Plants are potent healing allies. When you first encounter a mind-boggling list of herbs in an Ayurveda formulation, do you feel excitement, interest, intrigue, or overwhelm? All of the above? Wading into herbal medicine from the shallows to the deeps, it can be wise to get to know a single herb or plant first. It’s like meeting someone one on one, rather than in an expanded group situation. You can more easily get a sense of their qualities and strengths. You may be less distracted, with fewer attributes and nuances with which to deal.
The popular Western herb Echinacea occurs to me as one example of a plant to meet alone. A strong immune support when infection threatens, it is often used on its own. Its bitter, cooling, antibiotic attributes effectively meet a variety of early onset infectious conditions (Frawley). Yet its virtues can extend beyond first-stage immune defense. It can speed tissue repair after an infection or injury, by protecting the integrity of the jello-like hydrogel that surrounds living tissues. It relieves localized congestion, edema, lymph blockage, and accumulated ama, making it useful for Kapha as well as Pitta. In this regard, its unexpected action (or prabhau) is the relief of connective tissue swelling after injury. The archetypical maverick Western herbalist Michael Moore, recommended echinacea not only for immune support and tissue repair, yet also to speed resolution of inflammation and swelling in “tennis elbow, skier’s knee, and jogger’s ankle” (Moore). He would use as much as 30 drops of tincture five times per day in these and other cases; fyi, he considered this a small amount. Because echinacea stimulates the immune system, it is not recommended for use by people with lupus and some other auto immune conditions.
I may be channeling the ghost of herbalist Michael Moore in this moment (Michael Moore the film maker is alive and kicking)! Moore the herbalist and composer, a respected teacher and an old friend of mine for many years, was notorious for his wide circumambulations of a topic before settling into the main course. Forgive me! My real mission today is to look at how Ayurveda herbal formulations can be put together to create healing dynamics. And yes, it is wise to give yourself as many chances as you can to meet single herbs alone.
You will find simple and complex combinations of Ayurvedic herbs in foods, teas, and medicinal preparations. This particular blog focuses on using herbs with foods. When I first began making Ayurvedic meals thirty plus years ago, I had some terrible flops. I didn’t understand the dance of tastes or the dynamics of what made an effective easily digested combo. Some of my early culinary adventures were incredibly bland – or – down right inedible, harsh and in your face. When you put three or more herbs or spices together, their dynamics can shift. You’re meeting them as a group, not one on one. At first this can be confusing. How much of this should I use, how much of that, if I want to keep Vata calm, yet not aggravate Pitta or Kapha? People ask me this often.
It is in these moments that one quickly sees the value of culture and experience. Traditional recipes offer time-tested flavors and therapeutics. Yet you may come to a time in your life and practice when you wish to adventure further. Or the clients and families with whom you work have needs that are outside the box. Or you want to adapt favorite recipes to suit a particular balance of the doshas. Understanding Ayurveda formulation can serve you in all of these cases.
In a second wide patrol of the topic, in Ayurveda, a dish must be well-digested and assimilated to be healing. Our digestive tract is the gateway to this healing. We use herbs before and/or after meals in Ayurveda for different purposes. Given before meals, the intent is to enkindle digestive fire (dipana). Taken after meals, herbs burn toxins, destroy ama (pachana). Sometimes the same herbs can be used for both purposes, yet to do this, they are used in different amounts or in different ways. Take trikatu, the well known Ayurvedic mix of dried ginger powder, black pepper, and pippali. “…a small dose of something like trikatu (such as a pinch) given before food does dipana, whereas a larger dose (around ¼ teaspoon) given after food does pachana and improves digestion and absorption.” (Lad). A teaspoon or more of organic aloe vera juice prior to a meal may soothe a hot ulcer. Two tablespoons after a meal with a therapeutic Ayurveda herbal formula will carry the medicine deeper into all the tissues. Same plant, two very different uses.
This is good to know, if you are interested in working in this way. Yet what if you – or your clients – do not want to take herbs before or after meals? It’s the reason we offer tasty well-spiced dishes in Ayurveda. The herbs are helping you digest as you chew.
