As our third year students prepare to graduate, we talk to Josh Barrow about what it’s like to study Acupuncture at ICOM, his favourite bits of the course and how the course has changed his outlook.

What did you do before you came to study Acupuncture at ICOM?

My background wasn’t anything related to Acupuncture. I studied Business Management for my first degree and I’ve primarily designed, built and delivered tech solutions. My first job was creating online training courses (in areas such as Project Management, Leadership, Cyber Security, and more) for large corporates. Most recently I’ve been working as a Platform/Product Manager for a tech start-up part-time whilst studying this course.

So for me it was quite a career change coming to study acupuncture with no prior experience or knowledge in complementary healthcare.

Why did you decide to study Acupuncture?

I had amazing experiences with acupuncture throughout my first degree. After not being helped by many different doctors with IBS, and arguably getting worse, acupuncture was a last resort to help ‘cure’ me. Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had never even heard of it before having my first treatment. But after the first treatment, I knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel and that I was going to be ‘normal’ again. After a series of frequent treatments, I was almost back to full health. I proceeded to return for treatment every change of season to maintain my health for the next six years.

I wanted to study acupuncture to be able to help other people in the way that acupuncture helped me. The treatment I had turned around my life and this potential for change was a real inspiration to me.

What made ICOM the best place for you to study Acupuncture?

I went to all the British Acupuncture Council’s (BAcC) accredited courses’ open days. You can’t really go wrong choosing any of these courses because they are all accredited by the BAAB (British Acupuncture Accreditation Board – the educational arm of the BAcC). So you can rest assured you are getting a really good standard of education. I chose ICOM for the following reasons:

1. You study so many different modalities

Without actually studying for a year or two it is difficult to understand what is meant by concepts such as ‘Five Elements’, ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’, or ‘Stems and Branches’. I certainly wasn’t sure when I attended the open days. But what I love the most about ICOM is the fact that they teach you these so comprehensively and are fully invested in helping you to find your identity as a practitioner by providing the most solid foundation for your practice. Each member of my year group treats patients differently, based on the patient’s individual needs and what symptoms they present with. They choose the right tool from a rich professional box which includes all 365 Acupuncture points. I believe that this is the true strength of the college, and it sets it aside from other institutions perhaps too focused on just one style of acupuncture.

2. The passion and enthusiasm

Listening to a podcast by one of my future teachers, Deborah Woolf, was really the start of my appreciation for how much the college loves Chinese Medicine. The teachers are practitioners from all walks of life, all using different styles, but all dedicated to the study of acupuncture and a real love for the ‘classical texts’. Everything the college teaches is driven by a love and fascination for the subject and this really came across on the open day that I attended. Even afterwards, I emailed to ask a couple of what I thought were simple questions, but the college came back with very deep answers which demonstrated how they go above and beyond for everyone they encounter.

3. The sense of community

The college takes the time to understand you as a person, rather than just treating you as a number, and goes above and beyond to make you feel welcome and supported. What I felt on the open day has proven to be true with such care taken to building a collaborative and supportive environment.

4. ICOM’s reputation

The college is located in the most beautiful surroundings which you cannot help to fall in love with immediately. It’s such a small, beautiful place steeped with incredible history. So many amazing acupuncturists have studied here and gone on to achieve incredible results for patients but also in the advancement of the profession itself.

It was a tough decision to undertake a career change and leave a good job to do the course, but I followed my heart. I knew by attending ICOM’s open day that this was the right decision for me as a person. I hadn’t felt this on other college’s open days. A lot of this I think comes down to personal choice and what feels right in your heart.

What it was like on your first day at ICOM?

My first day was a very different experience to my previous study. Business Management, which was my first degree, is logical, easy to comprehend and always made sense and I probably coasted through it. On my first day at ICOM I realised just how much complex material I was going to have to learn. But even so, from this first day I knew that I had made the right decision to undertake a career change to come and study acupuncture at ICOM.

