Thursday, August 6, 2015

Reviving the Doctrine of Signatures: How to Start Seeing Signatures in the Natural World

Photo by Ferran Jorda

By Ashley Litecky Elenbaas, MSc., RH(AHG)

From the very beginning of time humans have sought out recognizable patterns in nature and have tried to decode their hidden meanings. As natural creatures, that is, having evolved from the same elements and in the same environment as the flowers, trees, and stars, we contain the same natural wisdom as every other creature and plant that lives in this world. This natural intelligence has led us to not only follow very basic patterns of living on the earth and following the cycles of day and night but also a deep desire to sync up and understand patterns inherent in other  beings, plants, and animals.

We are not sure when humans first began to see the similarity of patterns found in plants and rightly compared them to the patterns found in their own bodies. We can speculate that many of plant names like lungwort, stoneroot, mandrake, and eyebright were chosen because of the similarity of the look and shape of the plant to its medicinal use.

This intelligent awareness of seeing patterns in plants led our early ancestors to associate plants with body parts they looked like and seeing the shapes and colors or flowers as containing sacred information that would lead us to decoding its special powers and medicinal uses. These signatures were mentioned in the early Greek texts written by Dioscorides (40-90 AD) and Galen (129-200 AD) when it was common belief that in the shape and character of natural objects there are symbols that by association can lead to an understanding of their use. Paracelsus, a Greek astronomer, botanist, chemist, and herbalist was thought to be the first person to coin the phrase “Doctrine of Signatures” in 1537 and used the term arcana to describe the spirit by which we can decode these great mysteries.

This model of understanding and studying plants is now resurging after many years of condemnation by the church and scientific communities. The idea that imagination, analogy, and essence is just as much a part of learning and healing process is coming back in a big way as many herbalists are desiring to blend the magical with the mundane. The doctrine of signatures provides a practical method for tapping back into our imaginal and natural intelligence to understand the basic essence and possible uses of plant medicines.

So, how do we DO this? How can we tap back into that primal way of viewing ourselves as natural creatures who are connected and innately designed to decode the natural world?

Here are a few ways to get started:

  • ·         Open Your Senses – Each day go outside and walk around. Walk as if you are not just an observer of the natural world but are a living participant. If a plant moves and catches your eye, walk up to it. Study its movements, the shape of its leaves, the color of the flowers, the way it grows and where it grows. Does it resemble any body organs or make you think of a body system like the circulatory system or a knobby joint? Gently squeeze a leaf between your fingers and notice its smell. Is it grassy, aromatic, does it remind you of something else? Listen to the plant, the sounds of its leaves in the breeze any rattling or moaning. What do these sounds have to say? Notice the plant’s texture, its leaves, flowers and stem. Does it have thorns or does it have a fullness or succulence? What might that mean? Lastly, if you have properly identified the plant, have a taste, what does your body tell you about this taste?
  •     Think Like a Plant – When you find a plant that you wish to study give yourself time to think like that plant. Where is it growing? Why is it growing where it is growing? Why might it choose to live there? What adaptations would this plant have to make in order to thrive under its current conditions? How might this translate into a medicinal teaching for humans?
    Photo by Eddl Van W.

  •   Learn to Listen to your Intuition – For many of us this is the hardest part. We see a plant and we think back to what we have learned from books or teachers or expect the plant to come right out and tell us what it is. Learning the subtle ways of pattern observation and deep listening is a skill that must be developed just like developing our rational mind to do math and to drive a car. I find that sitting with a plant and taking deep breaths while dropping into an almost trance-like state is the easiest way to access our intuitive body. Once we are relaxed and open we can tap into a curious and child-like space where we start to see patterns, magic, and sometimes we can even hear the plants as our awareness of the living essence of the plant opens up before us. Don’t get discouraged. Keep trying.  Try talking to your houseplants while you are watering them, sing to your garden flowers, and sit beside trees and try to feel into who they are.
  • Look it up in a Reputable Source! Once you’ve sat with a plant and have gathered some ideas from your senses about what they may mean, look it up! I like to use the Peterson’s Field Guides and Botany in a Day by T. Elpel for my botanical identification and then look up the signatures in a wonderful book on the doctrine of signatures called The Language of Plants by Julia Graves.

