Teatime with Tracy Richardson
AIMC Berkeley’s Herbal Dispensary Manager Tracy Richardson gets personal about herbs, AIMC Berkeley, and how to run a successful business as a complementary health care provider.
How did you become interested in Chinese medicine?
Tracy Richardson: I had a predisposition for alternative medicine since I was really young. My eldest sister was in and out of hospitals and I gravitated toward something different since early childhood. When I got pregnant and had my daughter, I started learning about herbs and food, and how to stay healthy. That grew into helping friends and family, and then becoming a certified herbalist. Eventually, I wound up in Chinese medicine school becoming an acupuncturist. So it’s always been a part of who I am.
You’re the Herbal Dispensary Manager at AIMC Berkeley. Tell us about your affinity for herbs?
Richardson: Since I was a little girl, I was in the garden. My family would make fun of me because I would dig up the garlic as a 5 year old and eat it. I just knew that I needed it. In fact, I was the least sick of all of my mother’s children. I attribute that to my natural wanting to eat from the garden. We had a loquat tree—the leaf of which [is a Chinese herb called] Pi Pa Ye枇杷葉for cough—and I would eat the fruit, almost the whole tree. My family would ask, “how can you eat so much?” I would say, “I need it.” As a little person, I just knew I needed it. I have an affinity for herbs that became more and more a part of my life. I also got into macrobiotics, which is basic country food out of Japan. I’ve always had an affinity towards Asia. Maybe a past life….
In addition to being on staff at the College, you’re also an alumna of AIMC Berkeley. What brought you here?
Richardson: It’s a really interesting story. I’d just graduated from my herbal studies at East West School of Planetary Herbology with Michael Tierra, and gotten certified as an herbalist from his school. I was studying with an acupuncturist because I wanted to be in the clinic more. I was working at Good Earth Natural Foods as a Supplement Manager. A couple of days a week, I’d go into the acupuncturist’s clinic, watch him, and talk with him about his patients and the herbs he was prescribing. This went on for a few months, and one day he said, “Hey come in here.” He was in a treatment room. He said, “Can you put a needle right here?” I said, “Me? No” and he encouraged me, “Yeah, just try it, just try it.” So I needled him. I was afraid I would hurt him, but he said it didn’t. I went home that night and had dreams about doing acupuncture on people. I had these dreams of Tibetan acupuncture, and at that point I didn’t even know that there was such a thing. I came back to the acupuncturist and told him, “I think I need to do acupuncture now. What do I do? Should I apprentice with you or should I go to school?” He told me to go check out schools, “you can always apprentice with me if that’s what you want to do.” So, I check[ed] out schools in the Bay Area and I came here. It was the perfect fit for me with the Medical Qigong studies you could do here, and also with the Japanese with the Chinese acupuncture, I resonated with this school. That’s why I came.
And how did you become the manager of the Herbal Dispensary?
Richardson: I got hired to manage the herb room when I was in my last term of school. I’ve managed big retail herbal and supplement stores, so I know how to makemoney in the herb room. I came in and helped get it all together. I really wanted the school to flourish, so I stayed on. I’ve been here a couple of years now, and it’s going good.
AIMC Berkeley has gone through some changes, and there are good people at the helm right now.
Richardson: Yes, I’ve seen a lot of changes in my time here. I’ve been at this school since 2007 and I really like the direction the school is going. It’s been on a good trajectory now for a few years. It’s very positive. Yasuo Tanaka is wonderful. He’s been a part of this school for many, many years and now he’s really very present; it’s wonderful. He’s a great leader.
You have a strong background in managing both the business and personal relationship sides of an acupuncture practice. What are your thoughts on this balance?
Richardson: You need to succeed financially or you won’t be able to keep doing what you love to do. The business side is definitely important. It’s hard as a healer to also understand the financial part, but it’s very important to succeed in this field.
Do you have any tips for how to be financially successful?
Richardson: For me what works is being generous and giving a lot, keeping the flow happening—just like in our body, keeping the qi moving. I have a sliding scale from $40-$80, and I let people choose what will work for them. Most people choose $60 or $80, but some people choose the lower end. I just let that happen. I feel like I have abundance come to me. I’m not worrying about money; I’m paying all my bills and I think it’s the flow. Keeping the flow happening, just like in our bodies. If our qi is stagnant, we have pain somewhere. The same is true in your financial realm. The I Ching teaches that you need to keep things moving. Sometimes I’ll let somebody come in for free if they’re having a really hard time and they can’t afford to pay now. What happens is that they’ll refer somebody who can pay, and then that person comes in. Keeping the flow. When I first opened my practice, my sliding scale was from $20-$80 because I wanted to have people coming in. I wanted to have the space used and my energy going out. By doing that it’s created this really successful model.
Where do you see the field going?
Richardson: The community model seems to be working in a lot of ways. I also work in a community acupuncture clinic. At the same time, private practice is still really important to me. I want to have more time with people than the community model allows for. But I feel that the community model is a good start for getting our medicine out to more people. I also see our medicine moving into hospitals more. Instead of just going straight to the Emergency Room for their care, people will start doing more preventative maintenance. Acupuncturists are going to fulfill that role. It’s already happening.
It’s been said that the US doesn’t have a health care system; we have a disease management system.
Richardson: Absolutely, that’s what’s happening. It’s the catastrophic diseases like diabetes—once it gets to that point, it takes a while to wind the body back to harmony. If you can catch disease before it gets to that point, it’s much easier to find balance in the body.
How do you keep yourself well and in harmony?
Richardson: Well, last summer I took a 10 day backpacking trip. I took time out from life and got out to nature, hiked around and slowed down, swam in lakes and cooked over fire. Those are ways that I keep myself healthy, I take breaks. Every two to three months, I take some time off of my regular schedule to make sure I’m not too far away from my center. In my regular practice, I do qigong, and yoga, and I run. I don’t do them all every day. Throughout a two week period, I do all of those things. Maintaining a balanced diet is also crucial.
Do you have any advice to give to new graduates or students of TCM?
Richardson: Follow your enthusiasm. What brought you into the medicine is probably a desire to help other people. Keep that at the forefront of what you’re doing. I feel like financial success will come behind that. You want to come from wanting to help people feel better. From there, the financial success and the rest of the practice will come together.