Podcast 119: Learn Herbalism Like an Instrument or Language

Herbalism is experiential: you have to DO it to KNOW it.

It’s like learning to play a musical instrument – you’re going to sound bad at first! That’s necessary. If you refuse to play anything that isn’t perfect, you’ll never play anything. In herbalism, if you wait until you know everything there is to know, or until you’re 100% sure “it’s going to work”, you’ll be waiting all your life!

Learning herbalism is also a process similar to that of language acquisition. No one can absorb all the grammar and tone of a new language without speaking it. As a beginner you’ll stumble over words, conjugate wrongly, and need a lot of slow, patient repetition from native speakers. As a new herbalist, you’ll mix tea blends that don’t taste good, or try to make a tincture that just doesn’t come out strong enough. That’s ok! In fact, it’s necessary for you to make mistakes to learn well.

A lot of hesitation and uncertainty is driven by negative self-talk, so identifying and quarantining those thoughts is an important skill to develop, too. And of course, throughout all this experimentation, we need to stay responsible. That means building the majority of your work around safe, gentle herbs – and learning your herbal energetics adds a helpful boost here, too.

If you’re looking for experiments to try, why not check out our Herbal Medicine-Making course? It’s full with more than a dozen different methods for going from plant matter to finished remedy. Try a new method today!

As always, please subscribe, rate, & review our podcast wherever you listen, so others can find it more easily. Thank you!!

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.


Episode Transcript

Katja (00:01):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:15):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:16):
And we’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston.

Ryn (00:20):
And on the internet everywhere. Thanks to the power of the podcast. Well so this week on the pod, we’re going to not talk about coronavirus, but we are going to talk about every single herb in the entire world.

Katja (00:34):

Ryn (00:35):
So this is going to be a long one. No, wait, that’s not what we’re doing. We’re talking about how to learn all of the herbs in the world. There we go. Okay. All right.

Katja (00:44):
Yes. Because the thing is that herbalism is experiential. And that means that there is no way to learn herbalism without trying it. And that also means making mistakes. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I have been learning to play Irish harp and also working on learning the Irish language. And I’ve been thinking about how similar learning herbalism is to learning a musical instrument or learning a new language.

Ryn (01:21):
Yeah. I mean, in any of these people can feel afraid to experiment or afraid to take a risk or they might have gotten the idea that they have to be perfect all the time. They have to do it right. Capital letters, trademarked.

Katja (01:36):
Yeah, whatever that means.

Ryn (01:36):
The whole thing, you know before they get out there and really play and explore. Like you need to have all of the theory before you start to put your hands on the instruments or you need to have all of the grammar before you start trying to put a sentence together. And that’s just not how it is.

Katja (01:51):
It’s just not.

Ryn (01:52):
And with herbs, you know, people often feel like, Oh, I gotta learn on my whole materia Medica before I make my first cup of tea. Or Oh, this energetics thing seems really important. You’re always talking about it. I better study that for a year before I…

Katja (02:04):
Before I try anything. Yeah.

Ryn (02:06):
Yeah. But no, with herbalism, you won’t really know it until you do it a bunch of times, sometimes doing it wrong, and then you’ll really know it. Yeah. Right. So those two examples about musical instruments and learning to play them and language acquisition and learning to speak a new language. Those are going to be our kind of, you know, markers or weight stones here as we think about how to learn herbalism. So before we leap right in let’s just get our reclaimer, just like every week. We want to remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalists and holistic health educators.

Katja (02:46):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice, no state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. So these discussions are for educational purposes only. Everybody’s body different. So the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but we hope that they’ll give you some good information to think about and some ideas to research further.

Ryn (03:08):
And we want to remind you that good health is your own personal responsibility. The final decision when considering any course of therapy, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours. It’s yours. All right. So you were talking about the Irish harp.

Katja (03:26):
I was.

Ryn (03:26):
And the Irish language, in fact.

Katja (03:26):
I was. Well, so let’s start off with musical instruments. So harp is not my first instrument. I’ve played other ones, but that doesn’t mean anything about harp. Right. I still have to learn how to play this instrument. And you can know everything in the world about the theory of music. I know how to read music. I know what music is supposed to sound like. I know how to play music on other instruments. But until I actually practice it on a harp and learn how to make my fingers do the weird gymnastics that they have to do for harp, there’s no way. You have to practice. That’s the only way. And p.s. in the beginning, it will sound bad. It just will. It’s not going to sound good for a while.

