Interview with Dennis von Elgg - Root + Bones

Interview with Dennis von Elgg

Dennis von Elgg is a leading Bay Area acupuncturist, renowned practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and an instrumental professor at the Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, where I was fortunate enough to learn from him during my formative years. As a foremost voice on modern applications of ancient Chinese herbal and medicinal principles, Dennis literally has his fingers on the pulse when it comes to our contemporary health issues, as well as healing pathways that are grounded in rich tradition.


R+B: Thank you so much, Dennis, for agreeing to share your wisdom with us! You were truly one of my very favorite professors, and it’s definitely inspiring to witness your important work in the world. When it comes to TCM or healing in general, what has been inspiring you lately?


DvE: Firstly, I’m always inspired by my students, R+B at the top of that list. The curiosity and enthusiasm they bring to my lessons and far beyond, definitely keeps me pushing forward. 

But more on the Chinese medical front, for the last couple of years I’ve been developing a template for what we refer to as The Three Treasures. The basis for this is a fundamental question of: how do we find or recapture our true Essence, one that is consistent with natural laws, work and purpose, and joy? This approach seeks to cultivate both healing and thriving simultaneously. By recognizing the laws of expansion and contraction, we allow for variables in rest versus growth, the rhythms of receiving and giving, and all the conscious states that we get to experience as humans. 


R+B: What a beautiful perspective that really speaks to the potential we can realize… when we honor the natural ebbs and flows of life. Your expertise on the Three Treasures of TCM has been so foundational to my own understanding of these building blocks of life. Can you share the importance of these pillars with us?


DvE: The three pillars, Essence, Qi and Spirit, are dictating our entire lives.


The Essence, according to Chinese Medicine, is what we receive from our parents at the time of our conception. It is influenced by their health and emotional well-being. It is then either nourished or compromised by the mental and psychological state of our mother while in utero, and through our early childhood experiences. As we develop through our youth, our environment, and subsequent conscious decisions, we shift away from our parents and more to our own personal responsibility and actions. There are four primary areas of our lives when Essence expresses: early childhood development, adolescence, reproductive health and the aging processes, including menopause. 


The other times it rears its head is during times of transitions. Examples are changing jobs, homes, or relationship, having a child, children moving out, losing a loved one, facing a pandemic, etc. But it doesn’t need to be something that big. It could simply be unexpectedly needing to shift one’s plans. If someone gets unraveled because a plan didn’t go as expected, this is an expression of unstable Essence. 


The Qi, is the action that allows for changes and movements. It drives the material: organs, tissues, cellular activity, body fluids, etc. The Chinese character for Qi contains the radical for rice and steam. It is the action of changing a vital substance into something usable.

In our lives Qi shows up in our choices and actions: our routines, our lifestyles, our occupations, our attention. It manifests as three things: our thoughts, our decisions, and our actions. 


The Spirit is the energy we bring to the world via the internal consciousness. In the seminal text on Chinese Medicine, The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, it is stated, “The Heart is the residence of the Spirit.” We see this reflected in everyday language in the West with such phrases as “They have Heart”, or “They are Heartless.” We have all experienced a wide spectrum of conscious states ranging from love, compassion, and courage to anger, jealousy and shame. These and many more are expressions of the Shen/Spirit. We have these because we are human. It is the belief in our medicine that very dense emotional experiences are powerful and great lessons that can either support our well-being and those around us, or, at least temporarily, break us down. 


R+B: Thank you for elucidating so eloquently! These are big concepts that govern so much of our lived experience. What are some of your tried-and-true herbal allies for supporting each of these treasures? Would you indulge us by explaining the mechanics of how this support is administered to each treasure?


DvE: Wow. Good question. The links between the Three Treasures are pivot points. Infinite possibilities exist at each point, each presenting a plethora of outstanding choices.


People often want to cut to the chase and go straight to the Shen. So, I’ll speak to that. When we look at the Shen we assess the Heart. The principal question must be asked, What does the Heart need? Does it need nourishment? Does it need stability? Maybe it needs to move because it has become stuck… or be cleared, or warmed. I’ll take a moment to address each of these examples of Heart imbalances:


Nourishment: Red Dates, Reishi, Rose, Oats, Mulberry Fruit, Lily Bulb, Biota Seeds, Poria/Hoelen, Polygoni (stems and root), Zizyphus and Biota

Stability: Wheat, minerals such as Magnesium, Valerian, Schizandra, Mother-of-Pearl, Alpinia, White Peony, Siberian Ginseng

Moving: Rose, Albizia/Mimosa Bark, Red Salvia

Clearing: Polygala/Senega, Rhodiola, Tangerine Peel, Acori, Garlic Chives


I’ll stop there, but I think it’s worth mentioning that my primary go-to for many of my patients is some variation of Red Salvia, Schizandra, and Zizyphus. I use this as a simple trio, or as a sort of package that combines with other formulas.




