understanding and skill development as well as travelling different paths.

Looking back, it is just as well. This would have been the wrong teacher for me and I would have been the wrong student for him. Good to find that out early. And so his blunt attitude was good, because it saved us both a lot of trouble.


I took this encounter as a wake up call – to ask myself how serious I wanted to make it as an acupuncturist? I chose to commit myself to the path, though this decision came some time later.

I also was not aware of it at the time, but I came to the decision that seeking an apprenticeship or a Master of my own, was not for me. In fact, in some ways I saw it more of a hindrance in that by pursuing this path, you delay actually getting your hands dirty and simply focusing on your own practice, which is where ultimately the real learning occurs.

I returned to the UK and re-started my practice. I also then went into specialising in hospice and palliative care. Some years later, I secured employment as lead Acupuncturist at one of the largest hospices in the UK.

I have treated many patients with all sorts of conditions from back pain to complex illnesses like terminal cancer. I also managed a team of therapists and had other duties like attending meetings, admin, patient bookings, multidisciplinary team-working etc.

I do have gaps in my acupuncture understanding, which I have to tried to fill with workshops and doing my own research. I also have doubts in my abilities and skills, which occur from not having a system of acupuncture ingrained into me, which can occur from doing an apprenticeship. This is something I must continue to work on.

Pros and Cons of being an apprentice

There are advantages and disadvantages to being an apprentice. The main pro is you learn effective ways to deliver acupuncture treatments, how to operate a clinic and other business skills.

The main con, is that whilst doing this, you may not be working on your own clinic, seeing your own patients or treating your own patients. You may be spending years shadowing someone else.

This is especially the case if you do an apprenticeship in a country where you are not allowed to practice. Either you would have to train to get a license in that country to practice, or eventually, you are going to have to leave that country and get started on your own clinic where you can. But when you do so, you will have to start from scratch. There is an opportunity cost to consider.

Is the apprenticeship model the only way for a practitioner to be good or great?

Not necessarily.  I understand that the blind acupuncture master and founder of the Toyohari organisation, Kodo Fukushima, mostly found his own way. I heard that he was refused to be accepted as a student by other masters because he was blind. So instead he created his own organisation and became his own master. Then others came to him to learn.

No one gave him permission to create his own system and organisation, so he gave it to himself.

Even Shudo Denmei is a master in his own right. He did apprenticeships, but his Super Rotation Insertion (SRI) system was his own invention.  No one taught him that.

And all the Western modern masters, who helped established acupuncture in the West in the last 50 years –  some of them didn’t have apprenticeships. In fact, they had little guidance and few textbooks to go on. They had to figure it out from others or by themselves. Sure it is not ideal, but you do what you must do.

How about a chicken and the egg question?

Who taught the very first acupuncturist? Who was their teacher? Or did they figure it out by themselves?

What I am getting at, is that if you cannot do an apprenticeship, it is not the end of the world. It may take longer to reach a higher level  of proficiency, with lots of trial and error, but you can get there. Fortunately, there are different ways to learn now e.g. – study groups, seminars and workshops. If anything, we are in a golden age of learning.

Adopting new ways of learning and training for the changing world

The rational ways of learning – of having to commit yourself to a master for life, who imparts his or her knowledge to you and you alone, is becoming less relevant. Bruce Lee saw an end that that when he started teaching traditional kung fu to the Western barbarian hordes.

A lot of old accepted truth is being challenged. There are no jobs for life now. It is typical to change jobs every few years. Sometimes even beneficial to do so.

We become like ronin – the masterless samurai, wandering around the countryside, sword in hand ready to hire themselves out, but never belonging to any particular master.

In the East, the ronin would be looked down on. But in the West, we admire them.

There is the idea that a new way of learning is to learn from each other as equals. Not as a teacher and master. But as people on a journey of learning and experience. Perhaps this sound idealistic or naive.

A modern way of learning and teaching

A colleague – Botanic sent me a text. He had helped me to understand some qigong theory and explained it in a simple way for me to understand. His text:

“I think we should all be more equal than student teacher dynamics. That’s old world. We are new world. I just show a different perspective to the one we’ve all been spoon fed on, and kept stupid in the process. I’m a revolutionary, not a teacher.”

If the old world learning isn’t working for you, embrace the new.

Diffferent learning environments

Not all teachers are the same. When I visited Mr Taniuchi’s clinic I had a different experience. Mr Taniuchi is a Japanese Acupuncturist, who I interviewed and wrote about in my book: The Tradition of Blind Acupuncturists in Japan.