Ryn (04:21):
Yeah, well, I’ll say harp is very forgiving in this regard. So if you’re somebody out there and you’re thinking like, what’s the instrument I could play and be bad at, that will be the least frustrating for those around me. Harp is a contender.

Katja (04:34):
Yeah, it’s true. There’s no squeaky like…

Ryn (04:38):
Yeah, you’ve got like what, violin is on the far end of that.

Katja (04:40):
And Oboe. Violin and oboe are like two really awful instruments to listen to someone learn.

Ryn (04:46):
Oh, is oboe hard?

Katja (04:46):
As a former oboe player, I can tell you I would walk in to band and the entire trumpet section would make duck noises on their mouth pieces to tease me, because I was learning oboe and it was hard. It’s a really hard instrument.

Ryn (05:03):
Lots of duck sounds.

Katja (05:03):
Yes. And that year was when that Robin Hood movie had just come out recently. And so all the bands were playing it, like the theme song. It was the, I don’t know, Kevin Costner I think was in it or something. And it was super prominently oboe. And that’s why I was playing oboe, because my band director was like, we need an oboe player for this. So we don’t have one. And so it’s going to be you. And I was like, all right. And yeah. Anyway, but this was about harp.

Ryn (05:37):
And herbs.

You Have to Do the Thing

Katja (05:38):
And herbs. So that’s a thing. Like, it’s going to sound bad in the beginning and you’re never gonna get there until you actually do the thing. Which means that in order to learn, you have to be willing to screw stuff up. You have to be willing to just try it and let it be bad in the beginning and let it be wrong in the beginning. And right off the bat you’re like, that’s fine for harp, Katja, but this is my health. And I have to get it right. This is no place to experiment.

Ryn (06:14):
Yeah. But there’s a lot of reasons why you think that. And you know, investigating the reasons why we may believe something is usually very humbling and very helpful. Both. So one of the reasons that this is a belief that you may carry is that you might also believe that doctors aren’t experimenting when they do their thing. And because most of us in this culture, we frame our thoughts around health and around healing, usually first through the lens of, you know, conventional medicine and doctors and pharmaceuticals and all of that. That influences the way you think about healing in other contexts too. Even if you’re intentionally trying to make a break or make a shift, that pattern of thinking is still going to be with you.

Katja (07:03):
And I mean they do call it the practice of medicine. This is the practice of herbalism and they call it the practice of medicine. It is practice. Because it doesn’t matter what kind of approach we’re taking to the care of health. Every body is still different. And not all pharmaceuticals work the same in all bodies. And not all anything, like not all bones are the same in every body. And like your organs may be in a slightly different place. And of course, because we’ve all looked at anatomy books and we think that we’re all exactly like the picture. No, you grew that body yourself. You didn’t necessarily put it exactly where the picture is. And we who don’t practice conventional medicine have this sort of idea that doctors have exactly the right answer exactly all of the time. And that they are never experimenting and never crossing their fingers. And that somehow everything that they do is going to work equally in all bodies. And that’s not the case either. So I think it’s really important if you don’t have a doctor in your life to maybe, or a nurse or a pharmacist, to maybe get one and talk to them about like the reality of yeah, sometimes you don’t know exactly what to do. Sometimes, you know, it doesn’t even have to be something like coronavirus where it’s totally new and nobody knew what to do until we started working on it. But it can be just the regular run of the mill thing. Every body is different and everybody gets it a little bit differently than everybody else. And so you do have to do some experimenting to figure out what’s right. You know?

Ryn (08:48):
Yeah. And you know, a failure or mistake or suboptimality or whatever is a part of experimentation. So sometimes doctors give the wrong advice, you know, but they can’t let that knock them out of the practice forever. You got to say, okay, I made a mistake. I’m going to learn from it. I’m going to move forward. Right.

