The following is a full interview from “Journey Into Yin Yoga” by Travis Eliot
The book can be purchased here
The owner and chief physician at Acutonix Wellness Center, Dr. Adam Griffin was trained at Southwest Acupuncture College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after completing his undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley. During his extensive training both in Santa Fe and Beijing, Dr. Griffin decided to specialize in Orthopedic acupuncture and physical medicine. In 1999, Dr. Griffin opened Acutonix in Venice, California, on the world famous Abbot Kinney Blvd. The clinic became very popular and grew quickly to become a leading center for the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Los Angeles. Today, Acutonix focuses on sports medicine, pain management, and women’s health issues with much success and joy. Dr. Griffin also has a keen interest in nutrition and food-based approaches to wellness. He is currently working on two books that incorporate his vision of a healthy community through food and natural medicine. Dr. Griffin loves to cook for his family, backpack, fly-fish, and surf. You can find him at his brand new Culver City Acupuncture clinic and the always wonderful Abbot Kinney location every week—where his true love for this medicine can be seen and experienced by everyone.
T.E. I’m here with Dr. Adam Griffin, owner of Acutonix. Let’s start by talking about how you first discovered eastern philosophy.
A.G. I first was introduced to eastern philosophy when I was at Berkeley. I took a class by a woman named Eleanor Rosch, who was a Buddhist nun. She’s one of the most important psychologists in the history of the psychological tradition in the West. Her and her husband founded the Cognitive Psychology Movement. She was just an amazing intellectual, incredibly powerful. After she found Buddhism, she ended up becoming a Buddhist nun, and started offering these classes at Berkeley. One of them was called Buddhist Psychology. At the time I was a psychology major. I took this class and was introduced to this idea of meditation. It changed my life. She was this incredibly eloquent, wonderful, and kind human being. I took every class she offered, every graduate seminar she offered and that was it. I was hooked.
T.E. What kind of meditation did she teach?
A.G. Her primary focus was mindfulness meditation. It was a very simplified approach to Mahayana Zen Buddhism, breath work, and sitting meditation. You would focus more on following the breath, in and out breathing, being aware of distractions, and being able to remind yourself to return to the breath.
T.E. How would you say that Eastern Philosophy is different than Western Philosophy?
A.G. So this is kind of interesting. I want you to imagine that you grew up in China, right? If you grew up in China, you were never exposed to Western philosophy. I’m not talking about modern China. I’m talking about the type of China where Chinese medicine was introduced and practiced with Taoism or Confucianism. In the West, we grew up with a philosophy that was guided by people like Hippocrates and Aristotle, the Greeks. Also, people like Rene Descartes and Cartesian philosophy, that is a part of our everyday way of life.
T.E. Just to provide some context could you explain Cartesian philosophy?
A.G. In the 1600s Rene Descartes built all of his work based on people like Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle. The basic concept of Western philosophy from Cartesian thought was that we’re all machines. We’re reducible machines. We’re reducible to smaller parts, and eventually those smaller parts are broken down into molecules. These thoughts revolutionized Western science and medicine, and it affected how we look at the human body. It became about cells, protons and neutrons broken down into smaller and smaller parts of a machine, the machine of the human body.
T.E. How did this compare to Eastern thinking?
A.G. That never happened in China! [laughter] It wasn’t because they were opposed to it, or because they didn’t like Descartes. It just never happened. The theories of the time in China were really based in these philosophical constructs that were created by Lao Tzu and the I Ching. The I Ching, going way back, was the philosophical book that introduced China to Yin Yang theory. The idea of the I Ching is so different from Cartesian philosophy. I Ching was saying, “Sure there is a machine. We get there’s this human body, but it’s sort of floating between heaven and earth, and we have a place both within heaven and earth. Ultimately, we only exist in relationship to our interactions with heaven and earth.” So, we can only truly understand the way our body works by understanding how it interacts with nature around it. You can’t separate it out from itself.
T.E. Since it’s so important to Eastern Philosophy, could you talk more about Yin and Yang?
A.G. In the concept of Yin Yang, you can’t know what Yin is without understanding Yang, because they’re intertwined. If you think about the I Ching symbol with the two fish chasing each other, the white fish is Yin and within the white fish, there’s a circle of black. You might look at it and see the eye within the I Ching symbol. This is inherently the concept of Yin Yang theory, even within the utmost aspect of Yin, it means nothing without an anchor of Yang and vice versa. The black side is the Yang side. Within the black side, you’ll see a white circle on the bottom of Yang. So, Yang is inseparable from Yin and vice versa. That philosophical theory of Yin and Yang guided almost all of Chinese thought for 2,500 years. So, coming back to the original question, in Western philosophy you’re trying to understand from a reductionist point of view the smaller and smaller aspects of what makes us work. In Eastern Philosophy, that is rooted in Yin Yang theory, you’re trying to understand how the human element interacts with the natural element around it and vice versa. Really you can’t understand either separately. You can’t understand the way a cellular structure works without understanding what the cellular structure is sitting within. That’s Chinese medicine. That’s Eastern philosophy.