Using this method of learning about the plants will help you not in your recollection of these medicinal uses but will also deepen your connection to the essence of each plant.  As natural creatures living in a natural world why not study herbs in a way that honors both the magical and material parts of our ancestral past.

Published by Evolver. Visit for more of Ashley's work and writings.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mother of All Asanas: Salamba Sarvangasana

Today the sun goes into the sign of Leo and we enter into the fixed fire of the summer season. During this hottest time of the year there are many things we can consider in terms of our yoga practice and keeping it balanced.

While it is not necessary to completely remove all warming and fire producing postures and breath techniques, we should consider adding poses that cool, calm, and nourish the system. My favorite among these is salamba sarvangasana or shoulder stand.

In "The Light on Yoga" B.K.S Iyengar calls this pose the"Mother of asanas" and "as a mother strives for harmony and happiness in the home, so this asana strives for harmony and happiness of the human system."

To properly prepare for this pose we should adequately warm up the neck, upper back, shoulders, spine, and work on backbending pose shapes like cobra, locust, camel, and bridge pose where the lower tips of the scapula are working toward the front ribs (depression) and together toward the spine (adduction). We also want to emphasize the importance of grounding the back of the head into the floor or mat and lifting the neck vertebrae away from the floor. Pressing the head of the arm bones into the floor also helps this action. Beginners should use blankets stacked under the shoulders to reduce compression of the spine and advanced students can work on chinlock to stimulate the thyroid.

As the summer heat kicks in taking 3 minutes for shoulder stand in every practice will help regulate the thyroid and parathyroid glands which are responsible for metabolism and body temperature regulation. Inverting will also support heart and brain health and has a cooling and calming effect on the mind. Along with increasing our intake of water and adding in more fruits and vegetables, we can use yoga's most mothering pose, the shoulder stand, to keep the body and mind cool, calm, balanced, and collected.

Happy Practicing!

Monday, July 20, 2015


by Ashley Litecky Elenbaas, MSc. RH(AHG)

Featured on: The Alchemists Kitchen a Reality Sandwich Production
Plant spirits are tricky.  Like catching fireflies, their magic quickly fades once you try to place them in a bottle, jar, or pocket (we all make mistakes). So, how do we catch this elusive spirit of a plant? Are there ways to coerce the plant spirits into our medicines so they can perform their magic in our bodies and in our spaces?
The good news is there are! Here are some fantastic ways to respectfully harness plant spirits into safe and usable forms and the methods and practices that I have found over the years to work best. As with all medicine and plant gathering, be sure you know your plants. These formulas will work best for the aerial parts of a plant which includes the flowers, leaves, and the above ground parts.  If you are new at this I recommend starting with familiar culinary plants like basil, peppermint, rosemary and thyme. All have delightful spirits that will work well in each of these preparations.

Here are two crucial tips necessary for catching plant spirits:
Firstly, and most importantly, consider your approach. If you go straight at a plant with a sharp pair of scissors and a lifted eyebrow, chances are the plant spirit will vanish. Sometimes they disappear into their roots, other times they jump to another plant. When approaching a plant be relaxed, soft, and pretend like you have a little secret that you are going to share with them. Plant spirits LOVE secrets.  
Then, once you are close enough, kneel down, gently take the plant into your hands, start to tell them a story or fun secret from the human world and then gingerly transfer them into a container of your choice. Even if you are collecting herbs in a basket, you can keep the spirits around by keeping them entertained as you gather and walk.
Once you have gathered the plant, with the spirit intact, here are 5 ways to preserve your plant spirits:
Make A Spirit Vinegar – This is a very simple and easy way to transfer the spirit of your plants into a very usable and palatable form. My favorite is apple cider vinegar, raw and organic if available.  To do this, use your hands and gently tear your plant into smaller pieces. Try singing a song, humming a melody, and work quickly and sweetly.  Fill about ½ of your container with the plant material and then use your apple cider vinegar to fill the container to the top! Place in a shady nook or cupboard for a few weeks. Then strain the plant material out, donate it back to the earth, and your plant spirit infused vinegar on salads, stir-fries or as a daily supplement!

