In many ancient traditions, winter is the season where we look inward. It is a time of quietness and solitude, a time of potency and power, of wisdom and fear, and of darkness and water. A good meditation practice will help your journey through the season, and the use of herbs to augment your practice has been an age old tradition as well. Here are two you should know: holy basil (tulsi) and gotu kola (brahmi).
Holy basil, also known as ‘tulsi’ (Hindu) or ‘tulasi’ (Sanskrit) is probably the most venerated plant in Hinduism and has been used in spiritual practices for hundreds of years. One legend has it that Lord Vishnu had three wives: Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Ganga. In a heated argument, Lakshmi and Sarasvati put a curse on each other and Sarasvati’s curse turned Lakshmi into a tulsi plant. Another version says that Vishnu freed Lakshmi from the curse of living as a plant, and that she left some of her hair behind to grow on earth which, in turn, became tulsi. But regardless of the story, the sacredness of the plant is seen in its use in ceremonial worship to Vishnu. It is planted in courtyards or outside homes where it is used in a daily ceremony known as Pradakshina.
There are three species of holy basil: Ocimum sanctum (Krishna) known for its red-purple leaves, O. tenuiflorum (Rama) with green leaves and O. gratissimum (Vana). Holy basil is related to our sweet basil and all basils are in the mint (Lamiaceae) family. And like sweet basil, tulsi needs a warm sun to flourish. Still, if you can grow one inside, with the help of a grow light, just having this plant near you can bring calmness to the spirit and mind. For a meditation focal point, surround the plant with your favorite crystals or stones.
Of course holy basil can be made into a delicious tea. Some flavors that go well with it are peppermint, ginger, rose or lemon. When ingested, holy basil is said to have adaptogenic properties, meaning that it helps the body to handle stress. David Winston considers it an immune amphoteric, which is an action that down regulates a histamine (immune) response: think of allergies, asthma, and hay fever. Finally, it is used, often in conjunction with gotu kola, Gingko, Bacopa and/or rosemary, to improve ones concentration and mental clarity.
Gotu kola (a/k/a Indian pennywort) (Centella asiatica) is a plant little known outside the herbal world, but has long been used in Ayuvedic practices as a tonic for the nervous system and for mental clarity. Also called, Brahmi, it is often confused with Bacopa monnieri (known by the same name) so always check the label if you are buying a product called “brahmi”. Both herbs are used the practice of rasayana or rejuvenation therapy. Centella is more cooling (and so more for the pitta constitution) while Bacopa is warming and thus more suited for the vata/kapha constitutions. Bacopa has traditionally been used for only supporting brain and nervous system functions whereas gotu kola is used for that and for the skin—both internally and externally.
Traditionally, gotu kola is taken as a tea or made into oil. If using it to support your mediation practice try also incorporating a daily tea ritual. A nice blend to clear the mind and open the heart and spirit are: gotu kola, holy basil, hawthorn, and rose. About a tablespoon per day would be a “therapeutic” dose of spiritual capital. Just steep the tea for about 10-15 minutes.
An oil made from gotu kola has many uses. It is used as both a skin and hair conditioner, for stretch marks, eczema and cellulitis to name a few. The easiest way to make an infused oil is to get a small dark jar with a wide mouth, add half well- crushed herb to it, then fill the jar with a carrier oil (say olive or sesame oil). Put a piece of wax paper over the top and then put the lid on. The oil should be warmed to about 100 degrees for at least a week, preferably two. When done, press or strain out the herb (called the ‘mark’) and add your favorite essential oils to make your own skin rejuvenation oil. Just put the oil in a glass jar away from light.
Whether you use gotu kola as a tea, as an oil, or you simply want to have the plant near you, all will help to raise your spiritual capital as you journey inward in these winter months.
Sources: Herbal Therapy & Supplements by Winston and Kuhn, Ayurveda & Panchakarma by S. Joshi, Clinical Guide to Blending Liquid Herbs by Kerry Bone, and the American Botanical Council.