Medicine: Ancient and modern systems converge

Healing Arts make connections between a person's health and the natural world

by Catherine Honora Kineavy

any different healing systems exist that assist us in attaining health. In addition to modern medicine, ancient medical traditions, including Chinese and Ayur-Veda, have endured the test of time. Homeopathy and naturopathy, two systems of healing that developed over the last century, combine some aspects of the ancient traditional medicine with more modern practices. Within the last few decades these "alternative" healing methods have been brought to the attention of the general public. One common thread of all these systems is the focus primarily on natural healing as opposed to scientific and technological intervention.

Before defining any healing system, it is essential to define what we mean by health. Is health simply the absence of disease? Or, is health a way of living one's life in a state of harmony? Is health a natural state of balance? If so, how do we attain this natural state? Each of the diciplines mentioned have specific responses to each of these questions and believe that disease is also a natural state whereby the body is attempting to regain equilibrium.

Chinese Medicine

Unified Source/Yin/Yang/Qi

One of the most ancient healing arts is Chinese medicine. The basic premise of Chinese medicine is that individuals are part of a larger body ­ the universe. It is through understanding the external universe that one can discover and comprehend the internal universe of the body. Further, Chinese medicine believes that the source that brought the universe into existence is present in all people. This is sometimes referred to as the "unified source" or "Tao." The Chinese model of medicine argues that there are two basic opposing forces, "yin" and "yang," which interact to create a life force or energy known as "qi." If this qi is somehow blocked within the system, disease develops; if yin and yang work together to create balance, health is achieved.

Qi moves through the body along meridian pathways. These pathways are associated with organ systems. If there is an impediment of any sort along these pathways, disease results within the corresponding organ system. In essence, the life force is deficient and causes organ stagnation. This results in a build-up of metabolic wastes and other toxins which eventually weakens the immune system. The body then produces symptoms that indicate that there is a problem within a given organ system. These symptoms are the body's natural response to heal itself.

Chinese medicine utilizes a number of techniques in an effort to assist the body in its own healing process. These include the use of foods, herbs and acupuncture. These methods bring the forces of yin and yang into balance and allow the qi to flow freely throughout the body.

Chinese Five Element Theory

Chinese medicine is extremely complex; it connects the external natural world to the internal world. It does this by associating certain seasons in nature and natural elements with organ systems within the body, thereby making the complete connection between internal and external universe. The energy or qi inside the body corresponds to the seasonal changes of qi in nature. Nature's seasons (coupled with an element and organ system) are circular, each nourishing the next season (element and organ). These seasons (elements and organs) are also governed by certain other seasons. Thus, if energy is blocked in one organ system, another organ system will also suffer.

Lifestyle changes are one of the main ingredients to achieving health according to the Chinese model. Usually, people's diseases arise from a imbalance with one's relationship to the universe.

Ayur-Veda (Indian medicine)

Cosmic Consciousness/Shiva/Shakti/Prana

Ayur-Veda means "knowledge of long life." It, too, understands health within a universal context. Health according to this model is a harmony between individual and universal forces. Ayur-Veda also believes in a "unified source" which it refers to as "cosmic consciousness." This cosmic consciousness is the creator of all life through the emergence of two vital forces of energy known as "shiva" and "shakti." The common names are "male" and "female" energy, much like yin and yang. The cosmic consciousness manifests as a life force known as "prana," similar to qi.

Ayur-Veda Five Element Theory

Prana takes a physical form as five elements including, earth, water, fire, air and ether. Each element has a corresponding organ system and sensory function. These elements are banded together by forces known as "doshas." These doshas attempt to balance the functions of the five elements. When they are in balance, health is present. Disease results when they are not balanced.

The doshas are known as "vata," "kapha" and "pitta." These terms are familiar if you have read any of Deepak Chopra's work. For example, "pitta" is related to the fire element: it causes the body to heat up, it governs metabolism and is associated with hunger for knowledge.

Doshas stimulate the activities associated with each element. When balanced, individuals experience emotional, mental and physical vitality. If "pitta" is unbalanced, for example, digestive problems may be present along with some intense physical hunger.

Body types

The doshas are present in each individual and manifest themselves in terms of body types. In short, we each have a propensity to exhibit one dosha. This concept is explained in Deepak Chopra's Perfect Health. For example, the pitta body type is athletic, active, intelligent, intense, hard-working and has the ability to inspire others with their leadership qualities. If the pitta body type is out of balance, the individual may demonstrate tendencies towards obsession and extreme behaviors. If these imbalances are not brought into equilibrium, diseases such as cancer, ulcers and strokes will develop.

