Ayurveda, Yoga and Hormones

Understanding the Endocrine System

Together, the endocrine and the nervous systems regulate bodily activities. Endocrine glands produce and secrete 30 hormones into the blood stream. Each hormone has a specific affect upon the body, including the functions of other glands. The immune system also plays an integral role in maintaining emotional and hormonal balance. When our hormones are balanced and our immune system is strong, we have tapped into the fountain of life (ojas) and feel vital, calm and focused.

There are seven major endocrine glands with specific functions:

  • Pituitary – in the center of the skull. The hypothalamus in the forebrain coordinates the autonomic nervous system and the pituitary gland. This portion of the brain helps the body maintain a stable and constant internal environment. The nervous system secretes neurohormones governing the secretion of pituitary hormones. In turn, the pituitary regulates the other glands as well as women’s reproductive cycles.  
  • Pineal – deep within the brain; controls sleep cycles and produces melatonin; still a bit mysterious and not fully understood.
  • Thyroid – in the throat; controls cell growth and development; maintains basal metabolic rate. The thyroid helps regulate appetite, muscle function, heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Parathyroid – also located in the throat; determines the amount of calcium and phosphate in the blood and transported to muscles and bones.
  • Thymus – located between the throat and sternum; center of the adaptive immune system; develops T-cells instrumental in attacking invasive viruses, bacteria and fungi. The thymus shrinks as we mature since most T-cells are created in our youth.
  • Adrenal – above the kidneys; balances our emotional and physical state; produces adrenaline, aldosterone and cortisol; also maintains body’s salt levels.
  • Pancreas – deep in the abdomen; controls body’s sugar level through secretion of insulin and glucagon.
  • Testes – secretes testosterone.
  • Ovaries – secretes estrogen and progesterone regulating female reproductive functions.

Out of Balance

Too little production of a specific hormone is known as hypo, while too much production is known as hyper. Both conditions affect other bodily systems. Symptoms of hormonal imbalance may include insomnia, fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, irregular monthly cycles, blood sugar imbalances, digestive issues, hair loss or arthritis. A variety of factors can lead to hormonal imbalances. The most common contributors are stress, lack of exercise, lifestyle and diet.

Today’s modern lifestyle bombards us with information overload and constant deadlines increasing stress and anxiety levels. Stress can lead to hormonal imbalance and a weakened immune system. A diet lacking essential nutrients impacts the production of hormones. Excess sugars and carbohydrates can cause the pancreas to overproduce insulin. The lymphatic system relies upon body movements to push a milky fluid containing white blood cells throughout the body. A sedentary lifestyle leads to sluggish digestion and overworks the lymphatic system.

Returning to Balance with Ayurveda and Yoga

Ayurveda

Ayurveda provides the tools and knowledge to live a more balanced lifestyle in accordance with the rhythms of nature. Daily, weekly and seasonal routines elevate our awareness of subtle changes throughout the day and from season to season. Ayurveda helps us adjust to the fluctuations throughout our lives from childhood and puberty to adulthood and finally, into the forest years.

Ayurveda’s nutritional guidelines teach us how to eat according to our constitution, taking age, sex, and state of health into account. According to Ayurveda, we are what we absorb, not simply what we eat. Eating seasonally fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, etc. according to our constitution (prakriti) helps us maintain a strong, balanced metabolism and digestive fire (agni).

Ayurvedic herbs and formulae support, balance and invigorate digestion and other body systems. Rasayanas are a special type of rejuvenating tonics that help improve bodily tissues (rasa). Rich in antioxidants, they help boost our immune system, fight destructive free radicals, promote physical strength, improve cognitive function and prevent disease. Examples include amalaki, ashwagandha and shatavari – all of which I use.

Moment is a flower. Mindfulness is sipping the nectar of that flower.
~ Amit Ray

Yoga

A regular Yoga practice including breath control (pranayama), meditation, poses (asanas) followed by a period of rest (savasana) not only stretches and strengthens the body, but balances hormones and calms the central nervous system.

Pranayama supplies more oxygen to every cell in the body. Slow, full, even, deep breathing slows the emotional response produced by the hypothalamus and helps balance the endocrine system. The result is a calm, soothing state of mind and body.

A balancing method of breath control is alternate nasal breathing (nadi shodhana). I have practiced this every morning for 10 years. When I started the practice, I couldn’t believe how calm, yet energized I felt. That feeling has become the new norm. To practice nadi shodhana, sit comfortably, spine erect. Exhale completely, then press the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Retaining the breath, close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right. Repeat this process, inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left to complete one cycle. Alternate side to side and repeat up to 10 times. Complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.

According to Yogapedia, benefits of nadhi shodhana includes:

  • Calms the mind
  • Improves focus
  • Alleviates stress
  • Promotes mental clarity
  • Prepares the mind for meditation

Meditation, restorative poses and savasana all serve to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) while allowing the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to rest. SNS prepares the body for action. When activated, the body produces more adrenaline and cortisol, accelerating the heart rate, raising blood pressure, constricting blood vessels and slowing or stopping digestion. PNS calms the body and conserves energy; it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal activity, supports optimal digestion and relaxes muscles.

Asanas may improve endocrine gland functionality by increasing blood flow and activating the muscles around each gland.

