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There are two parts to studying herbalism: Understanding the body and understanding the herbs used to treat it. Unfortunately, one of these often gets forgotten, leading to a practice that is deficient in essential information.
To become a proficient herbalist, you must become fluent in the language of the two worlds of plants and people, which so vividly mirror each other.
In this week’s blog post, you’ll learn:
- The importance of understanding the body
- How your knowledge of the body intersects with herbalism
- Areas of study to focus on regarding the body
- How to combine your understanding of both to provide transformative healing
Starting on your herbal path is exciting. There’s so much to read, learn, absorb, and apply. As you increase your knowledge of the plants, you might find yourself feeling more and more drawn into the plant world. But this can lead to an unfortunate side-effect… you might forget to study the all important aspect of herbal medicine: the people we administer them to!
This makes sense. After all, you must have started studying herbalism because of your feelings of love and connections with nature and the herbs that fill it. However, as much as becoming knowledgeable and proficient in the language of herbalism feels like the “end-all-be-all,” it’s important to remember that this is only one part of the equation.
The role of the herbalist is to bridge the gap between the plant kingdom and the human kingdom. Through your knowledge of the physiology of people and plants, you can act as a conduit for tremendous healing, especially in the face of the many stressors that face us in modern life.
However, how can you act as this bridge if one of the supporting pillars is missing?
To learn everything you can about the plants is one part of being an herbalist, including harvesting them, growing them, and preparing them into medicines. However, we need to remember that the purpose of herbalism isn’t simply to accumulate knowledge, but to use what you know to heal someone.
Learning about plants is only one-half of the equation. Understanding the human body, as well as the herbs you use to treat it, is a critical element of herbal medicine that is commonly overlooked, yet incredibly necessary. By having a foot in both worlds, you can contribute to the transformative healing that is so needed today.
Venturing to understand the body can feel daunting, but you don’t need a degree in medicine to begin your studies.
There are numerous online courses and textbooks you can take that delve into lessons explaining the biological processes of the body. Once you feel confident in your understanding of anatomy and physiology, you can move forward with your studies of the constitutional systems to gain a deeper understanding of the tissue states that affect each individual in mind, body, and soul. Lastly, studying pathology and disease processes will assist you in providing care for people when sick. And if you really want to nerd out, you can dig into pathophysiology.
If you are a medical practitioner, whether that be in the field of western allopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, or something else, studying and incorporating herbalism into your practice can offer a unique perspective to health and healing. Regardless of your previous education, brushing up on areas that you feel unclear about will increase your confidence and competence as an herbal practitioner.
With your strong physiological understanding of the body combined with the traditional models of healing, you will begin to understand health and the development of disease in a whole new light, one that transcends the mechanical framework and extends into an ecological perspective of health.
Points of Relation
You’ve studied anatomy, physiology, constitutional theory, pathology, and disease processes.
First of all, you can wipe your brow. That’s quite a lot of work! If you haven’t completed those processes, there’s no reason to feel rushed. You have all of the time that you need to delve into those studies. And to be perfectly honest, the learning never ends and you’ll likely revisit many of these topics in the future, especially when you start working with people with specific diseases and conditions.
Maybe you want to spend a year on each subject, a month, or some other amount of time. There is no one-size-fits-all timeline, and you do not need to complete this all in one go. There is no glorification in rushing or stressing yourself out. The journey is the destination itself, and as you learn to sit comfortably throughout the ride, you will notice that you feel significantly calmer throughout the progression of your studies.
While you increase your knowledge on each of these subjects, there’s no reason to press pause on your studies of the plants themselves. In fact, increasing your knowledge of your materia medica as you move throughout your process of learning can drive this information further into your working memory as you note points of relation between the plants you are studying and the organs, systems, tissues, and constitutions they affect.
For example, if you are studying Borage (Borago officinalis) and learn that this plant has an affinity for the respiratory and endocrine systems while providing balance for the dry/atrophy and heat/excitation tissue states, you can relate this to the information you’ve learned about those systems on a biological level, thus increasing your understanding of the person and plant as a whole.
