Dr. Michael Tierra, L.ac., O.M.D., Herbalist, AHG

The culture and philosophy of India has had a profound impact on the West over the last several decades. Almost weekly we read reports in popular magazines how Yoga has entered the mainstream of American culture. Now with the advent of Ayurveda, we have yet another contribution from India, a complete ancient system of natural health care.

Like yoga, Ayurveda embodies concepts of body-mind care which includes spiritual philosophies that transcend religious orthodoxy. Ayurveda, which translated means “The Science of Life”, is similar to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in that it represents a practical application of universal philosophical concepts based on universal life energy which, in TCM, is called “qi”, and in Ayurveda, “prana”. Both systems go back over 5000 years with Ayurveda, according to records in ancient Vedic texts, being practiced before 4000 B. C as the oldest.

Both TCM and Ayurveda are based upon a universal concept expressed in nature in bi-polar terms called Yin-Yang in TCM and Shiva-Shakti in Ayurveda. As a result, all diseases, medicines (mostly herbs) and therapies are similarly classified bi-polarly as “heating or cooling”, “strong or weak”, and so forth. Both systems further subdivide diseases into a concept of “five elements” and “three humours”, the latter of which in Ayurveda assumes a more pivotal position than in TCM. Ayurveda has influenced another important ancient system of Middle Eastern natural healing called Unani, whose medical philosophy eventually became the root philosophy of early Hippocratic Grecian and Roman healing and the teachings of the Roman, Galen, which formed the basis of Traditional European Medicine (TEM) for at least 1500 years. Finally, there is substantial historical evidence that early Indian scholars eventually brought the teachings of Ayurveda to ancient China, via Tibet so that Ayurveda can be truly regarded as “the mother of Natural Healing”.

The unique appeal of Ayurveda is the integration of a Universal spiritual philosophy which has been largely expunged from the more materialistic “Maoist-styled” TCM.

However, if one considers the pre-Maoist, “Taoism” of TCM that expounds upon the philosophical Yin-Yang paradigm, we can appreciate the equally spiritual basis of TCM which is largely de-emphasized today in mainland China and the majority of North American TCM colleges.

Ayurveda teaches that humans consist of three aspects: the physical, the subtle and the causal, or body, mind and soul in Western terms. Health, according to Ayurveda is a balanced expression of all these three elements. The Five Elements in Ayurveda are different from the TCM “fire-earth-metal-water-wood”, which in Ayurveda is described as “fire-earth-water-air-ether. The elemental systems of both attempt to describe the functional relationship of all phenomena in nature. However, while the more practically agrarian model of the Chinese describe metal and wood, the older more spiritual Indian ‘air-ether’ description is not equivalent.

It is important to realize that while contemporary physics and chemistry organizes many distinct elements according to their atomic weights, the number of electrons in their outer shells and other material criteria, the “five elements” of Ayurveda and TCM represent a more practical system which is inclusive of scientific understandings.

Following is a description of the Ayurvedic Five elements:



Ears Hearing veins, ducts, arteries, sockets subtle, sound, boundless, light bitter, astringent
AIR (Vayu) Touch Skin movements, nervous activity and gaseous substances dry, cold, rough, pressure pungent, bitter, astringent
FIRE (Tejas) Vision Eyes digestion, catabolic processes which generate heat heat, active, light, clear, acidic pungent, sour
WATER (Jala) Taste Tongue fluidic components liquid, cold, soft sweet, salty
EARTH (Prithvi) Smell nose bones and cartilage solid, heavy, stable, slow, immobile sweet, sour, astringent

The Three Humours or Tridosha

The most fundamental and characteristic principle of Ayurvedic healing is called “tridosha” or the Three Humours. This system offers a comprehensive method to classify human types and diseases into three categories: Air (vata), Fire (pitta) and Water (kapha). These embody the Five Elements so that Earth and Air combine to form Water (kapha) dosha, Air and Ether combine to form Air (vata) dosha and Fire is alone to form its own Fire (pitta) dosha.

Like the five Elements, the Three humours serve both as a general description of all physical manifestation but more specifically relate to the physical body. Health is described as a balance of all three bodily Humours. All therapies and medicines which mostly include plants but also medicines from the mineral and animals kingdoms (Ayurveda is historically ‘pre-vegetarian’) are also classified according to their heating and cooling energies, the six flavors (biochemical activity) and their influence on the Three Humours.

The Three Humours of Ayurveda is, therefore, pivotal to the entire system of Ayurvedic healing in much the same way as Yin and Yang is pivotal to TCM. The most significant difference is that Ayurveda offers a constitutional approach, less defined in TCM, that is based on each individual’s humoural predisposition.

