Shatavari // asparagus racemosus
Shatavari // Asparagus racemosus
Demulcent. Sweet. Bitter. Nutritive.
The world is formed by an interplay of forces, and among those forces are that which is penetrating, and that which is receptive. For the most part, in our society, that which is penetrating is always seen as ‘strong’ and ‘active’ and is therefore ‘better’ in the eyes of society, because it is the active aggressive force that manages to get stuff done in a quick and efficient manner. But also, because it has for a long time overpowered the soft. Which isn’t to say that the soft isn’t powerful (it is) but that in the eyes of society, soft power isn’t even recognised, because its type of strength isn’t one that leads to conquering goals, countries, or other people. Soft power works behind the scenes, connecting people, touching people. It’s the hand on your shoulder that lets you know you’re not alone, and it’s the deep pull of the earth that reminds you that you’re held and loved, regardless of what’s happening in your life.
Western civilisation is built around this idea that to be productive and active and moving forwards towards a goal is the epitome of human-ness. That basically, if we are to be ‘good’ people, we should be working as hard and as fast as possible. That progress is the way, that we can chomp through resources and find another planet when we run out here. That we can somehow keep going, and drive ourselves into exhaustion, and outrun death if need be, in order to prove our self worth. As a result, we don’t like to be receptive, or slow, or dark, or deep, or open. Softness is a weakness: something that we need to refine and harden up to make ourselves streamlined so that we can move forwards faster, and be worthy of some unattainable goal.
There are lots of constitutional models that you can use to describe this pattern further. I like to look at this pattern in terms of the element of fire and water, and their current state of imbalance.
Fire is a penetrating force. It burns through resources and gets stuff done. Fire moves faster and faster if unencumbered, and it *wants* to move as fast as it can. It’s the righteous anger that has us arguing with strangers over politics, and it’s the achievement and goals and greatness that we are striving for. It’s forwards, and onwards, and the faster the better. It is endlessly hungry, fanned by air, stopped only by earth, or water, or a lack of fuel.
Water is the feeling. Receptive, open, flowing, soft. It fills whatever space it is placed in. In ourselves, our water is the receptive, open, feeling parts of us, that doesn’t have form or structure. It is emotion and intuition and traumas that need to be addressed before we can move on. Our water is where we connect to others— in the same way as a body of water connects two shores— and where we experience empathy and meaning.
Because its our water that gives life meaning; our fire is what give life purpose. And to have fulfillment, we need both purpose and meaning.
For so many, it is easier to ignore, or even cut off, the watery aspects of their persona: how many people do you know who cut off their ability to feel so that they can ‘get stuff done’? How many times have you cut off your own ability to feel in order to survive? When we slow down, we become aware of where we are; of WHO we are; of what we are feeling, and so many of us don’t like what is there, that we keep moving forwards in avoidance.
Moving forwards without ever feeling what we’re touching is pointless: it’s a life devoid of meaning, devoid of true connection. To reach the pinnacle of some career goal and have all the fixings of a good life without ever being touched by it, well, what’s the point? On the other hand, to feel so much as to be consumed by feelings and never move forwards, never have a purpose or a goal? That doesn’t feel good to us either— to the parts of us that have drive and actually want to have an impact on the world.
This tendency towards hardness, and fiery, driven action, is reflected in society, and in our bodies, and in the world at large: we are experiencing a massive drought in many parts of the world; water is quickly becoming the most valuable resource there is. In our bodies, so many people are dried out, fried, exhausted, and experience the plethora of symptoms that arise from the lack of this soft, receptive, and moist energy in our lives.
And this is where shatavari comes in.
Shatavari is cool and moist and diffuse. Where some herbs have tendencies to target specific pathologies or organs or systems, shatavari is a more broad-reaching, slowly and steadily affecting the entire body as a whole, bringing it back into a state of balance. You could say that shatavari’s actions transcend specifics, or operates on another level, where instead of having a noticeable effect on any defined area, it approaches the underlying patterns of the body, in a more lateral sense.
People are driving themselves forwards at an unsustainable rate. It is unsustainable because it burns through resources at a rate faster than they can be replenished. This applies in the world at large, with the way we treat the planet, but it also applies in our own bodies.
Shatavari is a herb for the deep exhaustion that comes from years of pushing ourselves to burn through our deepest energy reserves in order to get stuff done in the name of productivity and progress. It replenishes our deep wellspring.
Our deep energy reserves come from from the fluid, the moistness, the deep earthy, nourishing, soft energy. When we start to over-emphasize fiery productive energy in our lives, we start to draw on our reserves energy to feed it. Over time what happens is that the deep wellspring of energy reserves in our body start to become depleted, and we start to feel more tired, more dried out, more brittle. Symptoms range from hot flashes, to night sweats, to flushing on cheeks and chest. Also included are exhaustion, insomnia, and ringing in the ears. (If this sounds like every menopausal woman you know, you’re right— in Chinese medicine, the group of symptoms commonly known in the west as ‘menopause’ are simply known as ‘yin deficiency’, and it’s actually a relatively uncommon occurrence in a culture where cultivating and nurturing this deep, moist, slow energy throughout the course of the life is emphasized).