Katja (09:09):
And the nice thing about herbalism is that you don’t have to be a deer in the headlights about it. Like our, I don’t want to say tools. I wanted to say our tools are more forgiving. But I don’t want to talk about plants as if they’re tools. But we aren’t working with pharmaceuticals and today we aren’t working with the types of herbs that are like going to kill you. You know, there are herbs that are very, very strong and they have to be dosed very, very carefully. But those aren’t really the herbs that we work with today.

Ryn (09:48):
At least in our practice.

Katja (09:48):
Yeah. Today that’s not what the population needs. Those aren’t the herbs for chronic illness. Those aren’t the herbs for fighting inflammation. Honestly, I’m not even interested in those herbs when we’re talking about something like coronavirus like that. It doesn’t occur to me to go to those herbs because that’s not what I see as needed in my practice. And the herbs that are safe to experiment with, like Thyme and Oregano, are herbs that, I mean you feel safe with those because they’re in your dinner. But they’re also some of the herbs that are right up at the front of fighting really strong respiratory infections. So, or like really scary pneumonia or whatever else. It is something that you can do and that will have beneficial effect and that is safe to try.

It Takes Experimentation

Ryn (10:43):
Hmm. Yeah. Another thing that can get people, you know, feeling like it’s not not okay for them to experiment is the similarly mistaken idea that everything that’s done in conventional medicine or nutritional advice either is medically proven. And we know that this is going to work. And we have proof about it. There’s a lot of things where that’s true. There are many where it’s not. And sometimes it’s surprising which is which. So, you know, one way that can show up for some people is that they’re even like uncertain about doing experiments with diet, with just food. You know, you’re not afraid to eat Doritos, but we’ve had people literally tell us, I’m afraid to try a gluten free diet because it’s not medically proven unless you literally have Celiac disease. And first of all, not every word in that statement is actually true. And second of all, it doesn’t have to be proven to be an absolute benefit for all individuals everywhere for you to try it out in your own body and see if it is a partial benefit in this individual right here. Yeah.

Katja (11:54):
Yeah. Well, and that goes back to that idea of like, you don’t have to know the entire theory in all of its complexity before you try something. It’s okay to have an incremental benefit. It’s okay to have like, well, I tried this thing and it improved the situation a little bit good. And then I tried the next thing and that improved the situation a little bit. Also good. Like it doesn’t have to be the one perfect magic bullet. And we think about health that way because that’s how pharmaceuticals work. They find exactly the one that that is going to fix the problem, that is going to kill that bacteria, that is going to resolve the thyroid issue or whatever and boom, that’s the drug you’re taking for this. And that also isn’t actually true. Many people take many pharmaceuticals to try to fix a problem. But our idea that we got from childhood, like the idea that we grew up with is I’ll just find, like the doctor will find the right pharmaceutical and that will solve the problem. And when we understand that that’s not actually how conventional medicine works.

Ryn (13:03):
Yeah. I mean even with things that seem to be very simple and straightforward, you have hypothyroidism, we give you thyroid medication, now your problem is solved. But there are like at least a dozen different kinds of thyroid medication. And figuring out which one and at which dose is going to be, you know, in the right balance for you. That takes a lot of time. That takes some experimentation. It takes adjustment. But every body is different. And literally anytime a practitioner tries something, it’s an experiment. You have good reasons. Like no experiment is done for no reason at all. Right? In any field really. You’re like, I’ve got a hypothesis. I have an idea about why this would make sense and why it should help. So let’s try it out and see if it does. But anytime you try anything, it’s an experiment. The nice thing is that over time you get better at the process of experimentation.

Katja (13:53):

Ryn (13:55):
Especially if you realize that’s what you’re doing the whole time.

Katja (13:58):
So I just want to say though, to kind of close out that part on conventional medicine, is that I think that it’s really important that we start to change our ideas and our expectations that we place on doctors. It’s important that we recognize that we have these expectations, because that doesn’t do doctors any favors either. Like, if as a society, we are putting them in this place where we expect that they have the right answer TM every single time. And that they will find the right drug that will solve my problem every single time. I mean, that’s a tremendous burden that we’re asking our medical practitioners to carry for us. And it’s also not actually reasonable because every body is different. And so, you still have to find the right thing for your body, which might not be the same right thing for other people’s body. So it doesn’t really matter whether you’re working with herbs or making food and lifestyle changes or working with pharmaceuticals. Regardless, you still have to find a thing that’s going to work for you. And that means experimenting.