T.E. How did you end up going from studying Buddhist Philosophy at Berkeley to becoming involved with Chinese medicine?
A.G. I was a water polo player when I was a Berkeley. It’s really all I knew in my life at that point. My entire experience as a human being was playing sports. I ended up with an injury to my shoulder. As I was trying to recover from this injury, I was in a lot of pain, and nothing was working. I remember calling my mom in tears, “I don’t know what to do. I’m in so much pain and nobody can help me.” She said, “Why don’t you go get acupuncture?” I went into this acupuncture office in Berkeley, and this woman hooked me up to an electro-stim machine and stuck needles in my shoulder. It completely fixed my shoulder and I was blown away that it could help me recover from an injury so quickly.
So, flash forward. I was better and I ended up doing some work in physical anthropology with a professor at Cal. We were looking at the evolutionary basis of mental illness, schizophrenia, and affective disorders. I found this book called “A Fire Within.” It was about Chinese medicine and schizophrenia, and the use of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine in rural China. I thought, “Wow, this amazing!” I ended up writing this big end of college research report on Chinese medicine and schizophrenia.
Then I moved to Italy and was thinking about going to graduate school in medical anthropology in Florence. My girlfriend and I, at the time, drove down to Florence to go meet with a professor. Across the street from where we parked, there was this big international symposium where doctors from all over the world came to lecture on integrative medicine. That day there was a lecture on acupuncture and Chinese medicine. I just walked in, and sat in on this lecture. I looked around this huge auditorium and saw all these people who had made this their career. It was an actual, real career where people focused just on acupuncture. I thought, “That’s what I’m going to do!”
T.E. Wow. Where did you end up studying acupuncture?
A.G. There was this great didactic school in San Francisco called American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I decided that’s where I wanted to go. It was a tough time to be in San Francisco. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the clinic that I was in was very much focused on the treatment of HIV and AIDS. It was a really intense, busy clinic. I was ready to have a different experience so, after my first year at ACTC, I transferred to a school in Santa Fe called Southwest Acupuncture College, which was amazing. It was an amazing clinical experience, and great didactic experience. I did the next three years in Santa Fe and that was it. Then I moved back to California and started my practice.
T.E. When you started your practice how did you end up in Los Angeles?
A.G. I came to LA to take the boards and I was staying in Manhattan Beach. I was playing basketball with a friend and he hurt his knee. I knew there was this herbal center in Santa Monica where I could get herbs for him and his knee. I drove by a dirt lot on Abbot Kinney and I saw this for rent sign on this chain link fence. And I thought, “That’s it. I’m going to call the guy and see what it would cost to have a clinic there.” A year later, the office was built and I opened my practice. That was it.
T.E. That’s amazing and now Acutonics is one of the premier acupuncture places in LA! When did you open the doors?
A.G. That was over 20 years ago.
A.G. Yeah. That was a long time ago. It feels like a different life. It was a great place to open a practice because at the time when I opened, there was nobody else in that area doing acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Despite that, it was a very open minded community. I built my practice there and now I have another clinic in Culver City. It’s been great!
T.E. All right, let’s talk about the Meridians.
A.G. Okay. I’m going to give you a different take on what the Meridians are. When you look into a book, and you look up Meridians, and you think about acupuncture lines as they traverse the body, what you’re looking at is actually not Chinese medicine. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of acupuncturists who would argue with me, and I’d really be thrilled to have that argument because it’s a very interesting thing to talk about. The Huangdi Neijing, or Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, is the mother of all books. There are no Meridians in the Huangdi Neijing. Much of what we know about Chinese medicine comes from this book. It’s this huge encyclopedia text. A lot of scholars agree that it was written about 2,000 years ago, sometime between the second and first B.C. There was a problem with this book, and the problem with the book is that it was written in this dialect that not very many people could translate.
In the early 1900s a French bank clerk named George Soulie de Morant came along. He lived in China from 1901 to 1917. He made a lot of money, was really interesting, and had a historical relationship with Indian Vedic technologies. Indian Vedic technologies have something that’s similar to what we think of as the Meridians. I think you know the name better than I do?
T.E. The Nadis right?
