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Introducing Gua sha to a New Frontier: Sri Lanka

Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Gua sha Journal - A Blog About Everything Gua sha by Clive Witham/Introducing Gua sha to a New Frontier: Sri Lanka

The second part of Season 2 of the Gua sha show kicks of with the story of how Clive and his team introduced Gua sha to Sri Lanka. He talks about the history behind the Gua sha project, his experiences in Africa and Japan and his multi-layered approach of the Gua sha project with training doctors and nurses in a hospital, professional practitioners in workshops, and parents, teachers, children and community members in the community workshops. He explains how his long-held dream became reality and, as always, brings his unique perspectives to how we understand Gua sha, life and everything in-between!


Episode Transcript

Welcome to this episode on Gua sha and I’m going to explain something rather different. I’m going to tell you about how we introduced Gua sha into a whole new country! Yes, you heard that right - a new country.

Early Encounters and Inspirations

So let me give you some of the context. And for that we have to rewind time a bit to when I first trained in Chinese medicine and my first interaction with Gua sha. I first saw Gua sha in 1999 and immediately recognised its significance above and beyond the treatment clinic where I saw it. I was still an acupuncture student and I was memorized by the red dots that appeared after treatment and the effect the treatment had. I didn’t realize it then but the next twenty plus years I would spend immersing myself into the world of Gua sha and for the last 5 years I have done nothing else - and I mean nothing else - but dedicate 100% of my time to Gua sha and understanding all I can about it. Thinking about it. Theorizing about it. Testing it. Being as best an expert as I can be.

What I saw in Gua sha probably isn’t what my colleagues at the time saw. This is because I was coming at my Chinese medicine training from a particular angle. My first University degree wasn’t in Acupuncture but in International development and I had spent time researching rehabilitation programs in Uganda in the 1990s. And it was my experiences there especially in 1994 after the Rwandan genocide which shaped the rest of my life. I wanted to give people more than just the empty promises that I could offer at the time as being just a researcher I was unable to actually help the people I saw. I can picture it now. I can see the hut and the boy with cerebral malaria. I see the mother sitting outside. I can feel the despair even now all these years later. In the NGO world it was infinitely complicated and frustrating and often things didn’t make sense so I left that world behind but it was here that the seeds of health training were laid in my brain.

A New Perspective from Japan

Interestingly it was during our 4-month fund-raising trip walking across Japan - which itself probably warrants a whole podcast episode itself as we regularly made the news, got sponsored by a Japanese trade union and a political party and met the mayors in every city from Sapporo all the way to Kagoshima - which is basically the whole country. It was during that trip where we got to see the breadth of Japanese society that most people, especially foreigners like me, never really see. This along with my North Africa life made me realise that people are all the same - it doesn’t matter how strange the place or people might feel to you - they all have the same basic dreams, hopes, desires in life. They are no different from the people around you.

So we met a whole range of people from politicians to local activists to shop assistants and homemakers. We stayed mostly in hotels as we had a scheduler in Tokyo but sometimes we stayed with people and there was one time in the mountains in a local politicians home and it was here that I first had acupuncture. It was very gentle (as Japanese acupuncture generally is).

The Path to Acupuncture and Gua sha

That experience stayed with me and after a few years in Thailand and the arrival of son number 1 in Bangkok. And I went off to study acupuncture and discovered Gua sha. So what I was seeing was cheap equipment - a simple tool and oil - and a treatment for heat, fevers and inflammation. And I was then thinking back to Uganda and what if I had had that knowledge then and what I could have contributed to people’s lives. So, I went on to use Gua sha a great deal and set up my clinic in Melilla in North Africa ended up writing a few books including what I had learned. I then went on to research more but less so in an academic sense - I decided not to do a Phd years ago - more in a practical, clinical sense.

Gua sha in Healthcare: The Vision

I researched the origins and development of Gua sha as best I could and tried to track how it changed over time often in the lower income areas of Asia and often within the confines of homecare. My goal in all this time was to realise my strong desire of Gua sha filling one of the many holes in modern healthcare especially in countries and areas outside of East Asia which might be lacking in investment or having underdeveloped healthcare systems.

