A majority of my patients are yoga teachers and students, many of whom also suffer from tight hamstrings, shoulders, lower backs, and injuries sustained both on and off the mat. A comment I hear frequently from this chronically stiff group is, "I wish there were an herb I could take." There is no substitute for the long-term process of cultivating true flexibility through asana practice, yet throughout the ages yogis have combined various methods to increase the suppleness of the physical body. The least known—and most tangible—is herbal therapy.
In his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali makes reference to the spiritual experience gained through the use of herbs as being one of the five methods of yogic accomplishment (4.1). In the same passage he mentions the concept of elixir, or sacred herbal formulations, used by yogis.
Herbs have long played a vital role in helping to reduce chronic stiffness and improve flexibility. Chronic stiffness can be traced back to an imbalance of any of the three doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha), according to traditional Ayurvedic medicine—yet vata is usually the very first suspect. Vata consists of the elements of air and ether and presents the attributes of coldness, dryness, lightness, and mobility.
Elevated vata increases both coldness and dryness, which inhibits flexibility and explains those sometimes stiff morning practices during the vata season of early autumn. Thus, by Ayurvedic definition, a balanced vata can result in improved flexibility in the skeletal muscles and joints. Certain herbs reduce vata either by warming the muscles and joints or by calming nervous system tissues. This, in effect, reduces tension, smoothes muscle contraction, and allows greater control and range of mobility.
A technique used by both yoga and Ayurveda to improve flexibility is Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing). In this Pranayama practice, herbs can be used to enhance the cleansing and opening effect upon the nadis (channels of energy), which course through the body's muscles and joints, bringing prana, nourishment, warmth, and moisture for better flexibility with less discomfort. The herbs are also thought to cleanse the muscles and joints of inflammation.
Two common herbs used are turmeric and cinnamon bark. Turmeric has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties and can help you avoid discomfort associated with strength-building postures by reducing the buildup of free radicals that occurs as your muscle tissues consume oxygen; this also reduces postpractice pain and recovery time. Research published in the 1993 Journal of Ethnopharmacology (vol.38) showed turmeric to be a nutrient for connective tissue, stabilizing the collagen fibers and preventing adhesions caused by stress and overstretching.
Traditionally, turmeric is said to provide the energy of the Divine Mother and grant prosperity. It cleanses the chakras, purifies the channels of the subtle body and helps stretch the ligaments and, therefore, is highly recommended for the practice of hatha yoga. Mixed with honey, turmeric can be used externally for sprains and strains.
Cinnamon bark is known throughout Asia for its ability to strengthen, warm, and harmonize the flow of circulation into the muscles, joints, and bones. And in the Taoist yoga systems of the Far East, a combination of peony root and licorice root is used to reduce muscle tension.
On the path of yoga the opportunity to cultivate flexibility is a gift that comes to us in many forms in addition to asana. It is a simple alchemy found in the way we live and work, our diet, emotions, and the karmic actions that effect the physical and subtle body. In a society where we look for the answers to our suffering in a pill, we must not forget that nature has given us herbs not only as remedies but also as special energetic foods to help us grow in our lives and, most especially, in our yoga practice.
James Bailey, L.Ac., M.P.H., Herbalist AHG, practices Ayurveda, Oriental Medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and vinyasa yoga in Santa Monica, California.