Archive for the ‘Herbs’ Category

It’s that time of year. Cold and flu season has hit with a vengeance. My sister-in-law recently came down with strep throat – again. Many of my yoga students have missed class in the last few weeks with a bad case of something. It’s shaping up to be one of the worst flu seasons in recent history.

I’m a strong believer that the best way to treat a cold or the flu is to prevent it. In honor of the Super Bowl this weekend, we could say the best offense is a good defense.

Trying to get over the flu is FAR more uncomfortable than taking a few extra steps to stay healthy. We have so much power to strengthen our ability to fend off the predictable onslaught of winter bugs. Even those of us who haven’t come down with any symptoms are likely expending energy fighting off the variety of microorganisms currently in circulation, so taking some extra immune-boosting precautions can help all of us tremendously.

I hope my top “stay healthy” tips below will inspire you. (For additional inspiration, check out Dr. Aviva Romm’s great blog post on how her physician and herbalist colleagues treat the flu.)

1) Sleep. MORE. Make sure you are regularly getting 7-8 hours each night. This is critical right now. Sleep is your access point to your immune reserves. At the very first inkling that something is off, put down whatever you’re doing and go to bed, and sleep as much as your body will let you. Do it again the next night.

2) Neti Pot. Every night, cleanse your sinuses using a neti pot with a saline rinse to remove any airborne germs, pollutants, and allergens that you may have breathed in that day that are just waiting for a weak moment to pounce. It is recommended to use warm distilled or purified water and 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt (non-iodized). It is important to get the right amount of salt so that it doesn’t sting the nasal passages.

3) Nasya oil. In the morning, protect your nasal passages with a medicated nasya oil (my favorite “Super Nasya” is formulated by my teacher Dr. Vasant Lad and is available at Ayurveda.com/shop). Lay down with your head tipped back and drop 2-3 drops in each nostril and sniff. The medicated oil, infused with eucalyptus and other anti-bacterial herbs, lubricates the sensitive mucus membranes of the sinuses, improving their defensive filtering power.

4) Herbal support. If you interact with lots of people, or have children bringing home their classroom’s collection of microorganisms, consider taking an immune-boosting herbal formula for a short time. It is always best to consult your health care provider before taking an herbal supplement, especially if you are taking any prescription medications, since there may be unanticipated interactions. My favorite Ayurvedic immune herb is Kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata), which is the primary ingredient in Banyan Botanicals’ Immune Support Formula. Under its latin name, it’s turning up in many mainstream immune formulas – ask at your health food store or botanical medicine source. Elderberry syrup and yarrow tea are additional immune boosters.

5) Hot ginger tea. Keep your digestion moving by drinking copious amounts of warm ginger tea throughout the day, which kindles digestive agni and keeps you hydrated, two important factors in maintaining your body’s natural ability to fight off interlopers like bacteria and viruses.

6) Avoid cold and heavy foods. These are the foods that produce Ama (the sludgy side-effect of poor digestion that clogs up our immune response). Heavy kapha-genic foods that are taxing for the body to digest divert our healing energy in order to process them – foods like cheese, iced drinks, cold milk, yogurt, ice cream, and anything fried. Stick with fresh organic fruits and well-cooked vegetables, your favorite sick-day soup, or Ayurveda’s traditional easy-to-digest kitchari. This time of year, I’m eating kitchari a couple times a week!

7) Keep your head warm. Wear a hat, even if you’re only going out for a short time, or even if you’re tempted by the thought that “it’s not THAT cold.”  Kapha tends to gather in the head, and we don’t want to give it any invitation to accumulate there. Keep a scarf by the door and wear it over your throat and ears every time you go out.

(*Bonus Tip) Probiotics. If you have recently taken a course of antibiotics, be sure to stock back up on healthy intestinal flora by taking a high quality, multi-strain probiotic supplement.

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Well, it’s hot here in Texas. There’s no doubt about that. The people in both places are truly welcoming and friendly. And cows are important (in rather different ways, admittedly…).

