Complementary and alternative medicines: while I don’t have much faith in many of them actually working (at least in the way that their proponents say they do), the hippy in me finds the idea of a lot of them quite appealing. The gentleness, the naturalness, the earnest likeability of many practitioners. I can go on feeling all fluffy about a particular practice for years, but then I hear a story like this one about kinesiology and all that gets blown clean out of the water.
Kinesiology is a popular pseudoscience invented by a Chiropractor in the ‘60s. It combines assessing muscle response with the Chinese medicine concepts of qi (life energy) and meridians (the paths via which the qi whooshes about one’s body). The idea is that the practitioner applies manual pressure to a particular muscle in the patient’s body, and infers from the muscle’s response whether there is an energy blockage in the meridian that intersects with it. Once a dodgy meridian is identified, a whole panoply of illnesses both mental and physical, real and imaginary can be diagnosed.
This interesting practice is probably best known as a method for diagnosing food intolerances. A sample of the offending food is either held in the patient’s mouth or encased in some sort of container and given to them to hold. The patient then lifts their arm, and the practitioner tries to push it down. If the arm resists or yields smoothly then you’re fine. If it wobbles about and yields in what the practitioner determines is an ‘inappropriate’ way, the food is messing with your qi and isn’t any good for you.
Despite the questionable logic, I’d never considered kinesiology practitioners to be particularly irresponsible. Getting a food intolerance diagnosis is mainly a hobby for the well and the well off, and if somebody was really feeling awful, surely they’d do something a bit more sensible, like getting a blood test or excluding likely candidates from their diet and seeing if they felt better. But then a traumatised friend told me how kinesiology is practiced in a Steiner school in Bristol for children with special needs – I shall call it school X for added suspense. It is really horrible – don’t look if you are easily disturbed.
As is the way with Steiner schools, lots of eccentric stuff went on, but arguably the most disturbing practice was the frequent use of kinesiology to diagnose children with food intolerances. However, because of the nature of the children’s disabilities, a variant of the diagnostic model is used that makes the whole process even more surreal than it is anyway. A pellet containing the trigger food is placed in the student’s belly button. A member of staff then touches the child with one hand (thus plugging themselves into the student’s qi) and raises their other arm, which is pushed down by a second member of staff in order to establish whether an entire food group should be eliminated from the diet of a non-owner of said arm.
This is, I was disappointed to discover, not the school’s own invention, but a fairly widely mentioned adaptation of the technique, called ‘surrogate kinesiology’. Conveniently, this adaptation makes kinesiology available to everybody; not only benefiting people with physical disabilities, but also babies – not to mention rabbits.
I find this story alarming from several aspects. Mainly it serves as such a good reminder that complementary and alternative medicines are not just consumed by people who are fully informed (or could be if they so chose) about their treatment options. As an SEN teacher myself I know how important it is, if somebody with special needs requires me to advocate for them, that I do so with as much empathy and as little self interest as possible. If I had a learning disability and needed an advocate to choose a method for deciding if I had a food intolerance, I would like that person to be sane and objective about finding the most reliable method. Somehow I don’t think that sort of person would come up with kinesiology. Steiner schools are eccentric and alternative, and it seems like the method was chosen to fit the vibe of the school, rather than the needs of the child.
The other freaky thing is that the method used at school X undermines the already bonkers rationale behind kinesiology. The whole idea of qi, as it pertains to the surrogate technique (oh, and generally) confuses me. The idea that by making physical contact, one person’s qi flows into the other person’s body and influences their physical responses stretches even my easily won credulity. I have so many questions: If the child’s qi is circuiting around two bodies, isn’t it going to be perilously diluted? And why doesn’t it get mixed up in the other person’s qi? And it’s one thing to be diagnosed with something based on the way in which you wave your own arm up and down – in fact, it sounds like quite a fun game. Quite another surely for your diagnosis to depend on how somebody else decides (whether consciously or not) to wave their arm. I really really hate this: when on the one hand complementary and alternative medicine is infused with credibility through its basis in ancient unchanging wisdom, and on the other hand the practitioner is allowed to meddle with the formula all they like as long as they are being intuitive and well meaning about it.
Finally, why were so many children at School X being tested for food intolerances in the first place? Apparently children on kinesiology dictated regimes of dairy or gluten (or dairy and gluten) free diets were very common, as were intolerances to vegetables of the deadly nightshade family (i.e. quite a lot of vegetables). I suspect that as with the method of diagnosis, suffering from food intolerances is a lifestyle choice that fits the vibe of the school. Nothing about this farce is to do with the children as individuals – what a shame they have to be associated with it.