Herbs are powerful aids in the practice of yoga…They are useful not only for treating diseases and for rejuvenation but for awakening all our higher faculties.” Dr. David Frawley, The Yoga of Herbs.
Plant medicines have been used for rejuvenation, healing and spiritual development for thousands of years. Ancient healers utilized plants that were native to the lands they inhabited, but The Yoga Apothecary focuses on the edible plants and medicinal herbs that grow right here, right now, in your garden and neighbourhood green spaces.
Here we’ll explore how wild botanicals, backyard weeds and common garden herbs can bring us into healing harmony with nature and the seasonal rhythms of the natural world. And we’ll discover how in healing foods, teas, tinctures and aromatic oils, they can be used in tandem with yoga, breath work and meditation, to nourish, detoxify, energize and enlighten – body and soul.
From grounding and rooting, powering up the solar chakra, to opening the heart, sharpening the mind and uplifting the spirit, discover the many ways wild plants and herbal medicines enhance your yoga practice, and vitalize your health and well-being.
(An extended version of this post is available at my sister site Gather.)
When days darken, cold winds blow, and the damp settles into our lungs and bones, we can turn to our ancient healing allies, the conifers for support. Their volatile oils not only nurture our bodies while uplifting our spirits, they make a perfect accompaniment for yoga. Inhaling and/or massaging their restorative fragrance into the skin before or after practice will leave you feeling warmed, supple and resilient as, well, an evergreen.
Conifers are both grounding and enlivening, and here in the Pacific Northwest, they are amongst our oldest and long lived trees. Towering over the forest canopy, their top branches are always nourished by the sun but their roots extend deeply into the earth. And it is during winter that they offer us their offer their strength, endurance and rootedness – when we need it most.
Physiologically pine, spruce and fir oils (found in needles, bark, sap and resin) have a plethora of healing benefits that help beat back seasonal stress. They stimulate the respiratory system, decongest the lungs, boost the immune system, and balance hormones. Their needles are one of the richest sources of polyprenols which stimulate the immune system, cellular reparation and have antistress, adaptogenic, and antiviral activity, in particular against influenza viruses! And as anyone who has ever smelled their fresh cut branches already knows, their fragrance helps to calm the nervous system, reduce stress and cortisol, and increase feelings of peace and wellbeing.
And applied topically, they can be used as oils or warming muscle salve, bringing blood flow and circulation to stiff winter bodies, muscles and joints. Plus their anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties can even help to soothe dry, chapped or winter irritated skin. (For more information see here and here).
You can also enjoy their healing aromatic powers by tossing Conifer needles (about a cup) into bath before or after practice for a revitalizing, mood soothing soaking. And blended with sea or epsom salts, they can be incredibly therapeutic and relaxing.
And considering that our skin (along with our noses) contains olfactory receptors, I find it within the realm of possibility that their aromatic powers may even promote healing.Several recent studies on our skin’s scent receptors suggests that scents can help repair damaged skin and regenerate damaged muscle tissue!
According to this aromatherapy site, each of the conifers offers its own energetic affects. The essential oils of firs are warming and invigorating, supporting a healthy flow of energy through body and“their straight-forward energy brings confidence and courage” while relieving nervous exhaustion and stress. Spruce helps support the adrenal glands, stimulate and increase energy, and are “centering, calming and focusing”.
Pines represent the “the oldest aromatic energy on the earth” and are “linked to the oxygenation of our planet”, therefore their energy is grounding and supports the heart chakra and respiratory system. Canadian Hemlock is anti-inflammatory, “stimulates the imagination and inspiration while stabilizing the nervous system” and enhances the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th chakras, while Western Hemlock can “help dispel disturbances in your energy fields which are disrupting your health and well-being”.