  • Twists massage and stimulate kidneys, liver and pancreas.
  • Gentle inversions may increase blood flow to the brain, improving brain function as well as communication between the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
  • Poses that activate neck muscles, stimulate the thyroid and parathyroid.
  • Chest openers stimulate the thymus.
  • Core strengthening poses activate the pancreas.
  • Poses that stretch the groin, inner thighs and hips stimulate the reproductive glands.
  • Prone back bends strengthen the muscles along the spine and massage the adrenal glands.

Yoga has been called a “fountain of youth” because it brings health and vitality, but this is a misnomer. The search for a fountain of youth, whether through magic, drugs, or techniques, indicates a resistance to the aging process. I prefer to call yoga a “fountain of life.” Aging is inevitable. Yoga allows you to approach it awarely as a transformative process that can bring growth and new depths with maturation. Resisting aging is actually resisting transformation and growth. Paradoxically, the resistance to aging, which includes holding on to old, inappropriate ways of living, exacerbates the very aging process you fear.

~ Joel Kramer from 365 Daily Meditations by Julie Rappaport

Ayurveda and Herbs

Ayurveda includes a vast body of knowledge about herbs, plant medicines and preparations. Early Vedic texts describe the energies within plants and their use as medicine. Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, the two classic Ayurvedic texts classified all medicinal substances into three groups: vegetable, animal and mineral origin. The Ayurveda material medica are articulated in Astanga Hrdaya and Astanga Samgraha

Dravya is an herb, preparation, drug or substance taken internally or externally to maintain health, ease pain or treat disease. Herbal substances are uniquely administered to help restore or maintain balance using a thorough understanding of prakriti (constitution) and the doshas. For example, a person with a vata constitution may exhibit the same or similar symptoms as a person with a pitta dosha. However, they should not necessarily be given identical treatments. An Ayurvedic approach to herbology treats the whole person, not the symptom.

Preparations and Dosage

Herbalists learn preparations, including a knowledge of the parts of the plant used most effectively: roots, bark, trunk, gum, stems, juice, leaves, salt, pulp, fruit, flowers, ash, oil, spikes, rhizomes, seeds or in some cases, the entire plant. Flowers and leaves lend themselves to infusions in hot water, like the tulsi tea I am sipping. Medicines within roots and barks are released by boiling until most of the water has evaporated. This is known as a decoction. Other preparations include fresh juice, herbal pastes and powders, and medicated oils.

When choosing the right dosage, Ayurveda considers:

  • Strength, metabolism, age and other conditions of the patient
  • Strength and duration of the disease
  • Season of the year
  • Potency, energy, essence of the herb – known as virya
    • Is it cooling – containing the energy of water?
    • Is it heating – containing the energy of fire?
  • Special potency or prahbava of the herb

The time of day dravya is administered also influences its efficacy. For example, most people should not ingest medicines on an empty stomach in the morning. Exceptions may include healthy people with a strong, kapha constitution. Dravya may be taken before a meal to increase the digestive fire and tone intestinal muscles.

Energy vibrations

Energetics, doshas, tastes and more 

Ayurveda texts describe a set of specific plants, alone or in combination as rasayana (nourishing the essence of life). Each herb embodies energy vibrations that match an energy vibration in the human body. Nature uses the same materials when creating plants, minerals, and human bodies. According to the Vedic sages, the building blocks of nature (subtle vibrations) are universal. Due to this belief in the likeness within all of nature, herbs, sounds, gemstones, colors, aromas, and foods all act as medicine when used properly.

The taste or rasa of an herb is an indication of its properties. When we eat according to our constitution and by taste, we feel healthy and vital. Each taste is composed of two elements and effect doshas as follows:

  • Sweet (earth and water) – increases kapha; decreases vata and pitta
  • Sour (earth and fire) – increases kapha and pitta; decreases vata
  • Salty (water and fire) – increases kapha and pitta; decreases vata
  • Pungent (fire and air) – decreases kapha; increases vata and pitta
  • Bitter (air and ether) – decreases kapha and pitta; increases vata
  • Astringent (air and earth) – decreases kapha and pitta; increases vata

In addition to the taste we sense in our mouths, food and herbs are transformed by the digestive process. The first phase of digestion (kapha) is in the mouth and stomach and is dominated by a sweet taste. The second phase (pitta) occurs in the stomach and small intestine and is dominated by a sour taste. The final phase (vata) occurs in the colon and is predominately pungent. The post-digestive effect, known as vipaka relates to the process of absorption and elimination. Herbs tend to aggravate the dosha whose vipaka they possess. There are three categories: sweet and salty possess a sweet vipaka; sour has a sour vipaka; bitter, astringent and pungent all possess pungent vipaka.

There are qualities (gunas) inherent in every plant, animal and mineral. Each quality has an opposite quality. Ayurveda teaches us how to find our way back to balance by treating with opposites. For example, herbs with a light, sharp quality can treat heaviness and lethargy.

  • Heavy/Light
  • Cold/Hot
  • Oily/Dry
  • Dull/Sharp
  • Smooth/Rough
  • Dense/Liquid
  • Soft/Hard
  • Stable/Mobile
  • Gross/Subtle
  • Cloudy/Clear

Some of the qualities are easy to determine whereas other qualities are more nuanced. For example, food full of chili peppers is obviously hot. Mashed potatoes and gravy are heavy. Water with lemon and ginger is a relatively clear drink, whereas a milk shake is very cloudy. An example of a rough herb is guggul. This resin scrapes toxins from our body!

