“One of the best things about Facebook is how I’ve made friends world-over. This is my friend Omar, who is in London. He has a fascinating history–he is a scholar, an historian, and a tui na practitioner with the most beautiful grandmother (an Egyptian lady with a history of her own that is like from a novel)–and we have had some wonderful exchanges just based on a friendship forged over a mutual love of tui na.
This is a friendship I value, and for all that Facebook is a time-waster I have to say, if it weren’t for FB, I wouldn’t have this particular friend.
I hope you are ok, Omar, and I am sending all the good thoughts for you and all the brave souls in London. American hearts are with yours, truly.”
–Response to Facebook “friend anniversary” notice
Every time I think I’m tired of Facebook I get pulled back in by friendships in far places and fascinating conversations of all sorts. There is a vibrant group of Chinese medicine practitioners on Facebook and I love, especially, the chance to get to know aficionados of the Chinese bodywork known as tui na. We’re an interesting bunch, if I do say so myself. From what I’ve seen thus far, a lot of people undertake the study of Chinese medicine as part of second career, often after first having had a worthy first career. Those of us who practice Chinese bodywork tend to be extremely dedicated to our art. In the case of my friend, Omar Rifaat, in London, this is indeed the case and I’ve been after him to give me an interview for a while now.
The day after the London Bridge attack of June 3d, 2017, a “friend anniversary” notice appeared on my Facebook feed. I wrote a few words, and then screen grabbed the post and put it on my Instagram too. At that point, it was definitely time for our interview and Omar obliged. I wrote him some questions and he responded with such sparkling answers that I opted to make two pieces out of his musings. For the moment, I will stick largely to tui na but there will be a follow-up to this essay, not to worry.
But for now…
Omar was born in Ottawa, Canada after his parents left Egypt following the 1950s revolution. His father’s work required that the family move frequently; this, according to Omar, is the basis of his sense of multicultural interest and adaptability. His scholarly foundation is rooted in his undergraduate degree in History that was followed by a desire to study naturopathic medicine that did not pan out as he had planned. Instead, Omar went into business, worked, and eventually began to study qi gong and kung fu. Omar explains, “In 2009 I started learning [Qi Gong] and Shaolin Kung Fu from Sifu Wong Kiew Kit – a great master of Chinese internal arts, and this was the beginning of a new chapter. From Sifu Wong I was initiated into the world of Chinese medicine and healing – from the perspective of [qi gong], which is one of the four branches of Chinese Medicine (alongside acupuncture, herbs, and tui na). One of the senior students in my school had learned tui na from Errol Lynch, [a widely-known practitioner in England and founder of Touch Tui Na clinic]”.
Besides his interests in history and in Chinese martial arts, Omar is quite a photographer and he is also the guardian of his own ancestral stories. Of his family’s departure from Egypt and subsequent wanderings, he says:
“I think that one of the main influences I received from my parents and grandparents, probably without their conscious intent, was an understanding of the value and wisdom inherent in traditional societies.
Because they lived through a socialist revolution that destroyed the traditional fabric of Egyptian society and replaced quality and virtue with quantity and mediocrity everywhere, their experience impacted me and made me deeply nostalgic for a bygone age where materialism was not the highest goal of society. I think this is one of the main factors that made me appreciate and love Chinese traditional medicine and philosophy. That these arts have survived similar cultural upheavals in China and continue to bring goodness and healing originating from wisdom carried to us over countless centuries is a very inspiring thing. To be another link in this chain gives me great joy and satisfaction.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve been to England and at the time that I went, I knew nothing about tui na. One question that really mattered to me pertained to just how this form of Chinese medicine is viewed where Omar now lives with his Spanish-born wife, Paula. Such a lovely Spanish name we both share, I thought with a smile, when I first heard what she is called. (For readers who are new to my web site, an fyi: I am the granddaughter of Sicilian immigrants and a former Spanish professor who has lived in both Spain and Italy so for me, Paula is a Spanish name, while Paola with an o is its Italian iteration). But I digress. Here in Austin, for its part, tui na is still a bit of an undiscovered treasure. I know in my own practice that people who know of it love it but I find myself doing lot of explaining in order to get people into the office and on the table. Here, acupuncture is familiar to just about everyone, while bodywork–including cupping and gua sha–is not as familiar or its appropriated by Western practitioners and coded in ways that makes it seem somehow not Chinese (a circumstance that many of us in the profession find troubling, to say the least). I wondered if things had changed, or if in London people knew more about tui na than Texans do. “What is it like there?” I asked.
Omar explained that tui na is not terribly well-known in London, either, but that the clinic where he works, Touch Tui Na, is a teaching clinic. He told me that students and faculty alike are, “working hard to bring high quality tui na to the attention of the general public, with considerable success. Many people come to the Touch Tui Na clinic because they have heard by reputation that we can fix health problems that they have been told by western doctors are ‘incurable’. When they see that tui na works, some of them literally can’t believe it. They had been conditioned by their doctors that they would have to live with the pain for the rest of their lives. In this way the word spreads.” (This is kind of the way I’ve been experiencing tui na, too: people are amazed by how incredibly healing it can be, and yes, they do tell their friends).