So if you’re eager to add the conifers many benefits to your yoga practice you’ll be happy to know that conifer oils and salves are easy to make. Simply bundle up for a winter walk and gather a few boughs (conifers of your choice). Then strip the needles (about a cup)and infuse them with a few twigs and cones, in warm oil, and warm on low heat for several hours or overnight. And then if you like, you can thicken the oil with melted beeswax to form a simple salve. Next strain off the plant material and pour your oil into sterilized bottles or tins . (Recipes for both oil and salve can be found here)
So on chilly winter days makes demands on our reserves of energy, endurance and warmth, you can use this the oil on temples, wrists and pulse points to enhance either a restorative or invigorating practice. And massaged into the skin and limbs the salve will leave you feeling cozy, energized and relaxed – whenever you need it.
(Note: If you live in Victoria BC Gather (my other wild food/wildcrafting venture!) will be offering some Comfort & Joy Conifer Bath Salts, Oil and Salve at Moonrise Creative’s Winter Market. These make a perfect seasonal gift for yourself or any yogis you know!)
I’m so happy! The fall rain and cooling weather has transformed the park near my home from a carpet of dry yellow grass into a field of verdant green. Lush and vibrant as early spring, it offers a cornucopia of plump, newly invigorated wild greens – Dandelions, Plantain, Cat’s Ears and Chickweed. And how I’ve missed them!
These tasty greens may be weeds but they are some of my favourite wild edibles and they are packed with so many nutrients they are amongst the world’s most nutritious superfoods. And as herbalists well know, they are also a literal medicine, boosting our immune system, supporting digestion, detoxifying, and reducing inflammation.
Personally I just love their flavours, which vary between bitter and sharp (Dandelion and Plantain) to mild and slightly sweet (Cat’s Ear and Chickweed). And combined with toasted nuts or seeds, some piquant Parmesan Reggiano cheese and oodles of garlic and olive oil – they make a mean pesto.
I adore pesto as a dip on crackers but it can also be dolloped and swirled into a pot of steaming pasta. Now a hearty dish of Fettuccine may not seem very yogic, but I assure you it is.In Ayurvedic tradition warm, oily heavy foods build ojas (the life essence of the body) and prepare the body’s reserves for winter. And dressed with wild greens well-known for their ‘tonic’ qualities (which help to restore and invigorate all the systems of the body) it’s yogic benefits are many.
According to Dr. David Frawley in his article Herbs for the Practice of Yoga tonic plants“increase physical energy, stamina, musculoskeletal function, circulation and coordination” and contain nervine properties which act on the nervous system, calming the mind for meditation, stimulating concentration, perception, clarity.
And to yoga teacher and herbalist Emily Perry it’s obvious “ tonic herbs go hand in hand with yoga practice; they can help us repair our bodies after injury, reduce wear and tear from our regular practice and may help prevent injury. Tonics build radiance, vitality, and vibrancy…they calm the fight or flight response when we are overworked, or increase our liveliness when we are in an energetic slump. Tonic herbs bring stability to our emotional lives by giving us roots, sustaining our boundaries and cultivating harmony and resilience.”
But aside from this touted plethora of physical and emotional benefits,what I love most about wild green pesto is that it is exactly that – wild. It provides a rare opportunity to eat outside a system in which food is increasingly no longer the product of nature but of agribusiness and food science. Today our food may be labeled “all natural” – but it is anything but.
Foraging returns us to a time before ‘weeds,’ before the ownership of land and crop, when the food freely provided by mother nature actually nourished us. Sad fact is, agriculture may have fed more of us, but its clear some vital nutritive element was lost in the process. Archeological records show the introduction of agriculture marked not only a general decline in height, weight, bone density, and dental health but an increase in birth defects, malnutrition, and “diseases of civilization”–such as cancer, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance), heart disease, to name but a few.
Today we know wild foods are bursting with vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, chlorophyll, omega 3’s, phytonutrients, bio-flavonoids that our poor over-domesticated soils no longer provide. Filled with the life-giving energy of the season, they bring us into harmony with the cycles of growth and rest that govern all life on the planet.