Bundle it up – You like hugs, right?  Well plants do too!  Consider making an herb bundle with your spirit infused plants. These can later be used as decoration for altars, wall art, or burned as an herbal smudge ceremonially. My favorite plants for bundles are mugwort, peppermint, sage, sweet grass, and lavender. To make an herb bundle, gather your plants into even bunches and trim the bottoms so the base is flat. Use hemp, thick red thread (spirits love the color red!), or twine and begin to wrap them from the bottom. Once you have wrapped them 10-12 times at the base, cradle the bundle in your hand holding the leaves together and begin to wrap upward diagonally. Once you reach the top wrap diagonally downward so that you cross each thread and make an X. It is also a good idea to hum or sing while doing this process. Then, hang your bundles upside down in a well ventilated space for a few weeks until they dry.
Soak the Spirit in Spirits – Nothing preserves the spirits of plants like alcohol! Plus I have to think that the little plant sprites like the buzz as they relax and let their spirits flow into the fluids around them.  If you can get organic grape alcohol, this is my favorite -- or you can also use Everclear grain alcohol. Aim for 190 –proof alcohol if possible, and if that is not available then you can use 150 or 100-proof vodka. To infuse your plants gently tear them into smaller pieces while singing or humming and place them in a glass jar with a good fitting lid. If possible fill the jar all the way to the top leaving an inch at the top. Then pour your alcohol over the top and press the plant material down gently until it is completely submerged. Cap and thank your plant spirits for their cooperation and let them know they are in for a fun ride! Place in a shady nook or cupboard for 21 -28 days (a full lunar cycle is best) and then strain and compost/offer the plant material back to the earth.  There are many ways to use these spirits depending on the plant you chose. You can add a splash to a fruity cocktail, place a few drops on your tongue for a plant pick-me-up, or mix with water and add it to a spritzer bottle with a few drops of essential oil as a plant spirit spray. 

Invite Them In – A great way to bring the spirit of plants, especially flowers into your life, is to place them in a jar or vase in your home. You will still gather the plants as recommended above and simply place them somewhere in your home where they can soak in conversations, laughter, mealtime smells, and human secrets.  This is also a wonderful way to get them to share their secrets with you. Here is a great article on how to gather and arrange wildflower bouquets.
Make a Flower Essence – The cool thing about making flower essences is that you often don’t even have to pick the plant you're using to make the essence.  A wonderful way to make a flower essence is to go out with a glass bowl of spring or filtered water in the morning around 9 am and find a willing plant in flower. Look for an upright head and in a plant that has an abundance of energy to share. Then, tip the plant head soaking the flower head in the water without breaking the stem and sit for an hour to three hours while thanking the plant for sharing its essence with the water. You can also gather the flowers from the stems, removing them from the plant and place them in the water bowl of water. In both cases, sit with the flowers and let the rising energy of the sun draw out the spirit of the plant. Once you see the petals begin to fade use a clean chopstick or a thick piece of grass to remove the flowers (don’t use your fingers) and look for tiny vibrant bubbles in the water. Then pour this essence into a jar or dropper bottle and add a splash of brandy to help preserve it. This is your mother essence and can be used according to the energetic principles of the plant. To learn more, click here.
Ashley Litecky Elenbaas is a Clinical Herbalist and owner of Sky House Yoga, a donation-based wellness collective in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Yoga Teachings from Country Living

This week I've had the great pleasure of house sitting for one of my favorite backwoods retreat centers. I have learned so many things during my stay. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Keep A Routine with Nature - In yoga we study that most sadhanas/practices are done as the sun rises in the morning. After staying in the country I found myself going to bed around 10 - 10:30 pm and waking up between 6:30 - 7 am. It is easy to follow the rhythms of nature and keep a routine when you are among the elements. I found the ritual of waking early and walking the dog to the creek once in the morning and once in the evening proved to be the most wonderful sadhana. When we walk in nature it is easier to breathe, practice mindfulness, and we are moving our body and energy. It is easy to feel connected to the birds, bunnies, plants, and all things that cycle with the moon and with the sun. I can't think of a more yogic practice than that!