Interestingly, the students there in London begin with tui na and evolve towards the other branches of Chinese medicine. Here in Austin, we seem to do it the opposite way. We start with acupuncture and herbs, and as part of the program we either study medical qi gong or tui na. According to Omar, then: “For many, like myself, [bodywork] is their initial gateway into Chinese medicine. Many students go on to learn acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, and herbs but tui na is the foundation. I myself have now learned cupping, moxa, and Chinese reflexology. My next goal is to start learning acupuncture and eventually I’d like to learn herbs too.”
Like any practitioner, though, Omar questions the value of specializing vs. becoming a true generalist. He says, “I do think you need the breadth to efficiently treat a wide variety of disorders. But at the same time, I have also been amazed by what one can accomplish by improving one’s depth of mastery in any single discipline. I think it’s wrong to assume that learning more techniques necessarily makes you a better healer. One of the great analogies that my kung fu Sifu likes to teach is that a master carpenter can build anything with one tool – because his skill is high . Whereas an inexperienced carpenter may have many tools but not be able to build anything!”
Myself, I definitely agree with Omar’s teacher. Anyone can add to their certifications with a seminar here or a weekend there. What matters is that the practitioner has truly dedicated him or herself to the art of tui na, and that takes self-discipline and diligence and years of study. In Omar’s estimation, beginning with tui na has great value and, he says: “Personally I think that tui na is the best place to start – because you learn how to feel what is happening within the patient at all levels – physical, energetic , emotional, and mental – and you gain a direct experience of the channels and points. This is of much more practical benefit than knowing lots of theory without having a living knowledge based on experience.”
For us in Texas, at least in my program, we are immersed in student acupuncture clinic right away, first as observers and–following coursework and a benchmark exam–then as clinical interns. But I tend to follow his reasoning. For me, Chinese medicine really did come alive when I discovered tui na and began to study under the direction of my most influential teacher, Dr. Fan, who came to my school from Beijing, China. I love needling and I find herbs a joy for no end to reasons (including their connection to Harry Potter, as you can see, here), but the foundation of my work really does rest upon this branch of Chinese medicine.
My last question for Omar, given that I wrote my queries out the day after the London Bridge attack, is replicated here in its entirety, followed by his response:
“[Me]: Though I don’t wish to dwell on shocking developments (and I’m sure you don’t either), I wondered if you could share a little bit about how people are doing in London today. I think I speak for many here in this country when I say that our hearts are with all of you. I’m hoping that this is an occasion for world leaders to unite and for people world over to reach hands of peace to one another. You also know that in my former career, I was a Spanish professor with a focus on the Spanish Civil War, the dictatorship, and its aftermath. Broad scale, my professional specialty was national trauma and how it filtered through literature and art. This is an important moment for all of us, not just London. As an historian, and as someone who is there right now, can you comment?
[Omar]: People in London are very resilient. They lived through decades of the IRA menace and active phases of violent terrorism. Although recent events are terrible, they are not entirely unprecedented. They are for the most part a people who have grown up living with people of all religions and ethnicities and they generally judge individuals on their own merit rather than adopting simplistic stereotypes. They instinctively know that panic, anxiety, and division are the very goals terrorists are seeking and for this reason they do not give them what they want. They stay calm and carry on.”
Omar’s answer, and some of the stories that floated around (such as the beer carrying guy’s, above) were a comfort during that shocking event and its aftermath. A sense of community world-over prevailed in many quarters and this, too, helped to ameliorate the reverberations of this tragic event. The world is a small place now, isn’t it? And, bringing the notion of multiculturalism back around to professional connections, I had asked Omar about tui na’s framework within Chinese medicine there in London earlier in the interview. We don’t have a large Chinese population in Austin and that is partly why tui na is less known than it is in areas with relatively larger Asian communities. Omar, in response, commented on the world-wide appeal of this branch of Chinese medicine. As he notes, “From our experience we see that the art attracts ‘kindred souls’ – both aspiring practitioners and patients themselves – from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The common element seems to be a deep appreciation for this particular form of practical healing wisdom.”
However, we also both agree that tui na is certainly Chinese at heart, and will stay so. In my estimation, we are borrowing a gracious gift from Chinese people when we practice their medicine. Omar, for his part, also sees our debt to China, pointing out that, “Of course, having said this, tui na can’t be separated from the lineage of Chinese philosophy, medicine, and the spiritual traditions that nourished them. In this sense, we’re very much rooted in the Chinese spirit. But it is, precisely, the universality of that spirit that gives it its vitality. Many times during my practice of tui na, I have felt the presence of what in kung fu parlance is referred to as the ‘past masters’ – the living body of wisdom passed through the centuries that keeps the art alive much like a soul animates a body. What would they think if they saw us practicing this art today? I think they would recognise us as kindred spirits, even if we come from faraway lands.”
Yes. Be it London or Austin or anywhere in between, we stand on the shoulders of giants when we practice tui na. It is my hope, as an essay writer, as a scholar, and as a Chinese medicine practitioner, that we develop strong friendships and vibrant practices and lively communication amongst ourselves. Our patients and our community, as a result, are the thriving beneficiaries of such developments.
Don’t you agree?
Two Hearts Wellness is a local holistic health and wellness outfit with a passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, and literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine. If you want to learn more about me, click here and do feel free to follow my blog and/or my Instagram, connect with me on Facebook, or contact me here to set up an appointment for personal training or health coaching services. For Asian bodywork therapy, click here to book an appointment online.