Kil-Young ‘Ky’ Yu, MSTCM, LAc earned his master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2006 from American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM). He was the Team Acupuncturist to the Golden State Warriors for five seasons (2013-2018), which included four NBA Finals and winning three championships. He traveled extensively with the Warriors as a core member of the Medical Team during the regular season and all throughout the playoffs. He was the Team Acupuncturist to the San Francisco 49ers for four seasons (2014-2018). He worked for five years (2013-2018) at the Facebook Wellness Center at their main headquarters in Menlo Park, CA and was one of the first acupuncturists hired. He worked for seven years (2011-2018) at Highland Hospital in their Division of Integrative Medicine providing in-patient and out-patient care for the underserved community in Oakland, CA. Currently, he runs a private practice, AcuAthletics, in Cookeville, TN.
Our Envisioning the Future blog series gives you a glimpse of some of the exciting and diverse careers and opportunities that ACTCM graduates are pursuing. Here, alumni share their stories, experiences, and advice with you. Get to know what motivates them and our ACTCM community—and be inspired!
What led you originally to study Chinese medicine? What did you do before studying TCM?
My parents emigrated from Korea to the US back in the 70s, to provide better opportunities and education for their five children. They strongly encouraged me to become a western medical doctor. That was ingrained heavily at an early age, and that’s what I thought I wanted to do, until life happened. My mother passed away of colon cancer when I was 17, and that really changed my worldview. This experience influenced me in two primary ways: one, the importance of happiness and purpose with whatever I’m doing; and two, without our health, nothing else matters.
I studied pre-med at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, still planning to pursue western medicine. While in college, my perspectives shifted, I was undecided on what I wanted to do, but I knew that I didn’t want to go to school for another eight years to become a medical doctor, so I decided to move to Santa Cruz, CA. I was working at a coffee shop and one of my co-workers was studying Chinese Medicine at the Five Branches Institute. Right then, I immediately knew that was what I wanted to study, because it incorporated both the spiritual and physical aspects of health. There have been a few moments in my life that have been very clear, hearing her talk about Chinese medicine resonated deeply as a way of living that I wanted to embody for myself and to share with others.
Did you have any personal experience with Chinese medicine before that?
Growing up, every winter, my parents would brew herbs for us to drink in preparation for the cold and flu season. I mostly remember the foul smell and awful taste. I also remember my grandmother pricking my index finger and bleeding it whenever I had a fever. My previous experiences with Chinese medicine and acupuncture were very basic.
Can you talk a bit about your experience studying at ACTCM?
I had this preconceived idea that if I really wanted to go deep into TCM, I would need to study in China. ACTCM had an exchange program where I was able to go to Hangzhou and study at the Zhejiang Provincial Hospital of Chinese Medicine for two months. Studying in the hospitals there was a wonderful learning experience. I got to see volumes of patients and cases that we wouldn’t normally see in the US. However, I soon learned that TCM schools in the US, especially ACTCM, have great leverage to sponsor top doctors from China to come and teach. Studying in China really made me appreciate the level of instruction we received from ACTCM professors. These were some of the top doctors from China that were coming here to America to teach.
Another one of the programs that I really enjoyed while studying at ACTCM was the stroke rehab clinic at CPMC. This internship was very impactful, because I was able to directly experience how Chinese Medicine was being integrated in a hospital setting. At the time, I didn’t quite know what that meant for me, but I knew that it was something I would want to do in addition to the traditional private practice.
Finally, my most valuable and cherished experiences while studying at ACTCM were the people I met. My classmates are dear friends and colleagues that I will have for the rest of my life.
What did you do when you first graduated from ACTCM? How did you get started working for the Golden State Warriors?
When I graduated from ACTCM in 2006, I opened up a private practice in Oakland with one of my classmates. There was a lot of work from the get-go, especially when you’re starting from zero patients and you have to build up a practice. I distinctly remember having a conservation with one of my brothers after I graduated. He asked me, “Now, what are you going to do”? which I replied, “I’m going to open my practice”. He then asked, “What’s Plan B, if this doesn’t work”? I finally replied, “Plan B, is to make Plan A work”! This is how I approached opening my first practice and every other opportunity.
Because of my experience with my mother, I went into studying TCM thinking that I was going to specialize in oncology. There’s a saying that I’ve heard quite often from other practitioners about your practice: “sometimes, your practice chooses you”. Meaning, the patients you treat in your practice will become your specialty, and that’s what happened to me. Life presented me with a serendipitous opportunity.
In the spring of 2013, I was at a Golden State Warriors basketball game with a classmate, and we were talking how the Warriors needed an acupuncturist. At the time, the Warriors had Steph Curry, who was prone to ankle injuries, and they were trying to assemble players around him to be a championship contender. That same summer, I was giving a presentation in Utah on a scanner technology that I used in my clinic to measure nutritional scores. An audience member attending this presentation was an athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Clippers who had previously worked with the Head Trainer with the Golden State Warriors, Johan Wang. He knew that Johan wanted his players to eat better and that this scanner could be an objective tool to monitor dietary changes, so he arranged a meeting for the two of us to meet.