There are numerous ways you can be an herbalist, and there are different scales to which you can practice as well.
Perhaps you feel connected to medicine making but only feel interested in small-scale projects made at home for yourself, friends, and family. Alternatively, maybe you have mastered the art and skill of making medicinal salves and feel ready to offer this to the public on a larger scale.
If medicine making doesn’t feel like your calling and you prefer to speak and meet with people instead, you might enjoy making personalized herbal suggestions to people you know, either within your community or through a clinical practice.
Whatever degree of practice you aspire to as an herbalist, developing a strong understanding of the human body remains a critically important factor towards developing your herbal competence. With the information you have gained by creating a framework for studying the human body just as you do the plants, you will be able to effectively select a remedy that will support their body on a biochemical and constitutional level, encouraging health rather than suppressing symptoms.
The root of the problem may lie in the body, mind, emotions, or even soul. My approach to herbal medicine is that herbal remedies have the ability to affect us on all of these levels. Taking a Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) tincture three times a day may bolster the health of your liver, but emotionally encourages the release of anger, and spiritually, grants us fortitude, grounding, and resilience. Herbal medicine is so powerful because it has the ability to catalyze our spiritual transformation.
From the alchemical perspective, the mind, body, and soul are not considered separate entities. Rather, they are facets that comprise the entirety of who we are. The practice of true holistic herbalism is accomplished by using the entire plant to treat the entire person, in mind, body, and soul. This is the cornerstone of the Evolutionary Herbalism model.
The application of holistic herbalism is precisely the healing I believe humanity needs so badly at this time. There is a sickness today that extends beyond the physical body that cannot be healed through medication alone. I am not speaking ill of allopathic or biochemical medicine since all practices have their time and place. However, I do believe that herbal medicine has the capacity to facilitate a deeper level of transformational healing that is truly needed today.
The Missing Piece
When you meet someone for an herbal consultation, it’s important to conduct a good intake and consultation.
There are so many layers to how a person will respond to an herbal remedy. By taking the time to understand their constitution, physiological processes, patterns of disharmony, and energetic imbalances, you can ascertain which herbal medicine will suit them best, not based on their biochemical actions alone, but with the energetics factored in as well.
Unique patterns exist in humans and plants. Some people have a constitution that is dynamic and excitable, while others are prone to lethargy and stagnation. Since nature and the human body reflect each other, the same can be said for plants. Some plants are drying and warming in nature, such as Calendula (Calendula officinalis), while others are cooling and damp, such as Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva). By increasing your understanding of the two, you can gain insight into how these core patterns will affect each other and what constitutional response will generate as a result.
And key to this is that it isn’t necessarily in conflict with a biochemical or scientific understanding of the body. In fact, they enhance one another for a more holistic view.
The process requires time and patience, but taking the necessary steps to bolster your herbal knowledge with a biological understanding of the body will complete the missing half of your herbal practice. Furthermore, it will lead to you becoming an effective herbalist who is proficient in the language of these two reflecting worlds and feels confident communicating and weaving between the two.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Nature is beautiful, magnetic, and enthralling. If you feel drawn to study it, you should trust this instinct and pursue this passion! During your journey, you may not feel the same enthusiasm or curiosity for studying the human body you have for plants.
However, the human body and nature reflect each other. What can be observed in the body can be seen in nature and the other way around. Without one side, you are missing a fundamental piece to herbalism, left with only half the equation.
Take the time and effort to deepen your understanding of the human organism on the same level you commit to knowing the plants. Once you do, you will experience a synergy of the information that widens your understanding of herbal remedies and how they impact people. By developing your herbal competence through the mutual understanding of plants and nature, you honor the herbal traditions of the past while paving the future for our future as well.
As you walk down your plant path, remember the reason why you pursued your studies in the first place: To help people. Allow this to be the beacon of light that grants you the determination and focus to become the herbalist that the world needs so badly today.