R+B: So many favorite herbs in there and a great elaboration on what “Heart medicine” can mean. Are there practices you would recommend specifically to cultivate harmony amongst the three treasures?


DvE: It all starts with sleep. Without it, all bets are off. Many of the herbs above address sleep with magnesium being at the top of the list. It is of note that magnesium helps maintain sleep after one falls asleep. 


Formulating a discipline surrounding sleep is paramount. Pick 3-4 pre-bed activities. Do these every night. Some examples: reduce stress by making a list of what you need to do the next day, make a list of things you’re grateful for that made your day enjoyable or less challenging, set-up your tea/coffee/espresso station, eliminate any clutter in the bedroom (clean if dirty), make a cup of chamomile tea, read something enjoyable and pleasurable, lay out your clothes for the next day, meditate, floss, pray, whatever works for you  but do it with intention, with the purpose of clearing the landing strip so you have an unobstructed landing into bed.


Secondly, develop and maintain your community of family, friends, colleagues, mentors, members of your sangha or church congregation, bandmates, teammates, etc. Every community brings something to the Three Treasures. 


Family, if the relationships are healthy, has a clear path to supporting the Essence. Colleagues and mentors can support the Qi. Fellow artists, bandmates, members of your church can further develop the Shen. 


The important piece in any and all of these is the importance of sustaining deep fluidity. Without it we become rigid, fixed, stubborn, and hurtful. These are due to a lack of adaptability which directly inhibits the pathways of Essence nourishing the Qi, and Qi driving the Shen. 


R+B: I know someone who was told by her acupuncturist that she is very low on Jing, or Essence, and that it’s non-replenishable. Of course, this information and its implications for her health really scared her. Can you speak to this?


DvE: Oh boy, yeah. Well, part of being a healthcare provider is communicating to a patient those ideas of what you believe to be true. The key to that statement is the word “believe.” There is a long, long history of misguided “truths” in science and medicine, and Chinese Medicine is no exception. I think a more sensitive way to have phrased that is something akin to, “The idea behind Essence is that it contains two basic parts: 1. That which is fixed, which is what a person receives at the time of their conception and is further influenced in early childhood, and 2. That which is very pliable and influenced by rightful living… by making helpful decisions and taking helpful actions in your life. Let’s start there”.





R+B: That’s both a much more approachable and more accurate way of phrasing it, as postnatal Jing/Essence can be enhanced. You’ve shared that in both of your roles as practitioner and professor, your job is to identify blockages and then devise effective strategies for clearing, which is a really humble way of kneeling before the power of life force energy. Would you be willing to highlight some strategies for clearing stagnation?


DvE: I think an easy way to think of that is to alternate comfort with discomfort. That’s kind of the process of any growth, right? Confusion, for example, is uncomfortable. Sometimes very. But confusion is a transition point. The disorder of confusion can’t disrupt you. It helps to simply observe it, without judgment, as one observes a child learning to walk. It’s a growth state. It’s an immediate opportunity to make peace with the confusion and initiate your principles. It is said that Confusion is a friend that has come to bring you home. Home being your higher self. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, professionally, socially, intellectually. It’s about plasticity in all these areas, arriving at new ideas without the stickiness of closed-ends belief systems. Every cell in our bodies seeks to learn. Learning is movement. Movement, in all areas, is the antidote to stagnation. 