Shatavari teaches us tenderness. Kindness. Softness. Over time that cool, moist, soft energy seeps its way into our cells, lubricating and nourishing us from the inside out. When depleted, we can summon energy in short bursts, or fuel up with caffeine and sugar, but the long-sustaining, deep energy that gives us the capacity to tackle large obstacles, and not feel completely overwhelmed by life is harder to come by. Shatavari replenishes that deep well, so that over time, energy levels are more sustained, and the more stressful aspects of life become easier to deal with.
And because this is a soft and non-specific energy, it’s soft and non-specific in replenishment too. It’s not the same as a caffeine rush of energy, or the adrenaline-fueled panic we often have to wind ourselves into to get things done. It’s a slow, deep, and sustained. Taking shatavari, you don’t notice immediately that you have more energy, but after a week or so you notice that you feel better, are capable of doing more, actually FEEL like doing more. You’ll notice it because its there, because you feel more grounded, capable, and stronger, but you won’t see it coming or be able to pinpoint where exactly in your body it is.
A word of caution: one of the things that people tend to do when taking shatavari long term is start to have more energy, and then start to use it. To use a financial analogy: if our energy levels are like a bank account, and we have checking and savings. Checking is like yang energy: quick, easy to use. Savings are there for rainy days and emergencies, and not something you want to dip into every day. A lot of people end up in debt to fuel their every day lives, and this is like using our yin energy up to fuel the yang. What happens when people start taking shatavari long term is that they feel so good having more replenished energy levels, that they continue the spending activity that got them into this situation in the first place. Or, upon having a savings account with more money in it, people start dipping into it again. So, in order to truly change the way we use our own energy resources, we have to change our attitudes and approaches to them. Rebuild that energetic savings account, but see it for what it is: deep and precious, not the thing that needs to get burned up in order to fuel our daily life stresses.
The other area that shatavari has a noticeable effect over time is with constitutional dryness (which is totally and inextricably tied in with the exhaustion of deficiency).
Our body produces fluids. These fluids keep us cool and moist, and act much the same, in many ways, as, say the water in an engine, that cools down the heat produced by the production of energy. Metabolism tends to produce a lot of heat. The fluids in our bodies balance out all of this heat, so that we don’t just continue to get hotter and drier. But these fluids serve other functions too: protecting our membranes from the caustic fluids of food-break-down; lubricating our joints so that the movements we make don’t cause pain; lubricating the way for the flow of motion, that is constantly happening in our bodies, to carry on smoothly. It is the fluids between our cells that allow for transmission of electrical impulses, and the fluids that allow for the passage of nutrients and waste materials. In our lungs, the fluid of mucous allows the tissues to remain supple as the dry air causes our alveoli to expand and contract. In our digestive tract, mucous smooths the passage so that our foods don’t scrape and irritate our intestinal tracts. In our gallbladders, fluids help to keep our bile running, and to lubricate the membranes so that they are supple. In our vaginas, if we have them, we produce fluids to lubricate the way so that penetration isn’t painful. In our mouths, fluids keep our tissues moist so that we can speak without needing to drink water every five seconds. In our eyes, fluids allow our eyelids to glide along our eyeballs without pain.
The fluids in our bodies also help with immunity: Mucous in our bodies is the first line of defense against pathogens, and when we are constitutionally dry, we lack an appropriate amount of mucous, which makes us more susceptible to pathogens, bacteria in food, etc. In our digestive tract, mucous is a layer protecting from bacteria entering into the blood stream. In our respiratory tract, the layer of mucous that coats our bronchioles stops airborne pathogens from entering the body. In the vagina, mucous production protects against microbes.
Shatavari increases fluid production in the body, in the areas where its most needed. This can be the digestive tract, or the respiratory tract, or in milk production, or in the mucous membranes of the genitalia. But, you’ll find that when it comes to mucous membranes, dryness in one area indicates dryness everywhere: they work as an overall system in that way. So if for example, the respiratory tract is irritated and dried out, you’ll find that the digestive tract and genitalia are under stress too. This is why most of the moistening herbs have a systemic effect. Shatavari is the same: it affects the body as a whole, increasing fluid production, moistening dried out tissues, softening, nourishing, feeding.
Because of its tendency to lubricate the body, and the mucous membranes, which includes the vaginal tissues, shatavari is commonly toted as a ‘women’s herb’, in fact the translation for it is something like ‘woman who kept 100 husbands’. I’d like to write an entire monograph without even mentioning gender, because I think it does plants such a disservice to say that they are for specific people with specific genitalia, however, it’s such a common misconception that I think it needs to be addressed.
