Traditional Tibetan medicine can appear as mysterious and magical as its beautiful home country. I first encountered it about 20 years ago, when I was researching my book The Natural Year. I was intrigued by reports of Tibetan physicians performing miraculous cures, even of ‘incurable’ diseases. I was fascinated by the arcane nature of the ancient system, and by its powerful herbal preparations known as ‘precious pills’.
Kate Roddick spent seven years studying Tibetan healing in Dharamsala. She explains that Tibetan medical philosophy is complex and goes well beyond the standard concepts of anatomy and physiology. It’s deeply holistic, looking at physical, emotional, psychological and even spiritual factors. Good health depends not just on our own bodies, but on how we interact with the people around us, with the environment, even with the cosmos.
Kate says it takes a hugely experienced practitioner to bring about the ‘miracle’ cures that occur. However she believes that, even with just a little knowledge, we could all make ourselves healthier: ‘Sometimes food is the only medicine required to obtain the necessary balance,’ she points out.
The three humours
Tibetan medicine classifies all of life into five energies. These combine to create three ‘humours’ – lung (air); tripa (bile) and bekan (phlegm). In this it echoes the ancient Greek system of medicine and also Ayurveda with its doshas of vata, pitta and kapha.
Air controls breathing, speech and muscular activity, the nervous system, your thought processes and your emotional attitude. Bile governs heat in the body, the liver and the digestive tract. Phlegm controls the amount of mucous in the body and also regulates the immune system.
When all the humours are in balance you can enjoy perfect health. When one or more becomes aggravated or sluggish, problems will occur.
‘Too much air causes stress which is the common Western condition,’ says Kate. ‘On the other hand, people with dominant bile will suffer the most in the summer, because they are so prone to overheating.’
If you see a Traditional Tibetan physician, expect careful observation and questioning – it may even feel a little intrusive as they delve into every aspect of your life and health. Your pulses will be taken (as with TCM and Ayurveda, the Tibetan physician feels for a wide variety of pulses, diagnosing the state of your body’s organs and systems via pulse). You will also be asked to provide a sample of urine so it can be stirred and examined – it’s considered an invaluable diagnostic tool.
Diet is one of the key tools for healing, and it’s likely that you will also be given suggestions of how to tweak your lifestyle. You may receive herbs, often in the form of tiny pills. If you’re very lucky, you’ll be prescribed massage.
Ku Nye – therapeutic massage
Tibetan massage was originally just one part of the whole Tibetan treatment. However now many massage therapists have added it to their repertoire, offering it as a stand-alone treatment. It’s deeply stress-relieving and can help a wide variety of anxiety-related disorders. Ku Nye is an oil-based massage, often utilizing oils infused with spices such as ginger and cardamom. As with Ayurveda, the oils used will depend very much on your individual constitution.
It’s a deeply satisfying form of bodywork. It starts off slowly, relaxing the body, allowing it to soften and open up. Then the touch gets deeper, more vigorous, as it targets tight muscles and fascia. Individual points (akin to marma or acupuncture points) are also probed.
You get off the table feeling fantastic. I found just one session left me more centred and deeply relaxed.
What’s your Tibetan type?
As with Ayurveda, Tibetan medicine teaches that there are various bio-energies that control our bodies and minds. In an ideal world, we would have all three humours in balance, but that rarely happens. Most of us tend to be dominated by one in particular. Although diagnosis is a precise art, the following should give you a rough idea of which humour is dominating you at present.
Physical symptoms: Air is a dry cold humour. You may suffer from dry skin and find you sweat very little. Stomach disorders are common, as is constipation. Back problems or pains in the hips and shoulder blades are symptomatic. Tinnitus, shivering and sighing are also said to be key signs of air imbalance.
Mind symptoms: Air people are restless souls. Your mind may flit from subject to subject and you may find it hard to relax. Sleep is often troubled, and insomnia is common. Stress is your major enemy.
Urine diagnosis: Unbalanced air shows itself in watery, almost transparent, urine.
Diet to balance: Avoid cold foods, and steer clear of raw foods. If you do want to eat or drink something cold (a salad or iced drink, for example) have a cup of hot ginger tea first. Base your diet around warming, comforting, nourishing foods – stews, soups and broths with plenty of onions, carrots, garlic and spices, spinach and greens.
Physical symptoms: Bile is a hot humour and bile people often sweat quite readily. Your weak spot is your liver and you can easily overheat. When bile is out of balance you could often feel thirsty, have a bitter taste in your mouth, feel feverish and suffer diarrhea or vomiting. If you have pains, they tend to be in the upper body.
Mind symptoms: Bile people are smart, precise, analytical people. You have great mental prowess but you may be a little antisocial – you don’t suffer fools gladly. You often wake up feeling bright and cheerful but by midday start feeling irritable.
Urine diagnosis: Unbalanced bile shows itself with urine that is yellow or brownish in colour.
Diet to balance: Keep your diet light and cool, to balance that hot bile energy. Salads and smoothies are your best friends. Yoghurt is great for soothing bile. Drink plenty of cool water. At all costs avoid hot spicy foods, nuts, alcohol and red meat.
Physical symptoms: Phlegm is a heavy, wet humour. The phlegmatic person often puts on weight easily and finds it really hard to lose. If phlegm is out of balance you may well feel lethargic and heavy. Indigestion, belching and bloating are common. You may find your feet get very cold. Bronchial and kidney problems are also a part of the phlegmatic constitution.
Mind symptoms: Phlegm people are even-tempered, stable, calm people on the whole. You’ll avoid confrontation at all costs. However you may be a little stubborn. Early alarm calls are a nightmare – you’re prone to oversleeping and like nothing better than an afternoon siesta.
Urine diagnosis: Disordered phlegm reveals itself in very pale, foaming urine.
Diet to balance: Keep your digestive fire burning well with warming, energizing spices such as ginger, cardamom, nutmeg. Fennel and peppermint will help your digestion too. Avoid dairy as it is mucous-forming. Keep your diet light and dry if possible – avoid heavy sauces and don’t weigh yourself down with pasta and bread. A little fruit is good – but don’t overdo it.
Tibetan tips for common health problems
Try these Tibetan DIY cures for everyday problems.
• Hayfever: Long before we realized that honey from local bees can help prevent hayfever, the Tibetans were recommending it. Take a spoonful of local honey every day for a month before the hayfever season starts.
• Insomnia: Add two or three drops of ginger essential oil to a base oil (sweet almond is nice and light; although bile people might be better with coconut). Rub into the soles of the feet before bedtime. Children will fall asleep if you massage the sides of their feet instead.
• Chesty coughs and colds: Particularly suited to phlegmatic conditions. Fill a bowl with hot water and add a few drops of ginger oil. Sit with your feet in it until the water is no longer hot then massage your feet.
• Stress: Massage the soles of your feet in a circular motion. This can also help to put your digestion back into balance.
• Constipation: Rub the point between your thumb and forefinger where they meet at the base of the “web” of skin. Regularly drink hot boiled water.
• Mid-afternoon tiredness: A mug of honey in hot water can help.
• Anxiety and tension: Rub either side of your breastbone.
Dr Tamdin Bradley practices Traditional Tibetan Medicine at the Kailash Centre in London.
Kate Roddick practices in Scotland. She also runs workshops on the Tibetan Art of Healing. http://kateroddick.com/
This feature first appeared in Natural Health magazine.