Body Systems, Tissues and Therapeutic Actions

Muscle tissue

Western medicine categorizes herbs and medicines based upon their effect on a specific body system. Ayurveda also considers the effect of dravya upon our tissues or dhatus. The dhatus are:

  • Rasa – plasma, lymphatic fluid
  • Rakta – blood
  • Mamsa – muscle
  • Meda – fat
  • Asthi – bone
  • Majja – bone marrow
  • Shakra – reproductive fluids
  • Ojas – the essence of all dhatus

Herbs can be categorized by their therapeutic actions upon body systems and tissues.

  • Alterative herbs cleanse and purify the blood.
  • Antiparasitic herbs kill and remove worms.
  • Astringent herbs are drying and firming and help avoid excessive discharges.
  • Bitter herbs are detoxifying, deplete tissues, suppress or sedate organic bodily functions
  • Carminative herbs relieve intestinal gas, pain and distention; they help promote peristalsis.
  •  Diaphoretic herbs induce perspiration; restore circulation, lower fever and eliminate toxins from the surface of the body.
  • Diuretic herbs increase urination and promote kidney and bladder function.
  • Emmenagogues help promote and regulate menstruation; help with PMS, uterine infections.
  • Expectorant and demulcent herbs promote the discharge of phlegm and mucus.
  • Laxative and purgative herbs promote bowel movements and help eliminate food accumulations and toxic build-up (ama) from the intestines.
  • Nervine and antispasmodic herbs strengthen the function activity of the nervous system. Include stimulants and sedatives.
  • Stimulant and digestive herbs stimulate digestion resulting in an increase in all organic functions.
  • Aphrodisiacs reinvigorate the sexual organs.
  • Tonics nurture the tissues of the body – rejuvenating tonics (rasayanas) promote physical strength, boost cognitive function and prevent disease.
Fennel

My story

When I began my studies in Ayurveda in 2009, I had acid indigestion, heartburn, pain and distension in my stomach. On my teachers’ recommendations, I stopped drinking orange juice, eating hot peppers (bowls of salsa with chips) and fruit with my yogurt. And I naturally stopped drinking wine. I traded cayenne and chili powder for cardamom and ajwain. And I learned the benefits of cumin, coriander and fennel tea. I also began taking triphala. My digestive problems were gone within a few months and have not returned. When I stray for a day or two – I still love a bowl of chili on a cold winter night – I notice the difference immediately. Simple changes can create a dramatic shift.


Earth, sky, worlds above, quarters and their halves;
Fire, air, sun, moon, and stars; water, herbs, trees,
Space, and entity are the elements.
Eye, ear, mind, tongue, and touch; skin, flesh, muscle,
Marrow, and skeleton; and the five
Vital forces constitute the body.
The sage, contemplating these sets of five,
Discovered that everything is holy.
Man can complete the inner with the outer.

From the Upanishads ~ Translated by Eknath Eawwaran

My herb garden, summer 2019

Sources:

Chopra, Deepak. 2001. Perfect health. London: Bantam.

Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. 2016. The yoga of herbs: an Ayurvedic guide to herbal medicine.

Born for Botany

Admiring a poppy in bloom.
Morethanafarm near Woodinville, WA

My parents fell in love on long walks botanizing through the farmlands and woodlands of northeastern Ohio. My mother was renowned for her woodland walks – she taught people to identify the trees and plants native to our bioregion. My father horse-plowed the family farm and was well-known for his strawberries and night crawlers. They both taught me to stop and smell the roses, gaze at the night sky and savor the small beauties of each day. They shared their passion for nature, plant wisdom and organic gardening with their seven children. My parents gave me a fitting middle name, Lynne’ in honor of the Swedish botanist and taxonomist, Carl von Linne’ and one of his favorite plants, Twinflower or Linnaea borealis. My middle name has been passed down to a niece and great-niece.

Childhood Memories

Petunias for Mother

My earliest gardening memory is the day I selected and planted petunias for Mother’s Day. Another fond memory was the small chapel my brother and I created in our grape arbor. Later I was directed to hand remove the beetles that invaded our tomatoes and clean the yard of fallen apples (not my favorite chore). With my father, I picked dandelions and watercress for salads and took our kitchen waste to our compost on a far corner of our property. I cherish the memory of summer mornings sitting on our front porch beneath the shady maple trees, eating my breakfast of freshly picked berries topped with milk and sugar.

Garden gate and Frieda
on Capitol Hill

The first Earth Day was held while I was in high school. I read many of the environmental books of that era and took an ecology course. During college, I enjoyed growing house plants and learning about traditional farming techniques in my anthropology courses. After moving to Eugene, I enrolled in a Wild Edible Foods class at Lane Community College. We made lemon balm muffins and a salad with miner’s lettuce. My husband and I grew fruits, vegetables and herbs in our community garden patch by the Willamette River. We moved to Seattle and planted thirteen trees, herbs, and a cottage garden on our small plot of land on Capitol Hill. Dan made creative fences and gates to frame our whimsical garden.

