Traditional Tibetan Medicine 101

You might have heard rumors or stories about the famous Tibetan monks without knowing many concrete facts about this region, its beliefs, and its traditions – especially traditional medicine.

This mountainous region of West-Central China shares some of the traits of traditional Indian medicine to the South West and traditional Pacific medicine to the East. However, the heavy influence of Buddhism in the region has left a unique stamp on traditional medicine in this part of the world.

The Basics of Traditional Tibetan Medicine

Most of the medical traditions of the Indo-pacific region revolve around “qi” — pronounced “chee” — a soul or energy force that flows through the body. Unhealthy concentrations of this energy in different parts of the body lead to mental and physical illness.

Tibetan medicine does believe in bodily energy related to health but the way that they approach it is both more scientific and more abstract.

Instead of focusing on the soul and energy, traditional Tibetan medicine focuses on the mind, believing that all things are caused by the mind. The mind and the soul manifest themselves physically as “humors,” similar to the humors of early-modern European medicine. Imbalances of these humors, then, causes illness.

There are three humors in traditional Tibetan medicine: wind, bile, and phlegm. As a result, a symbol for Tibetan medicine is a circle composed of three drop shapes or brush strokes, compared to the two in the better known “yin-yang” sign popular in other Indo-pacific regions.

The three humors, the mind, and the spirit, are sometimes linked to the five elements of traditional Tibetan medicine. The familiar four are earth, water, wind, and fire, with “space” being the more mystical fifth element.

Diagnosis in Traditional Tibetan Medicine

Diagnosis in traditional Tibetan medicine is similar to diagnosis in holistic medicine, which is increasingly common in North America. During the diagnosis process, the pulse may be checked, the breath may be listened to, and urine may be examined. Other parts of the body may also be visually examined, particularly the tongue.

After the disorder of the humors has been diagnosed, a number of interventions may be “prescribed.”

There is also some belief in traditional Tibetan medicine, that different imbalances are more likely at different times of the year because the earth and the body undergo the same seasonal cycles.

Traditional Tibetan Cures and Practices

Trul Khor, a practice similar to yoga, is often used to remedy “wind blockages,” though some practitioners say that it can be used to diagnose, prevent, and treat a number of mental, emotional, and physical disorders.

Tsa-rLung is a more passive healing process, wherein a practitioner will attempt to heal the afflicted by redirecting energies in a process similar to faith healing in the Americas or Reiki in Japan.

Traditional Tibetan medicine also has a component of herbal medicine. Unfortunately for interested persons the world over, Tibetan herbal medicine is based on the herbs that grow in the region. These herbs are either impossible to find or illegal to gather in much of the rest of the world.

A number of ceremonies for the benefit of the individual’s mental, emotional, and spiritual health also make up a significant portion of traditional Tibetan medicine.

Is it Safe?

While Tibetan medicine is interesting to study, there are few centers for it around the world. Further, unlike other alternative medicines or folk medicines, there are no certification boards for Tibetan medicine. If you come across a Tibetan medicine practitioner, be sure to look into their other credentials – particularly medical degrees and experience.

While yoga is widely seen as at best beneficial and at worst harmless, there should be no harm in incorporating this aspect of traditional Tibetan medicine into your life. Similarly, while energy healing is not usually taken seriously in most of the Americas and Europe, it is also not seen as dangerous.

Should you venture into the world of herbal medicine, however, be sure to let your primary care provider know what herbs or supplements you are taking as these can interact with medication.

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