A.G. Right. So, he was familiar with those and he came across this description of this word in the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic that he couldn’t translate. It was called Mai. He thought, “This looks like a Nadi. I’m going to use this French word that would describe what we know about Nadis. I’m going to call them Meridians.” But they weren’t meridians. The word Mai, thanks to other people being able properly translate this book, is a ‘Vessel.’ There’s a big difference between a meridian and a vessel. The ancient Chinese knew that there were these points on the body, connected to the vessels, that rose the surface when activated. If we got rid of this concept of meridians then we would be talking about Chinese medicine in a much less new age-y way, and I think, yoga in a much less new age-y way. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do in Chinese medicine, and yoga therapy, is to try and help people heal right?
George Soulie de Morant came up with all of these maps and these ideas of meridians, and interconnecting these dots with these lines. They were never meant to be interconnected. That was his take for a medicine that preexisted him for thousands of years. But what if all of that is wrong? What if all of this idea of energy and meridians is a false translation or an improperly translated text? What if what we are really talking about is something like the vagus nerve? Maybe what we’re talking about are things like the peripheral nervous system, central nervous system, nerve bundles, and blood vessels. The way acupuncture works is by stimulating blood flow to parts of the body which hyper-oxygenate areas of injury, which in my opinion, is really what yoga is. It’s breath. What follows breath? Oxygen.
T.E. Can you relate this to a Yin Yoga pose?
A.G. Let’s talk about Reclining Butterfly pose. Here you are lying on this mat, opening up your chest. You talk about the heart meridian, the pericardium meridian, the CV, all these things, but what you’re really doing is opening up the lymphatic pathways. You are stretching all of these blood vessels across the chest. Deep breathing into the abdomen engages the vagus nerve, which opens up the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows your body to produce hormones, which allows you to heal. I think this a much more interesting and a much more progressive way to talk about what is actually happening. Also, why would a Yin Yoga Butterfly Pose, for me as meditator, be good? Well, because it helps me sit on my ass to do an hour-long meditation.
T.E. Exactly! [laughter}
A.G. Right? Then I can get up and my knees don’t hurt, my hips don’t hurt. I’m not hurting any discs in my back. That’s a huge thing because if I believe deeply that mediation, as the Taoists believe, is one of the base practices of being a Taoist, you have to meditate. You have to practice these techniques because they help you find clarity of mind. You can see more clearly, hear more clearly, and function more clearly as a human being.
T.E. Right, and that’s why yoga postures were created, so that yogis could sit down and meditate for long periods of time. Before we move on from the Meridians could we say that it’s a ‘pathway’ or ‘channel’ that nerves, and oxygen, and blood flows through? This is important because there any many books, including other Yin Yoga books, that have placed a big emphasis on the Meridians.
A.G. Right. I think you have to change the concept of meridian, because it’s a French word. So, let’s get rid of the word meridian and call it what it is, which is Mai, or a Vessel. If we talk about meridians, we then get stuck on the energetic dialogue, and that leads us to this airy, fairy inability to have a conversation with all people. I want to be able to talk to anybody – a philosopher, a physicist, a medical doctor, and an acupuncturist in the same way. I don’t want language or linguistic barriers to limit my ability to have an intelligent conversation with anyone on the planet. So, when I only talk about meridians I’m already limiting my ability to have a conversation with the total population because doctors and scientists are going to say, “No, I’m out.” I get that. I understand.
T.E. Fair enough. What’s your perspective on Chi?
A.G. The Chinese, 2,000 years ago, knew that something was extracted from the breath. They called it vital chi. There was this essence that was taken in from Zong Chi, the breath chi, and was transferred from the body into energy. What they were talking about was adenosine triphosphate. They were talking about ATP, the Krebs Cycle. They knew that you could take chi and convert it through a physiological process to usable energy through the breath. If you had a deeper breath, a more profound breath, you would extract more chi from the air. What does shallow breathing do? It engages the sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight mode. It helps with blood flow to the extremities, so you can run away from a lion. When you talk about vital chi, the Chinese said there is this vessel in the body that moves chi throughout. The Chinese call this the Xue Mai, the blood vessel. You can’t separate the vessel from the body, and you can’t separate chi from the blood. So, blood in essence, circulating through these vessels is what gives us life. That’s as true in Western physiology as it is in Taoist philosophy. The Xue Mai has nothing to do with energetic meridians. It is a blood vessel that carries chi. The Chinese said, “We don’t know what it is because we don’t have microscopy, so we don’t know when we look at a red blood cell what it is. All we see is blood. But we know there’s something tangible in it that is giving this person life. So we’re going to call it chi. An old classical pictogram for chi looked like a pot of boiling rice over a fire. The lid was bouncing. There were three little lines under the lid, between the pot and the lid and they said, “See? That’s chi. It’s there. You can see the lid moving. Why? We don’t know why. We can’t see it. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there.” They were talking about oxygen. That’s it. That’s oxygen. (Insert Picture of the pot)
T.E. That’s a great image that demonstrates what chi is. Also, in order to stay true to the authenticity of true Chinese Medicine I love this reframing from meridians to vessels.