2. Spider Webs are a Part of Life - I can't even count how many times I walked into a spider web this week. These invisible sticky obstacles are everywhere. They are a real part of life as are flies, stink bugs, poop, and death.

3. Know Your Wild Edibles - There has been nothing more body and soul satisfying than being able to walk down the street and feast on wild edibles. This week I got my Vit C quota filled every morning picking mulberries, black raspberries, and service berries. This morning I wrapped my black raspberries in wild mint leaves that were growing nearby. I can't begin to share how powerful it is to eat food and herbs right from the earth. You can join local Meet-Up groups in your area and learn how to wild forage for yourself. This practice is so good for the body and mind.

4. Have a Companion - Country living is lonely if you don't have a friend. I recommend having a furry 4-legged companion or a nice cute person you like (I was blessed to have my husband come join me for 2 days). The beauty of nature and life is even more beautiful when you have someone to share it with.

5. Sleeping in the Dark - I had no idea how much light pollution there is in my neighborhood in Takoma Park until I came out here. When I turn off the lights it is DARK. It took a while to get use to it but I have never slept better! I am going to buy new shades for our bedroom windows at home. Check out your sleeping environment. Make sure all LED lights are off or covered, and try to get your room as dark as possible to help your brain go into deep states of regenerative sleep.

6. Chickens are Strange Creatures - Just saying. They make really peculiar noises, they use their heads to propel their bodies, and they eat EVERYTHING.

7. Slowing Down - Sounds like an obvious one but until it happens it is hard to know what the difference feels like. Try slowing down, notice the effect on your physiology. This week I have been more relaxed than I have been in months and I think this is due to mostly to having very little influence of electromagnetic fields, traffic noises, and being able to wake and sleep with the earth's rhythms. I have been eating better, really feeling my body, and have been able to be more efficient in my work because everything I am doing is slower. Slowing down is another sadhana that we can easily incorporate simply by re-working our morning routine into one that is spacious, easy, and gives you time to really tend your needs before you move into "task" mode.

Thanks for reading and if you get a chance this summer to go camping, backpacking, or retreat off to the country, I highly recommend it!
Happy Practicing!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Savasana Anytime, Anywhere!

We all love savasana. Some say it is their favorite pose or the 'real' reason they come to a yoga class. 

But why should savasana only be limited to a 3-7 minute span, once a week, at the end of a yoga session?

In our house we have this thing called "floor time." It is exactly what it sounds like. At certain points throughout the day Adam and I will announce that it is floor time and we will lie on the floor on our backs for a good 3-5 minutes, stretch out, take some deep breaths, space out, and stare at the ceiling. Sometimes the dogs are with us enjoying their own floor time along side us and sometimes one of us is still walking around or in a chair while the other is sprawled out across the carpet or grass zoning out. I feel like it is one of the healthiest practices that we share during our busy work weeks for our minds and our bodies.

If you do a little research you will find that in most traditional societies people lay down on their backs several times a day. They take 5-10 minutes to enjoy the firm support of the earth under their backs and have a mid-afternoon siesta or an after dinner snooze while watching the sunset. This position is also the best for star gazing, cloud watching, and daydreaming. All critical to our brains biorhythms and our deeper mental health.

Research from the Mayo Clinic shows that sleeping on your back is the healthiest position for our skeleton, nervous system, and organs. Dr. Oz agrees as does Dr. Michael Breus, known as “The Sleep Doctor,” that a supine position puts the least amount of strain on the joints and is the best position for achieving deep states of sleep.

So if you get an itch to shift your position, change your perspective, relax and space out for a bit, take some "floor time" or better yet, "earth time." Savasana is no longer just something we do on a yoga mat but should be taken out into the world to be enjoyed anytime, anywhere. I believe laying down throughout the day in this way is good for the mind, body, and as the yogi's believe, the soul.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Kirtan Courtesies:How It Works

A few nights ago I went to an amazing concert with an artist who includes kirtan style chanting. Kirtan is a style of devotional chanting that includes singing along and call and response. There is a kind of "kirtan courtesy" that you learn after attending even just a few of these events. While I am not an expert in this area of yoga I do think that I can share a few things that might help newbies attending a kirtan or sing-along style of spiritual event to keep the energy clear, strong, and so as to not annoy the people around you. Here it goes:

1. It's not all about you. When we attend a spiritual event like a kirtan it is like entering a place of worship. We are there to join together and to create a harmonious space with our voices so the subtle energy of spirit can enter. It is about blending your voice with those other voices in the room to create a divine harmony. It is not a place to show off your loudness or to evangelize your own thoughts or throw out random words that you feel are important. Think about kirtan as creating a complicated spiritual soup. Too much sage is overpowering and can ruin the experience for everyone.

