When the Stars Tense Up, It's Acupuncturist Zion Yu Who Keeps Hollywood on Pins and Needles

updated 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jaclyn Smith went because of whiplash, James Garner had pain in his knee. Robert Wagner wanted to quit smoking, Merv Griffin and George Harrison were exhausted. Susan Anspach was troubled by allergies. Mariel Hemingway visits when she's in town, but hasn't yet tried the house speciality, a nonsurgical facelift. Says Mariel, 21, "It's still a little early for that sort of thing."

The drawing card for them all is Zion Yu, who, as Hollywood's leading acupuncturist, has probably needled more celebrities than Don Rickles and Rona Barrett together. And many of them insist that Yu's pincushion treatments provide significant relief. Says Jaclyn Smith, who visited Yu after twisting her neck in an auto accident, "I'm sold on it. There was this gnawing pain in my neck and back, but I didn't want to take medication or muscle relaxants. So after someone told me about Zion, I went. After only one treatment, followed by massage over the pressure points of the body, the pain went away. I'd like to get more people to him." Actress Susan Anspach, who says she went to Zion on Jane Fonda's recommendation, found his treatment of her assorted allergies "excellent. It relaxes your system; that's the big advantage, I think. I got a lot of help—as long as I went."

Therein, it seems, lies a rub: For some problems, and some people, relief lasts only as long as the needles are in. Robert Wagner managed to quit smoking for a while when Yu put tiny pins in his ears, but started up again after the pins were removed. Wagner's publicist, George Kirvay, says he lost weight when Yu applied the same technique (the ear pins are small enough to be worn in public without attracting too much attention); then he gained it all back after the pins were withdrawn.

Yu, 39, grew up in Taipei and learned his craft after school by sticking needles in his father, a celebrated acupuncturist. "He was a big man, a huge man," says Yu. "My little hand on his body was like diving into the ocean." His father would give him instant feedback ("no, that's not deep enough, that isn't the right place, change your touch") and also taught him about herbs and martial arts. "He'd have me stand motionless in a posture for a long time, and then when I'd feel pain he'd put in needles to relieve it. Acupuncture is very good for athletes, by the way; it makes them stronger and increases circulation." Yu moved to the U.S. in 1967. In 1974 he set up practice in Los Angeles with his wife, Shiao Pin, 36, who is trained in Oriental skin care. When acupuncture ran into legal trouble early on—critics charged it amounted to practicing medicine without a license—Yu met with then-Governor Jerry Brown, a strong supporter, who helped win explicit legalization in California in 1975.

Today many Western doctors have come to accept acupuncture as a valid tool, even though much of how it works remains a mystery. The most common view is that it affects the central and autonomic nervous systems, dampening hyperactivity and thereby reducing pain. Some doctors also believe that acupuncture causes the release in the brain of morphine-like substances that inhibit pain and elevate mood. Yu can explain the process only in terms that are vague and unscientific by Western standards. "Acupuncture treats the whole person, bringing into harmony the metabolism, hormones and the nerve system," he says. The goal is to balance the yin (predominantly female) and yang (predominantly male) forces which traditional Chinese medicine holds reside in everyone. "It is not that yin is best or yang is best, but that they form a whole," says Yu, who diagnoses patients by looking at their faces. "I know at once by looking at you which part of the body is weak and what kind of stress you're under," he claims. If a person is too yang (in women, Yu says, too much hair on the upper lip is a giveaway), Yu positions his needles to make more yin; if a man is tired all the time—a sign of too much yin—Yu tries for more yang. A problem in one part of the body may require inserting needles in a seemingly unrelated area. Some kinds of headache, for example, may be reduced by a needle in the web of the thumb.

When not at their fashionable clinic in West Hollywood, Yu and Shiao Pin can be found swimming or doing yoga at their house in the L.A. suburb of Encino. The couple have two children, Alexander, 12, and Jennifer, 9. Alexander is already learning the needle biz from his dad. Yu looks forward to opening a school to train other acupuncturists. He dreams of the day when acupuncture will be more acceptable. "People are afraid of the needle," says Yu. "That's too bad. The needle is your friend; positive pain is your friend. You have the chance to learn to communicate with your body."

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