The Air or Nerve System Humour

Air Humour resides in the colon, ears, bones and nervous system. It is in charge of the movement of feces, heart, food, urine and childbirth. It maintains the process of inhalation and exhalation as well as sensual acuity. Its characteristic is dry and cold, season is autumn, time of day is afternoon and early morning, color is blue, flavors in foods and medicines are bitter, (which is cooling and drying), astringent (drying) and pungent (which is light). In its most positive psychological aspects Air humour is responsible for sensitivity while negative aspect is fear and insecurity.

Air humour is aggravated by irregular lifestyle including excessive study, sex, fighting, fasting, shock, physical strain, staying up late, eating irregularly, traveling and airplane flying, forceful restraint of breath, feces, semen, sneezes, eructations, tears and urine. It is also aggravated during cold, wind, rain and evening time. Symptoms that occur immediately after eating are an indication of Air imbalance as are dryness, coldness, constipation, weakness, insomnia, dark discolorations, tremors, abdominal distention, loss of sensory acuity, incoherent speech and fatigue. Symptoms appearing after eating are usually a result of Air imbalances.

Generally, when a particular Humour is deficient it will appear as an excess of another. In the case of deficient Air it will probably appear as excess Water. For this we would use more foods and medicines that are bitter, spicy, drying and light in nature and less sleep (which is pro-Water). Excess Air will generally exhibit a more wiry, emaciated appearance and hyper nervous sensitivity with aggravation by cold and wind. For such a condition we need more grounding foods and drinks that have sweet, salty and sour flavors and is more deeply nourishing. Excess Air individuals should absolutely avoid raw foods, juices, fasting, eat more grains and perhaps some animal protein (dairy, if one is vegetarian) and have more rest and sleep They should also refrain from excessive aerobic activity as they will have a greater tendency to weaken and injure themselves. Physical exercise such as yoga, stretching or tai chi is particularly appropriate. In addition they should regularly apply warm sesame oil to their entire body several times each week a half to one hour or so before bathing. Developing a regulated and moderate lifestyle of sleeping, eating and sex is extremely important since irregularity or excess of any of these tend to further derange Air Humour (nervous system).

Medicines and herbs that are demulcent, emollient, warmly diaphoretic, nervines, antispasmodic, warming and carminative are appropriate for treating Air imbalances. They are also particularly amenable to the internal and external application of herbal medicated oils. Castor oil because of its thick viscosity, is considered the strongest oil for treating excess vata conditions. Herbs and substances that are bitter and astringent such as cascara bark and bayberry bark, increase Air, while those that are sweet and demulcent, such as slippery elm, marshmallow root and comfrey, ameliorate it. The primary Panchkarma therapy (see below) for Air derangement is the use of medicated oils usually applied externally.

The Fire Humour

Fire, or bile, Humour is hot, fluid, light, sharp, soft, clear, subtle, oily and malodorous. Fire, or heat, is a by-product of the destruction of food in a healthy person. Thus, Fire humour is in charge of all catabolic physical and chemical activities. When functioning properly, Fire Humour maintains proper digestion, bodily warmth, visual acuity, hunger, thirst, skin luster, intelligence, determination, and bodily softness. Its most positive psychological aspect is courage and boldness while it is reflected negatively in anger and inappropriate audaciousness.

The primary seat of Fire humour is the Small intestine and stomach. Its flavor is pungent or spicy and color is red. It is strongly associated with all digestive secretions including acids and bile. Fire humour is aggravated by anger, grief, hard work, excessive sexual activity, acid, salty and pungent flavors, hot, indigestible foods, sesame and mustard oils, fish, buttermilk, whey, mutton, most green vegetables, fasting, acidic fruits, alcohol, meat and fatty, oily foods. It is also injured by excessive exposure to sunlight, summertime, noon, midnight, injuries and blood toxicity. Often, symptoms that manifest approximately one hour after the digestion of food are caused by Fire Humour imbalance.

Other symptoms include bleeding, jaundice, excessive yellowness of urine, feces, eyes and skin, boldness, excessive hunger, thirst, burning sensations and difficulty sleeping. In addition, symptoms of fever, infections, inflammation, yellow or bloody discharges, burning sensations such as ulcers and acid stomach, hepatitis, thirst, excessive perspiration and restlessness may be associated with a Fire imbalance.