This spring, I immersed myself in the study of the local Texas medicinal herbs. While my training in Ayurveda gave me a beautifully comprehensive system to understand the effects of herbs based on their inherent qualities and influence on the doshas, I had not applied this system of energetics to western herbs before. It definitely works.

In India, my teachers emphasized the importance of befriending our local herbs back home. They taught that there is an affinity between two organisms who live in the same community, suggesting that an herb will have a greater effect on the people who live near its home than another herb shipped from around the globe – to say nothing of the impact that the shipping process itself has on our planet.

Alma de Mujer Lodge

I have been studying at the Wildflower Herb School here in Austin. Our program began with a Native American ceremony honoring the earth through the four cardinal directions and their associated elements: water, air, fire and earth. There is an obvious parallel between this local indigenous cosmology and that of Ayurveda, which is also built upon an element theory and grounded in the cardinal directions. It felt serendipitous to find myself in a western herbalism school with such a holistic, earth-centered focus, fitting so well with Ayurveda’s perspective.

Making Medicine

It is also a school with powerful female energy – our primary teacher is a woman, Nicole Telkes, and our classes have been held at a retreat center called Alma de Mujer (Soul of the Woman). Our opening ritual was led by a woman who is a member of the Indigenous Women’s Network, which owns the land. Mother Nature herself is a presence here.

In our first herb walk with Nicole, we crossed the open meadow stopping every few feet to kneel down and inspect another herb with medicinal uses right at our feet. I felt awed again at the power and gifts of our earth. It seemed every “weed” we passed had generous medicinal properties.

Eclipta alba, “Bhringaraj”

And then Nicole stopped and turned to me. “Do you know what this is?” she gestured to a small nondescript plant happily sprouting up among some grasses. “It’s Eclipta alba – Bhringaraj.” Right here in the wilderness of Central Texas, a standard of Ayurveda’s pharmacopeia is equally at home.

As our national health care crisis continues to deepen, I believe more and more people will be drawn to the accessible, effective, and inexpensive realm of herbal medicine and preventive care. Built as it is upon universal truths, adaptable to different cultures and locations, Ayurveda’s healing vision is already right here. quite at home in the heart of Texas.

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In my May Full Moon Newsletter, which came out last week, I mentioned that May Day conjures up images of maypoles and children frolicking among sweet new spring flowers.

Well, not a week later, I came upon the following scene at the American Botanical Council’s annual Herb Day.


I snapped this shot after the interweaving dance had progressed quite far, and the adults were having to bend down to weave under each other’s ribbons. Even clad in modern clothes, the image of this intergenerational group carrying out this ritual struck a timeless chord in me. I loved watching the two circles of people moving in opposite directions, passing each other over and over again, creating such a physical symbol of community connectedness. A mother carried her infant child, a couple of toddlers spun around the pole, one modest 13-year-old carefully tread her path, plus a few grandparents laughingly wove their way.

Meanwhile, in the background the good folks of the American Botanical Council (ABC) were selling small starts of local herbs for people to take home and plant. We were surrounded by their prolific and lovely teaching herb garden. I was fascinated to discover earlier this year that this national group is based right here in Austin. An independent nonprofit research and education organization dedicated to providing accurate and reliable information about medicinal plants, they produce a wonderful quarterly peer-reviewed perodical called HerbalGram with educational articles on herbs, including many Ayurvedic ones. ABC was a perfect setting to celebrate May and the gifts of the garden.

At the end of the maypole dance, what I had not anticipated was the final result – a beautiful basket-weave of ribbons covering the entire pole, a perfect testament to the beauty of our intricately overlapping lives.

I hope your spring is full of dancing and unexpected beauty!


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Tomorrow is New Year’s Day, and I plan to Retreat.

I come from a long line of Retreaters, so a few excellent strategies were passed down in my genes. I’ve picked up a few more along the way. I tend to Retreat on a regular basis, whenever I have a sense that my life is running away without me or I need to re-charge my batteries.

