by Ashley Litecky Elenbaas, MSc., RH(AHG)
If yoga is the yoking together of mind, body, and spirit, then anything that feeds, nourishes, and revitalizes the mind, body, and spirit will be supporting our yoga. In the practice of Ayurveda, which translates as the “science of life” the incorporation of food, herbs, physical, and spiritual practices are all utilized to help a person attain a state of optimal health and overall wellness. In the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, we see the outlining of three main paths of yoga: karma, jnana, and bhakti yoga.
Working with plant medicines can help engage us with these three paths. As herbalists we are ideally working with plants through all of their stages of life, growth, and eventually their harvest. We are then taking these plants into our bodies as sacred medicines and mindfully observing their effects on our mental, physical, and emotional states.
As a long time yoga practitioner, teacher, and yoga studio owner I find these three paths of yoga can easily be practiced as an herbalist. It simply takes the adding of another layer of mindfulness and awareness to what we are doing during each moment of our herbal work.
Below are some ways that we as herbalists can see the link between our herbal work and the sacred paths of yoga.
Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action. In Karma yoga we study the three gunas; tamas, rajas, and sattva. We recognize that these gunas influence our attitudes, behaviors, and experience. Engaging in the beauty, power, and richness of the earth’s cycles connects us to each of these gunas and we see their interplay in our psyche and in our lives. One way we can connect with karma yoga is through the act of growing plant medicines, keeping a garden, blending or ritualistic preparation of personal medicines. We can see the power of rajas in the sun, the motivation needed to make a change, and the heat needed to brew a tea. We see the importance of tamas, the wetness of the soil, the succulence of leaves, the patience needed to make plant preparations, and the importance of resting and replenishing the soil. The third guna, sattva, we can easily experience in the clarity and light when we wake in the morning to tend our plants, see their beauty, and witness their life force and feel a positive clarifying shift within us when we take in their medicines. Karma yoga is the yoga of action and whenever we engage mindfully with the plant world and honor its intelligent dance of rajas (action/heat), tamas (rest/water), and sattva (clarity/essence) we also honor the dance of these qualities within ourselves.
Jnana Yoga: The Yoga of Wisdom. In Jnana yoga we study. We learn about the sacred five elements, the doshas, and the way our body systems work. We study our own body rhythms and how these are linked to our ancestral lineage and we carefully consider how the foods we eat, images we see, and the environments we live in have an effect on our wellness. In jnana yoga we meticulously differentiate the uses and effects of different plant medicines and sharpen our minds and senses. We develop our intellect through training courses and reading books, and we develop of our sense of taste and smell through active engagement with the plants themselves. Jnana yoga is the path of discrimination and as herbalists this is a skill that we develop over time through disciplined study of our craft.
Bhakti Yoga: The Yoga of Devotion. Plants could be thought of as in a continual state of bhakti. They devotedly move and open toward the sun every morning. They adapt and find ways to thrive and embrace life even under the most adverse conditions. Working with plant medicines helps us to see the pure essence of life and how simple life is to maintain. We simply need sunshine, water, good soil, and a strong sense of direction and purpose. To be an herbalist is to practice bhakti yoga. When you kneel down to behold the beauty of a violet it is easy to feel the secrets of the universe unfold before your eyes. When gathering plant medicines from the wild you have a sense of the sacred wheel of life. Having a sense of the sacredness of life herbalists know intuitively which plants to gather and which plants to leave. This practice of being in the natural world with plants connects us to the heart of bhakti or the recognition of the divine nature of all living things. Reminding ourselves of this shared essence is crucial in maintaining a connection with the magic of herbalism while we are indoors mixing, seeing clients, blending, or preparing medicines.
There are probably a thousand more ways we could link the practice of yoga with the work of the herbalist. I see both as sacred and scientific arts that serve to connect one more deeply with their true essence and at the same time keep us grounded and aware of the world around us. To be a yogi is to be on a path of mindfulness. To be an herbalist is to be on a path of sustaining a connection to the natural world and working with people to preserve and maintain life.
These are not exclusive paths and to weave them together is like reuniting long lost friends. Herbs and yoga belong together. The yogi should leave their mat to walk barefoot on the earth and behold the dandelion just as the herbalist should roll around in the grass, take a deep breath, and stretch their animal bodies.
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I am going out for a walk, stretch, and a little romp with the plants. :)
All photos by Ashley Liteckey Elenbaas