For deficiency, Fire is balanced by foods and medicines that are spicy and moderately cool as well as moderate physical exercise. For excess, we would use uncooked, bitter, astringent and sweet flavored foods with moderate physical activities. Medicines and herbs that are cooling, purging, laxative, antipyretic, alterative and blood detoxifying, cholagogic (releasing bile) are appropriate for treating Fire imbalances. Laxative herbs such as cascara bark, rhubarb and senna are used to clear excess Fire. When there is no constipation, one can use alterative or cholagogic herbs such as red clover, sarsaparilla, oregon grape root, barberry root and dandelion root.

For Fire derangement one can include more cooling foods, such as raw vegetables, fruits, and foods such as mung dahl and rice (Kichari). One should avoid the use of all flesh foods and hot spices, such as peppers, as these can aggravate an excess Fire condition. For a lack of Fire one would avoid purging and heat clearing herbs and favor herbs that are spicy, such as ginger and the various peppers. The major Panchkarma therapy for excess Fire is bleeding. Generally such patients who are not predisposed to anemia should make it a point to regularly donate blood at a local blood bank.

The Water Humour

Water humour is cold, wet, heavy, slow, dull, static, smooth, dense and cloudy. It is in charge of weight, stability, body growth, tissue repair and inhibiting heat in the body. It is also responsible for all lubricating aspects such as that between the joints and muscle layers.

Water humour resides primarily in the chest and stomach but also in the throat, head, pancreas, ribs, plasma, fat, nose and tongue. In its most positive aspects Water Humour is responsible for qualities of forgiveness, patience and generosity. Negative qualities are hoarding and greed. Water is aggravated by cold, damp climates, winter, excess of oily, fatty foods, fluids, coldness, excessive sleep, heavy foods, dairy, fruit, sweets, bread products, fats and salt.

Symptoms of imbalance include weakness, indigestion, mucus and phlegm, feelings of heaviness, pallor, coldness, looseness of the limbs, difficulty breathing, coughing, dullness, salivation, goiter, fat, clear urine, pale stools or constipation, drowsiness, edema, excessive sleep, a sweet mouth taste and small watery boils or excrescence’s. Symptoms which manifest while eating are an indication of Water imbalance.

In excess, Water is balanced by light, spicy, warm, bitter and astringent foods. One should specifically avoid rich fatty foods, dairy and highly refined grains and sugars and sweet flavored things which increase Water. Honey, however, which is considered astringent, is recommended for excess Water. Further, one should regularly partake of vigorous aerobic activity to increase one’s heart rate and induce perspiration. Medicines and herbs that are diuretic, warming diaphoretic, warming stimulant, expectorant, carminative and aperient (mildly laxative) are appropriate for treating Water imbalances..

The major Panchkarma therapy for Water imbalances is emesis (vomiting). Strange as it may seem, one usually begins the night before by eating strong mucus forming foods such as cheesecake, rich dairy or ice cream to attract the mucus throughout the body into the stomach. Upon arising in the morning, one or two quarts of salted warm water is taken at once. This is followed by up to two quarts of warm salted water or strong licorice tea which in such high dosage is emetic. Otherwise one can further take lobelia or ipecac tincture to induce vomiting. This is done each morning for no more than three mornings in a succession.

Ayurvedic Therapeutics

After determining a Humoural imbalance an appropriate counterbalancing dietary, herbal medicine and therapeutic regime is undertaken. The most profound therapy in Ayurveda is called “panchkarma” or Five internal cleansing methods. These consists of varying processes of 1. oiling, 2. purging, 3. enema, 4. vomiting and 5. bleeding. In addition, it is customary to begin Panchkarma therapy with a combination of oiling and sweating to loosen the toxins. A special diet of Kichari (mung beans, rice, ghee, cumin, coriander, turmeric and salt) is taken exclusively or primarily during the program since this food is both nourishing and detoxifying (mung beans neutralize acids). The traditional detoxifying herbal compound called Triphala (discussed later) is also taken throughout Panchkarma treatment.

Unfortunately, some therapies are often neglected. Emesis or vomiting is extremely important in the elimination of mucus. In India, bleeding is often done painlessly with the aid of leeches that selectively engorge the toxic blood from a particularly area. Presently, many US Panchkarma Ayurvedic centers may not administer these therapies because of certain legal restrictions and liabilities. Individuals may be directed to vomit at home or to donate a quantity of blood at the local blood bank.

One of the most profound stress relieving Panchkarma therapies is called Sirobasti. One way this is performed is by slowly dripping warm medicated Brahmi (gota kola) oil to the forehead in an even rhythm of say one drop per second. This is done for at least 20 minutes or more and is an ecstatic mind altering experience that is powerfully healing to the brain and useful for all central nervous system disorders.

