How to use Herbs and Formulae
“You herbs born at the birth of time
More ancient than the gods themselves.
O plants with this hymn I sing to you
Our mothers and our gods”
– The Rig Veda
The Herbal Tradition of Ayurveda
According to Ayurvedic philosophy, all matter is derived from pure Consciousness. The amazing natural world gives us herbs, incredible healing plants, which are manifestations of the conscious intelligence of the universe.
Prana is the life force, the dynamic manifestation of Consciousness, and each herb has its own subtle intelligence or unique wisdom and pranic energy, which give it “energetic” effects, as well as pharmacological constituents, and its potential ability to heal.
Herbs from all over the globe can impart their wisdom or intelligence to us, and help balance pranic disturbances that create imbalances and health problems in mind and body; in this way they reconnect or align us with Consciousness, and this is the ultimate aim of Ayurveda.
Herbs and spices have long played a central role in Ayurvedic medicine and nutrition. Through the power of observing life and other creatures, and then organising those findings, a great storehouse of plant knowledge has been passed down orally though families and healers. This ancient folk medicine was recorded in the most important and earliest written treasury of wisdom, the Vedas. The Atharva Veda is said to be the origin of written knowledge of Ayurvedic herbal medicine. In this classic text of India, plants are listed for their therapeutic properties and held in great reverence for their healing powers. There are many verses that are prayers to the plants themselves, invoking their assistance and protection. Medicinal plants are also prescribed and worn as amulets for protection and support.
The Charaka Samhita, the first authoritative text on Ayurveda, refers to the herbal tradition of the ancient forest dwellers and shepherds, who observed the plants that sick birds and animals used and applied those same plant remedies to themselves.
“I call upon the healing herbs of the angirasas (ancestor rishis), known by kites (birds), the divine herbs known by raghats (probably bees) and the plants known by swans to protect us”
– Atharva Veda, from a curative hymn (Charaka xviii)
Charaka mentions around 1990 plant names, some of which are different names for the same plant, (it is not uncommon that an important plant will have a few names, extolling its different virtues). Charaka contains a wealth of valuable information which is still used today; it includes detailed classifications of plants and processes for enhancing their therapeutic powers, and discusses the influence of place, season, and time of day on their actions.
As current scientific studies are being published on the therapeutic properties of traditional Ayurvedic herbs such as turmeric and tulsi, it is wonderful to see that modern science is catching up with the ancient science of Ayurveda! How amazing, too, that without the benefit of any modern scientific equipment, or the cutting edge findings of mind/body medicine, Ayurveda encompasses a sophisticated view of the practical science of medicinal herbs, and a deep and holistic understanding of the consciousness of plants and their role in healing and spiritual evolution.
There is a vast pharmacopoeia of Ayurvedic herbs that have been used as medicines for centuries, and skilled Ayurvedic practitioners will draw on this wealth of information in precise ways when using herbs to treat their patients.
We can also integrate herbs into our daily lives in a more general way; we can, for example, use familiar culinary herbs and spices such as ginger, black pepper, thyme and fennel, to balance agni, the digestive fire. This not only improves digestion, but also clears toxins from the gut, enhances assimilation and brings spark and vitality to the mind and senses.
Herbs can also help clear the detoxifying channels (srotas), which in turn enhances assimilation and optimal function of the tissues. To illustrate, the classic three fruit formula, triphala, gently cleanses the digestive tract and the liver, and also has a rejuvenating effect on body and mind.
Rejuvenative herbs are called rasayanas, and these nourish and strengthen the body’s tissues and help build vitality and resilience to stress. Ashwagandha, shatavari and gotu kola are examples of important rasayanas that are wonderfully nourishing and stabilising for the nervous system and entire body. With their incredible array of nutrients and therapeutic constituents, herbs can support and strengthen mind and body in many ways simultaneously.