A Passion for Herbs

Although I enjoy most aspects of gardening, I soon discovered that my true passion is for the plants that contain medicines – both for humans and for the land. And I realized that refined landscaping is not for me. I became fascinated by the plants and flowers that attract pollinators and those that repel unwanted pests. I began growing and working with herbs, reading books, taking classes, attending conferences and making my own concoctions. I created a small business named in honor of my mother, Essence of Estarr and travelled to fairs and markets. Mostly, I gave away my soaps, lotions, salves and bath salts. I continue to make herbal products – both home grown and purchased. I am not a wildcrafter, although I have dabbled.

Amongst the wild plants of southern Ohio

A dozen or so years ago, I attended a most magical event, Planting the Future Conference at the Herb Pharm in Williams, Oregon. The setting was beautiful with large old oak trees, a lily pond and meadows of echinacea, calendula, meadowsweet, black cohosh, goldenseal and other herbs. Vendors sold essential oils, herbs, tinctures and other handmade products. Classes were taught by renowned herbalists and once again, I realized how little I know about the plant world. My most memorable workshops were: Northwest Native Plants with Robin DiPasquale, Aromatherapy and the Art of Bathing with Mindy Green and Aromatic Medicine for the Herbalist with Trinity Ava. The conference and gathering of herbalists was also a fundraiser for United Plant Savers. I had not heard of UPS before, but as soon as I returned home, I researched and then joined the organization. Their mission is to protect and save wild medicinal herbs in the U.S. and Canada. I dreamed of creating my own plant sanctuary.

Pollinator Meadow and Herb Spiral
Summer 2019

Our Farmette

We purchased a double lot in northeast Seattle about nine years ago with absolutely nothing in the back yard, save a sad group of hazelnut saplings and the stump of the mother plant. That fall we sheet mulched the entire back yard, and in the spring, we planted two hornbeam trees, an herb spiral and pollinator meadow. The pollinator meadow was created by a ring of germander with bee balm, yarrow, lungwort, perennial fuchsia and a small bird bath for the bees – they need water too! I add in annuals when the mood strikes me.

Sometimes our garden becomes unruly and the work can be grueling. But each summer, when thousands of bees buzz, and the butterflies and hummingbirds flit about, it makes it all worthwhile.

A Visit to the UPS Sanctuary

Rosemary Gladstar, along with other herbalists founded United Plant Savers 25 years ago. United Plant Savers merged with Sacred Seeds, a global network of botanical sanctuaries preserving biodiversity and plant knowledge through living gardens. These gardens contain medicinal and edible plants, as well as plants used ceremonially. UPS more recently expanded to include the 370-acre Goldenseal Botanical Sanctuary in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in my home state of Ohio.

Goldenseal Botanical Sanctuary
Rutland, Ohio

During an adventurous, walking family reunion this June (The Big Walk), I was able to visit the sanctuary with my two older brothers. We stayed for two nights in the converted horse barn (currently home to interns). This gave us a chance to relax, read, explore the sanctuary and recap the events of the last two weeks in a truly healing and serene setting. There is a lovely yurt with a kitchen and library, Heart Moon Pond, The Reclaim Trail and the Prairie for the Pollinators. There are currently more than 500 species of plants (including goldenseal, American ginseng, and black and blue cohosh) and 120 species of trees, including slippery elm and white oak. I especially enjoyed the Prairie for the Pollinators, a previous hay field turned into an expansive meadow of native Ohio plants. I immediately noticed the lack of mosquitos as I strolled around the sanctuary. This September, UPS will celebrate their 25th anniversary and the opening of their new National Center of Medicinal Plant Conservation. A return to natural habitats and a preference for biodiversity is gaining acceptance. Ohio and other states are planting wildflowers along highways and byways. Say goodbye to the monocropping of grass that requires mowing, watering , fertilizing, and pesticides!

Back to Carl Linne’

While visiting the sanctuary, I happened upon a book in their library by Victoria Johnson, American Eden: David Hosack, Botany and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. I enjoyed the book so much that I bought my own copy. David Hosack was an early adopter of the Linnaean classification system. He was a botanist and a physician and hoped to advance medicine in the early to mid-19th century with botanicals. Hosack collected thousands of plants from around the world and created an educational garden in New York that is now beneath Rockefeller Center. His goal to merge medicine with botanical wisdom may not have caught on in his time, but I believe we are ready now.

Goldenseal Plant Sanctuary
Rutland, Ohio

“The plant kingdom covers the entire earth, offering our senses great pleasure and the delights of summer.”

~ Carl Linnaeus

What’s Up in Wellness

A Foodie Forever

Homemade granola

I was a foodie before the term was coined. I devour cookbooks like novels, watch cooking shows and enjoy a good conversation shared over a tasty meal. I began cooking at 6 and still enjoy preparing a meal, although I am less experimental now. In my younger years, I baked bread; grew produce and herbs; ground nut and seed butters; juiced fruits and vegetables; made yogurt, granola, noodles and far too many baked goods. I started working and shopping in food coops back when we ordered food in bulk, then packaged our bounty in the basement of a local church. I was a vegetarian for over 13 years and still keep animal proteins to a minimum. I primarily shop on the periphery of the store and eat organic and local, when possible.  I strive to live by the credo, “eat locally, think globally”.

And yet….I have never claimed to maintain a perfectly healthy diet – I readily admit to a sweet tooth and find party snacks hard to resist. My wellness journey and understanding of nutrition took a giant leap forward when I discovered Ayurveda and learned to balance my diet according to my dosha (pitta/vata), time of day, and season the year.