In India there are several places where one can seclude oneself while undergoing Panchkarma therapy. In the United States, it is presently being offered a few walk in centers throughout the country. Some places where this therapy is offered include the various Maharishi Ayurvedic centers located in major metropolitan areas of the country. It is also given at Dr. Lad’s Ayurveda school and center in Albuquerque, NM, at the clinics of Ivy and Lenny Blank in Santa Fe, NM, Cynthia Copple’s Lotus Ayurvedic Center in Aptos, California, MT Madonna Center in Watsonville, California.

Some specific Ayurvedic formulas:


Triphala is the most used and the most valuable of all traditional Ayurvedic preparations. It consists of three fruits with mildly cleansing and strengthening properties. Each fruit is capable of eliminating an excess of each of the three corresponding Humours. Beleric myrobalan eliminates excess Water, benefiting the heart, circulation and lungs; chebulic myrobalan eliminates excess Air which benefits the intestines, lungs and nervous system; emblic myrobalan (amla) regulates Fire and is the second highest known source of natural vitamin C next to acerola berries. A further unique aspect of this important substance is that the vitamin C in amla does not dissipate either under high heat or reasonable aging. This is because it is bound up with certain tannins. Besides being detoxifying, especially to the liver, amla is also highly nutritious. With each of the three substances in Triphala assigned to balance each of the Three Humours, Triphala itself is considered Tridosha and safe to take year round for eliminating all excesses while imparting strength to the entire gastrointestinal tract. It is the safest and best mild purgative to take on a regular basis and will cause no laxative dependency.


Guggul (Commiphora mukul) is prepared from the resin of a special kind of myrrh-like plant. It is particularly indicated for increased bodily stiffness, arthritis and rheumatic complaints In Ayurveda these are considered symptoms of aging when the body has a tendency to accumulate toxins called Ama. It is generally believed that Ama at least refers to the accumulation of harmful cholesterol and high blood lipids which gradually impair circulation.


Trikatu is an anti-mucoid, pro-Fire, anti-Air and anti-Water formula that consists of three warm pungent spices. These are black pepper, ginger and pippli long pepper. They are typically taken with honey for coldness, weak digestion, mucus and upper respiratory allergies.

Sito Paladi

This is a traditional household formula used to treat the symptoms of the common cold. It consists of equal parts sugar, bamboo manna, pippli long pepper, cardamom seeds, cinnamon bark and ginger. It is warming and anti-Water and anti-mucus.


This is a delicious pastelike confection taken to increase the strength of the whole body, especially the lungs. It consists of at least 50% amla fruit of which the best quality Chyavanprash is made with fresh amlas. The other 50% of the formula consists of varying proportions of over 40 other Ayurvedic herbs. All of these are cooked together with unrefined sugar, honey, sesame oil and ghee. Typically, a tablespoon is taken in warm milk (Ayurvedic chicken soup) once or twice daily. Many find it delicious enough to spread on toast or bagels in the morning.

Narayana Oil

Oils are used for various conditions associated with a derangement of Air Humour. Narayana oil is appropriately named after the Hindu aspect of God known as Vishnu who is the Preserver. It is highly regarded throughout India as a treatment for the aged with symptoms of painful, sore joints. It consists of the Ayurvedic tonic herb, Ashwagandaha and several other herbs prepared in a base of sesame oil.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

I once asked the head of an Ayurvedic company in Bombay what he thought the most valuable Ayurvedic herb was. He replied, Ashwagandha, because it is a tonic for debilitating weakness. I regard ashwagandha as a kind of ‘Indian ginseng’. As such it is included in many preparations as well as being taken as a single herb. It is one of the most effective libido tonics and is also generally taken for low energy and all symptoms of debility.

I am proud to say that I was the first to bring Ashwagandha seeds to North America. They seemed to grow quite well in the garden of a school which I had at that time. Since then, seeds have been distributed to growers throughout the country with Ashwagandha now becoming currently available as a trade product.

Gota Kola

It is called “Brahmi” in Ayurveda. Not many people realize that there are two species known by this name. One is Hydrocotyl asiatica (gota kola) and the other is Bacopa monnieri. both are semi-aquatic plants. They are used to strengthen the intellect. Of the two, the lesser known Bacopa is the most effective.


Ayurvedic Healing by Dr. David Frawley, published by Passage Press, 1989

Ayurvedic Medicine by Birgit Heyn, publ. by Thorsons 1987

Ayurveda: The Ancient Indian Healing Art by Scott Gerson MD, publ. by element Press, 1993

Ayurveda: The Science of Self Healing by Dr. Vasant Lad, publ by Lotus Press, 1984

East West Herbal Correspondence Course, by Dr. Michael Tierra

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