A.G. Yeah, I think that the blood vessels, within the context of Chinese medicine, are the channels of the body. They are the way that the joints and the muscle tissue become nourished. They’re the way the organs become nourished. In Chinese, they call this Zang-fu. So really, acupuncture is about how can I increase or decrease circulation to a particular area of the body through the manipulation of these nodes, or acupuncture points, on the body. I can use a needle. I can use my hand. I can use herbs and I can use chemicals within foods. I can use exercises. I can use breathing techniques.
T.E. So what you are saying is that there is much more to Chinese Medicine than just acupuncture?
A.G. There’s this thing called the eight limbs of Chinese medicine. It lists the importance of when a person is presenting with disease, how do you treat that person? Acupuncture is eight! The last, it’s the most invasive! The number one is right thinking. That’s the most important way, because if a person comes to you with in improper way of thinking, you might make them feel better, but you’re not going to change the behavior that led to injury. That’s the problem. What we do within Chinese medicine, and yoga, is really look at ways to expand the body’s ability to move blood through the body. Oxygen cannot be separate from blood, so we’re also talking about oxygen. Hormones cannot be removed from blood, so we’re also talking about hormones. So, when you’re talking about the blood vessels, what you’re really talking about is the inherent structure of blood moving through the body to the heart, through the lungs, and away from the heart to the extremities. It’s about how we can increase the flow of blood, how can we increase the flow of hormones and neurotransmitters through techniques like meditation, breath work, acupuncture, yoga, body therapy, and exercise. That’s Chinese medicine.
T.E. As you mentioned earlier your practice, Acutonics, opened up over 20 years ago. Have you noticed in common themes of illness over that span of time?
A.G. I think I can speak to two things about that. My practice is very broad. A big part of my practice is dealing with people who are in pain. The other big part of my practice is dealing with hormone work, working with women who are trying to get pregnant. I’ve always been interested in pain because it was my first introduction to Chinese medicine and acupuncture. When I first went to China I really wanted to focus on orthopedics because I was an athlete. Then I started treating people for fertility and helping women get pregnant. That was so much more rewarding to me. It really blew my mind that I can make a difference on that level. Beyond pain and fertility, I want to know, “Why are these people suffering? What is the origin behind the suffering?” That is to me what I really do, to help people avoid suffering in their life. I think we have a great deal of suffering in large part because our philosophical underpinnings in the West are (short pause) …weak. This is the second part. We literally work our butts off. We sit on our butts all day long. Most of us stare at computer screens with a rolled shoulder forward position, head down, and low back stretched out. This terrible posture goes on sometimes for 8, 10, 12, even 16 hours per day.
T.E. Yep, not a good road to go down.
A.G. Then they will come in saying, “I went to the doctor. I got an MRI. I have a 4 mm disc herniation at L4, L5, and I’ve got pain going down my leg. I’m hoping you can help me get rid of that.” So, we start doing acupuncture and stimulating blood flow to the radicular nerve roots in the low back and helping increase circulation. However, if they go back to that sitting posture and sit all day, and they’re stressed and angry, and they hate their job, and they’re miserable, and they have terrible anatomical structure, they’re in trouble. We might fix their back, and then six months later they’ll be back again. The problem with our society is that we are work focused. We are willing to give up, in large part, the health of our body, for not only the health of our bank account, but for the health of the corporation that employs us. It’s the newest thing that I’m seeing in my clinic. I call it the ‘Sitting Illness.’ Our evolutionary history was never meant to sit like that. Our glutes are big and fleshy because we ran, not because we sat on them. We were meant to squat, and sit cross-legged with an upright spine. I see cervical disk injuries, and I see low back injuries. I see this whole other problem, which is staring at this artificial light from computer screens all day long, and it’s affecting our eyeballs, our hormone production, and our sleep patterns. When you start messing with sleep patterns all of a sudden your hormones are off, and then you’re depressed. It’s bad. It is a storm of intensity that most people are not prepared to deal with.
T.E. So what would you say the way forward is?
