Tonics You Perform Instead of Swallow

Scientists recently reported that singing in a choir is good for your health. Saliva samples from choir members were richer in secretory IgA antibodies that help mucous membranes boost their immunity following a performance of Bach’s “Missa Solemnis” than samples taken before the performance. The singers revealed that they felt invigorated and inspired despite the stresses of the two-hour performance.

Singing, especially songs of a spiritual nature, according to the ancient medical texts of Ayurveda, the health science of the Vedic civilization, is an example of an acharasayana or “behavioral tonic;” that is, a tonic that is not ingested but rather performed. Technically speaking a behavioral tonic is actually ingested since it turns out that our thoughts, emotions and perceptions have as great an influence on our biochemistry as what we eat. The Ayurvedic medical scriptures are clear that we need to digest and metabolize all our experiences, and describe a digestive fire for our experiences, located in the region of the heart, as well techniques to strengthen it.

This means that everything we ingest through our senses including music, television and film, memories we conjure up, the hours feeding our intellect in front of a computer, aromas, and even the company we keep — all this needs to be digested and metabolized, just as surely as this morning’s bagel and latte. Since the heaviest mental load that we need to metabolize after our perceptions are our thoughts themselves, we even need to be careful what we think or we may find ourselves awake at night still chewing on anxieties and doubts like the Alka-Seltzer man: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

That song contributes to immunity comes as no surprise to physicians with a wide vision. A young man with inordinate intensity and drive was organizing a speaking tour for one of my most beloved teachers, Dr. Brihaspati Dev Triguna, who sees hundreds of patients daily in his clinic in New Delhi, including recently my own patients on one of our tours to India. Observing the man singing while preparing a lecture hall, Dr. Triguna told him, “Singing has saved you.”

Sitting in consultations with Dr. Triguna, I have taken note of the behavioral tonics he would prescribe to people. To an older gentlemen he said, “Play with children.” The man protested, “My children are gone.” “Then play with grandchildren.” He would tell people who looked depressed to “Read funny books and laugh.” That was years before research showed that laughter got people out of the hospital sooner.

Once he told a couple having marital problems to put a picture of Shiva with two heads (one female, one male) on their wall and look at it daily. He said it would remind them that marriage creates a state of unity wherein both partners function as one, focused on creating a whole that is more than the sum of the parts. And after prescribing herbal remedies to a man with chronic digestive problems he took the pulse of his pestering wife and declared, “You are perfectly healthy, no herbs are needed. Just wear an amethyst of at least eight carats.” A minute later she stuck her head back in the consultation room. “Why must I wear a medicinal gem, if I’m so healthy?” she inquired. “For your husband’s stomach.” I sensed that Dr. Triguna felt she was the problem.

While virtue is supposed to be its own reward, a growing body of research suggests that there is more in it for the virtuous than just feeling good about oneself. By helping others, you may be improving your mental health and even longevity. Among a group of 423 older couples followed for five years, the ones who reported helping other people had a probability of dying that was half of those who did not, even if it was only giving emotional support to a partner.1

It seems that the old adage, “It is better to give than receive” can be scientifically documented. In a group of over 2000 Presbyterians, those who gave help had improved mental health over the studied interval compared to those who were more likely to receive help.2 It may be that the altruistic act involved in a behavioral tonic decreases cortisol or increases endorphins, creating a sort of “helper’s high.”

One ancient medical textbook states, “Adopting wholesome practices, is like perpetually ingesting a rejuvenating tonic.” (Charaka Samhita, Chikitasthan, 1, 30-35)

You can feel free to interpret these tonics that I have assembled from Charaka’s text and apply them to your own life in the light of their antiquity. They are not only less expensive than any tonic you have to ingest, but easier to swallow. They are translated loosely from the Sanskrit, which I have preserved in some cases to give a flavor of the verse.

Charaka’s Top Twenty Life Tonics

  1. Sadyavachanam ayushyanam. Speaking the truth, but only the sweet truth, is the best tonic for prolonging ayu, the span of life.
  2. Show respect to your elders (even if you are yourself an elder). Practice greeting persons older than yourself before they greet you.
  3. Be a knower of the proper time, place and measure of activities. (Hint: Use each room in the home for its proper function. Avoid working during mealtimes, exercising just before bed and listening to hard rock before retiring or on arising).
  4. Serve ministers, sages, renunciants and the devout who have offered their lives to spiritual purposes.
  5. Respect teachers, mentors and animals.
  6. Be merciful and forgiving. Avoid cruelty.
  7. Engage in cultivating the state of pure consciousness (awareness devoid of its content: thoughts, emotions and perceptions).
  8. Donate generously and regularly.
  9. Always have a plan, and persevere in its implementation.
  10. Keep your body, your apparel and your environment clean and orderly. Wear garments that are simple, elegant and graceful.
  11. Keep flowers in and around your home and workplace. Spend time in nature listening to birds, brooks and the wind in the trees.
  12. Follow a structured daily routine. Avoid sleeping in the day and staying awake into the night.
  13. Take walks by lakes and rivers or in the moonlight.
  14. Brahmacharyam anushteyaanaam. Practices that cultivate the nervous system to support the experience of the underlying Totality of the cosmos are the best practice for health. (This includes balanced indulgence in sex, food and spirits.)
  15. Indriyajayor nandananaam. Conquering the need for gratification of the senses is the best tonic for experience of bliss.
  16. Vidya bhrmananaam. Knowledge of the self is the most nourishing of all tonics.
  17. Practice effortlessness, serenity, and compassion. Cultivate your heart’s ability to love, even in the most senseless of circumstances. After all, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be called “practice.”
  18. Avoid holding onto anger and negative thoughts. Practice non-violence. Be courageous by not losing patience in any situation.
  19. Keep the company of the wise.
  20. And don’t forget to sing.


  1. Stephanie L. Brown, Institute for Social Research, University of MI
  2. Carolyn E. Schwarz, J Psych Som Med, Fall, 2003

Jay Glaser, MD is a board certified internist in Massachusetts.