Learning About the Collateral System of Acupuncture from Jeffrey Yuen

Daniel Schulman

/ 3 min read

Monday, March 7, 2010


I am sitting in the Charlotte (North Carolina) airport as I write this. Several times a year, I leave PEI to get more training, insight and inspiration. You simply cannot practice this kind of medicine without that kind of ongoing engagement.

Chinese Medicine is a very fertile field. There is no end. This weekend was no exception.   Jeffrey Yuen is a very ‘hot’ speaker on the Chinese Medicine continuing education circuit these days. And for good reason. He is in a lineage of Chinese Medicine and Daoist philosophy that stretches back 88 generations. And he brings the full depth and breadth of that implication to his very intense (I have 55 pages of notes from this one!) weekend seminars. His classes move freely and smoothly between modern-day discussions of endocrine function, psychiatry, and cancer etiology, to spirituality to what the Chinese Emperor’s personal physicians were arguing about in the Ming Dynasty or why certain acupuncture concepts were discarded in the Song Dynasty and are coming back into use today.

Most of us do not realise that medicine is no different from any other human endeavour. It is strongly influenced by the fashions of thought, value systems and cultural biases of the day. This is no different today than it has ever been. The idea that medicine is a purely objective science is an illusion. It is always practiced as part of the culture in which it is practiced. When your doctor says you need to have your Uterus or your Gall Bladder removed or you need to take this or that drug, they are not just making a scientific statement, they are also making a cultural statement. (And if you say, ‘no, I think I will give Chinese Medicine a try first’, you are not only making a medical statement but a cultural statement as well) In truth, you always have options and choices (unless, of course, your life is truly on the line – and even then, from a certain perspective, you still have choices and options).

Jeffrey regularly reminds us that Chinese Medicine, in particular, is applied philosophy and not just science.

The topic for this weekend’s class was a group of acupuncture channels we call, in English, the ‘Collaterals’. This system of channels serve as a sort of buffer and protection so that the challenges and insults we receive in life are diverted, accommodated and held in various ways from immediately causing serious harm to our organs. In Chinese Medicine, we differentiate these insults and challenges into three distinct categories –


  • ‘external pathogenic influences’ (viruses, bacteria, toxic agents, etc),
  • ‘internal pathogenic influences’ (emotional factors – yes the collateral system even acts literally as a physical parking space in your body for the consequences of unrectified emotional and psychosocial aspects of your life) and
  • what we call ‘neither internal or external pathogenic influences’ which amounts to poor lifestyle choices (dietary choices, sexual choices, drugs, booze, etc.).


This intricate and elaborate collateral system siphons all these insults, challenges and pathogenic influences and parks them in various places or ‘holding areas’. If we didn’t have this system of collaterals, people who drink too much or smoke too much or eat too many doughnuts or for that matter, live lives with seriously unresolved emotional conflicts would all get severely ill and die a lot sooner.

Unfortunately, as Chinese Medicine sees it, this collateral system cannot get rid of or vent these influences, it can only divert them away from doing the worst of damage, for a period of time. That is certainly no small thing – it can often be many decades of our lives. This speaks to the whole concept of latency and how it is important we don’t just assume because we are asymptomatic, we are not engaged with a disease process through the life we are choosing to live. I say that not to invoke fear but to encourage you to always take your life and your responsibility far more seriously than merely being content with short-term comforts and ‘feeling good states’.

The collateral system we spent all weekend learning about stands as a perfect example of how much medicine could really advance if Modern Medicine and Chinese Medicine could really work together, side by side in a mutually engaged, forward evolving project. The collateral system of Chinese Medicine has so much insight to offer the inquiry into how disease originates and develops. It also has tremendous therapeutic options for those serious about preventative healthcare and this weekend made me realise strongly why its good to receive regular care from a practitioner of Chinese Medicine. We spent the weekend delving in great detail into


  • the precise pathways of the entire collateral system,
  • what signs and symptoms the different collateral channels present as evidence they have been actively engaged as pathogenic diversions and
  • the varied treatment strategies for addressing this system and all of the life issues it embodies.