A.G. I think the way forward is first to develop a philosophy. It goes back to the first limb of Chinese medicine, which is right thinking. If your philosophical underpinnings are absent, then you will not have anything that guides you, except your job, your money, maybe your marriage, maybe your relationship with your children, which is wonderful, but there is something greater that can be gained in this lifetime. There is something that we can do to ease the suffering of humanity. I really believe that my job for most of my patients when they come in, is to get them out of pain so I can teach them how to meditate. When they get that moment of, “Oh my God, I’m not in this horrible pain,” they trust me. When they develop that trust, they have this clarity and they say, “What else do you have to offer?” And I say, “Let me teach you how to breathe.” It’s just like Eleanor Rosch did for me. I was suffering when I was in school. I was miserable. I was full of anger, aggression and physical violent in sport. Then this beautiful human being taught me how to breathe and it changed my life. The gift that she gave me is now my responsibility to pass on through acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
T.E. Sounds like the path out of suffering is to take care of the body, and meditate, and breathe, correct?
A.G. Yeah. I think the way out of suffering is to start with right thinking. First know what it is you’re trying to do. You can’t just practice yoga without a teacher. You need to have somebody who– it’s their job. I learned meditation from a teacher. She was a master. There are masters on this earth for a reason. We need to be taught, we need guidance, and they can help us develop a philosophy. If we don’t have one, we can say to them, “I don’t have a philosophy. I need a philosophy. I need a way to think about why I’m here on this planet. What am I supposed to be doing?” Get that philosophy. Digest the philosophy. Find one that resonates with you, whatever it is. When you have it, practice it, and sit with it, and figure out what works and what doesn’t work, what’s uncomfortable. Sit with what’s uncomfortable and breathe through it. It’s the idea of meditation. It’s the idea of asanas. Put yourself in these funky positions. They hurt, and you return to the breath, and you breathe in and you breathe out. And then you realize, “Wow, it passes. The pain passes. The suffering passes.” And that’s it. That, to me, is the first step. The other stuff comes later. But the core philosophy is, sit with what makes you uncomfortable, practice every day, develop a technique, breathe, and then move on from there.
T.E. Thank you for sharing that. You mentioned Reclining Butterfly which I’m assuming is your favorite pose. Do you have a least favorite pose?
A.G. Yeah. Dragonfly’s my least favorite, just because I can’t—I’m so tight. I have always had incredibly tight hips. So even in Reclining Butterfly, that’s enough for me. When I practiced martial arts back in the day we’d be getting into these poses where you have to do these splits. It was torture for me. Dragonfly is my least favorite because it’s the most difficult for me.
T.E. All right, we are coming to an end here. I thought we could finish with a favorite quote or story.
A.G. This is my favorite story. So, there’s an old monk and a young monk, and they’re walking on their way to a village. And it’s this beautiful day, and the young monk just loves this old monk. He’s dedicated his life to this idea of Taoism. One of the promises that they’ve made is that they will be celibate, right? They won’t touch women, they won’t look at women. Very austere. They come across this river and they see this beautiful woman, and she’s just standing there at the riverside. And they think, “Oh my gosh,” you know? “She wants to get across this river. She’s got to get to the village, too.” So, the young monk looks away, and just doesn’t interact with the woman. And the old monk, without a word, picks her up, puts her on his back, and starts traipsing through this raging river. And they get to the other side of the river and the woman is pissed! [laughter] She says, “How dare you just pick me up like that?” This is old-school China and you don’t just go around picking up women and throwing them on your back. “How dare you do that? You didn’t ask my permission.” The old monk sets her down on the other side gently, and he continues walking. And she’s cursing at him as he’s walking away. And the young monk is thoroughly confused. [laughter] Hours go by, and the young monk is sweating, and he doesn’t know what to do. He’s thinking how his teacher touched the woman, and interacted with her. Then she yelled at the old monk disrespecting him. A couple more hours pass. The young monk can’t contain himself any longer. He blurts out, “As monks, we’re not permitted to touch a woman. And this woman is not permitted to speak to you so rudely. I’m so confused as to what to do!” The older monk looks at the young monk very gently and says, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river over three hours ago and you’re still carrying her weight.”
And that, to me, is a great story about life. We all have our rules in our life. We all have our parameters by which we operate, and how we get through our day. And sometimes those things are great burdens. And we are unwilling to let go of some of that weight, even when it serves us in no way. And it’s definitely a story that I tell my patients all the time, and I tell myself all the time. Sometimes we just need to let go of those things. And the sooner we let go of those weights, the sooner we’re free.
T.E. Beautiful, and that’s a big theme in this book. The moment you let go, then the Tao can flow. Adam, thank you for sharing your deep wisdom and insights. You have given me, and hopefully the readers, some really cool new perspectives. Thank you.
A.G. My pleasure. Anytime. Thanks, man.