Foraging wild food means eating what nature gives us in time,it means understanding that mother nature knows best what we should eat and when, and it means eating the wild greens that are emerging everywhere, bursting with vitality, in our landscapes and backyards right now.
And while it seems a bit woo, consider that they may even contain a vitalizing healing energy known in Ayurvedic tradition as Soma. Soma is a life-giving essence that, as Dr. Frawley writes, “ is found mainly wild plants freshly picked. Ayurveda always considers that the fresh juice of the plant has the strongest healing properties. This is because it contains the most Soma.”
Now consider that commercially grown produce in the light of Kirlian photography has been demonstrated to posses no ‘aura’ – the ghostly emanation of light energy (bio-photons) that normally surrounds organic food.
Now while food scientists cannot agree these Kirlian photographs mean anything, I nonetheless ask you to envision for a moment, how an auric picture of these wild greens might reveal them ablaze with light, energy and maybe even soma?
Who knows? All I know is that I believe in the old adage – we are what we eat. Yogic philosophy tells us we are composed of layers of energy sheaths, the densest of which is the Annamaya Kosha, food sheath – our material body. In other words, the food we eat literally becomes our flesh.
Anna means food in Sanskrit, and is governed by the great Goddess Annapurna, who celebrates the divine aspect of nourishment found in the five organs of perception: our ears, eyes, nose, skin and tongue. Temple art in India often depicts Lord Shiva with his begging bowl asking Annapurna to provide him food that gives the energy (Shakti) to achieve knowledge and enlightenment.
Anna-yoga is a branch of yoga that refers to a journey of self-knowledge through food. So when I harvest and prepare and taste the green flavours of this wild pesto, I will practice Anna-yoga. I will hold on my tongue and my heart the temple of blue sky, the birdsong filled trees, and the sun warmed green earth.
And when I come to my knees in the green to harvest what the season and mother nature has freely given, I will remember to give thanks to that deeper mystery which drives life from the ground, miraculously fusing sunlight, water and stardust into sustenance.
3/4 cup of extra virgin oil (avocado oil also works nicely, but less flavor)
2-3 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup of roasted (or raw) nuts or seeds
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 cup grated Parmesan Cheese (or more if you like a cheesy flavour)
Place greens in the bowl of your food processor.
Whiz until the mixture is well chopped.
Add nuts/seeds and process again until finely chopped.
With the motor running, slowly pour the oil through the feed tube.
Then add cheese (you can also add cheese later after processing if you want a chunkier pesto, but be sure cheese is well grated)
Season with sea salt and pepper, to taste.
Note: For those that need a few tips indentifying the wild plants I’ve included I’ve provided a few links below. Never eat anything – unless you’re absolutely sure you’ve got the right plant. And make sure you harvest from areas free from herbicide and pesticides!
I’ve long been a disciple of yoga. But a year ago a Tarot card reading told me my what I’d come to suspect – that working with nature was my soul work now. Arriving to this place took years. As yoga brought me back into my body, I began to discover another place within myself. One that was vast but comforting, sometimes dark, sometimes light, but always peaceful and steadying.
As I learned how to more easily ground in this inner space, I began to sense and feel things that could not be put into words, but held my attention, wanting to be named. This I noticed happened most often in nature. When walking outdoors amongst the woodlands and hills, a kind of bubbly sweet sensation would burble in my tummy and rise to my chest. This tingly suffused feeling I realized — was happiness!
I decided to cultivate this ‘good energy’ like prana or qi, and began to breathe mindfully fanning the flame. Then like Alice I would feel myself grow taller and lighter, my senses sharpening. I saw the tiny puddles of sun illuminating the incandescent ferns on the forest floor, the tumbling whirling activity of insects and bees, I could hear in sharp relief the songs of the birds, and the sounds of the wind as it rippled through leaves. And all this beauty filled me further, leading at moments to a kind of ecstasy.