Joshua Barrow reading a book in the library at ICOMSlowly and surely, it all started to click as the secrets of Chinese philosophy and medicine started to unravel. The things I thought I would never remember became entrenched in my memory and aspects that once seemed impossible became obvious. It did take me a little while to start understanding this different way of seeing the world, but it is such an intricate, beautiful way of looking at things.

What were your favourite things about the course?

I’ve loved the course and had so many memorable moments. If I had to choose:

  • First year: I think the whole of the year was memorable. I made so many new friends, all with different backgrounds, who were all as passionate about the subject as I was. From the start you become obsessed with Chinese Medicine and continually want to learn more. Getting to know the students, the college staff and ourselves in great depth was an amazing experience and I have no doubt I have made friends and teachers for life.
  • Second year: Finishing the Points module. ICOM is unique in that it teaches students all 365+ points so that we have the broadest understanding of all the acupuncture points. This is one of the most important reasons why I chose ICOM, it gave the most amount of depth which will help us to be able to help 9/10 patients, but it also means that there is a lot of content to go through. I spent so many hours every week learning points and keeping on top of it was a good challenge. Finishing the points module was probably the biggest weight off my shoulders and you start to appreciate the points for how they work in clinic, and your lived experiences, rather than just the textbook descriptions.
  • Third year: Has to be every day in clinic. Being able to transfer everything that we learn in the classroom into practical skills is the most incredible experience. In Year 3, it’s primarily about finding the ‘style’ of treatment that suits you as a practitioner but also exploring the different ways that your treatments help patients. The supervisors in the clinic, vastly experienced practitioners, support us to grow as practitioners and as people. They’re forever giving us new ways of understanding patients and disease but at the same time it is also true when they say ‘patients are your best teachers’. Your successes and failures in the clinic room do help you to truly understand acupuncture.

There have been a lot of tough times, as with every degree, and there were lots of hours/days spent studying. But it was always worth it and now, nearly being on the other side, I don’t regret it in the slightest.

What would you say to someone considering studying at ICOM?

It can be a really tough decision to study for a degree, or to undertake a career change of any description, so it’s important to ensure you are making the right decision. It’s always a balance between following your heart and listening to your brain. Here are some of the best tips that people gave me before I started at the college:

  • Speak to Acupuncturists: It’s easy to get a romantic idea of what being an Acupuncturist means so I spoke to several acupuncturists before making a decision to fully understand their different experiences. I learned how they found the profession (and how they saw its future), and I gained a lot of valuable insights I would never have known without speaking to so many people. I still even keep in contact with a couple of the practitioners that I originally spoke to, all these years later.
  • Listen to others but remember that no one will be doing this course for you: It’s easy for people to say ‘that will be brilliant’ or to get excited for you to start studying. However, none of your friends or family will be giving up countless hours to study, learn and practice this medicine. Any course comes with a lot of sacrifice and that is something important to remember. Having said that, it’s impossible to do this course without the support from friends and family.
  • Follow your heart: It’s easy to stay where you are and not make a change. I have so many friends who don’t love what they do and have long wished they could change career but haven’t found the courage to do it. It takes a lot of courage and passion to study this course and so if you feel like it’s the right decision, be brave and go for it.

I did also speak with a career coach which meant that I was fully confident that I was making the right decision. It’s sometimes worth investing in advice from someone neutral who can help you to understand what’s right and important to you.

Do you feel the course has changed your outlook on life?

The course is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. It’s completely changed my outlook on life, health and people.

The Chinese philosophy and medicine starts to seep into our day-to-day thinking. I was queueing at a festival on the weekend and I was laughing to myself how much you can understand about people without even speaking to them. Looking at people’s tongues, spider veins, facial colours, body postures and more allows you to almost predict what a patient might suffer from. It’s amazing how much our bodies reveal about ourselves without us knowing and it is through this course that you realise everyone has got a story.

When studying topics such as Stems and Branches, you learn how we are not separate from the world around us. By understanding the cycles of nature, we are better able to understand why we become ill at particular times and can also learn how to treat patients better. On top of this, we can use these concepts to better understand ourselves and also deeply understand the psychology of our patients.