During our meeting, I threw out the idea that I was surprised that NBA teams don’t use acupuncture for quicker recovery and injury prevention, which are similar goals of good nutrition. At the end of the meeting, he said to me, “You know, we’re actually looking for an acupuncturist to work with the team”. So, we set up a series of meetings to make sure we were on the same page. They first sent me a player who had migraines every week. He had to go into a dark room for three to four hours and sleep for the migraine to subside. I started doing acupuncture once a week for eight weeks, and then his migraines got significantly better. That’s when they started to utilize acupuncture more and offered it to the other players. That’s how I started working with the Golden State Warriors. Other healthcare practitioners and personnel working in the professional sports business had very similar stories — meeting the right person at the right time and place. I was nowhere near as good as the orthopedic teachers I studied with. Yet, somehow, I got the opportunity to treat the Golden State Warriors basketball players. You never know what opportunities will unfold from certain situations in life.
How did you continue to grow your role as acupuncturist with the Golden State Warriors? Can you speak a bit about working with professional athletes?
Once I got my foot in the door, I needed to get buy-in from the players. It was difficult initially; players were only beginning to gain awareness about acupuncture and “dry needling”. It was still a very new treatment option. Most players had never had acupuncture before, and so were skeptical and wondered, “what could those needles do”? The first year was tough. I was learning many new techniques, and also wasn’t seeing the volume of players I had expected. But then, on the night before the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets in the 2014-2015 season, one of the star players had a lingering hamstring strain, despite having access to the top therapies available. This was the first time that the Warriors were in the Western Conference Finals in 40 years, and this star player didn’t want to miss the game. I received a call that Monday from the Head Trainer asking me to treat this player at his house.
Steve Kerr, the Head Coach, had a saying that he preached to all the role players, “be game ready”. He understood the importance of keeping all players engaged and motivated. Whether if you were the All-Star player scoring 30 points a night or 12th player on the bench, you never know when your number would be called. He was a bench player with the 6-time NBA champions Chicago Bulls playing alongside Michael Jordan, and he knew the importance of keeping every player engaged. On that night, I was like the 12th player on the bench of the medical team and my number was called with my needles ready to go.
When I arrived at the player’s house, the Warrior’s athletic trainer and his family members were there, as was his barber, who was giving the whole family haircuts. I set up the player on my table; everyone was looking over my shoulder with intense curiosity. I definitely felt the pressure of the moment. We performed some Orthopedic testing to get a baseline assessment of his range of motion and the reproduction of his pain. I palpated and identified the strained hamstring muscle. This is where orthopedic knowledge comes into hand, not just meridian theory. I needled the strained muscle, got a good fasciculation and release. We retested him afterwards, and he no longer felt the pulling pain. He was amazed and couldn’t believe that the change was instant. After that, the team said, “Pack your bags, you’re coming to Houston with us”! That moment really propelled acupuncture to the other players, since the star player was receiving treatments. I ended up traveling with the team throughout the playoffs, and the Warriors won their first NBA championship that season.
During my tenure with the team, we went to four NBA Finals, won three championships, and I got to travel extensively as a core member of the medical team. I got to experience an amazing journey of a lifetime with the Golden State Warriors as the Team Acupuncturist. There is incredible power in what our needles can do, so trust in the medicine!
What about your current practice? You’re in Tennessee now?
In professional sports, people come and go all the time, whether it’s changing players, coaching, or medical staff. At the end of 2018 season, the Warriors got a new Director of Sports Performance, who brought in his own medical team. That’s when my contract ended, and I began exploring what I would do next.
My wife, two-year old daughter (at that time) and I decided to move to Tennessee to be closer to my wife’s family so that our daughter could spend more time with her grandparents and my family, since I grew up on the East Coast. After the birth of my daughter, my priorities began to shift. With my daughter, I know that whenever I say YES to something, it’s saying NO to her. So, whatever I say yes to has to be very compelling and include my family goals. When I was in the Bay Area, I was working with the Golden State Warriors, the San Francisco 49ers, Facebook Wellness Center, and at Highland Hospital in Oakland, CA. Sometimes I would leave at six o’clock in the morning and wouldn’t come home till 10 o’clock at night. It was intense, and I definitely felt “the hustle” of the Bay Area.
When I arrived in Tennessee, I got a job offer to work in the Integrative Medicine Department at the University of Tennessee Medical Center at Knoxville, providing patient care and doing research with the Pain Management and Orthopedic Departments. I also had the opportunity to work with collegiate athletes with the Athletic Department. During this transition period we were staying in Cookeville with my in-laws. My father-in-law, who’s a 27-year Army veteran, was able to get me enrolled as a Community Care Provider for the VA, and within three months, my practice was full with both VA and local referrals. We decided to forgo the opportunity with the UT Medical Center and stay in Cookeville. Being one of the few acupuncturists in the area, I have veterans driving up to two hours just to come to the clinic. Working with the veteran population has been very meaningful and very humbling to hear their stories of the adversities that they’ve gone through. Working with them has allowed me to see again just how powerful our medicine is.
Being in private practice, I have autonomy over my schedule and get to spend a lot more time with my family. My commute to work is two miles and takes five minutes. I work four days a week and I’m able to have breakfast and dinner with my daughter and wife every day. Sometimes, I get the itch to want to get back into professional sports, but for now, the most important thing is that I get to spend a lot of time with my family, and I’m prioritizing that.
What’s something in the field of Chinese Medicine that you are currently excited about?
I’m excited that there are increasingly diverse opportunities and settings for TCM graduates to work in, whether that’s in private practice, at hospitals, wellness centers, tech companies, or with professional athletes. I like how TCM has become more integrated into the greater medical community. It’s great to be able to work alongside other healthcare practitioners and to co-manage patient care. But this doesn’t mean that we have to give up the foundations of our medicine. I still believe it’s important to maintain the spirit of TCM.