Disclaimer: All advice in this column is not meant as medical advice, nor meant to diagnose or treat any disease. If you have any questions about what is right for you and your health history, please seek out a qualified medical practitioner.
It’s true: herbs can change your life.
Tonic herbs, with their transformative and supportive nature, might just be the gateway to improving your yoga practice— or any athletic pursuit, for that matter. Tonic herbalism has deep roots in China (thousands of years of knowledge, handed down generation to generation), leaving a legacy of rich experience that we can harness to transform our health and spiritual pursuits.
Why tonic herbs specifically? Because, as Ron Teeguarden puts it, they “profoundly influence the manufacture and transformation of the life energy.” Yes, tonics transform your prana (life energy). These herbs support what we call the Three Treasures: Qi (prana, energy or vitality), Jing (essence, similar to ojas in Ayurveda), and Shen (spirit; yes, that’s right— spirit!).
So, clearly tonic herbs go hand in hand with yoga practice; they can help us repair our bodies after injury, reduce wear and tear from our regular practice and may help prevent injury. Tonics build radiance, vitality, and vibrancy. Those that are bidirectional in nature bring balance: they calm the fight or flight response when we are overworked, or increase our liveliness when we are in an energetic slump. Tonic herbs bring stability to our emotional lives by giving us roots, sustaining our boundaries and cultivating harmony and resilience.
While there are whole categories of herbs of interest to yogis and yoginis, I thought I would offer up three herbs that can help every yoga practice thrive:
- 1. Astralagus Root (aka Huang Qi): This herb supports the Qi treasure, and is often used post-op to help patients recover from surgery. It repairs muscle and strengthens the primary energy of the body, increasing strength and vitality. Astralagus also fortifies the defensive energy of the body, what we call the Wei Qi. Think of Wei Qi like a protective energetic layer. It parallels our immune system: when our Wei Qi is healthy we have an appropriate immune response and we become sick less often.
- Wei Qi as an energetic boundary helps us define our sense of self— it becomes clear where I end, for example, and where my partner begins. Weak Wei Qi could therefore be indicated in people with a weak or troubled sense of self, and in those with poor boundaries in relationships. It might also be indicated for those struggling with immune and auto-immune issues.
- Astralagus in a way is also a solar herb— it raises up any sinking Qi, creating an energetic lift. Astralagus can be found in a number of formulas, alone and in tincture form.
- 2. Gynostemma (aka Jiao Gu Lan) is often overlooked. It supports all three treasures (Qi, Jing and Shen), and tastes great as a tea because of its sweet aftertaste. What really gets me excited about Gynostemma is its bidirectional nature: it calms when one is over-excited, and stimulates when one is in a kaphic state. For this reason Gynostemma is a satvic herb. It cultivates that balanced, stirum sukham (steadiness and ease) that we are after in our yoga practice. Add to that anti-aging, sex-enhancing, pain-relieving, weight-reducing tendencies, and you’ve got a great herb on your hands! And like Astralagus, Gynostemma is also immunosupportive.
3. This last herb you may already be familiar with: Lycium Fruit, or Goji Berries (aka Wolfberries or Gou Qi Zi). Goji Berries support the Qi treasure, and are associated with the Liver Channel. They are what we call a xue (blood) tonic. Blood tonics are known to be nourishing, grounding and energizing, with (again) an anti-aging function. Xue is not only the physical blood, but also its energetic component. We say that blood anchors the emotions, so that supporting healthy xue means supporting a rich, grounded, and bright emotional life.
- The connection between Goji Berries and the Liver Channel means that they are a great choice to support you through a detox program. These berries are said to promote longevity, enhance fertility, and speed recovery from illness (especially where there is weight loss).
- Goji Berries are easy to incorporate into your daily diet— add then to oatmeal, grains, salads, hot tea, everything! It is worth getting the best you can afford with these guys, since there is a wide range of quality out there.
If you are looking for supplements to help support and sustain your yoga sadhana (practice)— look no further. There is a rich depth to tonic herbs, one that is nourishing and holistic in its scope. As a yoga teacher and practitioner, tonics can make your teaching and personal practice more vibrant, sustainable and full of radiance.
Emily Perry, L.Ac., is an Acupuncturist and certified Yoga Teacher at the 200 hour level. She teaches and writes in Santa Cruz, CA, and can be reached through her website Emily Perry Yoga, on her blog Elemental, or via email.