Herbal Energetics: Why One Size Doesn’t Fit All In Healing

Shi Yao Lian, Practitioner Buddha’s Alchemy

August 25, 2017

As a herbalist and Buddhist healing practitioner who applies herbal energetics therapeutically, I receive many inquiries from friends, family, and others about what to do to heal or treat imbalances and health issues. Most of those inquiries are at least initially based upon a fundamental error. That error is the assumption that there must be a one size fits all approach to their situation, and that the answer is one of simply knowing the appropriate herb, supplement, or diet for their diagnosed condition. By diagnosed condition, I mean the Western label of disease given or closest proximity based upon a description of symptoms. In fact, from a traditional holistic viewpoint, there can be many possibilities of different imbalances present for one given “disease” or diagnosis. This, of course, means that there are many different possibilities for treatment, and finding the correct one will require a deeper look into herbal energetics and the energetics of the imbalance.

The Elemental Foundations of Healing

This is such a huge topic, and it would take months and many articles to fully outline the details of how we understand the role of the elements and their qualities, and how this works with herbal energetics in healing. However, this is a brief outline of the structures used to assist people in following an appropriate healing trajectory.

The most successful structures upon which holistic healing is built are those of traditional systems of medicine that take into account the literal energetics of not only people, but of the environment and of the therapies used to heal. At the foundation of these systems lies the recognition of 5 elemental qualities (the building blocks of life) that are present in all phenomena and are a principal cause for the interconnectedness of all existence.

The 5 elements are:

  • earth
  • fire
  • water
  • wind/air
  • space/ether
herbal energetics of water

The Elements of water, fire, wind, and earth

herbal energetics of fire
herbal energetics of wind or air
herbal energetics of earth

Let us look at 2 of these traditional systems that hold similar viewpoints of energy as an example of how exactly this works. Tibetan Medicine and Ayurveda both acknowledge that the human body and mind are varied combinations of 3 different energetic patterns. In Tibetan Medicine, these patterns are called nyepas, and in Ayurveda, they are called doshas. Each nyepa or dosha has a certain combination of 5 elemental qualities ascribed to it due to the various physical and mental manifestations typical of its type.

The unique combination of these elements and their qualities is what makes up an individual’s bio-energetic constitution. It is also the relative imbalance of these energies that causes a person’s normal constitutional patterns to change and become disharmonious. The causative factors involved in determining an individual’s birth constitution are numerous, and we won’t cover them in detail here. However, genetics, the consciousness of the parents during gestation (especially the mother), and maternal nutrition all play roles.

The foundation of herbal therapy in Tibetan Medicine and Ayurveda is based on the action and reaction of the various potencies/qualities/gunas upon one another. When we have an idea of what the baseline constitution and normal physiology is for someone, and an assessment is done of their presenting problematic energetics, we can choose appropriate medicines.

Constitutional Types and Their Related Elements

Although everyone has a certain quantity and quality of each nyepa or dosha present in their birth constitution, an individual typically has a dominant expression of 1 or 2 patterns, and less of the others. Similarly, disharmony (disease or imbalance) can manifest as a single elemental pattern or a mixed pattern that overlies, masks, or changes an individual’s normal energetics. From this we can see that the factors influencing a person’s state of health at any given time are varied and complex, and the potential results numerous.

Here are the elemental patterns represented individually in their pure singular expressions (for simplicity’s sake):

      1. The Loong (rLung) or Vata constitution: This type is representative of the elemental energy of wind in Tibetan Medicine and air + space in Ayurveda. The nature or elemental qualities of this constitution are not surprisingly: hard, light, rough (dry), subtle, cold, and mobile. Loong/Vata is responsible for movement. Movement in the body and mind includes the breath, any body movement, peristalsis, internal fluid and organ movement, nerve impulse transmission, thoughts, and movement of consciousness to name a few. It is the counterpart of what is called chi or prana. Some imbalances that involve loong/vata are mental ungroundedness, anxiety, depression, other mental health disorders, strokes and nervous system impairments, constipation, bloating and other digestive complaints, tumors, and migraines.
      2. The Tripa (mKhrispa) or Pitta constitution: This type is dominated by the element of fire in Tibetan Medicine, and fire + water in Ayurveda. The elemental qualities of this constitution are: hot, oily (wet), sharp, light, odorous, purgative, and liquid. Tripa/Pitta is responsible for any process involving heat, metabolism, transformation, and radiance. It is closely related to blood and its functions. It largely influences the digestive fire, body temperature, enzymatic processes and glandular secretion. Imbalances that may involve tripa/pitta include inflammatory conditions and infections, heartburn and gastric reflux, GI tract ulcers, poor digestion, visual impairments, hepatitis and jaundice, eczema, psoriasis, and acne.
      3. The Beken (Bad-kan) or Kapha constitution: This type is influenced by the qualities of earth + water in both Tibetan Medicine and Ayurveda. This gives Beken/Kapha the qualities of heavy, oily, cool, cull, smooth/dull, sticky, and stable. Beken/Kapha provides structure to the body (skeletal, muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc…), is responsible for anabolic processes, induces sleep, lubricates joints, and gives stability to both body and mind. Imbalances that may involve beken/kapha include obesity, diabetes, hypothyroidism, congestion and mucous, edema and water retention, cysts, fibroids, and tumors.

