Festival Issue 174 May, 2016
Text by Alonzo Lyons / Photo: Alonzo Lyons

A traditional healing art still popular in the Himalaya

Sowa Rigpa translates to ‘the art of healing’ from Tibetan language. It is more commonly referred to as Tibetan medicine. Amchi (healers of Sowa Rigpa) follow time-honored practices dating back over two thousand years. The ancient tradition has ties with Indian ayurveda, and both are holistic, aiming to treat body and mind together. That said, focusing on the mind is considered the most effective strategy in Sowa Rigpa with the view that mind leads body. 

According to Sowa Rigpa principles, “Our state of mind and mood affects everything we do. When we are happy, our body is at ease and the world seems a brighter place. Even if we are sick we can be at peace. However, if we are sad our physical well-being goes unappreciated.” 

Lifestyle and diet are emphasized, too. “Personal conduct and diet are considered two of the most important factors relating to health. Diet may be either conducive to curing disease or contribute to its cause…indiscriminate eating is like poisoning yourself.” 

The warning on diet harkens back to Hippocrates of Kos, Greek physician known as The Father of (Western) Medicine. He figured, “All diseases begin in the gut.” More pointed was Thomas Muffet, 16th century English physician and Naturalist, “We are digging our graves with our teeth.”   These reckonings from the past are perhaps even more relevant to modern times with concerns over genetic modifications of flora and fauna and widespread use of pesticides, hormones, and synthetic additives. 

Beyond focusing on the mind, diet and lifestyle, the practice of Sowa Rigpa encompasses identification and harvest of rare Himalayan plants used in medicinal tablets, compresses and teas. Medicinal herbs (jadibuti in Nepali language) are searched for in the country’s lowland jungles up to the highlands. The World Health Organization estimates that up to “80% of the world’s people depend on traditional medicine and plant extracts for their primary health care needs.” Naturally made formulations are fresher and therefore, can be more bioactive and agreeable to human physiology and more assimilable compared with machine-processed, packaged items found at a city pharmacy. Jadibuti is usually less expensive, too.

A consultation with an Amchi is generally more affordable than an allopathic medical consultation. Amchi are able to examine and diagnose clients without the aid of modern devices. Typically, that includes reading of pulse strength and rate by manual touch of the wrist. A patient’s physical demeanor, coloring of the tongue and whites of the eyes are looked at, too, among other physical assessments. Herbal remedies are prescribed as needed, handcrafted at an in-house dispensary. Amchi customarily prepare their own compounds from herbs brought in from collectors if not harvested themselves.

Astrology can be part of the process, too. Amchi are customarily trained to read the stars and forecast favorable and unfavorable times according to celestial alignments in relation to a client’s horoscope. They are consulted for general advice and compatibility of travel plans and important events (e.g., wedding ceremonies) based on dates, stellar configurations and lunar phases

Sowa Rigpa is a classic art still alive in some highland Himalayan settlements, especially areas near the border with the Tibetan Frontier as well as sections of Kathmandu with high concentrations of Tibetan origin people including Bauddhanath and Swayambhunath and Pokhara’s refugee enclaves. Sowa Rigpa is true to its ancient roots and has not been altered by the modern, turbulent world, but might help to cure its ills.

“An open, peaceful mind is very beneficial and helps others.” –Tengboche Rinpoche

Alonzo Lyons is an avid Himalayan trekker and researcher and writer of several guidebooks on Nepal including The Best Little Guidebook for Trekking the Everest Region, and The Guerrilla Trek and Yarsa Trails--Off the Beaten Path in Rugged Western Nepal (his Nepal Insider Editions are self-published and available on Amazon and Kindle). He is also a trekking guide with Neo Horizon Travels (, an outfitter specializing in journeys to Nepal’s wild west, including the Guerrilla Trek and treks to highland yarsagumba caravan destinations and beyond. Keep on trekking, keep on enjoying the outdoor paradise of Nepal’s nirvana.