To me, Retreating is about creating the right environment for deep nurturance, reflection, and vision. It is a liminal space set apart from the daily-ness of life in which to step back and get a different perspective on life. It’s not a coincidence that the word “Retreat” is used – it usually involves stepping BACK from something, from the “to do” list, from your family members, from your usual routine.

I find it particularly useful to Retreat at times of transition: a birthday, the dawn of the school year, after completing a big work project  – or indeed, at the New Year. It doesn’t have to be on New Year’s Day, it can be just as fulfilling two days later, or the following weekend, or whenever you may have time. It doesn’t require a great deal of time either, but it does take some– and the more time you can wrangle, the juicier.

If you would like to join me tomorrow or in the days ahead, here are some jumping off points:

1) Decide on your chunk of time and set it aside – an hour, the afternoon, a whole weekend, even thirty minutes can do in a pinch. The key is that you set it ASIDE and get support from any necessary folks in the vicinity so you don’t get interrupted. “No interruptions” is absolutely vital. Turn off the cell phone.

2) Prepare your Retreat nest. Decide on your location and clear the clutter – you don’t have to clean out the closet, but do remove the piles on the surface. An empty and peaceful visual field invites in clarity and new thoughts.

3) Gather your Retreat equipment. Here are my requirements:

  • A canvas of some kind – a journal, a sketchbook, collage materials, something to capture thoughts and allow creative musings to flow. Find some colored pencils, finger paints, a favorite pen.
  • Soothing sustenance – warm chai, rich hot chocolate, herbal tea… or my choice for tomorrow: tulsi tea, a remarkable tonic herb known to support the body during cold and flu season (Organic India makes a fabulous selection often found at grocery stores or natural markets).
  • A cocoon – a cuddly blanket, warm slippers, the perfect sunny spot by the window (our dog always knows the best spots in the house).
  • A piece of nature – either to walk in, or in colder climes at least a vista to gaze at. Nature is the best source of restoration, a powerful reminder of our natural rhythms and the most efficient, effective guide to find balance if it’s been misplaced.

These are my bare minimum needs to Retreat, but feel free to add your own. I prefer silence for contemplation but maybe you need some music. Get creative in building your walls to hold the distractions out and the sweet stuff in.

4) Decide what to do. For me, the three critical components of Retreating are nurturance, reflection, and vision. The most compelling ideas for creating those components will come from within you. What seems absolutely nourishing and indulgent, but also special, a step away from “normal” life? What do you want to focus on? Is there something specific you are aiming for? Here’s my plan for tomorrow:

– Review the past year. How have I changed? What can I celebrate from this past year? What did I learn? What am I giving up going forward?

– Choose a one-word theme for the coming year. I’ve always loved the soul-searching and optimistic sense of frontier I find in developing New Year’s resolutions (although my resolutions have changed form over the years). Early on, I tended to fall into the trap of listing ways to “improve” myself, missing the truth that we are always exactly where we are supposed to be in our evolution. This year, I’ve decided to focus my vision by choosing one word that calls forward my fullest self, a word rich enough to be provocative for a full year. If that sounds intriguing, here are some ideas to get you going: Serenity, Power, Integrity, Clarity, Confidence, Celebration, Depth, Truth, Non-violence, Contentment, Discipline…. My process for choosing one word will lie in writing and seeing what rises to the top. As in all travels, the journey is as important as finding the destination.

– Take a walk in nature. Let the mind wander as the feet do. Inevitably, the pace of my steps slows as my thoughts do. I am reminded that I’m home already.

The Art of Being
By Ann Coray

The fern in the rain breathes the silver message.
Stay, lie low. Play your dark reeds
and relearn the beauty of absorption.
There is nothing beyond the rotten log
covered with leaves and needles.
Forget the light emerging with its golden wick.
Raise your face to the water-laden frond.
A thousand blossoms will fall into your arms.

Happy New Year to you, my friend. May it be full of joy, love, compassion, vibrant health, unshakable trust – and whatever vision you call into being.