You might have noticed that the elemental qualities of these patterns are in fact parts of pairs of opposites. For example, the quality of light has an opposite of heavy, sharp has the opposite of dull, cold has hot, and so on. We can see then that body and mind homeostasis are largely dependent upon a delicate balance of opposing forces. This forms a basis for utilizing those forces or qualities as remedies for imbalances. So, if one elemental pattern (nyepa/dosha) has become inappropriately dominant or recessive, we have knowledge of what we can use to bring it back into balance.

herbal energetics

The Use of Herbal Energetics

As stated earlier, all phenomenal existence is made up of elemental energetic qualities, including the herbs that we use as medicine. Herbs are categorized according to taste and potency in Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine. Taste is derived from a combination of elements present in a herb or food and can be experienced by the tongue. Potency (known as gunas in Ayurveda)  refers to the specific qualities and attributes of the elements as outlined above. Although there are a few differences between Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine in terms of described tastes and attributes of certain medicines, the basic premise and theory are similar.

The 6 Tastes:

  1. Sweet: a combination of earth and water
  2. Salty: a combination of water and fire
  3. Sour: a combination of fire and earth
  4. Bitter: a combination of water and wind/air
  5. Pungent: a combination of fire and wind/air
  6. Astringent: a combination of earth and wind/air

The Potencies / Gunas of the Elements:

  1. Earth: heavy/dense, stable/static, oily, smooth, dull, dry, gross, slow
  2. Water: liquid, cold, heavy, blunt/dull, oily, soft, fluid, smooth
  3. Fire: hot, sharp, dry, rough, light, oily/slimy, mobile, penetrating
  4. Wind: light, mobile, cold, rough, absorbing, dry, hard, spreading, subtle, dispersing
  5. Space: porous and hollow, clear, contains the other elements

The foundation of herbal therapy in Tibetan Medicine and Ayurveda is based on the action and reaction of the various potencies/qualities/gunas upon one another. When we have an idea of what the baseline constitution and normal physiology is for someone, and an assessment is done of their presenting problematic energetics, we can choose appropriate medicines. The choice of herbs is partly based on their tastes and corresponding potencies that will counterbalance, eliminate, reinforce, maintain, or build the required elemental qualities for restoration of health (there are other considerations as well like a herb’s special actions that are not necessarily related to taste). The end result is a shift of a person’s constitutional energies back towards what is naturally more balanced for them.

Besides herbal medicine, there are other useful forms of therapies in the Buddhist Siddhi, Tibetan, and Ayurvedic healing systems. There are several types of external therapies and treatments like massage, acupressure, chi/prana healing, water therapy, and horme. The same principles of qualities are applied in context to many of these modalities. In Buddhist siddhi energy healing, we can choose from 19 different qualities of chi for treatment, some of which mirror the qualities of the elements. In Tibetan Medicine, water therapy or horme can be chosen for appropriate hot and cold conditions. One of the most important therapies in all forms of holistic healing is nutrition. The qualities of food can be determined and categorized just like herbal medicines and used in the same way.

herbal energetics of the apothecary

There are additional added complexities to consider, and the more chronic a person’s condition, generally the more complicated treatment strategies become. There are often cases of mixed imbalances that require treatment of seemingly opposite problems at the same time, or consecutively. The knowledge of the elements and qualities allows us to fine tune our therapies with precision, and flow fluidly with change. It allows for a very customizable approach to healing.

I hope you have enjoyed this very brief summary of how we use herbal energetics and knowledge of the elements in Buddhist healing. If you would like to find out more, are interested in learning our practices, or would like a consultation, please contact us.


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