Yoga and Acupuncture: Ayurveda and TCM 5-Element Theory (Part 2)

There is always something new to learn!

I had originally planned to write this post about how Yoga and Acupuncture share roots with Elemental theory as well as energy lines, or meridians/channels, however, in doing some basic fact-checking I discovered that the two systems have even more in common than I thought. Therefore today’s post will focus on the links between Ayurvedic Doshas and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) 5-Element Theory (stay tuned for a more detailed look at Nadis/Chakras and the Jing-Luo Channels-Collaterals).

Last week I compared the 8 branches of TCM to the 8 limbs of yoga. Another way to compare these systems is to consider the 8 components of Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word meaning something like “life-knowledge” which comprises a wholistic traditional medical system that developed in ancient India. The eight components are general medicine (Kāyacikitsā), paediatrics (Kaumāra-bhṛtya) surgical techniques (Śalyatantra), treatment of ailments affecting ears, eyes, nose, mouth(Śālākyatantra), pacification of possessing spirits (Bhūtavidyā), toxicology (Agadatantra), rejuvenation (Rasāyanatantra), and aphrodisiacs (Vājīkaraṇatantra).

Five Elements in Both Systems

Ayurveda and TCM both also use theories of the behaviours of different elements to understand how the body works, and both of them make use of 5 basic element types, although in each system there are slight differences as you can see in the images below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire, Water and Earth map onto each other easily enough, but can we find any correlations between the Ayurvedic Ether and Air, and TCM Wood and Metal? Although it might be valid to say “You’re comparing apples to oranges”, I think this is still an intellectually useful exercise.

When we consider the inter-relations of the TCM 5-Elements, which are also known as the 5-Phases or 5-Movements, we can see how Fire is considered the most Yang, or active, as reflected by it often being at the top of the circle. We can also see how the extreme Yin of Water balances Fire. In between we find the “gentle Yang” element of Wood, which evokes the slower movement of growing Wood, like a tree, as opposed to quick, aggressive movement of Fire.

A similar quality of gentle movement is attributed to Air in the Ayurvedic system, and so we can arrive at the rather counter-intuitive statement that Wood is very similar to Air.

As far as drawing connections between Ether and Metal, I must admit that I am somewhat at a loss; although the changing/accomodating nature of Ether as the space that the other elements move in might be considered to be like the changing nature of Metal (which can be melted and formed into any shape), I think this is a bit of a stretch.

Three Substances/Circuits

Within Ayurveda, the 5 elements combine in a relatively straightforward way to form 3 doshas (another Sanskrit word, meaning something like “elemental substance”) These are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha in the above image. TCM elements also combine into 3 circuits when you examine the correlations between elements and organ systems, but this gets a little more theory-heavy involving divisions of organ systems:

1. Lung & Large Intestine (Metal) + Stomach & Spleen (Earth)

also known as Tai Yin/Yang Ming circuit (Great Yin/Bright Yang)

2. Heart & Small Intestine (Fire) + Bladder & Kidney (Water)

also known as Shao Yin/Tai Yang circuit (Lesser Yin/Great Yang)

3. Pericardium & Triple Burner (Fire) + Liver & Gall Bladder (Wood)

also known as Jue Yin/Shao Yang circuit (Terminal Yin/Lesser Yang)

This leaves us with a rather fascinating contrast between elemental pairing within each system.

Within Ayurveda, we see:

1. Ether (Metal?) and Air (Wood?) – Vata

2. Fire and Water – Pitta

3. Water and Earth – Kapha

And within TCM we see:

1. Metal (Ether?) and Earth – Tai Yin/Yang Ming circuit

2. Fire and Water – Shao Yin/Tai Yang circuit

3. Fire and Wood (Air?) – Jue Yin/Shao Yang circuit

As you can see, this mapping not only gets complicated, but it also doesn’t result in any strong correlations… but might it suggest a complimentary relationship between the two systems? As you can see, both systems have a Fire/Water combination, but the other combinations don’t match up, rather, they seem to fill in the gaps of the missing combinations from each system!

I really didn’t foresee this post turning into such a Davinci code-esque meditation on the mythical correlations between these two systems, and I don’t put too much stock in any of these theories as I am hardly a scholar with enough expertise to make these claims in any historically accurate way. But I do think it is a fascinating intellectual exercise to view different systems through a lens not necessarily faithful to one or the other, just to see what’s to be seen.

If you’ve made it this far into the post, you probably have a pretty solid grasp of at least one of these systems… what do you think? Leave a comment with any disparities or further correlations that you can think of. I’d be especially interested to hear from people more thoroughly versed in Ayurveda, so don’t be shy!

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