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Contrary to popular belief, buttermilk is NOT what you will find in the local Food Giant or Publix grocery store in the “buttermilk” carton. Oh no. It is an amazing health-promoting, smooth, tasty beverage made from fresh milk. In Sanskrit, it is called takra, and it has many healing properties. Gently sour and astringent, it increases the appetite and kindles the digestive fire without creating acid – a perfect appetizer. It is particularly beneficial for those with edema, bloating, hemorrhoids, and intestinal diseases like colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or diarrhea. It also improves painful urination and anemia. In terms of the doshas, it reduces Kapha and Vata. We have been drinking it daily here, and it just feels good going down. Making it is one of the skills I am excited to bring home with me.

If making buttermilk seems complicated at first, I encourage you roll up your sleeves and splash around a bit. My inexperience in such endeavors gave me a lack of confidence, but having seen how simple it actually is in execution, I was inspired. If I can do it, then I’m sure you can too (provided you can get to the end of step 3, which I grant may be a challenge).

Here’s a buttermilk-making primer for the adventurous:

1.      Find a cow who is giving milk. If you don’t know her, it’s probably best to leave the milking to someone who does. Otherwise she may get agitated and not give much milk, and you don’t want that.

2.      If there is no cow in your neighborhood, find some fresh raw milk. The incredible taste and health-giving properties make it worth the effort – and there may be some required, since it is illegal in the US (and many other countries) to sell unpasteurized milk. (I have a source in Austin, TX – let me know if you want me to hook you up.) Pasteurization is the process by which milk is heated to very high temperatures to remove any bacteria. Some say this destroys the naturally occurring enzymes that make milk easier to digest, and that pasteurization is the reason many apparently lactose-intolerant people have difficulty digesting milk. To obtain raw milk, you may have to visit some farmers markets or farms and ask around – you may even need to buy a “share” in a cow, so you can simply take the milk from your “own” cow without anyone selling it to you.

3.      If you can’t find raw milk, then give it a whirl with non-homogenized milk. Homogenization is another step of processing that keeps the cream from separating and rising to the top, which is what natural unprocessed milk does when left on its own. You can find non-homogenized milk in many “healthy” or high-end grocery stores these days . It is usually in a glass bottle and you can see a thick layer of cream gathered on the top. Be prepared for it cost a bit more. Unfortunately, if it’s homogenized, making buttermilk just won’t work.

4.      In the evening, take about a liter of your fresh non-homogenized milk, boil it, and let it cool. Put it in a container with a lid. Add a dollop of (organic, whole-milk, high-quality) yogurt. Cover the container, and let it sit (out of the refrigerator) overnight. (Yes, you really must keep it out of the refrigerator.)

5.      The next morning, the container of milk will be miraculously transformed to curd, no effort required. We might call this “yogurt” but do not be confused – this creamy, sour, fresh curd is a world apart from the store-bought yogurt you likely know (and may even love… but just you wait – you’ll fall in love all over again!). Set aside a dollop of curd for tonight’s repeat performance of this process. Feel free to slurp a few spoonfuls. Marvel at Nature’s creativity.

Vijaya, our buttermilk-making queen.

6.      Pour the liter of curd into a larger bowl and add about a half liter of cool water. Now churn it to get the butter to separate from the curd. Yep, churn it. You take the churn handle between your open palms and slide them back and forth, like you’re trying to warm your hands. The churn spins around, back and forth, and after about ten minutes, tiny bits of butter start to form. If you don’t have a churn handy, try something that looks similar. Get creative. A hand-beater might work….  Take care that the weather is not too hot or the butter won’t separate. Get up early to beat the heat, if need be.

7.      Now, remove the butter (can you believe it?!). Sweep your hand through the fluid, filtering out the little bits of butter and make them into a small ball. This will take some practice, so don’t get discouraged the first few times. It will all stick to your hands in an inconvenient way, and then you’ll need to rub your fingers together to get the butter to stick to itself rather than sticking to you. After you collect about a ping-pong ball sized amount, pour the fluid through a fine sieve. It will clog quickly with butter, so you will have to scrape it repeatedly with a spoon and add to your butter ball. Better to get most of it out of the fluid with your hands first. Now you have fresh lovely butter! Set it aside for something yummy, but first wash it in many changes of water to get any remaining curd off of it – otherwise it will spoil quickly. Once it’s clean, you can keep it in cool water for many days outside the refrigerator and it won’t go bad, I promise.