Yoga’s gift was to bring me to this place. Learning to “see” with the eyes of my body, awakened my senses — I began to feel once again. And what I felt in nature was love, a deep reverence for the life that shone in every drop of dew, every blade of grass, and every creature. This was a revelatory experience. An epiphany of a spiritual truth that rung true to my bones. Because without a shadow of doubt, I knew I was in the presence of the sacred.
The divine isn’t only transcendent, it is immanent, alive in every living thing we behold – and it blazed before my eyes.
The holiness of nature was a vital spiritual truth for our ancestors – but Descarte’s division of spirit from matter spelled the final death knell of the old religions. The earth, trees, waters and animals were no longer living embodiments of the divine, but mechanistic processes empty of soul. And it is thus that nature became separate from us, existing outside our house walls and city streets, a resource to be used for the extraction of minerals, the building of houses and cities, capital and wealth.
Today the desecration of old growth forests, the appropriation of indigenous lands and national parks for industry, the chemical poisoning of our fields and the genetic manipulation of foods, the death of bees and extinction of species continue unabated. Clearly we’ve forgotten another ancient truth – we are all one. Whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.
I’ve spent much time pondering why so many of us – me included – can go on with our days as usual when we know the forests are falling all around us. Because if we truly loved nature, with all our heart and soul – would this continue to happen?
Reconnecting with nature is an important tenet of “deep ecology”—the idea it will take more than environmental laws to achieve true sustainability. We need to re-establish our personal connection with the earth.
And so I see my new path. To awaken to the ways of the old religions and wisdom of nature, to live in harmony with the rhythms of the earth and honor the spirit of the land. It is the age-old practice of bhakti, an offering of my love, devotion and protection, to the divine embodied in nature – and all of us.
I see my work with plants, herbalism and wildcrafting as a methodology for coming into conscious alignment with the numinous cycles of growth, death and regeneration that drive all life on this planet. The ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ flows through me as well. This union with the essential nature of reality – ananda, or divine bliss – gives me the spiritual backbone I need to stand strong.
In my last card reading my work with yoga was shown in a card filled with a large blazing fire and women dancing and leaping. This card I was told, was one of culmination, of joy and celebration. Then the reader drew another card showing a dark cave in a forest grove surrounded by wild animals. A large “shining skull” illuminated the scene. But she said, your true soul work lies somewhere deep in the mysteries of nature. And she told me to get back to the woods and continue doing whatever I was doing there – and I’m listening.
We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. The Rigveda (8.48.3)
Lately I’ve been experimenting with wildcrafted elixirs, tonics and infusions inspired by the mystical legends of Soma, a sacred nectar reputed to grant both immortality and enlightenment. Described as “green-tinted” and “bright-shining” in the Rigveda, soma was made mainly from wild herbs and plants, whose rejuvenating potency or “life giving essence” was strong. And most telling, it was meant to be drunk not from the mouth— but the heart.
Some scholars believe Soma was single plant, others a group or type of plant (texts like the Susruta Samhita mention twenty four soma plants and eighteen soma-like plants). Many claim Soma was an entheogenic substance made from mushrooms or a vine, others say it was an inner elixir produced by yoga and meditation.
But according to Dr. David Frawley whose analysis of soma reflects forty years of study of Vedic texts, and author of Soma in Yoga and Ayurveda: The Power of Rejuvenation and Immortality the most potent soma was made mainly from wild plants and herbs which combined with “ojas” the soma or life essence of the body to create “an exhilarating effect that promotes healing and transformative processes on all levels”.
From yogic mystics to Taoist sages, to western alchemists, sacred plants have long been entwined with our sacred anatomy. In yoga the physical and subtle body is likened to a tree with different branches and different plants and herbs interact with these branches to vitalize our chakras and facilitate the life-giving flow of prana through energy channels or nadis.
Evidence for the use of soma to energize both the physical and energetic body and expand consciousness is found in countless sacred texts – the Soma Mandala contains 114 hymns praising its qualities.