Ayur-Veda, like Chinese medicine, believes that the life force flows along meridian lines. Health is achieved also by the use of foods and herbs. Foods and herbs have shiva and shakti energies that interact with the energy of the dosha in an attempt to bring health and balance to the prana.


Homeopathy comes from the greek word homoios meaning "like" and pathy meaning "sickness" or "suffering." Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) became dismayed at contemporary medical practices, which included bloodletting and other purgatives for body cleansing. He believed that healers ought to make patients healthier rather than more sick. Hahnemann began to experiment on himself using contemporary pharmaceuticals and discovered that "like cured like." In other words, by administering substances that manufactured symptoms that were similar to those manifested by a sick patient, the patient was actually cured. This became know as the Law of Similars. He discovered that the body reacts to certain illnesses or diseases in an attempt to eradicate them. The symptoms that manifest are actually the natural process of the body's attempt to eliminate disease. In other words, the symptoms are components of the cure.

Thus, homeopathy employs medicines to encourage the body to use its defense mechanisms. Hahnemann also believed that there was an underlying life force which he referred to as "vital force" that brought the body to life. This is very similar to both Chinese and Ayur-Veda traditions. This underlying vitality is strengthened by small doses of medicine. The use of small doses is known as the Law of Potentiation or the Law of Infinitesimals.

Homeopathy resembles modern medicine in that it prescribes medicines, but it is extremely different in that its medicines manifest the same symptoms as those displayed by the patient. Allopathic physicians actually attempt to suppress symptoms by prescribing drugs that produce the opposite effect. Hahnemann believed the allopathic approach actually subdued the disease forcing it deeper into the body.

Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic medicine combines all of the above-listed modalities. Its primary focus is on natural healing without the use of chemicals or intrusive technological intervention. Naturopathy believes that there is an underlying life force which is present in all cells of the body. Naturopaths believe that this life force has the innate ability to bring health to the body. Like ancient traditions, naturopathy interprets body signals such as pain and swelling as well as sneezing, coughing and fever as the body's attempt to healitself by eliminating the toxins that promote disease. If these toxins are not able to be eliminated at an early stage, they will accumulate causing tumors and cancers.

In an effort to assist in the healing process, naturopathic doctors prescribe certain foods, herbs and sometimes vitamin supplements. Additionally, they engage many natural therapies including homeopathy, chiropractic care, colonics, hydrotherapy and pharmacology. Unlike allopathy, naturopathy focuses on the cause rather than the symptom of disease. They believe that the underlying reasons for illness is a spiritual disharmony. For this reason, one of the main treatments promoted is a change in lifestyle. In this way, the naturopathic doctor treats the whole person. Like the ancient traditions naturopathy connects the internal and external world as a gage of creating health and harmony.

Medicine in Transition

The healing arts that have been mentioned make connections between a person's heath and the natural world. They do not separate the body, mind and spirit, but rather see them all as integral parts to the whole system of life. Modern medicine is just now beginning to make these connections; however, it has long believed in the different aspects of individuals and the world around them were acting in isolation. This belief began as a result of Renee Descartes's theory that the body resembled a machine. This mechanistic view of the body has dominated the thoughts and treatments of western physicians until very recently. This thought system created a heavy reliance on technology for diagnosis and treatment. If the body acted as a machine, machines could cure it.

There is a new movement to combine western technology with the eastern philosophy of healing. In essence, we are beginning to see the best of both worlds. However, it will take a shift in individual consciousness to recognize individual power to self-heal rather than relying upon drugs or other invasive and intrusive procedures.

Western medicine clearly has its place in the healing arts. Western medical practice is necessary for acute medical care in many cases. It is through making a shift from short-term acute care to long-term preventative medicine that natural healing will become a common practice when making decisions about our health.

It is interesting to note that there has also been a shift in the types of diseases that are present in our society. Namely, we have more degenerative diseases than ever before in history. These include heart disease, arthritis, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimers disease. It is believed that these are more related to lifestyle choices than any other factor. In essence, health is something that we can all attain by living a lifestyle that is conducive to good health.

There are many more healing systems that were not mentioned here including chiropractic care, osteopathic medicine, botanical medicine, greek medicine and native American shamanism. Additionally, many world cultures employ their own healing methods that are still practiced today in places including Tibet and Africa. Many of these healing practices have been orally handed down and therefore have not made their way to the west.

The twenty-first century is right around the corner, and I believe that natural healing as well as natural lifestyles is the answer to many health problems. In order to make the transition one must recognize his/her connection to the larger global community. The choices that effect our natural world will also effect our inner world.

Catherine Honora Kineavy is a graduate student, free-lance writer/edior, poet and practicing macrobiotic vegetarian. She has studied Shiatsu and is currently taking course in nutrition counseling. Her broader interests are in holistic healing, spirituality and politics.