As both a yoga teacher and an herbalist, I try to find ways to incorporate my disciplines within each other. I tend to find that the more I venture into the (equally large and small) world of natural health, I find connections everywhere. So, if we think about yoga and its aims, we probably immediately think of strength, flexibility, and stress reduction.
Okay. Awesome. So, we’re bringing in this very organic form of natural healing, one that chiefly effects our external body and spirit mind. Now, what if we could incorporate a sort of internal yoga, an organic form of healing that worked with yoga to forward our mind, body, and environmental goals? This is exactly what herbal medicine is, and these are the herbs (in no particular order) that every yogi should have in her all-natural arsenal.
1. Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis): There are herbs which help with adapting the mind and body to a new environment, experience or discipline called (rather creatively) adaptogens. Adaptogens are herbs which help the body deal with stress, essentially, by toning and strengthening the endocrine system. What does this mean? Well, in a nutshell, they are soothing to the adrenal glands, the part of the body that handles stress. The adrenal system becomes trigger-happy when we experience a lot of stress (even if we only perceive a lot of stress) and adaptogens work to repair this system, allowing us to feel calmer, but also to remain healthier. When the body isn’t constantly fighting off attacks of stress, it can work to repair other essential processes like the immune system. Schisandra is your go-to herb for all this touchy-feely goodness. On top of it all, schisandra also boosts energy and strengthens bodily tissue, improves sleep, maintains blood sugar levels, helps the liver to detoxify and aids memory.
2. Astragalus (Astragalum membranaceus): Astragalus is another good adaptogen. This herb is an energy tonic, good for the immune, digestive, and respiratory systems and fights chronic fatigue brought on by stress—whether you over-worked yourself on or off the mat.
3. Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis): So, let’s say you’ve taken up yoga because you have chronic joint inflammation or arthritis. Yoga is a wonderful tonic for these conditions; it pumps blood and synovial fluid into the joints, lubricating them and helping to break down calcified deposits that cause inflammation and pain. But what if you’ve overdone it a bit in class? Try evening primrose for muscle and joint discomfort. Containing GLA (the essential fatty acid, gamma-linolenic acid), it soothes inflammation.
4. Cayenne (Capsicum annuum): Cayenne is a strong pain-killer, anti-inflammatory and pain receptor-blocker. This herb is usually applied externally as a cream, but can be taken internally as well. Start slowly–this herb can cause burning of the skin in some cases. Try it after an especially hard workout.
5. Ginger (Zingiber officinale): For muscle fatigue and soreness, ginger is definitely worth a try. This herb can help keep inflammation at bay, effectively treating pain and increasing flexibility (note: avoid large doses of ginger if you are diabetic, have heart problems, or bleeding problems; keep your dose to eight 500mg capsules or fewer. or 1/2-1 tsp of fresh ground herb per day).
6. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): So what about detox? Yoga is an incredible tool for detoxing the entire body. You might notice that, after an intense yoga session, you experience something called a healing crisis. This is when you feel tired, grumpy, nauseous and downright crappy. You may crave salt or sugar, fatty foods or carbohydrates. This is completely normal. What this means is that the liver is dumping waste into the blood, and while you’re waiting for the lymph system to do its thing by ridding you of toxins, you’re going to feel pretty low. The only thing to do is to wait it out. Well, wait it out, do more yoga (which helps pump lymph, speeding recovery) and add a few herbs into the mix.
Dandelion is awesome when you’re feeling crappy because it helps detox the liver. The healthier your liver, the more fantastic and fabulous you feel. The liver assists in metabolizing waste, fats, alcohol, and drugs.
7. Tumeric (Curcuma longa): Tumeric is another wonderful liver aid. This is the herb that gives Indian curries their flavor and yellow color. Not only does tumeric protect the liver from toxic chemicals and helps treat/prevent gallstones, it’s even been shown to reduce cancer-causing agents in the body. My suggestion is just to eat more of it, but you can take capsules or a tincture as well (note: some people experience digestive irritation with this herb and it may increase hot flashes in menopause).
Of course, eating good, clean, organic food also helps with adapting the body and mind to a yogic lifestyle. However, no matter how clean and how organic our food is, most bodies need assistance after a lifetime of, well, less-than-stellar choices. We all have times when we need a break from our quest for health and wellness, and a little vacation never hurt anyone. But just as it’s always a bummer to get home and unpack that suitcase filled with dirty and wrinkled clothing, it’s just as hard to jump back into holistic wellness after a night (or lifetime) on the town. Let herbs be the tool to help bridge your natural lifestyle from on to off the mat.
herbs photo via Radar