An Anthropological Perspective

As an anthropologist by training, I am fascinated by the wide range of traditional diets that developed in widely divergent ecosystems around the world. Learning how to make and use plant medicines, gather edible foods and domesticate grains are innovations nothing short of miraculous. And the exchange of foods across time and cultures is a complex driver of human history. Examples include the spread of chocolate, spices, coffee, rice, potatoes, corn, and tomatoes around the globe. Think of the impact the small cocoa bean has had on cuisines – from mole to chocolate ice cream.

Comfrey (bone heal)

Like many of us living in the modern world of agribusiness and international commerce, I am overwhelmed by fast-paced dietary changes – many of which occurred in my lifetime. I did not eat an avocado until I was a teenager and now we consume 120 million pounds on Super Bowl Sunday! These trends are often unpredictable and create tsunami waves of change throughout the world. Are the trends driven by availability, governmental policies, improved knowledge of nutrition, local innovations, marketing, or random shifts… or all of the above?

Do you remember the alar scare that devastated the apple industry in the late 1980’s? It was reported that the apple growers collectively lost over $100 million in sales after publicity surrounding alar’s negative health effects. The apple business eventually re-bounded and we now consume more varieties of apples than ever.

A more current trend is the decrease in cow milk consumption accompanied by an increased demand for nut and grain milks. It is estimated that 60% of Americans now drink non-dairy milks, with oat and almond milks taking the lead. These changes affect our overall economy and environment as well as the lives of farmers and their communities.

What Was Once Old is New Again

Undoubtedly, trends in healthcare and diets shift over time. For no apparent reason, some fall by the wayside, then reappear a generation or two later…. or fade into the mists of time. Wellness practices of the 1800’s that have reappeared include homeopathy, herbalism, vegetarianism, fermented foods and therapeutic baths. Some radical shifts and innovations in diet become the new norm – like eating corn flakes for breakfast and sipping chamomile tea for a calm, peaceful afternoon. Fortunately, some earlier medical practices were found to be dangerous and will not return.

Cabin at Zoar, Ohio

Apple cider vinegar was used extensively in colonial America – both topically and internally. And hard cider was a popular drink throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Folk hero, Johnny Appleseed planted apple seeds in the Old Northwest Territory in advance of each new settlement, providing fruit, drink and medicine for the community. As a child, I enjoyed our fall drives meandering through the colorful, rolling hills of eastern Ohio. We stopped at roadside stands for apples, cheeses, sausages, cider and, of course donuts from a local bakery.  Johnny Appleseed is still a celebrated hero in Ohio. I attended the Johnny Appleseed Festival several years ago and enjoyed all things apple – apple cider, apple fritters, apple strudel and more.

The use of apple cider vinegar as a health remedy fell out of favor during the 20th century but has seen a resurgence lately. Variations of switchels and shrubs are enjoying a new popularity. I drink switchel every morning and my recipe is very simple – 1 t apple cider vinegar and 1 t honey in a cup of warm water. Sip and enjoy. A shrub uses apple cider vinegar, flavored with fruits and/or herbs and enjoyed with spirits or sparkling water. Besides quenching thirst, many nutritionists praise apple cider vinegar for lowering blood sugar, breaking down fat in the blood, easing digestion and balancing the pH level in the body. Hard cider has also made a comeback.

The Significance of Wellness

We are in the midst of a cultural shift towards more preventative, affordable health care, as evidenced by health care reforms and the rapid growth in the wellness market. Wellness practices from Yoga and mindfulness to supplements and superfoods are an accepted part of our modern lifestyle.

As more people seek less stress, Yoga, meditation, massage, sound baths, energy medicine and wellness retreats are becoming more and more popular. Decluttering, simplicity, upcycling, forest bathing and biophilia contribute to a gentler, more sustainable and mindful approach to wellness. The credo “no pain, no gain” has been replaced by healing, joy, calmness, mindfulness and contemplation. And the less restrictive, forgiving Mediterranean diet is gaining favor over Paleo, Ketogenic and Whole 30 diets. It is good news that Americans are becoming more attuned to their own health and well-being; however the plethora of advice and products can be overwhelming and expensive.

Current Wellness Trends

To get a handle on the recent trends in nutrition and wellness, I recently sat down for a casual conversation with Christine Ryan, Registered Dietician and co-owner of To Be Shrubs. We discussed nutritional trends and research including: immune boosters, CBD, bone broth, probiotics, fermented foods, full fat over non-fat, gut health and the gut/mind connection, superfoods, farm to table and home produce delivery, grass-fed, non-GMO, vegan, gluten-free, foraging and wild crafting.

Sauerkraut can aid your digestion

What will become the next new norm and what will fade away within the next few years? And what drives our individual choices? It is important to find what resonates with you and consider your current state of health, activity level and lifestyle. I try to eat real foods – fresh and in season, when possible. For this article, I will delve a little deeper into one of my favorites – superfoods.

Superfoods

What are superfoods? They are not an true category of foods, like fruits and vegetables but are readily available foods jam-packed with nutrients. Some common superfoods include beans, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, spinach, broccoli, kale and yogurt.

