In Ayurveda, herbal medicine is an important branch of medicine. Herbalism is often used in conjunction with diet, exercise and lifestyle to help address doshic imbalances. Although Ayurvedic herbal medicine is a complex subject, there are some basic tenants that create the foundation.
How Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine Works
Firstly, it’s important to understand that according to Ayurveda, every herb and ingredient is classified and used according to its gunas, virya, vipaka, and rasa. Each of these qualities have an effect on our doshas. Understanding these effects is the first step towards understanding Ayurvedic herbal medicine.
In Ayurveda, there are 10 pairs of opposing gunas. Each guna either increases or decreases the three doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha).
- Heavy vs Light
- Slow-dull vs Sharp
- Cold vs Hot
- Oily vs Dry
- Smooth vs Rough
- Dense vs Liquid
- Hard vs Soft
- Static vs Mobile
- Subtle vs Gross
- Cloudy vs Clear
The virya refers to an ingredient’s potent energy and the immediate effect on agni (digestive fire). It is either:
The vipaka refers to the post digestive effects of an ingredient. This is either:
The rasa refers to taste. The rasa of herbs can sometimes be the opposite of what they are after digested, which makes Ayurvedic herbology very specific in its treatment. The rasa of herbs can be:
- Sweet: Increases kapha, decreases vata and pitta. Promotes the growth of tissues, soothes the senses and organs, and calms the mind. It is nourishing, revitalizing, tonifying, and rejuvenative. Rice, mango, and shatavari are examples of this.
- Sour: Increases kapha and pitta, decreases vata. Kindles the digestive fires and stimulates the mind. Examples of this are yogurt, lemon, and rhubarb. Sour remedies are rare but effective.
- Salty: Increases kapha and pitta, decreases vata. Promotes digestion, reduces stiffness in joints, increases appetite, and acts as a mild sedative. It is not necessarily found in herbal remedies, but can be added to increase the “saltiness” of herbal preparation.
- Pungent: Increases vata and pitta, decreases kapha. The pungent taste is stimulating, increases the appetite, is a diaphoretic, expectorant, and kills parasites. It helps to purify the blood and reduce issues with obesity and excess fluid in the body. Cardamom, ginger, and black pepper are examples.
- Bitter: Increases vata, decreases pitta and kapha. Highly effective in viral infections or reducing inflammation. Bitterness detoxifies, is antibacterial, reduces fevers, and cleanses the blood. Neem, aloe, and bitter gourd are examples.
- Astringent: Increases vata, decreases kapha and pitta. With powerful anti-inflammatory properties, astringent rasa aids in stopping diarrhea, promotes healing, and is an effective and natural sedative. Examples include pomegranate, chickpeas and green tea.
Putting it together
Once you understand the gunas, virya, vipaka, and rasa of an ingredient, you can begin to understand its effects. For example, Ashwagandha has a rasa that is bitter and astringent. It also has a warm and heating virya, however, after metabolic digestion, its vipaka becomes more sweet and unctuous, which is why it is suitable as a Rasayana for the muscles, fat, and reproductive tissues, and best for Vata balancing.
Another example would be dried Ginger with its pungent rasa, and with a virya which is hot. After digestion, its vipaka is pungent and sweet, which makes it suitable for Kapha and Vata types, and is helpful in reducing adipose tissue.
The best way to determine the right Ayurvedic herbal medicine is to consult with your Ayurvedic physician or Ayurvedic practitioner. But, if you’re looking to start incorporating Ayurvedic herbs now, a fantastic place to begin is with Chyawanprash. Chyawanprash is one of the most widely prescribed formulas because it contains all six rasa, meaning it is suitable for all constitutions, and is made up of over 30 powerful herbs and natural ingredients that nourish the entire physiology and revitalize the system.
Ceanna Saatsaz is a Licensed Master Esthetician, Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, and Certified Professional Herbalist from Seattle, WA.