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Cause & Effect

Ayurvedic herbs can help restore balance in your body—-but how do they work?

By James Bailey, L.Ac.

Ayurveda teaches that the healing power of herbs is based more on their energetic nature than on their chemical nature. To utilize Ayurvedic herbs you must understand the energetic nature of your own conditioned imbalances--as well as the energetic nature of herbs and foods--in order to restore balance.

Herbal healing involves a complex interaction between the energetic nature, or prakriti, of the herbs and that of the patient's condition, or imbalance, otherwise known as the individual's vikriti. Herbs are products of nature and store within themselves unique patterns of energy (prana), which reflect the nature of their surrounding environment, including the amount and quality of sunlight, soil nutrients, temperature, moisture, and dryness. These energies create the taste of the herb, its heating or cooling ability, virya, its prime attributes, or gunas (whether it is sattvic, rajasic, or tamasic), and most importantly its postdigestive effect upon four of the patient's doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha).

These varying qualities are referred to as the herb's basic "energetics" and are used in Ayurveda to classify herbs too. Consider the role of taste. There are six primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Each has an associated heating or cooling effect, moistening or drying effect, light or heavy quality, and ultimately an altering effect on the doshas.

An herb's taste, as with foods, is divided into two types: the initial taste, or rasa, and the postdigestive taste, or vipaka. Rasa translates as "essence," "delight," or "sap." The rasa of an herb or food makes subtle contact with the prana of your body, both in the brain and in stimulating the digestive fire, or agni. Vipaka is the effect of the herb or food after being altered by the digestive fire.

After the rasa has been assimilated, three postdigestive tastes remain: sweet and salty have a sweet vipaka; sour has a sour vipaka; and bitter, pungent, and astringent have a pungent vipaka. The postdigestive taste has the greatest effect upon your doshic constitution. The virya of an herb is its heating or cooling property. virya has nothing to do with the external ambient temperature of the herb; it is an inherent quality, like the hot nature of pepper. Even if you freeze a pepper, it still warms or burns the tongue when eaten. virya is also associated with the herb's potency or power. When practitioners refer to an herb's "energy," they usually mean its virya. A typical label would be "cooling" or "heating," meaning the amount the herb has of the energies of fire or water (agni or soma).

One of the most important aspects of herbal energetics is the long-term effect of the herb upon the individual's dosha. An herb either increases, decreases, or has a neutral effect upon the doshas, usually referenced in written texts by a plus (+) or minus (-) sign after the first letter of the dosha.

For example, an herb like amalaki, which reduces vata and pitta and is neutral to kapha, would be represented as follows: VP- K. The initial taste, or rasa, of Indian Long Pepper (Pippali) is pungent; its virya, heating; and its vipaka, sweet. Its doshic affect is represented as VK-P+; thus it reduces vata and kapha and increases pitta.

A few herbs are neutral, which means they have no long-term altering effect upon your dosha. These are commonly referred to as "tridoshic," or VPK without any signs. Of course, these are some of the safest herbs to consume for long periods of time, if needed. But therein lies the art of herbal healing. Sometimes even a little knowledge can do more harm than good; so before taking any herbs, always consult a trained and certified Ayurvedic practitioner.

James Bailey, L.Ac., M.P.H., Herbalist AHG practices Ayurveda, Oriental Medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and vinyasa yoga in Santa Monica, California.


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