Chia Lamb

I have eaten pumpkin, sunflower, sesame and flax seeds for years. More recently I added chia seeds to my diet. Chia seeds are small black seeds from the Salvia hispanica plant, a member of the mint family. Chia seeds were grown and used by the Aztecs and Mayans and were valued for their ability to boost energy and strength. Chia first came to the U.S. in planters to grow whimsical animals with plant hair. Their health benefits are now recognized around the world. They are rich in fiber, protein, omega-3 fats, manganese, magnesium and phosphorous. When soaked in a liquid, they become gelatinous, so can be a great thickener. You can even make pudding with chia seeds.

Blend the following ingredients:

2 cups milk, 1/4 cup maple syrup, honey or other sweetener, 1/cup chia seeds, cinnamon, cardamom or other spices to taste. Chill for 3 hours. Garnish with fresh fruit, coconut, and/or nuts.

Superfoods include a number of berries – blueberries, goji berries, acai berries and my new discovery, mulberries. I love berries and eat lots of fresh blueberries every summer. They contain antioxidants and phytochemicals, as well as plenty of vitamin C, vitamin K and manganese. People drink tea made from mulberry leaves . I recently bought dried mulberries and put them in my mixed nut and seed mixture and eat them on cereal. Mulberries are an antioxidant, support the immune system, balance blood sugar and are just plain healthy!

Mulberry – a superfood – and not just for silkworms

Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
So early in the morning.


Thanks to Laura Kraft for the illustration and Christine Ryan for up-to-date nutritional facts.

Ayurvedic Aromatherapy

In memory of Dr. Light Miller

Roses for aromatherapy blog

In June, 2005, I spent a weekend studying Ayurvedic Aromatherapy with Light Miller. When I remember my weekend immersion with Light, I smell roses in the Bastyr courtyard, feel the summer sun on my face and see her beaming face, excited to share her gifts with us, her students. The energy in the room and surrounding courtyard was potent. I don’t remember how I happened upon her workshop, but I left altered by her presence. I had taken several other classes focused on herbs, essential oils and aromatherapy. And I had begun making soaps, lotions, balms, and bath salts. She took me on a journey to a new level of understanding.

Light taught us the basics of aromatherapy and beyond: the production of essential oils, blending principles, energetics, and healing properties of many plants. She delved deeper into the human relationship with plant medicines, redefined my concept of beauty, meanwhile teaching me Ayurvedic concepts in an accessible format. For example, she said, “we can lose our ego in the spirit of the plant.” It all felt so natural…. as it should. She launched me on my path into the teachings of Ayurveda that continue to this day. I felt like I was truly in the presence of a healer/goddess. I purchased her book, Ayurveda & Aromatherapy and have consulted it throughout the years. Although our paths did not cross again, her teachings stayed with me and imbue my own creations. And I continued to follow her from afar on social media, as we often do in these times. In March, she continued to inspire me with her Facebook post of CNN’s video, What is Beauty?

Following are just some of the key points I noted from her workshop:

The Creation of Essential Oils

  • Steam distillation – using water and plant material, vapor is forced into a cooling chamber; then condenses into plant chemical; liquid component (water) is removed as steam
    • In India, a very ancient technique is still employed – the plant materials are buried underground with a slow fire and water from a creek
    • 50% of essential oil production is in Europe and imported to the U.S.
    • Most essential oils are used in gums, cleansers, perfumes and pharmaceuticals
  • Attar – used for delicate plant materials like rose petals; the plant is steamed with a heavier substance; it is not pure enough for medicine
  • Cold press – similar to the process used to press olive oil from olives or sesame oil from sesame seeds
  • CO2 – a newer technique compressing the plant materials in a chamber at 2,000 degrees Farenheit.
  • Absolute – uses gasoline to vaporize – alters the smell of the plant and looses the true essence of the flower

Before 1930’s – perfumes were made with essential oils, now nearly all are made with synthetic products with the exception of 5 or so companies. Avoid fragrance oils!

Essence of Estarr at the Fairy Festival
My booth at the Fairie Festival, May 2008

Using Essential Oils

  • Need to dilute essential oils for use; the best application is in the bath.
  • As a general rule, 1 drop of essential oil = 1 teaspoon of powdered herb.
  • Massage oil – use 40 – 60 drops for 4 ounces of carrier oil
  • Cold or hot compress – add drops of oil to a bowl of water, soak a cloth then apply cloth to desired area of body
  • Direct inhalation
  • Vapor – inhale through the nose to the olfactory nerve to the limbic system to the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland and on to the endocrine system
  • Body wrap – cypress, juniper and bergamot are good for this use
  • Store in a cool place in a dark bottle; use glass dropper
  • Distilled essential oils get better with age
  • 50% of essential oils are used in the food industry
  • Pine and spruce are good for cleaning the house; not for use on the body
  • Natural preservatives include vitamin E oil, benzoin and grapefruit seed oil
    • 10 – 15 drops of grapefruit seed oil in 4 ounces of carrier oil
  • Do not continue use after condition heals

Therapeutic and Energetic Qualities

  • Spectrograph is the signature of the plant and reveals the chemical components
  • Essential oils with a blue/green color are soothing (chamomile)
  • Essential oils with a purple color are invigorating
  • Essential oils with green color stimulate the metabolism and can help regulate weight
  • Lavender has the highest number of chemical constituents (esters, alcohols and oxides) for healing; sandalwood is second highest (145); tea tree is another common adaptagen – they are known as adaptagens since they adapt to the body’s needs