2. Call and response. There are some songs where it is clear that the leaders of the music are chanting first and then the audience chants in response. If no one else is singing but the leaders, that is not the time for you to sing. We all sometimes get swept into the music and chant both parts unknowingly but the kirtan courtesy of call and response is there for a good reason. First, you practice LISTENING. Yes, listening. Something that is very important for obvious reasons. Then you respond to what you hear along with the voices of the group. This flow of listening and then responding creates a very sacred current that has far reaching benefits if you follow the pattern.

3. Harmony, okay, complex vocal flailing, not okay. So you think you sound like Mariah Carey? Good for you. A kirtan event is not the time or place to show off your vocal dexterity or to play around with harmonies that you are not comfortable with hearing yourself. If you are like most of us you have a pretty decent voice that can hold simple notes and you have the ability to find the same note everyone else is singing. This is called being modest. Sure, we could all try to fling our voices around and maybe find one note that kinda works but that would be obnoxious and annoying. Right?

So, I know my tone is a bit snarky but seriously people, if you are going to go to a spiritual event and not a rock concert you should be aware of some common niceties and shared values. Many of us go a kirtan to connect with something bigger then ourselves, to chant the many names of the divine, to feel a part of a community of harmonious and mindful people. I offer this with love and respect for the millions of people across the world who take this practice very seriously and to the two women behind me at the concert who I wish would have read this post before they added their wavy gravy to a perfectly beautiful kirtan soup.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Keep it Simple Sweetie: Sequencing Tips for Teachers

We've all heard the acronym "K.I.S.S" which I like to define as, "Keep it Simple Sweetie." This is a wonderful way to think about yoga sequencing and class planning. Many teachers have come to me over the years asking how they can know if their classes have helped their students. While just about any yoga class will help, there are very simple things you can do to ensure a class meets the mark every time.

"Keep it Simple Sweetie" is my personal favorite teaching technique. Keeping it simple means coming up with a simple theme, one that you can concisely speak about, and one that you can relate to your peak posture or can apply easily to the entire practice.

Whatever you choose keep looping your theme and your poses together. Create a tapestry that pulls out the same colors and creates a consistent pattern. You can take a simple theme like, "coming out of hibernation" and apply it to an entire class sequenced around cobra pose (this is what I taught last night) and share some interesting facts about snakes, hibernation, and focus on back bends that build in complexity from the simple shape and alignment points of cobra.

When you keep a theme simple and focus on one pose as your anchor students can sync their imagination to the evolution of their poses. Before they know it, they are going deeper and further into postures then they have before and they walk away from your class with their imagination engaged and spirits heightened.

If yoga is is the yoking together of mind, body, and soul then maybe all we need to do as teachers is to design simple classes that engage the imagination, provide intelligent sequencing, and offer soulful meaning. What do you think?

If you are looking for some wonderful sequencing resources, here are a few of my faves:

Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes by Mark Stephens
Jivamukti Yoga by Sharon Gannon and David Life

Happy teaching sweeties!


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Wild Edible Spring Greens: Medicines in Your Own Backyard

Spring has almost sprung and its time to wake up and start moving again! You may find yourself craving more salads and fruits as the body sheds its winter protection. Traditionally, in the spring, country folk would begin to gather spring greens to help the body detox from the rich foods of the winter.  The Greek physician Galen (130 AD – 200 AD) and many other notable physicians after him commonly believed the blood became stagnant after a cold winter, and that the long winter months affected one’s temperament and triggered melancholy.