But perhaps what you are looking for here are some tips. So here are mine:


  1. Read every day. Even if its just 5-10 minutes. Reading can be conversing with the wisdom of the dead or highly invigorating with contemporary thinkers. It always gives stagnation a solid nudge. 
  2. Vary exercises/body movements. All are good, barring injury. 
  3. Converse with nature. Use your whole body. Get dirty. Dirt and its bacteria increases serotonin levels, specifically mycobacterium vaccae. The connection to dirt and mood is well documented. 
  4. Identify five people or groups of people that play favorably to the Five Elements. Who teaches you? Who challenges your weak spots? Who accepts you even at your very worst? Who’s your “teammate”? Who pulls your heart-strings? Who do you sing and dance with? Having a broad spectrum of relationships keeps the synapses firing.
  5. Sleep is an opportunity for the brain to declutter. The synapses of the brain go in for a power washing every night. Compromising sleep compromises your nightly maintenance schedule. Cheating on sleep is like changing only four of the six spark plugs in your car. Sleep equals an expansion of emotional intelligence. But equally important is how you wake up. I stay off my phone for at least 30 minutes while I do 10 minutes of reading, 10 minutes of movement and 10 minutes of meditation. Doing these with a view of the sun rising is absolute perfection. It’s a routine that works for me. After that I feel pretty darn good!



R+B: These are such great and accessible tips, and your musings on dis/comfort are also brilliant. I love your teaching that “the medicine [of acupuncture] works cumulatively and through momentum. That’s how energy works.” This, of course, really applies to tonic herbalism and what I try to share through Root + Bones. Can you elaborate on this relationship between healing and consistency?


DvE: I’ll start by saying one of my biggest challenges in life is routine and patience. I want everything now! So consistency, while delaying reward, is my version of yelling at the weather: WHYYYYY??? (Shaking fist at the sky). I’m aware of this so I work with it.


I’ve noticed some remarkable changes in my being and the wellness of my patients when consistency through routine is practiced. Working with a strategy over time is really the only way to find success. There’s little evidence to the contrary. The idea behind Supplementing as many of the R+B medicinals are doing, is that you are investing daily toward a long-term strategy that is very strong yet adaptable based on new evidence. I like to change my blends with the seasons or with what is happening with me. This helps me find some kind of harmony with nature, which I am part of. 


This said, we have to meet ourselves where we are. Likewise for my patients. An all-too-common mistake is to exact from our patients and ourselves virtues that don’t yet exist. Qualities that we don’t yet possess. So, start where you are. Meet yourself there. Then apply the proper pressure. Doing one thing is infinitely better than nothing. Doing something is moving Qi. Moving Qi is an opportunity to Nourish the Spirit. Nourishing the Spirits brings us home to our Essence which builds our Qi. Cool, right??


R+B: Extremely! I’m so glad we keep circling back to how interconnected and cumulative everything is. I know a core tenet of your mission involves creating hyper-individualized treatment plans, which I so appreciate, but would you be willing to share some of the most prevalent healthcare themes you’re noticing and, recognizing that this can’t really be simplified but touching upon some antidotes for those themes?


DvE: On the heels of the pandemic, people discovered the impact in innumerable ways. I lost a perfectly healthy cousin. Some lost jobs, friendships, opportunities, even identities. Imbalances were exposed in sad and disheartening ways. This is showing up in my clinic daily. 


If we look at the Three Treasures, where this seems to show up the most is the junction between courage and love. For those with a Chinese Medicine background, this is the meeting of the Wood Yang and the Fire Yin. The Wood Yang expands and offers, while the Fire Yin receives. When the Fire Yin is fed, one feels the freedom to manifest and offer themselves spiritually, emotionally, and with heart. 


Love, in this context, is not limited to romantic love. It shows up anytime one is willing (courage) to take off the masks that we fear we can’t live without. Deep down, we know the mask is suffocating us. It’s a state of being. 


In my geriatric population, who have retired, seen their kids move on to their busy lives, lost friends or even spouses, I have seen big strides in using herbs as a springboard while introducing a path that often brings back profound benefits. I ask patients what they loved when they were children, before middle school. Maybe it was singing or building model airplanes, or working on bikes, or crafts. Then I ask them if they could see a way to rediscover that love today, but from a more experienced and learned place. The herbs are meant to provide the Will and Qi. With that comes the acceptance of the Fire Yin to be fed. Then we stoke the Fire and see if there is a way to bring this Qi, this Fire, into their communities. Recently I had a 101-year-old patient rediscover her beadwork. My office has one of her pieces hanging from my window. I’ve had patients teach bicycle repair at the high school, start jazz quartets, take on building WWI model airplane replicas, start succulent gardens, and on and on. This is their Essence in action. This is their Home. 


R+B: What a deeply heartwarming share. Thank you so much for the work you do and for sharing your wisdom with my community. 


If you would like to connect with Dennis or inquire about treatment (West Sonoma County), visit his website here.