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Eastern Medicine Explained: the Five Elements

What if I told you that your body knows exactly how to heal itself? Radical, I know! We have been told over and over that our bodies need a drug or a surgery to be in good health. For the most part this is simply not true. In emergency or extreme situations, yes I concede that those options might be necessary. However, modern pharmaceuticals and surgeries are not the best answer for most people.

For most, simply giving yourself what your body needs is enough to bring you to optimum health, vitality and mood. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic Medicine have been successful for more than 2,000 years for this reason. Perhaps at this point you wonder to yourself, ‘How can this be? Surely it can’t be that simple.’ Well, you would be somewhat correct. TCM and Ayurveda are not simple, they are quite complex systems for healing and maintenance, and they were perfected over hundreds of thousands of years. We are lucky to reap the benefits of so many years of knowledge and practice.

To understand that our bodies heal themselves, first we have to take what we ‘know’ about our bodies, how we view illness and dis-ease and how it heals, and set it all to the side. But don’t throw it away! Parts of it are very useful and valuable. Just set it on a shelf for later. Now, open your mind . . . To understand the Eastern healing arts and sciences, we will have to begin with their framework. We can’t understand fully unless we see it from the Eastern cultural background and logic.

TCM and Ayurvedic Medicine view the body and mind as a single entity. The Chinese language doesn’t even have a separate word for Body and Mind; they are one and the same. The Eastern therapies also take into account the relationship of the individual to their environment, which includes place of residence, lifestyle, relationships, mood, and personality. No one thing or person exists in isolation. These ancient practices have remained relevant because they embrace the fact that we (our bodies/minds) live in a world that is in constant motion, that there really is not any one beginning or end point.

Both TCM and Ayurveda rely heavily on personality type in their method of healing. In TCM, the basis for analysis includes the Five Elements and Yin & Yang theories.  In Ayurveda the personalities are divided into three categories: Kapha, Pitta, and Vata. These personality types also correspond to the five elements.

Let’s look at the Five Elements first. Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Metal (in Ayurveda, Metal is replaced with Ether or Space). The early TCM and Ayurveda practitioners saw that the characteristics of these substances also appeared in people. For example, a person with a lot of Earth is one who is solid in physical appearance and personality; a person with a lot of Fire goes through life with a lot of energy and firey emotions such as anger or excitement; a person with a lot of Air is one who is physically thin, they are flighty and day dream a lot. Keep in mind none of this is fixed. Flexibility and comprehensiveness are paramount to the Eastern therapies. A person may be mostly Earth, but the other elements are present as well.

The Five Elements are also applied to the way our bodies function. At this point in the explanation, it’s important for our Western minds to keep an inclusive view of ‘the way our bodies function’ in order to stay in the Eastern view and retain the intrinsic holistic nature of these therapies. When I say “bodily function”, most will probably think about those things our body does without our conscious thought getting involved. Although that is part of our bodily function, the Eastern view looks at the relationship between those automatic functions and our emotions, mood, response habits, and personality.

The Eastern therapies take all of this circumstantial and relational information to locate the disharmony and find the best treatment to restore balance. An Eastern medicine practitioner finds what the body needs, or is missing, or is getting too much of – physically, spiritually, mentally & emotionally - so it may heal itself. Just as we naturally pursue happiness and peace and good feelings, our bodies are always working to remain in homeostasis. In short, our bodies naturally heal themselves if we look and listen, and give it what it needs.

Harmony and Light

Information for this article was obtained from “TheYoga of the Nine Emotions” by Peter Marchand; “The Web That Has No Weaver” by Ted J. Kaptchuk, O.M.D., and years of curiosity and exploration.

Emily PetersComment