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Tibetan Medicine vs. Western Medicine

Western medicine treats symptoms with drugs and works with isolated components of the body, but Tibetan medicine takes on a mind-body-spirit approach.

With the goal of raising awareness about Tibetan medicine, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City opened an inspiring new exhibit, titled “Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine,” on March 15. Set to run until September 8, the show emphasizes the ancient practice of Tibetan medicine—called Sowa Rigpa or the art of healing.

While Western medicine treats symptoms with drugs and works with isolated components of the body, Tibetan medicine takes on a mind-body-spirit approach and focuses on the bodily system as a whole. Tibetan treatments are aimed at the root of a condition and work synergistically, and pills are made from complex mixtures of natural products.

The reason for the difference between Western reductionist theory and the eastern “system as a whole” philosophy is probably due to an event in history. Before Louis Pasteur discovered the nature of infectious disease—the fact that most infectious diseases are caused by germs—medicine was largely based on physiology and disease was looked at from the perspective of the patient. Balances of various forces were thought to exist in the body: in the West, for example, a medieval doctor may have tried to make you less “choleric” or more “phlegmatic”.1

But when antibiotics were discovered and the germ theory of disease flourished in the early twentieth century, the whole outlook of Western medicine changed. A new scientific approach heavily based on diagnosis began to create the sense that illness was caused by external factors.

Yet Tibetan medicine still follows the view that balances of internal forces called nyepas make up one’s personal constitution. Tibetan doctors do not diagnose patients as having illnesses; on the other hand, they give suggestions on how to balance one’s nyepas and eliminate inflammation. Like practitioners of other kinds of complimentary alternative medicines (like Ayurvedic medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine), Tibetan doctors believe that each individual has unique health needs.

That being said, a Tibetan doctor’s office, usually decorated with Tibetan books, artwork, and a comfortable chair, somehow exudes a sense of relaxation that is not present in the fluorescent-lit offices of Western doctors. Furthermore, while a visit with a Western doctor is usually very brief, with nurses doing much of the preparation like checking height and weight, measuring pulse, and asking initial questions, a visit with a Tibetan doctor can last up to an hour and is marked by it’s personal nature. The doctor asks you a series of questions about your current state, observes your first urine sample of the day (which you have brought from home with you), and takes your pulse with his hands. He then then looks at your tongue and gives you a personalized checklist of foods to eat (and not to eat) based on your constitution.

In general, Tibetan medicine takes on a holistic approach, as it is more focused on the patient as a whole. While Tibetan doctors accept Western medicine for what it is, they believe that a healthy lifestyle–with sufficient exercise, sleep, nutrition, breath work (like pranayama breathing exercises), and meditation–leads to optimal health.

Written by Nicole Kagan



  • 1. “Simon & Schuster.” The End of Illness. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.