Seasonal Spice Mixes
Maya Tiwari pioneered the use of delicious seasonal spice mixes in her Path of Practice book http://wiseearth.com/publications/the-path-of-practice/. An herbal formulation is made up in quantity for each season, to last a few weeks or a month or more. We’ll be looking more at her Early Autumn Masala in a bit. Kate O’Donnell in her new and beautiful book, The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook picks up on this same practice with her Fall Spice Mix and inspired Fall Salts. Each can be incorporated easily to make flavorful simple dishes. http://www.shambhala.com/the-everyday-ayurveda-cookbook.html
One Way to Approach Ayurvedic Herbal Formulation
Sometimes information, or re-information, hits me at just the right moment and way to be able to assimilate it. When Dr. Vivek Shanbhag made a dynamic presentation about Ayurvedic Herbal Formulation at the National Ayurvedic Medical Association in the US in October nine years ago, I really heard it. Dr. Shanbhag is an internationally respected Ayurvedic physician from Goa currently practicing in San Jose, CA. http://yogaayurveda.org/ He directed Bastyr’s Ayurvedic training program for years; he has a great talent for teaching Ayurveda to Westerners in ways we can mentally digest with ease.
His presentation that day at NAMA included the key roles or actions of each herb in an herbal formulation with specific practical examples. It was one clear way out of many to traditionally approach formulation. It looked something like this:
Each formula includes:
Leader or primary action (herb)
Assistant or complementary
Digestive or assimilative
Cleansing or detoxifying
Rejuvenative or tonic
Each formula includes:
Cayenne or ginger
Coriander, cumin, fennel
Fennel, black pepper or pippali, turmeric
Cardamom, coriander or tulsi
With appreciation to Dr. Vivek Shanbhag & his presentation at NAMA, Oct. 2007; a few examples added by Morningstar
The spices in any Ayurveda herbal formulation work together as a team for a common purpose. The specific herbs can change their roles, depending on the formula, like actors in a theater company performing different plays. In the curry example given above, turmeric leads to support the assimilation of the whole dish. Cayenne or ginger assist this warming process. Cumin, coriander and fennel act as digestives; fennel and turmeric also have cleansing actions. Coriander is a surprising and mild rejuvenative.
Let’s return to the autumn spice mixes mentioned earlier. Maya Tiwari, (Swamiji)’s unusual Early Fall Masala includes ajwain, brown or black mustard seeds, white peppercorns, ginger and nutmeg. While Swamiji as a creative cook would have her own unique interpretation of its dynamics, here is my sense of this formulation. To ease the digestive system from summer into fall, ajwain is the leader. It stimulates sluggish agni, while opening up the mind and sinuses, and effectively relieves tension in the nervous system (Pole). It is an ideal support for Vata dosha as it increases in fall. It improves direct assimilation of nutrients into the plasma. To complement this warming formula, ginger can act as the assistant, and mustard seeds as the digestive. White peppercorns are detoxifying, burning up ama, yet with a little more coolness and smoothness than black pepper would have. Both nutmeg and ginger can act as rasayanas, rejuvenatives. This mix would be excellent for Vata and Kapha, and would need to be used in much smaller amounts for Pitta.
Kate O’Donnell’s Fall Spice Mix includes cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric and ginger. Its purpose is to create a strong digestive fire going into fall, and to stimulate and soothe the digestive organs. I’d interpret the herbal roles a little differently here. I would give the lead role to three herbs working together, the combination of cumin, coriander and fennel used to make the Ayurvedic staple, CCF tea. The assistant as well as detoxifier would be turmeric, as it enkindles digestive fire and cleanses the blood. Ginger acts both as a digestive and rejuvenator. This particular blend, while gently warming, would be more tridoshic in effect. Again, it would be nice to hear from Kate directly what her intention on the dynamics was.
When looking at a recipe or medicinal formulation, you can ask yourself, what herb is the leader here? What is the primary purpose of this formula? From there, you can begin to see what roles the other herbs play. This next recipe is one I came up with for autumn. I have a favorite carrot juice mint or cilantro shake I’ve used this past spring and summer. Yet with the weather getting colder, the large amount of light, cooling cilantro or mint leaves isn’t going to be helpful for Vata in many of us. They had been acting as the lead in the recipe, cooling the carrots and over all metabolism. My question for myself was, how could I still keep getting the beta carotene rich infusions my immune system appreciates, in a different season? Here’s one answer.
