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Ayurvedic Practices

Ayurveda’s Sore Muscle Soothers

Open up to these natural alternatives for relief from muscle pains and strains.

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Whether you’ve sweated through the Ashtanga Yoga primary series or eased down into Hanumanasana (Pose Dedicated to the Monkey God, Hanuman) for the first time, yoga’s dual focus on stretching and strength building may spell morning-after muscle aches. If your habit is to down a couple of Advil, why not try an alternative approach instead?

Drugstore painkillers like Advil, Motrin, and Aleve are in a class of drugs called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). While occasional use is fine, popping them after every yoga class can cause internal problems—most often stomach irritation. You don’t have to toss out your favorite standby, but a slew of alternative sore-muscle remedies lie past the medicine cabinet.

Ayurveda offers several natural means of relief. According to Ayurvedic principles, muscle cramps and spasms are a sign of
excess vata energy. Vata qualities are cool, rough, and dry, so you can pacify vata-exacerbated muscle tension with moist heat. That means comfort can be as close as a hot water bottle or bath.

Michele Khalef, a yoga therapist at the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, likes to add two-thirds of a cup of baking soda and a quarter cup of ginger powder (yep, straight from the spice cabinet) to a tubful of hot water for a leisurely soak. The heating properties of ginger boost blood flow to the muscles, while baking soda helps coax toxins from the skin’s pores, Khalef says.

Don’t have time for a bath? While it’s not recommended for an acute strain or sprain (for which ice is a better choice), consider this more targeted Ayurvedic aid for sore muscles: Gently rub a tablespoon of massage oil into the muscle, cover it with a towel, and place a hot water bottle on top. Mahanarayan oil, which has a combination of nearly 30 muscle-soothing herbs (including turmeric, fennel, camphor, and clove), is best, Khalef says, but any massage oil will do in a pinch. (You can purchase Mahanarayan oil on many Web sites; find it by doing a simple search.) The oil penetrates the skin to loosen taut muscle fibers, while the heat from the water bottle encourages muscle release.

In Chinese medicine, sore muscles are a sign of stagnant chi (energy), says Anna Tsang, academic dean at the Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Denver. Tsang recommends Tiger Balm for yoga students who suffer asana-induced muscle pain: “Its mixture of menthol, camphor, and herbs helps get the chi moving.”

For general aches, pains, and bruises, homeopaths often turn to the herb arnica, which can increase circulation and reduce inflammation and swelling. “Arnica is drawn to muscle tissue and blood vessels,” says Nancy Gahles, board member of the
National Center for Homeopathy. “Since a bruise is essentially broken blood vessels, arnica is able to get right to the source and speed healing.”

Arnica is available in tablet, pellet, gel, cream, or ointment form; per the principles of homeopathy, preparations are tremendously diluted but highly effective. The topical applications generally provide more immediate relief, but you might try the different formulas to see which works best for you. If pain persists, consider seeing a homeopath for a more detailed diagnosis and customized treatment plan.

Catherine Guthrie is a writer and yoga teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, and a regular contributor to Yoga Journal.