Yogis and yoginis practice meditation in order to rest in the true self, which is the ultimate goal of yoga. Yet anyone who has ever sat down to the practice knows that getting into stillness can require a lot of support. The conscious mind is filled with distractions and methods of control that keep us from dropping in. The ancient sages recognized this, so they gave us a large toolbox to skillfully navigate the terrain. Asana and pranayama are two such tools, as are consistency and non-attachment. Another oft-overlooked tool, though explicitly mentioned in Yoga Sutra 4.1, is the use of herbs.
A large group of herbs go beyond the physical and are able to address the mind, affecting the very state of our consciousness.
Herbal medicine has been used for thousands of years around the world, often to address physical complaints. Some herbs ease tension and sore muscles after practice. Others support energy levels and digestion. Some improve resistance to pathogens or build bone density. Yet a large group of herbs go beyond the physical and are able to address the mind, affecting the very state of our consciousness.
The most obvious of these are psychoactive plants. These quickly cross the blood-brain barrier and cause hallucinations or states of euphoria. While there is considerable debate regarding the skillful use of these plants, most modern sages agree that they have significant limitations and may simply be another distraction from realizing the true self.
Regular meditators know that even the most common plants can affect the mind’s ability to turn inward. For example, cocoa, sugar cane, and coffee all stimulate the mind and nervous system, making meditation more difficult. Even simple foods like onions and garlic can agitate practice. As we meditate more, we become increasingly refined to the subtle and recognize that almost everything affects practice—from the food we eat to the movies we watch.
Regular meditators know that even the most common plants can affect the mind’s ability to turn inward.
Below are several common herbs that support meditation practice. They have the ability to soothe and strengthen the mind, making it easier to become still, stay alert, and enter into meditation. These herbal allies include:
Tulsi, or holy basil, is known as the meditation herb. It is the sacred plant of Vishnu, and many believe that the goddess lives within it. As a result, the plant is kept near temples and homes in India to purify and sanctify them. Tulsi was mentioned in two ancient texts, the Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, and is said to bring goodness, virtue, and joy. Science shows it enhances cerebral circulation, protects the brain, and prevents increased levels of corticosterone (a byproduct of stress).
Brahmi is associated with Brahma, “the creator,” who made the universe from his thoughts. For meditation purposes, it improves concentration, contentment, and joy, perhaps because it increases circulation to the brain. It also stimulates dopamine receptors and neurotransmitters. Currently, brahmi is being studied in association with Alzheimer’s disease.
Gotu Kola has been called the most spiritual of all herbs, used by yogis to develop the crown chakra. Its leaf even resembles the brain, reflecting its ability to balance the left and right hemispheres. Gotu Kola is a tonic for the mind and nerve tissues, nourishing the central nervous system and rebuilding energy reserves.
Passionflower is a mild sedative that calms the mind when it is agitated or anxious. It was named by Spanish missionaries in Peru, who said the flower resembled the crown of thorns, an instrument of the passion of Christ. As a nervine, passionflower also increases serotonin levels, a naturally occurring chemical in the brain responsible for mood balance.
Sage is most well-known as a culinary spice and some species are held sacred by Native Americans, who use it to balance and cleanse negativity from body and mind. Today, science is investigating sage as it relates to improved mood and the enhancement of cognitive function and memory. All of these qualities aid in successful meditation.
Herbs calm the nervous system, develop clarity, and help the mind become more stable and steady. As tools for meditation, they are important allies.
This article contains general information about medical conditions and complementary treatment, and is not to be considered expert advice. Always consult your physician and other qualified healthcare providers before beginning any new treatment, diet, or fitness regimen.