HOT CARROT SMOOTHIE
Time: 15 minutes
Makes 3 (1 cup) servings
Bring to a simmer in a medium stainless pot:
1 cup or more water, enough to cover the carrots
Wash well, and break in half into the pot:
3 – 4 medium carrots
Add: 1 drop lemongrass essential oil, food grade (I used Do Terra)
1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon each ground cumin and ground cardamom
Pinch of salt
Cover and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes
Blend until smooth in a blender, serve hot in a mug.
Note: a good fall drink, or any time you want to ground and direct downward Vata energy.
Options: you can add almond milk at the end of the simmer for extra protein and body. You can put in ½ avocado for extra calories and creamy texture. You can add soaked flax or chia seeds for a thicker drink and laxative action.
Effects: strongly calms Vata and Kapha, neutral for Pitta unless taken in excess. What does this mean? The smoothie’s gently warming action might aggravate Pitta if taken many times over many days. The chances are a lot less in cold weather.
Supports: plasma, skin, lungs, reproductive tissue, immune system
In this hot smoothie, lemongrass takes the lead. It’s here as a Vatanulomana, to direct the flow of Vata downward. Lemongrass’s Sanskrit name is bhu-trna, earth grass. This sweet smelling yet actually pungent, bitter, and sour tasting herb is here to help us touch the earth again, after a busy summer. It’s anti-viral, a great circulatory support, and can ease pain in joints (Pole, Miller & Miller). I used ginger as the assistant to bring additional warmth and grounding to the formulation. There ‘s no shortage of digestive actors in this dish: cumin and coriander serve well, yet ginger, lemongrass, and cardamom also offer digestive support. The coriander is here also to cleanse. Ginger and cardamom both provide rejuvenative action.
What if you have a client that doesn’t want to deal with so many spices? I’d cut it to the lemongrass, ginger, and cardamom. This hot drink, like the Echinacea we started with, is a great way to strengthen immune response in the times of stress.
Even when an Ayurveda herbal formula is not being used in a food recipe or specifically for digestive support, it will generally have one or more digestive herbs. This is important to recognize. To be most effective, the formula has to be well digested before it can act on all of the tissues that need its help. Without digestive herbs in a formula, its impact on the body as a whole is likely to be more limited. This is true for a wide range of traditional medicinal formulations, such as rejuvenative formulas for post partum women, cleansing formulas for acute prostatitis, or transitional formulas for women in menopause. These formulas would most often be taken after meals.
As I create formulas to meet specific therapeutic purposes each day in my Ayurveda practice here in the Southwest, I look at these formulation principles and the balance of the attributes to meet my clients where they are. I welcome your questions and observations; I’d like to explore this topic more in future blogs.
Specific medicinal formulations related to professional support in menopause will be discussed by me in more depth this December 2 – 3 as my colleague Deva Khalsa and I teach Learn How to Work with Menopause Skillfully, a NAMA-certified continuing education course. http://www.ayurvedapolarityyoga.com/schedule/53-december-2016/103-april-22-23-2016-approaching-menopause-with-ayurveda.html
Frawley, Dr. David, Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide
Lad, Dr. Vasant, Textbook of Ayurveda, volume 3
Miller & Miller, Drs. Light & Bryan, Ayurveda & Aromatherapy
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West
Morningstar and Desai, The Ayurvedic Cookbook
O’Donnell, Kate, The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook
Pole, Sebastian, Ayurvedic Medicine
Tiwari, Bri Maya, Path of Practice
SWAMIJI’S EARLY FALL MASALA
Gina Sager, the same kind friend featured in the next masala recipe alerted me to Bri Maya Tiwari’s wise approach of using one basic masala mix for each season in her Path of Practice. It’s completely brilliant! Instead of a bunch of individually measured spices each time you make a dish, you can prepare one masala for the season. Delicious and practical. Bri Maya has since become a swami, and this is her recipe. I have substituted pippali substituted for white peppercorns. Try it and see how you like it.
Prep time: under ½ hour
– Vata, + Pitta, – Kapha
For ¼ cup of masala:
2 Tbsps. ajwain
1 Tbsp. brown or black mustard seeds
1 Tbsp. pippali
1 tsp. freshly ground ginger
½ – ¾ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Dry roast the ajwain and mustard seeds in a hot skillet until they are aromatic; grind. Then add the ginger and nutmeg.
An excellent strategy for warding off early fall’s incipient colds, sinus congestion and the like. The ajwain is great for this, and the nutmeg calms frayed Vata autumnal nerves.