Learn how a combination of yoga and herbs helps decrease stress and heals illness.
Both yoga and herbal medicine are spreading in popularity across the United States, attracting more and more adherents. And just as Ayurvedic physicians (Indian medical doctors) have prescribed both and have known for centuries that they complement one another, many in the United States are finding that combining yoga and herbs is effective for ameliorating stress and for healing or managing more serious illnesses. What form and shape does the intersection of these practices take?
Herbal medicine is the main focus of Mead’s practice, but she says, “I see [herbs] as a way to get somebody over the hump while they’re making lifestyle changes. If your body’s having to work really hard just to rid itself of toxins and a stressful life, then what you do on an herbal level won’t be as effective. If you address other issues as well, they won’t have as great a need for the herbs, and the herbs will be able to work better if they are making good lifestyle choices.”
Like an Ayurvedic practitioner, Mead evaluates the needs of each individual who consults her and recommends a holistic approach to treatment. When treating a woman in a nursing home who was aggravated and anxious, she focused on teaching the woman deep breathing exercises and giving her herbs for anxiety. If it had been possible, Mead says, she would have recommended some dietary changes. For people suffering from fibromyalgia, she recommends yoga. “The last thing fibromyalgia patients want to do is move their bodies, but that’s what they need to do more than anything, because movement actually helps to break down the acids trapped in their muscles and tendons that creates some of the pain and discomfort.”
Most fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue symptoms are connected to lifestyle and excess stress, notes Mead, and yoga is a critical tool in healing these illnesses. People suffering from them learn to move gently and to explore how far they can go without feeling pain. They also benefit from drinking two to three quarts of water a day, taking herbal formulas, making dietary changes, and using meditation and relaxation techniques, she says.
This comprehensive approach to healing has long been emphasized in Ayurveda, and it remains important among American practitioners of this ancient medicine. “When we look at it from a traditional perspective,” says Sarasvati Buhrman, an Ayurvedic practitioner and academic director of the Rocky Mountain Institute of Yoga and Ayurveda in Boulder, Colorado, “the things we want to know about are, are the doshas [operating principles] in balance, and is the digestion working properly? Are all the channels of the body open? How is the consciousness? Is the mind in peace?” Ayurvedic practitioners want to know patients’ emotional and physical states, problems they have, and how long they have had them, she notes.
Treatment then addresses all of these dimensions and affects the patient in multiple ways. “The body chemistry and movement are intimately related . . . we can give herbs and diet for high blood pressure and that will be effective. And we can give yoga treatments and they can be equally effective, and if they’re combined, that’s the best of all.”
For a disease such as osteoporosis, yoga is often more effective than Ayurveda, and for multiple sclerosis, Ayurvedic herbs are more effective than yoga, says Buhrman. “It’s disease by disease. Some are more amenable to one kind of treatment than the other.” Treatment is also dependent on the person and the situation, she says. “Depending on the person and their background and their needs and their lifestyle and what they are actually willing and able to do in their lives, we try to put together a therapeutic program that will work for them.”
This multifaceted approach to healing, which stems from India’s wisdom traditions, has come to the west in “chunks and pieces,” says Buhrman. “Really the only difference between India and here is that we’re still assimilating the knowledge.”
Susan Mead is a Western-trained medical herbalist and yoga teacher who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. Although her herbal practice and yoga classes don’t always directly intersect, she says that there is crossover. When clients approach her for herbal remedies, she also recommends other lifestyle changes, which may include starting a yoga practice. If a yoga student brings up a particular health issue, Mead may offer recommendations for herbs or diet.
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