In Avatar: The Last Airbender, members of the Northern Water Tribe use water to heal.

When Katara shows some bending prowess, she's told only men are allowed to bend in the Northern Water Tribe. They ended up whisking her away into a healing class.

I'm left to assume the female healers would have been full-blown benders had it not been for the Northern Water Tribe traditions.

So, when they heal using water, are they bending? If not, can non-benders heal?

Whether or not they are bending, how are they manipulating the water for healing? What powers does the water have?

Water healing the chakra network

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Water bending and healing are the same art.

In answer to your question:

When they heal using water, are they bending? If not, can non-benders heal?

The division between Healing and Waterbending arises solely due to the sexist traditions of the Northen water tribe:

A female has not been seen in the military of the Northern Water Tribe due to their sexist traditions. However, the other Water Tribes did not follow these traditions as female waterbenders were seen defending the Southern Water Tribe during the Fire Nation raids and females of the Foggy Swamp Tribe were seen during the Invasion of the Fire Nation. ~Avatar wikia on the Water Tribes.

We see that Hama was a female water bender in the above link. There are also male healers in republic city.

Healing is a 'unique sub-set' of water bending. To remove it from the pool of talents a water bender can call on would be like saying blood and plantbending wasn't water bending.

The main difference is that water bending is external to a living being, and the subsets are internal. You manipulate the water inside a person whether it's via bloodbending or healing. The two are very similar in that respect.

So we have to answer,

Would [the healers from the northern water tribe] have been full-blown benders had it not been for the Northern Water Tribe traditions?

Yes, had they been given proper training I'm confident they would have been full waterbenders. They had simply been only allowed to focus on healing. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them had secretly water bended, even if by accident.

What powers does the water have?

None, in the same way the 'fire' that forms lightning in lightningbending, nor the motes of earth used in metalbending have any overt powers external to the bender.

Some water does have spiritual properties, which aids healing, but it's not essential. It helps because healing effects chi pathways, which, incidentally if blocked prevent all healing.

To bring clarity to the ideas surrounding healing and water-bending:

  • One can be a healer but not a water-bender. This is the occupation of healing, the understanding of the body, what makes it work and how to help it heal faster, better and more completely. This would be the closest a non-technological society would come to a doctor.

  • One can be a water-bender and not be a healer. This was the common practice among the Northern Water Tribes for the men of the tribe. They were taught to bend, but not heal. This was an arbitrary and patriarchal division of labor (and knowledge), attributed to tradition.

  • The women of the Northern Water tribes were not taught to be water-benders and only used their bending ability to augment both their knowledge and skill as healers.

Healing utilizes:

  • the chi network of the body; chi which is also known as the lifeforce of the body flows along pathways in the body which can be modified using techniques such as acupressure or acupuncture.

Acupuncture map

  • the energy of the chi network being rerouted to injured regions of the body. It also allows the healer to share their chi energy to aid in the healing process.

So far, waterbending induced healing has been shown to work on physical injuries, such as burns (Toph's feet and Katara's own hands), lacerations (Hakoda's injury during the Day of Black Sun), broken bones (Sokka's left arm), diseases brought on by severe pollution (Jang Hui villagers), and severe tissue damage caused by lightning bolts (Aang and Zuko); it has even shown to counteract mental distress and tampering (Jet). --Avatar Wiki > Healing

  • certain waters that have been infused with spiritual energies which can increase the healing capacities of proficient practitioners. The water however does not have to be specially treated. Even ordinary water can help to focus the healing energy between the healer and their patient as seen below between Korra and Bolin.

Korra heals Bolin's injury

  • 1
    Hey Thaddeus, another great answer, as always. I'm going to keep my question centered around the Avatar universe, so, to the point of not needing to be a waterbender: If I remember correctly, Katara figured out she could heal by accident, right? I feel like that assumes an innate ability like waterbending. If you're not taught to waterbend, but can bend the element, are you still a waterbender? – magzalez Aug 16 '12 at 14:54
  • Korra's case is unique. She is the Avatar, so technically she IS a waterbender, even if that wasn't her first "native" element. Healing is a subset of waterbending so if her talent were strong enough she should eventually be able to heal. Since she was already a "native waterbender" it should likely be one of her strongest bending talents. – Thaddeus Howze Aug 27 '12 at 6:25
  • What about Katara, though? If I remember correctly, Katara in The Last Airbender figured out she could heal by accident, right? I feel like that assumes an innate ability like waterbending. If you're not taught to waterbend, but can bend the element, are you still a waterbender? – magzalez Aug 27 '12 at 19:54
  • Yes, you are an UNTRAINED waterbender. In a world where bending can be dangerous if not channeled, it would be best to train everyone who is able in SOME aspect of the ability. While the water tribes desire to keep women at home and safe from dangers, it also halved their effective fighting strength as well. On the plus side, they were one of the only bending groups with healing capacity. – Thaddeus Howze Aug 27 '12 at 20:15

I'd just like to add one important bullet:

Healing IS waterbending. Healers can manipulate water the same way a waterbender can when fighting. There's no difference.

Healing is MOVING WATER to manipulate chi. They're not energybending. They're still MOVING WATER. Therefore, if you're a HEALER, you are AUTOMATICALLY a waterbender. In fact, if you can move water in any way, you ARE a waterbender.

If you are a healer, you can fight using your waterbending, even if you're the most incompetent fighter ever. You can still move water.

The usual answer in elemental power systems where water grants healing is that, since most of the body is water, you can move that water to guide the materials into positions for the body to heal itself. Sometimes the healer actually maneuvers the pieces into position, healing the person directly, instead of just encouraging the body to do so.

While hypothetically, a significantly powerful computer with those elemental powers could actually do this, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how hilariously-complicated the human body actually is to assume a human could keep track of everything. Our most powerful computers today are unable to run a full simulation of a single human cell, so this explanation assumes that there are people with several billion times more processing power in their brains than supercomputers, also able to solve complex dynamics problems over that same space.

Another example of this idea would be the Codex Alera.

Without water you can't have life so it is suitable for the element to have healing properties. I believe that healing is a rare ability only possibly for benders because for one I haven't seen a non-bender heal anyone or themselves and for two I think only waterbenders can have the special ability to heal and not all waterbenders can heal anyway.

Fire represents destruction, earth represents strength, air represents elegance and softness and water represents light, and life.

Chi, the life force of the body. If I acquired an injury my Chi would loose its flow. Causing flash backs and head aches. So, what Waterbenders do, is. Use the flow of the water, to get the Chi back on track.

  • This adds nothing to the existing answers. – Chenmunka May 26 '15 at 14:27

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