The easiest way to cleanse our blood and to relieve the winter blues is to eat wild spring greens. Their bitter flavor along with their high mineral content gives the liver a little push, stimulates the secretion of digestive fluids, supports the removal of waste through the organs of elimination, and nourishes the cells and tissues. Eating spring greens is a great way to feel connected to the earth and to sync your body with the rhythms of nature.  There is also science showing that eating small amounts of native soil is beneficial to our immune systems and can balance our gut flora.

Gathering wild edibles is fun and easy but you do need to know your plants. I recommend taking an herb walk with a local herbalist or signing up for a wild edible foraging workshop. I'll be leading two herb walks in Silver Spring this May and there are a number of great Meet-Up groups throughout the country. If you live in the city you can purchase many of these greens at local farmers markets or at your local market. Local urban foraging groups can also help you find clean spaces to harvest your spring greens. If you are lucky enough to have a yard or some land, you will likely find many of these plants ground around the edges of your property or along the sides of trails.

Here are three of my favorites:

  1. Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata- This spicy and bitter plant's name says it all! It is one of the first edible greens that pops up here in Maryland and it really gets your digestive juices flowing. This prolific green leafy plant is high in vitamins A,C, and E and even has pretty good amounts of B vitamins for veggos! It is also super high in vital minerals and has a long time European folk history of use as an antiasthmatic, antiseptic, diaphoretic, and vulnerary. (source)

  2. Dandelion Greens (Taraxacum officinale) - Yes an obvious pick and this plant has so many great health benefits!  The leaves are high in potassium and also contain diuretic agents. The nice thing is that diuretics typically cause potassium loss but dandelion has it covered and provides additional potassium to the system, how great!  100 grams of dandelion leaves contain 2.7g of protein, 3.1 mg of iron, and 397 mg of potassium. The young leaves taste best and they can be eaten raw or blanched with other veggies. (source)

  3. Chickweed (Stellar media)- This lovely little plant packs some pretty stellar health
    benefits! It is another of our folk remedies that has a long standing as a spring green as it is a gentle laxative, digestive aid, and circulatory tonic. I have used this plant many times as a poultice for rashes, burns, stings, allergic eyes, and pretty much anywhere where there is inflammation. It is a wonderful cooling topical remedy and is super easy to spot once you recognize the star shaped flower.  As a wild edible and ethnobotanist Jim Duke in his book, The Green Pharmacy, notes its historical use as a natural slimmer and recommends it in his "Weed Feed" slimming salad which contains chickweed, dandelion, evening primrose, stinging nettles (cooked and cooled), plantain, and purslane. (source)

    So, if you are looking to improve your health this spring get outside and forage for wild edible plants!  It will get your blood moving, you will soak up Vit D from the sun, and you will be getting nature's most potent spring remedies!

    For for information about our upcoming herb walks visit our workshops page and to link up with a local Meet-Up group search "Wild Plant Foraging".

    Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Mindful Movements of Nature

Is all mindful movement yoga? This morning I watched a robin outside my window stretch, flutter its wings, stretch its golden orange throat before moving into song. It reminded me of the movement ritual that I practice before beginning my day. Does the robin shudder, shake, and stretch so it can give the world its best song?

I have thought about this with my two dogs. They wake up each morning with a big stretch, go from down dog to up dog, let out a little yawn or squeak and then greet the day with a wide smile. Is this movement ritual a simple way of moving their life force so that they can optimally enter into their day?

This leads me to only more questions and has me imagining how all kinds of animals and plants like frogs, armadillos, agrimony, daisies, and dandelion move to enhance their own experience of life.

My Piscean south node likes the idea of a hundred billion yogas. Each one specific for the needs of that individual. A musician and metal worker who cooks only in crock pots wakes up twirling her wrists playing invisible notes across the room and squats from her heels to tippy toes to warm up her body for lifting her crock pot from the cupboard below the stove to the tall counter. The single mother with an hour commute arises and pantomimes the games she plays with her children and makes sweeping motions with her long neck swaying her head side to side as she looks over her shoulder.

If your body contains its own yoga, its own movements created entirely for the betterment of your life, how would it go?

What would be your poetic way to prepare your limbs, rivers, voice and bones for each wonderful day?

Written by Ashley Litecky Elenbaas