8 Ayurvedic Herbs
8.2 the Six
Classifications of Ayurvedic Herbs
Ayurveda classifies everything by taste, but marks the difference between foods and medicinal herbs. Foods generally have a therapeutic effect according to their taste, whereas herbs tend to create their primary effect by their potency (heating or cooling action) and their secondary effect by taste.
Traditionally there are six classifications for every substance that we ingest into the body. They are:
- (English => Sanskrit)
1) Taste => Rasa;
2) Attribute => Guna;
3) Potency => Virya;
4) Long-term effect => Vipaka;
5) General action => Karma;
6) Specific action => Prabhava.
This table is necessary for the therapeutic use of herbs, in which all six classifications must be considered.
Not every substance has all six of these classifications; for example, all have a general action, but may not have a specific action. The traditional classifications are very clearly defined (although there are minor disagreements according to various Ayurvedic schools), and it is with this demarcation that foods and herbs are assigned to people suffering from disease or an imbalance of one of the three humors.
Vaidya (Doctor) Bhagwan Dash describes the six actions in his translation of a 14th century Materia Medic. Taste (Rasa) is the result of the combination of the five states of matter or elements . . . Attributes (Gunas) are divided into ten groups of opposites, such as heavy or light , etc. . . . Potency (Virya) is of two kinds, namely hot or cold and as such they produce heating or cooling effects in the body . . . . Long-term effect (Vipaka) is the post-digestive effect or the action that remains after the metabolic transformation of the substance. . . . Action (Karma) is the result of the above four actions in combination with the enzymes (both digestive and cellular), together all of these create the General Action of which thirty important ones are given here . . . Specific Action (Prabhava) os the special action of a substance when ingested by a living being [the Catch 22].
In addition to the six classifications there is a therapeutic action or the action on the three humors. Some herbs are call tri-doshuc, which means that they have a balancing effect on a three humors. Generally these are herbs that have four or five of the six tastes. Other herbs may work on two of the humors, while still others may only work on one. This is the category that relates directly to your individual constitution. For beginners this is the easiest category to start from. If you know your constitution (and if you dont, go back to chapter 4 and figure it out!), Then you only need to see how a plant generally affect your constitution to see if it works for you or not. To treat an imbalance with herbs see chapter 14 for the basic methodology of balancing the humors.
I will now list some of the Ayurvedic herbs that are currently available in this country along with their actions according to the Materia Medica of Bhagwan Dash, which has been enlarged with information from the Yoga of Herbs. For the Ayurvedic classification of Western herbs, the Yoga of Herbs and Michael Tierras two books are the best references. I strongly recommend these books are the best references. I strongly recommend these books to everyone interested in the Ayurvedic use of plants and herbs.
A word about dosage is needed. Herbs are safe and effective if taken correctly. Rarely some herb - depending on which one-can be unsafe if taken incorrectly. Always follow the recommended usage. When an herb is listed as an aphrodisiac, for example, it doesnt mean that one can realize a stronger effect from a huge dose. It does mean that if taken regularly over a period of time the desired effects will be achieved. Long-term usage is the key to herbal supplements and medicines. Sometimes relatively large doses are needed for therapeutic effects to be achieved. However, attention should be paid to the prescribed dose. Herbs function better if other synthetic drugs are not used. This includes all forms of alcohol and caffeine. If a diet consisting of whole foods is taken along with herbs, their effectiveness is greatly increased. Herbs are safe, safer by far than any synthetic drug, but respect must be given to the correct dosage.
Another point t make about the use or therapeutic effect of herbs is that they are most effective when combined in formulas. It is rare to find herbs sold alone in Ayurvedic pharmacies. There are some exceptions, like Amala and shatavari. Herbs are known to be much safer and stronger therapeutically when combined with other herbs that promote and harmonize their respective action. Ayurveda also has many ways to potentize they herbs and formulas. This results in a much greater therapeutic effect than just taking an herb alone. For this reason Ayurvedic herbs are generally sold in formulas, or the doctor will have his compounder prepare a formula on the spot for a client. The best method of herbal treatment is to have your doctor prepare or give you a ready-made formula that will balance and harmonize your particular constitution. Herbs taken alone will have a less harmonious action on the body in general. I recommend that you study the books recommended earlier for they will clarify the Eastern approach to herbs, various formulations, and the correct vehicles to take them with (i.e., Water, honey, milk, etc).