Waichi Sugiyama blind acupuncture book ad

It was a busy clinic, and Mr Taniuchi even allowed me to do some needling on a patient, though I felt nervous doing it in front of a much more experienced teacher. I didn’t get any antagnoism directed at me. He was encouraging even when I did it clumsily. I didn’t leave with a bad taste in my mouth. It was an enjoyable learning experience.

On the day I visited, there was one Japanese assistant and a receptionist. The assistant was able to learn from him and also carried out parts of the treatments. She was also getting paid a living. Mr Taniuchi told me he had other assistants, including members of his own family who worked for him there and at his other clinics.

Mr Taniuchi was happy to have Westerners visit and study with him. I heard that one of my old teachers spent two weeks with him observing his clinic.

Knowing when to move on

This also takes me to another point, which I may discuss about in a later post. What happens when you reach your limitation with one system? Or perhaps you have the feeling that it is not right for you?

Some acupuncturists will say to stick with it. Your skill will improve in deeper and more subtle ways. This is a Japanese concept, which ties in with the Confucian principles of loyalty to a teacher, group or system. But as Westerners, we have more freedom to change and experiment. This is one of our strengths as well as one of our weaknesses. We are in danger of becoming a rag tag ensemble of ronin (Masterless Samurai) flitting from one system to other. However, in this way, we can have more adventures.

Leaving Toyohari

I personally have gone with changing and experimentation. Although I was a member of the Toyohari Acupuncture organisation for a few years, I did find some aspects of its practice restrictive.

Also I believe, that when we say goodbye to one thing, we can invite something new into our live.  This occurred when I attended the In-Touch Acupuncture seminar in Japan in 2017. I was able to meet with lots of different teachers and students with a different perspective and experience of acupuncture. After, this, my perception and knowledge of acupuncture was further enhanced. By holding on to one thing, we close off the possibilities to invite new experiences into our lives and learn new things.

Also by starting again as a beginner in a new system, it is a good exercise in ego reduction and brain stimulation. By becoming a student or beginner, we have to accept that we are clueless.  We must start again at the bottom. And because we are new again, we must learn humility.

From student to teacher and back to student again

To give an example, at the In-Touch seminar in Japan, one of my fellow students was one of my University acupuncture teachers – Cinzia. I had last seen her ten years previously. Thankfully, she didnt remember me. At school, she had a reputation as a fierce teacher.

I found out she was actually very friendly.

She is a decades long experienced acupuncturist. Yet here she was – a student again. Gone was the mean exterior that I held of her from university. Gone was the ego. She was humble and learning. And I was able to communicate with her on a much more equal level. She told me things that changed my preconceptions of her. I had always thought she was pure TCM. But this wasn’t the case, and she told me she never liked the association of being thought of as only TCM. Hence one of the reasons why she was in Japan – to learn a different system of acupuncture and develop her own skill.

Such a thing is not possible, if you look down on other systems of acupuncture or see your own system or even knowledge as complete.

I think becoming a student again and opening yourself up to learning new experiences helps neutralise the risk of becoming overly-self important. Ego is important to survive, but too much can have a negative effect, if not tempered with a degree of humbleness.

Kill your Acupuncture teacher

The point is that we are all students together on this path that is life. In some areas we may be experts. And in other areas, we are as students. Humble, and needing guidance

My friend Miro does an interesting thing, which may reduce some of a teacher’s ego. When he attends a seminar or training, he sometimes asks them to go for a drink. He can get away with that because he has a yang personality.

I am always surprised that he asks them. This is because I put the teachers up on a pedestal and think that such things cannot be asked. They can invite us, but not the other way around. He doesn’t think like this.

He also will gladly take an opportunity to experience a treatment from them, so he can judge for himself what their acupuncture is like. He doesn’t decide based on someone else’s opinion. He wants to judge for himself.

And in this way, he is doing exactly what Sun Yu Ting is doing in the movie Shaolin versus Lama, in order to find a Master who is better than himself.

Miro also asks his teachers for a drink as he simply sees an opportunity to learn and hear about another expert’s experiences. I think in his mind, he sees them as equals as people, though they may have more knowledge and experience in a particular field.

Of course, some teachers are busy and others really don’t want to have a drink with him as they can probably sense the potential craziness behind that invitation. And I think maybe that is sensible as I have drunk vodka with him and managed to survive (just).

But it is interesting to see which teachers agree and which do not. So far the Toyohari and Manaka teacher and author Steve Birch always agrees to a drink. So he’s pretty cool.

Or a wino…

Just joking.


Next Post

Acupuncture Styles & Systems: Finding your Own Way

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Image Accreditation

Screenshots taken from the classic movie – Shaolin versus Lama (1983), and Conan the Barbarian.

Video from South Park.


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