Monday, May 19, 2014

Plant Teachings of Yarrow - A Shepherd and Warriors Best Friend

Today's plant choice was inspired by my obsession with sheep. As an earth sheep in the Chinese zodiac and with my sun and moon in the sign of Taurus (about as earthy as it gets) I feel a particular resonance with slow moving, vegetarian, and peace-loving herd animals. Lately I have also been drawn to stories of warfare and battle. So, in honor of these last days of the Taurean season and the stationing of the war-loving planet, Mars, today in the sky, I decided to write about a plant that is favored among animal caretakers and warriors, Yarrow.

I first learned about Yarrow, Achillea millefolium while on an herb walk with David Winston at the Medicines From The Earth Conference in 2003. David showed us its "thousand leaves" which translate to "millefolium" in its Latin binomial. It was amazing to see these feathery soft leaves which in the language of plant signatures look like the aerating spread of capillaries in the lungs.  David shared the plants association with the Greek god Achilles who used this plant to heal his solider's wounds. This ability of Yarrow to stop bleeding makes it a valuable herb among farmers, shepherds, and soldiers.

Along with its styptic and vulnerary properties, this Old World plant is antiviral and antibacterial making it a wonderful plant to apply to a wound. I can imagine my great grandfather, Francesco Parinnello, who lived as a shepherd in Sicily, keeping a little yarrow in his medicine bag as he traveled through the hills with his sheep. It would be the ideal medicine to apply to a small jagged cut on a lambs leg from running into a barbed wire fence or to a wound received while chopping firewood.

Yarrow is also regarded as a talisman, or protector plant. It is believed to protect one from evil or negative influences, especially those who are more sensitive to outside energies. It was used over babies cradles, in wedding flower arrangements, folded into solider's handkerchiefs, and is used in divination with the I -Ching. Whenever I come across a patch of Yarrow, it is like a familiar and powerful ally has joined me. I know that if Yarrow is around, no matter what happens, I will be protected. Whether this is because of the multiple uses of this plant as a medicine or because of its magical properties, I am not sure. I have a set of yarrow sticks that I gathered, dried, and polished with beeswax to use with the I-Ching and they do hold a very special and clear energy. I trust Yarrow, whole-heartedly, and when it comes to making big decisions or healing a wound I have no doubt in its power and healing capacity.

I would not be a good herbalist if I didn't also mention that yarrow is one of the best overall blood tonics.

Herbalist Matthew Wood includes Yarrow in his top ten herbs to have on hand and says, "Yarrow is one of the primal remedies of the Western herbal tradition. It can
be called the ‘master of the blood.’ Through numerous devices – clotting, unclotting, neurovascular control, flavonoids, etc. – it regulates the flow of blood to and from the surface, in and out of the capillaries and venules, thickening and thinning. Through this it cures all manner of wounds, bruises, hemorrhaging, and clotting. The same property, combined with its diaphoretic capacity, makes it a ‘master of fever,’ moving blood to or from the surface to release or preserve heat and regulate fluids."

Yarrow is amphoteric, complicated, and has so many uses. It is warming AND cooling and is both astringent AND stimulates blood flow. When I see plants that contain contradictory actions it makes me think of a multi-faceted being that can help us when we are feeling polarized or stuck on one side of the pond.

To me, yarrow helps us to keep things moving in just the right way. Not too much, and not too little. I’ve used this plant with a number of clients recently.  One client has been feeling ‘unsafe’ in her home and was suffering from feelings of irritation alternating with stagnation. After taking Yarrow for a few weeks she noticed a significant shift in her feelings of security and her emotional stability. Another client was having circulation issues and had fears about leaving her ‘secure’ job to pursue a more soulful path. Within a few weeks her circulation and digestion improved and she was offered a new job that would allow her to do more of the work she loves.

Astrologer and medical herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper places Yarrow under the rulership of Venus (kidneys, female reproductive tract) and some medical astrologers place it under the rulership of Mars (blood, fever, immunity). With these two energetics we could say that yarrow also helps to balance the feminine and masculine aspects of our being. Time and time again I have seen Yarrow balance out extremes so perhaps it would be better to say it points back to a healthy sense of androgyny from which all impulses arise.  In this way yarrow is a truly alchemical plant.

Yarrow grows just about everywhere and it is an easy plant to identify by its leaf shape and camphorous scent. I will be leading an herb walk on the Summer Solstice, on June 21st from 11 - 5 in Silver Spring, MD if you'd like to join me and the Herbal Apprentices for a day with the plants. I know a nice patch I would be happy to share with you!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Nature Abhors the Square -- Bringing Nature To Our Mat

If you take a walk outside rarely will you find plants, shrubs, and trees growing at exact 90 degree angles. Most plants make soft angles toward the sun or down toward a water source. There are a few strange plants whose roots grow at 90 degrees (like werewolf root) but they are seen to exist outside the normal laws of nature and contain abnormal personalities and shocking medicinal powers (I will talk more about this in my Plant Teaching Thursday post). My favorite buildings are those with arches, steeples, and buttresses and my favorite yoga postures contain soft edges and rounded lines. 

I was just looking at some old photographs of Krishnamacharya doing yoga asanas and I was sweetly surprised to see that many of his postures also contain soft shapes. As a founding father of yoga, Krishnamacharya was the primary teacher of Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi, and his son, DKV Desikachar. I was expecting to see many right angles and stiff wrists but this was not the case. Instead I saw many photos of a smiling man, with his feet at 60 degrees, his wrist angled upward like a leaf, opening his body, mind, and heart. 

In my own yoga practice I enjoy finding small pulsations, little eddies and tidal pools to play in. My feet rarely land in the right place and sometimes I'll go deeper into a pose by changing my alignment. Some days I'll find myself rolling my wrists, shifting my hips, and moving my rib cage back and forth. This is not a pulsation like a scripted flow, but rather a subtle undulation like a plant being moved by its inner fluids and reorganizing its position so it can experience more of itself. 

My early years of yoga practice found me in many alignment based studios with teachers who had the answers and the exact angles for where my body should be. I had the books which contained pictures of the "perfect pose" and I would study myself in the mirror trying to achieve these precise angles. While I learned a lot in these classes I always felt like something was missing. In those days I was a perfectionist and these scripted classes fed by obsession with obtaining the perfect body and the perfect pose.

These days the way I practice has become a lot softer and as a result, so has my teaching. I am less concerned with my students bringing their knee "directly" over their ankle and I am learning to trust the wisdom inherent in each of our bodies. I smile when I see a student's arms expressing their heart in angles of 30 and 60 degrees. It brings me joy to see the slight curves in a student's spine and to watch them find their footing in a way that makes them feel grounded.

In a world with so many hard lines, sharp angles, and right ways, our yoga practice can be a place where we soften, bend, flow, and breathe in accordance with the laws of nature. And not just the nature that lives outside our walls, but in accordance with the nature that lives inside us every moment we are here.

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