Shatavari is not a ‘women’s herb’. Shatavari is a herb. There are energies in the world that as a society we tend to associate with being more ‘masculine’ or more ‘feminine’ but if you look around at the well balanced people you know (including yourself) you’ll see that all genders on the spectrum have a combination of qualities that are both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. For many people, being called a quality that is commonly attributed to people who are a different gender, can be insulting, because it ‘attacks’ their perception of themselves. To call someone who identifies as male ‘soft’ for example, is somehow insulting; to call someone who identifies as female ‘hard’ is often insulting. And yet, if we look at ourselves and each other, there is so much freedom in not having to subscribe to these ideas, to being comfortable in who we are without ideas about labels. To just exist, and be a wide variety of qualities, without attributing them to any series of things. And if you identify as male and want to cry, or have a cuddle, or be soft, or squee over a kitten, then you can do so without having your gender or sexuality questioned. With regards to shatavari, it’s described as a herb for women because its qualities are softening, moistening, lubricating, and it was named such a very long time ago, in a society that is largely patriarchal, in which a woman’s role for years was to tend the home and bear children (though this is changing). In the modern age, where gender roles are [thankfully] being questioned, explored and opened up. And where people are free to pick and choose whichever gender roles they want to apply to them, we can dispense with this idea that women are supposed to be soft and men hard, and women moist and men dry, and women complacent breeders and men virile seeders. You get my drift, right? So, shatavari is not a herb for women, it’s a plant that has properties that can soften and moisten and cool an overheated body. In this day and age, that applies to everyone who needs it.
As mentioned above, shatavari has a moistening effect on the mucosa overall. This applies to the respiratory tract, where shatavari can cool, calm and soothe an excessively dry and irritated cough. Think of mucous membranes that are hot and inflamed due to dryness and irritation. It isn’t as immediately moistening as, say, marshmallow or slippery elm, but it is more building in the long-term. That is, its effects are cumulative. So, look for systemic, chronic states of dryness that also include adrenaline stress and exhaustion. Look for flushing in the cheeks and a tendency towards redness, not as an excess, but as a deficiency of grounding/ rooting/ deep wellspring energy. Look for insomnia that arises from exhaustion and not being able to sink into a deep restful state for long enough.
I mentioned exhaustion already, but it is worth also mentioning how great shatavari is for helping deal with stress and anxiety on a daily basis.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean all stress and all anxiety. There are different causes for both, and shatavari isn’t going to, say, remove the stress caused by a soul-destroying job or magically make a newborn baby sleep through the night. But, if you tend towards heat and dryness, and you live in a place that is fast-paced, and it gets hot and dry, and you are starting to feel frazzled, exhausted and anxious, you might want to look to shatavari for some help. Heat and dryness, if we are already hot and dry, are sources of stress. We don’t think of it in this way because we are never taught that our enviroments press on us, but everything that our bodies touch, and that we encounter, is registering in our nervous system, in our skin, in our senses. If you stop and pay attention to the world around you, you’ll start to notice: oh it’s bright. Oh its cold. Oh, there’s a loud noise. Regardless of whether we’re consciously noticing them, our bodies are picking up on them. To many of us, heat and dryness is very pleasant: if we tend towards being cold and damp then a hot dry day will often feel really good and soothing to us. If we are already hot and dry then this kind of environemnt is going to be aggravating, and will contribute to a baseline stress level. If everything else in your life is running smoothly and making you happy then the environment might not affect you much at all. If your life is a shit show then the environment you live in can be the extra hair on the coffin that pushes you over the edge. It’s the easiest thing to mitigate, because it’s entirely within our control: drink cooling, moistening, nourishing things. Your body will thank you. The people in your life will thank you.
Shatavari and mallow
For systemic dryness, mucous membrane irritation, and tension/ anxiety coming from excessive dryness. Add milky oat if this also comes with a feeling of being fried of frazzled.
Shatavari and ashwagandha
For complete exhaustion that comes along with the inability to make it through simple functioning tasks. Ashwagandha will help to deepen the sleep and provide some more immediately usable energy, while shatavari builds up the deep reserves over time.
Shatavari and peach
If the dryness and irritation comes with flushing, redness, bright eyes, and a slightly feverish demeanour (but no reason for it).
Shatavari and damiana
For softening and letting the world touch us, embracing a softer, more juicy type of sensuality.
Gentle enough for daily use, nourishing, soft, moist, slow and cool, shatavari is the epitome of everything we need to balance out the over-heated, overly fast, overly productive and driven bent of modern society. And in taking it daily, in nourishing these soft parts of ourselves, we start to discover parts of ourselves we’d previously been ignoring (or even disliking). We start to discover the joy in languid slowness; the beauty of connection with our soft bits; that maybe life isn’t all about how productive we can be all the time, or how much we can get done.
Soft, supple, moist. Receptive, passive, quiet. Dark, deep, open. Slow. Surrender. Sensate. There is no way to bring life back to this side of reality, save to give it life: to nurture it in ourselves, and accept it in others. Any kind of softness in this world of hard edges is a rebellion. Collective softness, in a world that’s determined to crush it out, to stamp on it, hurt it, or ignore its existence… that’s a revolution.