Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
If there is one herb in nature that most supports the empowering practice of hatha yoga, it would be cordyceps. No other more perfectly deepens the breath, rejuvenates prana (life force), calms the mind and nervous system, and increases physical endurance.
Native to the Tibetan range of the Himalayan mountains, cordyceps is an exotic mushroom that grows in the soil of bamboo and pine woods, and, oddly, on the heads of caterpillars. In fact, many varieties of cordyceps grow by infecting insect larvae, mature insects, or truffles with their spores.
Here is how it works: As a caterpillar feeds on a mature mushroom, it makes contact with its spores. A single mushroom spore will penetrate the fleshy head of a host caterpillar, germinate, and use the larvaeÕs body as food, replacing it with its own mycelium, or roots. The fruiting body stalk of the mushroom usually emerges from the smaller head of the larvae, and what finally develops is a slender mushroom about two inches tall, with its mycelium having replaced and taken the ÒformÓ of the original caterpillar.
Fortunately for vegetarians, most commercially farmed cordyceps products are caterpillar-free, as the true caterpillar form found in nature is rare and sells for premium prices in Asian markets.
Traditionally cordyceps have been revered by traditional medicine and by Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu yogis for enhancing vitality and longevity. Devout Buddhists in northern Tibet believe cordyceps to be the embodiment of the mountain gods, and to remove them solely for profit is taboo. Yogis throughout the region have used the mushroom for centuries to nourish the life force and support the intensity of advanced practices.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is described as a nutritive, rejuvenating tonic believed to strengthen vital energy. It is thought to do this by strengthening the qi, or vital energy, of the kidneys and lungs. The lungs extract qi from the world around us through the air we breathe, while the kidneys are where it is ÒgraspedÓ and stored. In order for the kidneys to grasp and hold the qi, they must energetically connect with the lungs. Cordyceps strengthens this energetic connection in such a way that we seem to breathe deeply into our kidneys. According to Taoist Yoga, an abundant storage of qi is the key to vitality and long life and a fundamental goal of the Taoist Yoga practice qi gong.
The calming effect of cordyceps during exercise has been the subject of much research in Japan, where it was discovered that cordyceps contains adenosine, a naturally occurring neuroprotector that buffers cerebral nerves from damage caused by lack of oxygen. Adenosine naturally increases during conditions of stress or low oxygen, such as endurance exercise, but is not produced in enough quantity in some people to allow such exercise to be comfortable.
In Ayurveda, cordyceps is classified as a rasayana herb, an herb that is rejuvenating to prana. It supports the endocrine system, nourishing the adrenal and reproductive glands. It also generates shukra, or reproductive fluids, such as semen and vaginal fluids, and restores weakened sexual function. Cordyceps is a useful remedy for asthma due to its expectorant and cough-suppressing properties, and a powerful support for strong asana and Pranayama practice. It relaxes the airways, soothing tightened tracheal muscles that constrict the flow of air deep into the lungs.
Also, cordyceps is tridoshic (safe to all dosha types), and because of its nutritive foodlike qualities, it may be consumed for long periods of time without any known side effects.
James Bailey, L.Ac., M.P.H., Dipl. NCCAOM, practices Ayurveda, Oriental Medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine,
and vinyasa yoga in Santa Monica, California, and writes our column on herbs each issue.