November 30, 2011

Rooted in body, Rooted in Spirit: 3 Tonic Herbs Every Meditator Should Know About

There are many challenges to sustaining a fruitful meditation practice. Finding time and creating consistency in our sadhana (practice) can be difficult in the face of so many life obstacles. Even if we are able to create a steady practice, other hindrances are likely to rear their ugly heads: our mind won’t settle, we feel unstable, or we feel like our practice
isn’t going anywhere. The rich depth of Chinese Tonic Herbalism can support us in all of these aspects of our journey, promoting balance, sustainability, and evolution of the spirit.

Chinese Tonic Herbalism, as I mentioned previously, has a long, rich history. The Taoist Sages looked to cultivate longevity and vibrant health so that they (over their lifetime) might come to deep spiritual realization. As a result, these sages developed a vast herbal pharmacopoeia to support their path. The cultivation and protection of
the body’s vital energy (Qi) was foremost in their minds as they looked to herbal medicines to sustain their journey.

For a well-rounded program, it is important from the tonic herbalism perspective to include herbs that support the development of what we call The Three Treasures: the vital energy (Qi or Prana), the Spirit (Shen), and Jing (essence, similar to Ojas in Ayurveda). Seeing as the treasures interrelate and feed each other energetically, it is important to
find a way to build up all three treasures so that we avoid draining one for the benefit of another. This will help us support balance in the energetic body, and move us towards longevity and radiant health.

So, what do we look for in an herbal program geared towards mediation practice? We want to make sure that we are supporting each of the three treasures in some way (Qi, Shen, Jing), and that we choose herbs that settle the mind, create mental stability, and support spiritual development.

At some point in our sadhana we might experience the need to calm the mind (cultivate sattva). Herbal support can help us develop a sattvic quality of mind— a calm, balanced sensation— that is conductive to meditation. An over-stimulated mind (one that is rajastic) tends to not want to settle, and a mind steeped in a tamastic state is difficult to arouse and keep from daydreaming. A sattvic mind provide a nice ground for meditation.
For that sattvic quality of mind, Reishi (aka Ling Zhi, or Ganoderma) is the perfect tonic. It is a powerhouse that supports all three treasures. This classic is the poster-child for tonic herbalism: it is said to be the “herb of immortality”. Reishi has a bi-directional immune modulating aspect to it (similar to Astralagus)— it can ramp up an under-active immune system when needed, and tone down one that is over-active. Reishi also calms the central nervous system, and is said to nourish the Heart, Liver, Lung and Kidney energies.

Next to calm clarity of mind, stability of the mind is also important. Polygala (or Yuan Zhi) is an excellent tonic for strengthening the focus of the mind, and is also said to shore up the power of one’s Will. Strengthening the Will helps us overcome obstacles, put creative energy in motion, and become more resilient. Polygala is said to nourish the
Heart energy, and is primarily a Shen tonic. This herb brings emotional stability, clarity, and aids in healthy emotional expression.

In terms of development of the Shen and evolution of the spirit, one great option is Ginseng. Ginseng (Ren Shen, noteably Panax Ginseng) is another beautiful adaptogen that nourishes all three treasures. It is one of the primary tonic herbs— it increases strength, improves physical and mental activity without stimulation, and is also said to improve sex drive.
Ginseng nourishes the Spleen and Lung energies. Ginseng illuminates and expands the spiritual path, stabilizes the
Shen, and calms the emotions so that the Spirit is allowed to “awaken” and develop. It reduces over identification with the emotional body as well as dramatic emotional changes and mood swings.

Tonic herbs can lend a hand as we evolve on the spiritual path. As meditators there are specific qualities in tonics that can aid the body in the release of physical and emotional tension, and bring mental focus, clarity, and stability. They can support us as we move away from wallowing in our emotions towards observing our emotions. Tonics center us so we feel strongly embodied in the earth element. Herbs can also help tether us to our ground of being when we feel lost, unanchored, and even a bit hopeless. Through tonic herbalism we can continue to feel rooted in body and rooted in spirit, and thus free to explore the deep well of our meditation practice with sustainability and longevity.

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 about a qualified medical practitioner.
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 at [email protected]

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