The rejuvenative properties of soma may be relegated to the realm of myth but science is discovering many of the herbs and plants used in soma preparations affect our telomeres, the caps at the end of each strand DNA that get shorter each time a cell copies itself, causing them to age.
Studies show that chemical compounds found in Soma-like plants (Astaxanthin, Polyphenols, CoQ10, Vitamin K, Silymarin, to name but a few) actually help rejuvenate and lengthen our telomeres— suggesting some of these ancient soma preparations may actually deserve the appellation “anti-aging” after all.
The beneficial effects of many soma type plants are also well known to herbalists. Some, according to Dr. Frawley, are “tonic” plants used to increase physical energy, stamina, musculoskeletal function, circulation and coordination.Other plants are known to possess nervine properties which act on the nervous system, stimulating concentration, perception and clarity. Nervines can also be calming, slowing the mind for meditation–and in yogic tradition they are said to nourish the higher brain centres.
Some yogic traditions tell of a soma chakra or Amrita or Bindu chakra. Located near the pineal gland and Ajna Chakra (third eye) the Amrita Chakra – which means ‘the Nectar of the Crescent Moon’ it contains the inverted triangle, symbol of feminine energy, and the great seat of Shiva & Parvati consciousness.
So it was this intriguing mix of yoga mysticism, herbal healing and anti-aging science that inspired me to create my own Soma. But where to begin?
Through my herbalism studies with well-known herbalist teacher Betty Norton, I knew that many plants with soma-like qualities grow in wild abundance right here on Vancouver Island. Many are well-known tonics and nervines with medicinal benefits, like Nettles, Wild Mint and Wild Chicory. Syrian or African Rue is an invasive weed whose seeds are commonly used as a spice but are also slightly narcotic, hence one of it’s common names: soma! Wild Carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace) flowers and seeds are also psychotropic.
Many of these plants, like Yarrow leaf, Wild Ginger root, Wild Sarsaparilla root, Wild Bergamot leaf are known to contain adaptogens which improve the health of adrenal system helping us cope with stress, anxiety and fight fatigue. Devil’s Club is also a native plant with adaptogenic functions and it is still used by local First Nations, who have their own indigenous sacred plants and healing traditions.
And according to Dr. Frawley it was not only wild plants that were best for soma potency, but those growing in particular areas where natural energies were strong. He writes “soma ingredients are most prevalent among plants growing in the mountains, particularly by streams and lakes”. So off to the mountainous wet wilds of Vancouver Island I would go!
While inspired by eastern, western and indigenous herbal healing traditions, I decided the wisdom of wild mother nature would be my primary guide. For example, last year our early lush spring brought us nettles in profusion. Bursting with compounds that reduce inflammation, nettle has long been used to treat allergies and hay fever. Because the same climatic forces and natural energies that flow through our landscape flow through us as well, mother nature knows best when it comes to providing the medicines we need to thrive each season.
Another illustration of mother’s natures pharmacy is Licorice Fern, which begins to flourish when the cold dank rains of autumn set in. And as First Nations healers well know, Liquorice Fern root is an ideal medicine to treat colds and congested lungs. Coincidence? I think not. There is a balance in nature and we are a part of it.
Finally, as a wildcrafter, I wanted to incorporate a little old fashioned plant magic. There is an the old herbalist axiom that the plants we need “speak to us”. On a wild medicine walk Cowichan Medicine Woman and ethnobotanist Della Rice Sylvester, told us – watch for the plant that calls you, you will notice it – it may even “move without wind” to get your attention. So for my Soma, I would go into nature with a trusting heart and an open eye. I would follow the plants that called to me.
In Hinduism, the god Soma (Chandra) is a lunar deity, thus the full moon is the time to collect and press the divine plants. The moon is also the cup from which the gods drink Soma, and a waxing moon meant Soma was recreating himself, ready to be drunk again. So true kitchen witch style, I will be busy harvesting and brewing my soma under the phases of the moon.