8.      And guess what – after removing the butter, the remaining fluid is buttermilk! Real, fresh, wholesome, health-giving buttermilk. You can drink it straight, but for a real taste treat, add some turmeric and cumin seeds, heat it up, and garnish with cilantro. If it’s a hot day, add some cilantro and fresh ginger and sip it at room temperature.

Trust me, it’s worth the effort.

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I spent last Friday night standing in Vaidyagrama’s open air kitchen looking out over the wall at the deep green banana tree tops, listening to the grazing cows mooing from inside the grove, and tending a fire stove trying to bring a vessel of Balaguduchyadi herbal decoction to a boil.

Ayurveda offers guidance in lifestyle practices, diet, herbal medicines and treatment options for a wide variety of conditions – outpatient medicine, you could say. In addition, it offers inpatient treatment for acute conditions, as well as an intensive residential detoxification and rejuvenation process called pancha karma (“five actions” in Sanskrit – although I’ve certainly seen more than five here).

You could say pancha karma is the pinnacle of ayurvedic treatment. This rejuvenation process can restore the body’s natural state of balance, which many of us haven’t experienced since we were infants. It is an amazing – and intense – series of treatments and herbal medicines taken over the course of three to six weeks depending on the condition. The patient is encouraged to remain quiet, relatively inactive, and with limited mental stimulation for the entire time, hence the residential setting – it’s just not as effective if you are going back to your usual home routine each night. It can be a very difficult endeavor mentally and physically. At the same time, some of the treatments (like shiro dhara, pouring a steady stream of oil over the forehead) have become known even in the west for their relaxing and calming qualities. For many, the time spent alone in such a simple environment is the biggest challenge.

Vaidyagrama is a pancha karma center, so in addition to learning theory about outpatient care that will be relevant to my own client-based practice when I return to the States, we have the privilege of observing and learning from an amazing group of patients as they go through pancha karma here. The most influential part of my education, I suspect, will be the last month of my time here, when I will go through pancha karma myself.

In the meantime, last week I had an outpatient consultation with Dr. Ramdas and Dr. Harikrishnan (the other senior physician here) to start me on a regimen of herbal medicines. They gave me a restorative and immune boosting prescription to strengthen my body and joints in particular and to support my immune system. The most exciting part is that I now get to make my own medicine.

The kitchen - note the square holes under the stoves where you feed the fires.

Every other day now I must go to the storeroom (or “store” as they call it), pick up my 60 gram packet of dry herbs mixed according to my prescribed formula, add 1200 ml of water, and boil until it’s reduced to one quarter of the volume, or 300 ml. Now, that word “boil” sounds simple enough in the context of our typical kitchen in the States. Here, however, the stoves are powered by fire. While they have gas camping stoves in each of the treatment rooms, the gas supply is very precious and is only used to heat up one dose of medicine, not to cook a decoction. Over a gas stove, it would take about thirty minutes. Over the fire, well, suffice it to say I’m learning!

Palani the chef, a.k.a. "Meshay Ma Ma" (Mustache Uncle)

Last Friday night was my first attempt. Let me tell you, that stove was tough to get going for this fire-building novice. Luckily, Palani, one of the chefs, was very helpful after watching my inadequate attempts. Regardless of the fact that we can’t speak a lick of each other’s languages, communication about basics is relatively easy. He stuffed the right sized palm fronds in first as kindling, lit one frond from an adjacent burner, used a bamboo tube to blow air into the fire, and once the fire was started he added cakes of “bio-fuel” (compressed organic waste bricks kind of like charcoal). After he got the fire going, I just had to maintain it. All in all, it took me about two hours, including fire building and tending time, to reduce the volume of the decoction sufficiently.