Ayurvedic Perspective

  • Vata oils should be moisturizing
    • Avocado, sesame, castor, flaxseed oils
    • Sesame oil penetrates to bones; invigorates and is high in vitamin E
    • Add a drop of cinnamon oil to flaxseed oil
    • Basil, cardamom, clary sage, ginger, lemongrass
  • Pitta oils should be mild for sensitive skin
    • Coconut, sunflower, olive oils
    • Citrus can irritate pitta skin
    • Cumin, fennel, jasmine, lemon balm, yarrow
  • Kapha oils should be warming
    • Mustard oil is an anti-oxidant – add orange, juniper and cypress to remove cellulite
    • Safflower, almond, evening primrose oils are also good for kapha constitution
    • Basil, cardamom, cinnamon, eucalyptus, ginger, sage
  • For all constitutions: sandalwood, geranium, lavender, chamomile, rose, small amounts of frankincense

The Notes of Aromas

  • Aromas are divided into top, middle and base notes
  • Most blends include a greater or lesser amount of each note
  • Top notes include basil, coriander, dill, eucalyptus, grapefruit, lemon, orange, nutmeg
  • Middle notes include black pepper, carrot seed, German chamomile, clary sage, geranium
  • Base notes include benzoin, juniper, cypress, patchouli

Dr. Miller’s recipe to relieve Sinus Congestion

  • 10 drops basil
  • 5 drops camphor
  • 10 drops eucalyptus
  • 5 drops angelica

Add to 4 cups boiling water for inhalation.

lavender-field-1595577_960_720

I was very saddened to hear of Dr. Miller’s illness and then passing on April 28th. My deepest sympathy to her community of family and friends. Her teachings and healing energy will continue on in each person she touched and beyond. Thank you Dr. Light Miller for sharing your wisdom with me.

Finding Wellness at Home

Feeling at ease in our space

wellness at homeWe each feel at home in different settings – city, country, wilderness or suburbs; and environments – desert, ocean, mountain, forest or prairie. For some, the sun rising through a window framed by beautiful flowers evokes calmness and serenity. Others find their happy place nestled in a big armchair by a cozy fire, sipping a cup of tea with a cat purring on one’s lap. Some people enjoy their solitude, while others love the hustle and bustle of a large family or group of friends. And the nomads among us, feel most at home in a tent or mobile home – the stars shining down, the sounds of nature to awaken them in the morning and serenade them to sleep at night. Whatever your preference, it is important to find solace and a sense of belonging. And to be at ease, well and vital in your living space. In Ayurveda, we apply the concepts of Vastu Shastra  to arrange our homes to maintain harmony and wellness. (See my September 2016 post.)

When is clean too clean?

Much has been written about diet, exercise, lifestyle and wellness. Millions of dollars are spent on natural foods and personal care products. There is less awareness of the household cleaners we use each and every day in our homes. Many household cleansers contain harsh chemicals fit more for industrial use than our kitchen counters. It is true that improvements in hygiene and an understanding of germs have improved our overall health. However, our modern society’s obsession with cleanliness has unknowingly led many of us down an unhealthy path.

Choosing healthy household cleaners

There are so many household cleaners, it can make your head spin. My rule of thumb is keep it simple. Here is my basic list: dish soap, laundry detergent, borax, baking soda, vinegar, toilet bowl cleaner, castile soap, scouring powder, hydrogen peroxide, wood polish, herbs and essential oils. You really don’t need a closet of chemicals. When it comes down to it, the ingredients are not very different in all of those many bottles and brands. If you want to learn about the common toxic ingredients in household cleaners, I found an article written by Jesse Sholl to be concise and understandable, even for a non-chemist: 8 Hidden Toxins: What’s Lurking in Your Cleaning Products?

The Environmental Working Group lists over 2,500 household cleaners and rates them by the following criteria:

  • asthma/respiratory
  • skin allergies/irritation
  • developmental/reproductive toxicity
  • cancer
  • environment

Products are given a score of A – F in each category and overall. Baking soda rates an A while I have to admit my floor cleaner received a C. Time for me to make a change!

Simple tips to keep a fresh and healthy home

Here are a few tips – some passed down to me and some gained through years of personal experience:

  • Grow houseplants – they exhale oxygen and help absorb household toxins…. did you know aloe vera in your bedroom helps you sleep at night?
  • Open the doors and let fresh air into your home.
  • Lift the blinds or curtains and let in some sunshine – the sun is a natural antibacterial. Take your pillows, comforters, stuffed animals out on a hot, sunny day and let the sun work it’s wonders.
  • Simmer herbs and/or citrus peels in water on the stove – especially good in the winter if you live in a colder climate. And better than an artificial room deodorizer in my opinion.
  • Buy unscented laundry detergent and if you want to add a scent, add an essential oil of your choice.
  • Keep a bowl or basket of dried flowers in your bathroom – I like rose petals and lavender.
  • Make spicy sachet for your drawers – especially good for sweaters. You can use cedar, pine, cloves, dried orange peels, eucalyptus or rosemary or a combination you like. Buy dried herbs or dry them yourself and put them in pretty cotton squares or a muslin bag tied with a ribbon. They last for years.
  • Surround yourself with a few precious items and images that bring you joy. Less might be more.