The Sri Lankan Opportunity

And this is where Sri Lanka comes in. So Sri Lanka has universal health care which is free from the point of contact but like all healthcare systems has its problems. But the interesting thing about Sri Lanka is that it has its own Ayurvedic traditional medicine which is well established and accepted within healthcare. The opportunity to bring my plans to fruition came with the Poornam foundation in Colombo which is equally as driven to make healthcare changes and us sharing a common vision.

Challenges and Successes in Mannar

So in 2022 I came to Colombo, we had a training session o and started the Gua sha project in Mannar in the north-east with several community workshops on simple Gua sha protocols for digestion and respiratory issues. Mannar was an interesting place to start as it is a peninsular that sits alone in the Indian ocean and as it was part of the Tamil losing side in Sri Lanka’s long civil war, it still bares many of the scars of those events - the city is still pretty much sealed off -our bags were searched by soldiers everytime we entered or left the city. The idea of these workshops was to train local trainers who will then teach others in their community in order to reach as many people as possible. While it was a success and we made further plans to go onto the next phase, a few months later Sri Lanka had a dramatic economic collapse which ground the whole country and all our plans to a halt.

Renewed Efforts and Wider Reach

This year however we got another chance and we took it with gusto. I did a total of 10 workshops over 3 weeks in Colombo and a new area called Portuvill. You may have heard of Arugam bay as it is famous for surfing and if you go there - there’s a strip along the main street next to the beach with hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars - where twenty-something tourists wander around in swimsuits, sing Bob Marley songs and dream of their next wave. And then outside of this narrow area, you enter Portuvill which is an economically challenged predominantly Muslim area. You really could not get a bigger contrast in everything from economy, society to culture between these two places. And so our project was aimed at Portuvill and we knew from the research and the hard work of the Poornam foundation that it is an area that would potentially benefit.

Impacts and Observations

We started in the main hospital and spent a very enjoyable two days in Portuvill Base Hospital training a group of doctors, nurses and other medical staff. It was their first experience of Gua sha and seeing it in action and I presented it in terms of research and what may be useful in the context of the hospital needs.

This was followed by several community workshops which were held in school classrooms and attended by parents, pupils and community leaders. I explained what needed to be explained and then the group split into male and female rooms to actually practise the techniques. It’s special to see the eyes of people who invariably start out with slight suspicion and then gradually relax as they realize I’m not doing anything terrible and then when they see the results and practise for themselves, the laughter and joy. And the desire for more.

And some of the audience stepped up. In the next workshop, they started to explain and to teach the techniques in an autonomous way to new people and in fact when we left they were doing exactly that. It was a very heart-warming way to finish this stage of the project.

In Colombo we combined a short workshop in the theories of Ecology in Motion for students of the performing arts so they can incorporate this universal knowledge into their performances and also to know how to give basic treatments. It was a fun session and I have rarely seen so many young people listening so intently and enjoying the ideas and practise of Gua sha. And we finished the workshops with a longer professional workshop in Colombo designed to raise the expertise of people working in health and wellness in the capital. Some of these were returners from the previous workshop and all were certified to a competent level in using Gua sha.

Gua sha's Integration into Sri Lankan Healthcare

It was made so clear to me that through our project work that Gua sha had arrived in Sri Lanka. We knew from the Poornam foundation that nothing like Gua sha was used as a healthcare technique in Sri Lanka before. At the end of the community workshops one person was already referring to it in their native Tamil as Spoon therapy. We took a multi-level approach in a defined area and worked on a level of community groups and professional practitioners and from private healthcare to public healthcare involving a Western medicine hospital and the doctors and nurses of their staff. As an initial project it was hugely successful and we were able to achieve all the goals that we set out to achieve. How successful this will become depends on a lot more work and nurturing the talent and skills which were shown in abundance by many Sri Lankan people.

But I think it’s very clear, that Gua sha is there to stay.

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Hi, It's Clive

Director of Komorebi Institute

Hi, It's Clive

From researching underfunded healthcare in Uganda, to running a thriving chronic illness clinic in North Africa, to collaborating with hospitals in Sri Lanka to train staff and empower communities - My journey has been dedicated to democratizing access to beauty and health.

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