I am sure I’ll get more efficient (God willing), but for now, I am just going to assume that the investment of my own energy into my medicine will give it an additional healing effect. Despite its bitterness, it did have a certain sweetness that I am sure comes from my own sweat.

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The Grown Ups’ Table

This past weekend, I chose to stay put while my classmates returned to Isha, a temple and meditation center that we all went to last weekend. I enjoyed myself thoroughly the first time we were there, but I didn’t want to leave Vaidyagrama again, at least not for awhile. In so many ways, this place feels like home. Deeply home.

In addition to that gravitational pull, there are other reasons to stay put. We are currently surrounded by the most amazing community of teachers, practitioners and Ayurvedic luminaries who seem to have flocked to Vaidyagrama en masse to receive treatment. Two weeks ago, our very dear teacher from the Institute, Dr. Claudia Welch, arrived with her husband Jim to go through treatment for a month. She was the one who originally recommended Vaidyagrama to all of us, and by a wonderful coincidence, we have ended up here at the same time as her. It is so sweet to see her here and to catch the occasional conversation with her on the pathways. Her very presence is inspirational, and to feel her presence here makes a sweet connection between our lives at the Institute and our education here. It really is all connected anyway.

Dr. Svoboda and Dr. Welch talking with a friend visiting from Brazil after a puja in which Dr. Svoboda played a priestly role (hence the garb).

And if we needed further evidence that this place is exceptional, the renowned American Ayurvedic scholar and teacher Dr. Robert Svoboda arrived shortly after Claudia and has taken up residence here in the very same building as us. We’ve all been to his workshops and lectures and read his books (I am actually reading one right now), so when we pass him on the pathways, it’s like passing a celebrity. We try to play it cool. More than once, though, I wished I had a camera on me when I saw my shoes sitting next to his by the building entrance.

I have also met a patient, Kathleen, who works at Banyan Botanicals, the fantastic Ayurvedic herb importer/supplier based in Albuquerque that was started by graduates of the Institute there. There has been some publicity in recent years about heavy metal contamination of herbs imported from India, as well as some herbs driven close to extinction by unethical harvesting practices here, so having a safe, ethical and sustainability-oriented importer in the U.S. is a tremendous thing. Last week, I was wondering if I could find a particular herb in the States that Dr. Ramdas suggested for my sister-in-law Jeri Lynn’s morning sickness, and it was just too coincidental to be able to simply walk down the path here in Southern India and ask Kathleen if Banyan carries it. (They do). It’s like the epi-center of the Western Ayurveda scene has picked up and moved to Vaidyagrama.

Dr. Svoboda and Claudia have been close friends ever since they met here in India decades ago as two of the few white people studying Ayurveda here. We hear them periodically playing cards in his room and chanting on the roof. Dr. Svoboda recently announced his retirement from public life and gave his last Stateside lecture in Austin in December, which I attended just before leaving for India myself. His last lecture in India will be next week in Rishikesh at a conference that Punarnava Ayurveda (Vaidyagrama’s parent company) has organized. We felt even luckier, therefore, a few days ago when Claudia brought Dr. Svoboda in to our classroom/dining room after dinner to talk with us about jyotisha (vedic astrology) and Barack Obama’s chart. According to Dr. Svoboda, President Obama’s chart is remarkable in a number of ways revealing a propensity for power, good judgment and intelligence. In jyotish, there is an aspect of chart-reading that lays a person’s life against a timeline and allows rather precise prediction of events and states of mind. In July 2012, apparently President Obama will enter a period marked by self-doubt and second-guessing. However, he will come out of it quickly, and it appears that by October – just before the election – he will be in a position of power again. Here’s hoping.

After Dr. Svoboda left the room, we all looked around at each other with stars in our eyes. To have a mini lecture from one of the biggest names in Ayurvedic scholarship while kicking back after dinner…  it’s like somehow we graduated from the kids’ table at Thanksgiving and got invited to the grown-ups’ table. In more ways than one, it continues to feel like a Thanksgiving feast around here.

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