And my first creation? A Wild Yogini Elixir, in tribute to the Matrikas, the seven great mother goddesses found in the Rigveda and Mahabharata who were said to control the preparation of soma. Designed to get prana flowing, this wildcrafted elixir will not only fire up the solar chakra, open the heart and ignite the third eye—but bring me into ‘healing harmony’ with the natural energies of the land I inhabit, body and soul.
“We share so much in common with plants that we have to reconsider what characterizes us as human.” Plant geneticist Prof. Daniel Chamovitz
Recently a lovely little article appeared in my Facebook feed which invited me to cultivate my inner plant. This was not to be an exercise in anthropomorphism, stated its author, but an opportunity to “vegetalize your already more than human body”. And as I read these words, I realized I had finally found a way to contextualize (and put into practice) my growing fascination with the yoga of time.
Not grand cycles of time like the Yugas, but the monthly, daily, even hourly cycles that regulate our biological clock. Like plants, our cells contain cryptochromes (light-sensitive proteins) which respond to the rising and setting sun and changing moon phases. And plant geneticists and biologists speculate that these genes are why the same cycles of time that regulate the growth, rest and reproduction of lettuce, trees and flowers, govern our metabolic processes as well.
Was this I wondered, why ancient Vedic and Ayurveda texts put so much emphasis on harmonizing human activity with the cycles of the sun, moon and solar system? Today their teachings on propitious hours, days and moon phases for meditation, sadana and asana has largely been washed out of modern yoga practice as irrelevant superstition – yet the new science of Chronobiology increasingly confirms that within every moon phase and daily cycle – there are peak times for everything.
Chronobiology (meaning biology and time) suggests that solar and lunar cycles DO create real fluctuations in our bodies and brains, regulating physiological processes such as sleep wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature, neurotransmitter activity and other important bodily functions.
Indeed research compiled in Michael Smolensky’s book The Body Clock Guide To Better Health lends support toVedic texts which tell us that when it comes to maximizing our full potential, timing is everything. Smolensky is the director of the Hermann Hospital Center for Chronobiology and Chronotherapeutic Studies, and he asserts that fluctuations in our circadian rhythm, a roughly 24 hour period (following the earth’s rotational cycle) leaves us better performing certain tasks at certain times. For example, morning are best for tackling mental tasks because mental alertness and concentration peak from 9am and midday and wane in the early afternoon (best time for taking a nap). And because our muscular strength, pain tolerance and physical strength peak at about 3pm to 6pm Smolensky suggests this is the time to perform strength and agility based exercise.
Does this lend support to ancient Vedic texts which divide each of the 24 hours into kapha, pitta, and vata periods during which the predominating qualities of those doshas are prevalent? The three doshas are said to be the equivalent of Sun, Moon and Air energies of our body. And in the great healing tradition of Ayurveda, aligning ourselves with these energetic qualities starts with getting up in the morning.
The period before sunrise is related to Vatta, and is known as the Brahma Muharta or “ambroisal hours. And one of the very first Ayurvedic texts advises :”One should wake up in the Brahma Muhurta for sustaining perfect health and for achieving a long life span, as desired.” Conversely waking later was believed to contribute to lethargy, fatigue and a host of physical disorders. So could waking up during Brahma Muhurta actually help synchronize our natural clock?
Each morning when the earth rotates into sunlight the geomagnetic field recoils from the impact of the solar wind. This creates a surge in the fields lines of magnetic force that run throughout the earth -and our bodies and brains- releasing the hormones and neurochemicals which shift our physiology from sleeping to waking. And as Dharma Sing Khalsa MD, author of Meditation as Medicine: Activate the Power of Your Healing Force suggests – if this transition between sleep and waking does not occur in tandem with our natural circadian rhythm, it can “diminish the production of stimulating neurochemicals, and leave people groggy and depressed all day. Or it can cause the opposite effect, the overproduction of the stress hormonal cortisol, which can cause agitation, immune dysfunction, memory loss and premature aging. “
Ancient Vedic texts are also full of instructions on observing the cycles of the moon. Different phases of the moon were believed to have different energetic forces that could be harnessed through appropriate breathing exercises or meditations. And again, while we regard these idea’s as folklore, studies referenced by Douglas Rushkoff in Present Shock, When Everything Happens NOW suggest that our brain is dominated by a different neurotransmitter during each moon phase.
