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  • Writer's pictureGeetanjali Chakraborty

From Garden to Forest: Nurturing Healing in Our Backyard

Since our younger one was born last June, I've been telecommuting from home. My makeshift office occupies our dining table, affording a view of our verdant garden, which I consider an extension of our family. Among its members are Tulsi, Gotu Kola, Brahmi, Curry Leaves, Marigold, Ashwagandha, Aloe Vera, Hibiscus, Sunflower, Rose, and others. Before departing for India this summer, I meticulously installed a drip irrigation system to ensure our botanical family flourished in our absence. However, unforeseen circumstances led me to remain in India for three and a half months due to my grandmother's illness and eventual passing (see my post on that). Curious about the garden's progress, I asked my spouse for a description. His response was astounding: "The Hibiscus and Marigolds have nearly surpassed my height. It's like a forest out there!" Considering his stature of nearly six feet, I was incredulous. I requested he capture it on video, and he obliged, albeit in the dimly lit hours of night.

Besides being amazed by the forest that had sprung up in our small garden patch, I was even more pleased to see each member thriving in the daylight photos below.

To truly grasp the significance of this for me, let's rewind the clock.

My Personal Ayurveda Healing Journey

Around 16 years back, on my birthday, a friend sent me flowers. I felt a pang of disappointment at the gesture, knowing I now had the responsibility to care for them and keep them thriving. Unfortunately, my track record with plants, even a simple cactus, wasn't great. Skip ahead eight years, and I found myself enrolled as a student at Vedika. After just two months in Vedika’s Ayurveda program, I sensed significant changes both internally and externally. I appeared healthier and felt better overall. Over the ensuing years of study, I acquired tools to interrupt my habitual patterns and reshape my approach to life. My resilience in facing life’s hurdles notably increased.

During these classes, I began cultivating some garden herbs we had learned about from Acharya Shunya’s Ayurvedic ancestral teachings. Witnessing the slow, gentle growth of these plants had a transformative effect on me, which, in hindsight, feels monumental. I now have a garden where the plants, many of which were gifts from our Vedika community, not only survive but flourish. Proudly, I share with my friends and students that my most significant achievement in the past two years has been keeping my orchid alive, which even bloomed for a second season. I've developed a profound connection with my plants, viewing them as esteemed members of our household. My garden has become an extension of my kitchen, where healing occurs not just through cooking but through nurturing and tending to these living beings, benefiting both myself and my family.

The Healing Heart of Our Kitchen

Our dining area seamlessly blends into our kitchen, forming a single, unbroken space. I've whiled away countless hours here—working, contemplating, engaging in meetings, and diving into deep discussions around our dining table, all while savoring chai or meals cooked with care. Our kitchen and workspace have typically shared the same layout in all our previous homes. However, this time, we've been fortunate to have a garden that is only separated from the kitchen and dining area by a large glass door and expansive windows.

As I cook, I can steal glances at the vibrant life flourishing in our garden, an extension of the vitality within our home. Observing nature's intricate workings through the lens of our garden informs the decisions I make in our kitchen. Indeed, the garden serves as my extended pantry, providing not only rare and potent herbs but also an intuition and a laboratory for understanding nature's ways.

In truth, I regard our kitchen as a healer, serving as our family's frontline defense. I find nourishment here, both for myself and for others whom I love to nurture. This belief was reaffirmed in recent days when my 18-month-old fell ill with a severe throat and chest infection accompanied by fever. My spouse and I aided in his recovery through the power of our Ayurvedic kitchen. We administered food as medicine, crafting delicious barley crepes infused with freshly plucked tulsi leaves from our garden, along with pepper, ginger powder, salt, and turmeric. A light khichdi and lentil soup served over several meals, and soon enough, he was back to his playful self.

Incorporating Kitchen Wisdom into Clinical Practice

A significant boon in my clinical practice has been the temporary halt on herbal treatments, allowing for an exclusive focus on dietary and lifestyle interventions. This shift has enabled me to emphasize the role of food as medicine with greater intensity. I advocate for individuals to embrace local eating and to procure their food from farmer's markets whenever feasible. This practice fosters an awareness of seasonal produce and lays the groundwork for crafting diets and lifestyles that align with the rhythms of nature.

For instance, wild amaranth (botanical name: Amaranthus retroflexus), a common weed in California, holds exceptional medicinal value in Ayurveda. Known as "Bathua" in North India and referenced in ancient Ayurvedic texts as वास्तूक द्वयं (Vastuka Dvayam), it is revered for its ability to balance all three doshas.

According to the Bhavaprakash, verses 6.5-6.7:

वास्तूकं वास्तुकं च स्यात्क्षारपत्रं च शाकराट्| तदेव तु ब्ृहत्पत्रं रक्तं स्याद् गौडवास्तुकम्||५||

प्रायशो यवमध्ये स्याद्यवशाकमत: स्म्ृतम्| वास्तूकदि्वदयं स्वादु क्षारं पाके कटूदितम्||६||

दीपनं पाचनं रूच्यं लघु शुक्रबलप्रदम्| सरं प्लीहास्रपित्तार्श: क्ृमिदोषत्रयापहम्||७||

Shloka Translation: Vastuka is also known as Vastuka, Kshara patra, and Shakarat. This refers to the green amaranth. There is another variety that is red and has larger leaves, known as Gouda Vastuka because it grows in Gouda lands, i.e., modern-day Bengal. As it grows in Barley (Yava) fields, it is also known as Yava Shaka (Shaka means vegetable, and that is also the word for vegetable in many Indian languages like Gujarati). Both varieties of Vastuka (the word Dvayam means two) are sweet (madhur) and astringent (kshara) in taste, and pungent (katu) in post-digestive effect.

It kindles (dipan is also the word for lamp and the root for the festival of lights, Dipavali) the digestive fire, and it also digests (pachan), it increases appetite (ruchi), it is light (laghu), it is both virility-enhancing (shukra) and strength-giving (bala). It has the flowing quality (sara), it helps the spleen (pleeha), it is effective for hemorrhoids (arsha), worms (krumi), and balances all three doshas (dosha triyapaham).

Red Wild Amaranth

Wild amaranth is typically available seasonally around Springtime, although occasionally it can be found in winter as well. Both the green and red varieties thrive in California. This versatile herb frequently makes its way into various dishes in our household. Sometimes, I incorporate it while kneading whole wheat dough for parathas and chapatis. Other times, it enhances the flavor of my lentil soups. Intrigued by its benefits, I began cultivating red amaranth in my garden, as seen on the left with the towering 6-foot tall plant.

I often encourage my clients to embark on gardening endeavors, not merely for its practical benefits, although those are numerous, but primarily from a psycho-spiritual perspective. I urge them to embrace the profound interconnectedness of life, as science teaches us. We are composed of the same cosmic material as the universe itself, and all life is intricately intertwined. Recognizing that the herbs in our garden support the well-being of our family, and viewing each herb not as a mere pill to ingest but as a living, breathing entity to welcome into our lives, brings about a unique kind of healing. This healing fosters a deep reverence for all life and bridges the gap between scientific knowledge and intuitive understanding. It empowers us to discern what our health truly needs to achieve balance and how to attain it.

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