A Simple Recipe

Periodically I sprinkle a mixture of baking soda and herbs on my rugs, let them set for an hour or so and then vacuum. Freshens the room, the carpet and it makes the vacuum fresher the next time you use it. I used pennyroyal one summer when we had a very bad flea outbreak. Just don’t let your animals anywhere near the pennyroyal.

I  found this recipe in The Naturally Clean Home by Karyn Siege-Maier:

1 cup borax
1 cup baking soda
1/2 cup cornmeal
10 drops juniper essential oil
5 drops cypress essential oil

Combine the dry ingredients in a plastic bowl. Add essential oils and mix well, breaking up the clumps. Sprinkle the mixture over carpet and wait several hours, overnight if possible , before vacuuming.

If you plan to make your own homemade cleansers, consult a book or tested recipe for safety sake.

Herbal alternatives

oregano
Oregano – fresh and dried

Our basic goal is to remove dirt, grease and grime and kill the dangerous critters but not the helpful ones. In other words, antifungals, antibiotics, antibacterial, and antiviral.

Below is a partial list of  common herbs that you can use in your recipes along with their cleansing properties:

  • bergamot – antibiotic
  • chamomile – antibiotic, antibacterial
  • eucalyptus – antibiotic, antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial
  • lavender – antibiotic, antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial
  • orange – antibacterial – also removes grease
  • oregano – antibiotic, antiviral
  • spearmint – antibacterial
  • thyme – antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral

I hope you will find a tip or two that resonates with you. And may you find peace in your heart and your home.

At Home

At home amidst
the bees
wandering
the garden
in the summer
light
the sky
a broad roof
for the house
of contentment
where I wish
to
live forever
in the eternity
of my own
fleeting
and momentary
happiness.

I walk toward
the kitchen
door as if walking
toward the
door of a recognized
heaven
and see the
simplicity
of shelves and
the blue dishes
and the
vaporing
steam rising
from the kettle
that called me in.
Not just this
aromatic cup
from which to drink
but the flavor
of a life made whole
and lovely
through the
imagination
seeking its way.
Not just this
house around me
but the arms
of a fierce
but healing world.

Not just this time
I write
but the
innocence
of an earned
forgiveness
flowing again
through hands
made new with
writing.

And a man
with no company
but his house,
his garden,
and his own
well peopled solitude,

entering
the silences
and chambers
of the heart
to start again.

 

 

— by David Whyte

 

Yoga for Gardeners

Yoga in the Park Dublin
St. Stephen’s Green – Dublin, Ireland

Summer is here – time to bring your yoga practice out-of-doors!  Practicing in parks and gardens is popular and for a good reason.  The sun radiates warmth throughout our bodies, birds sing, the smell of flowers waft through the air. The earth beneath our feet is soft, compliant and uneven. We notice the nuances of our surroundings on a deeper level. Both at home and on my travels, I explore the gardens, forests, beaches and other natural features of the landscape. Pictured is a yoga session we came upon on our first morning in Dublin.

I have been an avid gardener since childhood. We grew up on an acre of land at the end of a dead-end road. We grew mostly fruit and flowers, although my parents had extensive vegetable gardens earlier in their lives. I still tend towards fruit, flowers and herbs.

Seated squat in garden
In my pollinator meadow

I am equally passionate about yoga. Both are patient practices and often yield a different benefit than expected. When you plant a seed, you may wait years until it bears fruit or fills your garden with a heavenly aroma. You cannot force plants to grow where you want them to grow. You have to pay attention to the subtle aspects of plant life – effects of shade, seasons, age, habitat, etc. In yoga, we increase our self-awareness and learn not to force our agenda on ourselves or others. Gardening, like yoga improves with persistent effort.

Gardening is a creative endeavor and as Veronica D’Ornazio wrote in Gardener’s Yoga,  Gardening is a kind of moving meditation, a direct and physical communion with the seasons, with the sun and the moon and the elements. It can also be a rigorous physical activity. Gardeners often get absorbed in our work and before you know it, 3 hours have passed and we are still huddled over our roses or crouched over a clump of weeds. Repetitive movements and carrying heavy loads can lead to more aches and pains. All of you gardeners out there – remember to take time to stretch!

For my yoga teacher’s certificate final project, I taught a 6 week series, Yoga for Gardeners. Gardeners spend a lot of time bent forward, kneeling, and crouching. We often stand in one position for long periods of time. While squatting or kneeling, we have a tendency to round our shoulders and lower our heads as we focus on the earth. When we do stretch, it is often in an awkward position to trim a branch, or weed. There are a lot of repetitive hand movements – clipping, etc. Gardeners tend to have tight hips and hamstrings, often resulting in lower back pain. I focused my class on alignment, symmetrical forward bends and gentle back bends – all to return the body to balance and counteract the effects of  asymmetrical static poses.  I also included hamstring and outer hip stretches in each class, as well as some core strengthening and balance poses. Many of my current students are gardeners and I consider that when I design my sequences.

This week I led a class in my own garden – something I have wanted to do for quite some time. The weather was perfect and as each student moved with their breath, I could see the effect practicing in the open air had upon them. I cherish our morning practice together and hope to lead more yoga sessions in my garden.

Heidi headshot 4
Welcome to my garden!

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.

                                                                — May Sarton