And while this research is still far from definitive, there is evidence that at the beginning of the new moon acetylcholine (associated with heightened attention) is predominant, nearer to the full moon a uptake in serotonin occurs (the feel good chemical that gets boosted by anti depressants) and as the moon wanes our dopamine (responsible for reward driven learning) increases. Finally in the last moon phase we are dominated by norepinephrine (an arousal chemical that regulates the flight or fight response, anxiety and other instinctual behaviors).
So is it so far-fetched to consider that guided by the moon phases, the yogi’s various rituals, sadhanas, and proscriptions, might have indeed intensified states of consciousness or even altered their biology?
I’ve given only a few of the examples of research which supports ancient contentions that living in sync with daily, monthly and hourly cycles benefits us physically, emotionally and mentally. And this is important, as Rushkoff points out, because most of us live, work and sleep in artificial environments oblivious to the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution that have cued “everything from our thyroids to our spleens to store, cleanse and metabolize at appropriate intervals.”And as chronobiologists have found, this is directly linked to epidemic problems as sleep disorders, depression, dementia , diabetes, and obesity – to name but a few.
As a yoga teacher and practitioner this concerns me because most of us also practice yoga this way. We perform the same routines and sequence of postures day in and day out – paying little attention to the effects on our physiology of the changing hours, days and moon phases. And to me it suggests that we’re missing out on a vital component of Hatha Yoga (the mother of modern practice), one that emphasizes the importance of “yoking” our being to solar (Ha) and lunar (tha) cycles.
So an obvious question arises, could aligning with natural cycles actually enhance the effectiveness of our yoga practice? Since mental concentration is high in the morning does it make it a good time for mediation? And because muscular strength and concentration fall in early afternoon- is it an ideal time for restorative yoga? And is late afternoon (when physical performance peaks and the risk of injury drops) the best time for a more energetic power yoga workout?
Now I want to acknowledge that it’s really not as simple as all that. The changing moon phases affect the appropriate times for differing activities each day. For example in the new moon phase, people will be most alert during the early morning hours, while in the second phase leading up to the full moon, people function best in the afternoon. Further complicating matters is the fact that everyone’s body clock isn’t the same. Chronobiological research demonstrates people operate on either of two distinctive chronotypes, morning people tend to wake up and go to sleep earlier and to be most productive early in the day. Evening people tend to wake up later, start more slowly and peak in the evening.
So I wondered, beyond someone inventing an App that meshes our chronotype with moon phases and circadian rhythms was there a simple way to put the yoga of time into practice?And this brings me back to the lovely plant embodiment exercise with which I introduced this post – because it granted me a clarifying epiphany. The answer was within the body – as always.
Utilizing the great yogic metaphor of body as tree, this meditation instructs us to “ Find a patch of sunlight. Stand tall, let your feet sink into the ground below you, and close your eyes. Reach your bare arms outward and feel the sun warm your skin…feel the lift and lilt as your leaves and stems reach for more sunlight…”
Now considering that the same cryptochromes responsible for a plant “knowing” whether it is in the light or the dark are the same group of genes that keep humans in tune with their biological clock, this meditation aptly asks: “Can you feel the energetic shift when the far-red light of the rising and setting sun cues your body in to the earth’s rotational rhythms?”
I love this because it encourages us to sink deep down into the innate wisdom of our cells. It invites us to “acquire a bodily memory of the play of light and colour as they change over the seasons”. And it suggests that by cultivating our inner plant we can reconnect with our nature as beings in time, we can begin to instinctively sense and move in harmony with the cycles of time that regulate all life on the planet.
