This timeless healing science is founded on the power of nutritious food and the wisdom embodied by medicinal herbs.
Now in my fifth semester at Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula, we are in the midst of a year-long herbology course. We began with the basics of phytochemistry, and are now engaged in comparative readings of classical texts, investigating what the sages say about different herbs. Very often, Alakananda Ma exposes a mistranslation from the original Sanskrit, and we become part of the long history of human attempts to classify and categorize the natural world.
All this time in the classroom, with my nose buried in books, has by leaps and bounds increased my understanding of plant medicine. However, one is constantly confronted with the limits of one’s own knowledge.
All that I don’t know acts as protection, preserving my sense of the fragile, magical realm of plants as it exists in my imagination.
Given access to an herbal apothecary full of alphabetically-organized jars of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and powders, I can pick and choose appropriately for all manner of conditions. However, drop me deep in the woods or mountain backcountry, and I will struggle to differentiate a dandelion from a daffodil.
I am not the only student for whom this is true, and so we take walks through nature to learn more about plants and to see these herbs in their natural environment.
At Alandi, we are lucky to have Jane Bunin on our board of directors. Jane has a B.A. in Environmental Studies, a B.S. in Genetics, a Masters degree in Biochemistry, and a Ph.D. in Plant Ecology and Ecosystem Management. Currently, she teaches classes on Ecology and Environmental Science at Boulder’s own Naropa University; previously, she taught Ethno-botany at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies.
I tell you this so you get a sense of the extent to which Jane knows her stuff. Walking through the Front Range foothills with this woman is a transformative experience. The land and its flora are telling her stories, whispering whole histories with the wiggle of a stamen in the wind.
In two years I have been on three herb walks with Jane. By now I have settled into a comfortable zone of understanding, where I know just enough to pass my classes, apply the knowledge in clinic, and appreciate how much I still don’t know. All that I don’t know acts as protection, preserving my sense of the fragile, magical realm of plants as it exists in my imagination.
What I do know is that the classical texts describe the Ayurvedic qualities of thousands of herbs—some of which have been lost to time—but there are endlessly more medicinal plants out in the world right now just waiting to serve humanity.
Not every plant is found in the texts of Ayurveda, but every plant has Ayurvedic qualities. In this tradition, plants are organized according to five categories: rasa, virya, vipak, gunas, and prabhav.
Rasa refers to the taste, or essential flavor of the herb. In Ayurveda it is understood that there are six tastes—salty, sour, pungent, astringent, bitter, and sweet. Did you know that salt is considered the most heating of the tastes, even more so than pungent spices like cayenne? That’s a fact.
Virya translates to “splendor,” “vigor,” or “virility,” but in this case we’re basically asking if an herb is energetically hot or cold. This is important information for clinical applications. An herb may wield all the appropriate healing mechanisms, but if it’s usna virya (heating) and the person is already Pitta-provoked (experiencing an abundance of the fire element), then that herb is not the best choice. It is for this reason that I stopped taking Ashwagandha, for example.
The genius of plants is that their medicine comes housed in the proper context, accessible to the body and often addressing multiple related conditions all at once. Such elegance is not easily replicated in a lab.
Vipak refers to the post-digestive effect, which is a foreign concept to most Westerners. For vipak, we use three of the six rasas—sweet, sour, and pungent —only we are considering how the herb interacts in the body upon digestion. Dry ginger, for example, is pungent upon consumption but has a sweet vipak. Did you know: The function of the appendix is to generate vipak? And you thought the appendix was an evolutionary relic…
The gunas are the qualities of nature. If you’ve studied yoga philosophy at all, you are likely to have encountered the three gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas), but here we’re dealing with gurvadi guna, the 20 qualities, or 10 pairs of opposites. This list includes adjectives like light or heavy, slimy or dry, stable or mobile, subtle or gross. Certain herbs demonstrate such qualities more obviously than others. To accurately determine the gunas of an herb requires deep attunement to its true nature. The sages of ancient India have done a lot of this work for us, but like I said, there are so many more herbs awaiting such divine analysis!
Finally there is prabhav, the special qualities of an herb that cannot be explained by rasa, virya, vipak, or gunas. Prabhav points to the seemingly magical actions of an herb. The concept of prabhav was necessary in a time before microscopes, before the intricacies of phytochemistry were known.
These days we can reduce a plant to its constituent parts and observe exactly which chemical interactions are creating which results. This is the foundation upon which the pharmaceutical industry is built. However, this industry makes it plain to see how isolating a single compound and building a pill around it can have disastrous results; the genius of plants is that their medicine comes housed in the proper context, accessible to the body and often addressing multiple related conditions all at once. Such elegance is not easily replicated in a lab.
I will leave you with this reminder that essentially all medicine is basically plant-based. Whether it’s food or pharmaceuticals, it often can all be traced back to a plant somewhere.
There is a famous story of an ancient physician and his apprentice. The apprentice had completed his studies and was ready to go into the world, but first he wanted to offer his teacher an appropriate guru dakshina. The apprentice says, “Oh master, you’ve taught me everything. How can I possibly repay you?” So the master thinks for a moment, then instructs the apprentice to, “Go out into the world and bring me back one item, anything at all, that cannot be used as medicine.”
So the apprentice strikes out, traveling the whole world around, seeking such a substance. He touches rusted metal, finds men drinking mercury and swallowing precious stones. He encounters animal carcasses and poisonous snakes and all sorts of horrendous seeming insects, and yet he eventually returns to his master empty-handed.
“Master,” he says, “depending on how and when it is prepared, and for whom, there is nothing in all creation that cannot serve as medicine.”
Now, before you go running out into the nearest forest to start eating random herbs, please remember that the story remains true if you replace the word “medicine” with “poison.” These two are often opposite sides of the same coin, and it all depends on when, how, and for whom. This is the ultimate Vedic response—when asked if something is good or bad, medicine or poison, a wise person will respond, “It depends!”
David Telfer McConaghay is a student and teacher based in Boulder, Colorado. More of his work and play is on display at SatsangEtc.com.
Photos courtesy of David McConaghay