Q&A: Ayurvedic Pain Remedies and Tantric Herbs
Meditation teachers often say that the first step in practice is to attain steadiness and stability of body because without that there can be no progress. My own teacher told me to begin by sitting with the support of a wall to keep the spine properly aligned and to focus only on my posture, noticing where it is tight and where there is pain, and then to use asana to free those places. Only then should I go on to the next step–establishing a serene and steady flow of breath. The problem is that after two years of working with asana to get rid of a sharp pain in my shoulder, it remains a source of distraction. What should I do?
This is where ayurveda and other systems of therapy that do not bombard the body with heavy-duty drugs can complement yoga. Hot baths, massage with medicated herbal oil, acupressure, acupuncture, or ayurveda’s marma-point therapy is often effective in relieving shoulder pain.
But if the pain is chronic, you will have to find its underlying cause. One way of doing this is to study the pain, identify its nature, and classify it under one of three main categories: vata, pitta, or kapha. Deep throbbing pain at the level of the nervous system, which is accompanied by restlessness, is caused by derangement of vata. A burning pain at the level of the skeletal system is due to derangement of pitta. If the pain is in the muscles beneath the skin and is accompanied by a sense of heaviness and immobility its source is derangement of kapha.
Usually pain in the shoulders is accompanied by stiffness in the shoulder blades and upper arms and is therefore likely to be a kaphic symptom. (In our modern culture, we are primarily exposed to kaphic/tamasic food, water, air, thoughts, and feelings.) To overcome this pain, I advise you to first minimize kaphic food and increase the intake of sattvic food, activate the fire element at the navel center, and with the help of pranayama, let the fire circulate throughout the body. Without putting strain on your body, do exercises that loosen your shoulder joints and connective tissues. Shoulder pain may also be due to a weak spine, and if that is the case, practice the postures that strengthen the spine.
These yogic techniques can be complemented by taking the standard ayurvedic herbs known as dasha mula, “the 10 main herbs,” especially if you are a woman. (Traditionally, all women in India take a preparation of these 10 herbs after delivery.) According to ayurvedic texts, these herbs are strong yet safe—they are not known to have any side effects. They heal muscle trauma, soothe the nervous system, restore vitality, and tone the overall body. If after applying these measures for several months, the pain still persists, you will need to consult an expert who can administer stronger ayurvedic preparations.
I have heard that if herbs are prepared in a tantric fashion and taken in a tantric manner, they will have an immediate, miraculous effect. If this is true, what makes a procedure “tantric”?
When someone makes claims about the power of tantra or talks about tantric magic, watch out. Most of what people hear comes from a rudimentary and fragmented understanding of the subject, coupled with an overactive imagination.
Tantra is the most profound and scientific aspect of spirituality. It is like an ocean. Just as it is impossible to explore the entire ocean and everything that exists in it, so it is impossible to know all the mysteries of tantra. Just as we try to make the best use of the ocean’s resources without having complete knowledge of the ocean, so do we attempt to make use of tantric wisdom without knowing everything about tantra.
Tantric masters have explored the possibility of potentizing herbs and herbal preparations for quick and lasting results and they have compiled authentic tantric herbal formulas—but their significance is obscure. The formulas can be understood only if we comprehend the interconnection among different branches of knowledge, including ayurveda, alchemy, astronomy, astrology, gemology, numerology, and swarodaya (the science of breath), as well as the sciences of mantra, yantra, and personified forms of deities and how they correspond to the subtle forces of the human personality. Tantric philosophy and metaphysics provide the interconnection among these different branches of knowledge. A perfect blend of all these sciences and practices is called “tantra.”
How can an herb be potentized in a tantric fashion?
There are certain mantras, yantras, and rituals which can be used to awaken and intensify the medicinal properties of an herb. There are also certain times when the energy of these herbs awakens by itself. For example, there is an ayurvedic herb called vacha, one of the most valuable herbs for unfolding and strengthening retentive power. This herb is hot in effect and is therefore used in conjunction with cooling herbs. (A particular variety of herb from this family has been found to be carcinogenic; therefore vacha should be taken only under the supervision of an expert.) Because of its heating properties, vacha can be overwhelming, unmanageable even, for those who are weak, pittic, or spacey. And in ayurvedic preparations, this herb is used in small proportions, along with herbs that have cooling and nourishing properties.
I will give you a brief explanation of the tantric way of using vacha. According to Indian astrology, when Jupiter and the eighth constellation (Pushya) are aligned, the conjunction is known as pushya amrita yoga. At least 72 hours before this alignment occurs, an expert tantric who has completed an entire course of the gayatri purashcharana practice goes to the place where the herb is growing and invokes and awakens the subtle force of the herb with appropriate mantras and rituals. The adept then waters the plant while fully absorbed in the bija mantra known assaraswata bija and attends the plant for three days, energizing its retentive power (medha shakti) through his or her practice. Then, when Jupiter and Pushya come into alignment, the adept harvests the plant, root and all, without cutting or harming it in any way. The plant is then kept on the tantric’s meditation altar until the time for taking it arrives. The adept who harvested this herb can take it for his or her own benefit or can administer it to someone else. It is taken on the seventh day of the waxing moon in the month of Magha (achala saptami), a date that usually falls in the last portion of January or the first portion of February. This herb is taken only once in a lifetime.
The person taking the herb bathes a couple of hours before the astrological occurrence, meditates on the saraswata bija mantra, prepares a paste by crushing and grinding the root, and when the paste is ready, liquefies it with milk. (For the sake of brevity, I will omit the elaborate procedure for preparing the paste.) The candidate then walks into a river until the water is up to the upper chest or neck, and faces downstream. He or she then drinks the preparation and remains in the water for at least an hour, doing japa the entire time. If the candidate feels nauseous he or she must stay in the water until the nausea passes. If the nausea induces vomiting, the vomitus must not come in direct contact with the skin (which is why the candidate is facing downstream). When the liquid has passed from the stomach to the intestines, it is safe to come out of the water.
If the preparation is digested, the effect will last a lifetime. If it is expelled, it means the candidate was not prepared. Before taking the preparation again, the body will need to be strengthened and detoxified and the fire within needs to be awakened by yoga practices, including pranayama and the gayatri purashcharana.
I have met a few aspirants who have undergone this tantric treatment and these encounters have convinced me that this kriya, known as saraswata oshadhi prayoga, can have a miraculous effect on one’s retentive power and creativity.
There are other ways of using herbs in a tantric manner, such as tying the herbs to the arms or using them as incense, but the most effective method is to offer the herbs into the fire, provided the entire ritual (which involves worship of yantras and mantra recitation) is done with precision.