I want to share a little background of why this warming, healing tea – in conjunction with yoga practice (and even without!) can be used to soothe even the most disgruntled tummy.
Digestive aliments are epidemic today. This is pretty bad news considering that over 80% of our immune system is housed in our gut, and that digestive health shapes every aspect of our emotional and physical well-being. But the good news is that both yoga and herbs have been shown to be effective in helping manage everything from irritable bowel syndrome to heartburn, to our ability to digest and detoxify.
In yoga, certain postures and breathing techniques work to stimulate the fiery metabolic energy of digestion (agni). By massaging, compressing and opening the abdominal area they assist the body to assimilate food while eliminating wastes and toxins (ama).
Similarly certain medicinal herbs assist in these processes. From promoting bile flow in the body, increasing fat digestion and protecting the intestinal mucosa, they cleanse and support the digestive organs. Some contain anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic and mucilaginous qualities that calm indigestion and digestive spasms, coating and soothing the digestive tract. Others can calm the nervous system which aids in easing tummies afflicted by anxiety and stress.
Many of these herbs are easily accessible, in fact many probably are growing in your backyard. Consuming herbs like Dandelion, Wild Fennel, Chamomile, Lemon Balm even Wild Violets (all of which are known to support the digestive organs, aid metabolic processes and the elimination of waste products) can help to increase the thoroughness of digestion, reduce bloating, gas, and the symptoms of food allergies.
Chamomile and Lemon Balm are also known to calm the nervous system, which helps when digestion is adversely affected by stress. And used in tandem with restorative yoga and meditative practices they help reduce nervous agitation and cool-down an overactive parasympathetic nervous system.
In yoga, the digestive system is under the dominion of the third chakra, the centre of command and control. This is the home of our gut feelings, and it not only gives us the will power and strength to carry out our intentions – it helps us fully digest the physical and emotional experiences of life.
And in astrological herbalism, herbs are used in harmony with seasonal and astrological cycles. Early herbalists observed the connection between time of year, celestial cycles and cycles of plant growth. They believed that the same cycles that affect plant growth affect our bodies as well, so they correlated systems of the body with certain planets, which governed specific medicinal herbs.
This month is Virgo (August 23rd to Sept 22nd) which governs our abdomen, intestinal track and digestive organs, so using Fennel ( A Virgo ruled herb) long renowned for it’s tummy soothing abilities is one obvious choice.(For more info on Fennel click here). Using Dandelions,Plantain and Yellow Dock in salads and pestos, will further help cleanse the body and remove toxins from the internal organs.
So in tandem with the celestial and seasonal cycles of the natural world – I offer you an autumnal recipe for a digestion enhancing tea. It utilizes the plants growing around you right now under the auspices of Virgo – which of course governs the entire digestive process.
So get in touch with power of your third chakra – and the energy of the season. This month, drink this tea before a practice of digestion enhancing postures like Pawanmuktasana (knees to belly) and gentle twists (like Bharadvaja) which compress and massage the abdominal area. Belly opening postures like Bridge and Bow pose can be used to help bring blood flow to the internal organs. And if your’e looking to fire up the empowering energy of the solar chakra, try Boat or Breath of Fire.
Autumn Herbal Tea For Digestion
Note: This is a list of local herbs and wild plants that promote good digestion (besides many other good things). You may not find all of the ingredients nearby, so just use the plants from the list that are growing near you. This will help bring you into harmony with the seasonal and energetic forces of your local landscape.
Ingredients (To make a one pot or about 16 ounces of tea)
– Muddle your plants (meaning gently crush them with a mortal and pestle or the back of a wooden spoon)
– Boil water
– Remove water from heat then place your herbs in the hot water
– Let infuse for 10 -15 minutes
– Strain and drink
Note: Starting this October I’ll be offering a series of yoga classes that will utilize locally growing common plants and herbs. If you live in Victoria and are interested in participating or learning more – send me an email here.