A Lot of First Attempts Will Be Great

Ryn (15:12):
It does. You know, and when it comes to herbalism, a lot of your first attempts will actually be great. What a relief. You know, because there are so many things that the first time you try it, you can nail it, right? You can make a great cup of Chamomile tea. It’s not hard. It’s not complicated. You can make a great pot of Nettle infusion. And you may not love the flavor, but it’s going to give you those minerals. It’s going to give you the chlorophyll, it’s going to give you the kidney stimulation and all the other good stuff that Nettle brings in. Right. So that’s one of the things we like about herbalism is that there are a lot of things that anybody can do that are very simple, very straightforward, and very likely to help a lot.

Katja (15:53):

Ryn (15:53):
Yeah. So that’s nice. And it makes it a little easier maybe than learning an instrument, because some things will just be great right off.

Katja (16:02):
They’ll work right off the bat. Yes. Exactly. Even with harp, just a matter of like how you sit with your heart. My teacher keeps telling me, tip it back further, tip it back further and I’m like, it’s gonna fall over. And she’s like, it’s not gonna fall over. And we have this like every time. And she says, look, you know, just try it lots of ways. You’re going to find the sweet spot for your body. What’s comfortable in your body. And I keep telling you to tip it back further and you keep telling me you’re afraid. And you’re not gonna know until you try it. So just do some experimentation. In your experimentation, tip it back further and see where you find that place of comfort for you. And what I find is that I tip it back further, not as far as she wants. And I’m like, Oh, this is more comfortable. And then a little further. And I’m like, huh, this is easier. And then a little further. And finally, like last week I was just like, let’s just put the whole darn thing in my lap. Like, let’s see what happens. And I mean, not, it’s still standing on the ground, but like it’s really far back now. And I’m like, Oh, not only is it not falling over, but now I can kind of hold it with my legs a lot. It’s actually more stable this way. But I didn’t believe her. And I was afraid to try it, so I kinda had to ooch my way towards it. And when I finally just did the full on experiment, I was like, Oh, this is actually great.

Ryn (17:28):
Yeah. It’s that way with a lot of things. Right? Yeah.

Katja (17:32):
Well let’s talk a little bit about language acquisition too and how that is similar to learning herbalism.

Ryn (17:41):
Yeah. Well, I studied a couple of languages in college and a couple others just on my own through the years, but it doesn’t hold candle to your experience here.

Katja (17:50):
Oh, whatever. I studied languages in college, and what I like to say is that I have a degree in talks too much in class. That was what I was really good at. And then I found out you could study that on purpose. And so that’s what I did. I studied languages and I talked all the time in class.

Ryn (18:09):
And then you lived overseas.

Katja (18:10):
And then I lived overseas. But I got to tell you actually talks too much in class is a benefit when you’re trying to learn languages. And that’s one of the key things to get here is that people often would say like, wow, how are you so good at this? Honestly, there’s nothing special about, well I dunno, maybe I have some kind of aptitude for languages, but it’s that I like to talk. And if I was only allowed to talk in a particular language, I like to talk, so I was still going to talk. And the people who are afraid to talk in a language class, they won’t progress. Like you have to talk. And the thing is that in order to talk you’re going to sound stupid. Okay, so.

Ryn (18:57):
[Ryn speaks indecipherable German].

Katja (18:57):
Right. Exactly right. And so that was terrible.

Ryn (19:05):
That’s so bad.

Katja (19:06):
But it also was understandable.

Ryn (19:07):
More or less.

Katja (19:09):
And okay, so when I moved to Germany, I went to a couple of years of high school in Germany. And when I got there, I had only had one year of high school German. Like I was not a great German speaker when I got there. And the word in German for chicken is very similar to the word for dog. Especially when you are pretty new at this. And I wanted to be polite because my mama raised me right. And I wanted to compliment the dinner on my very first night. And I wanted to say this was a lovely chicken dinner. And what I said was this was a lovely dog dinner. And it actually took a few minutes because to a German speaker, like to a native German speaker, those two words are not necessarily, I mean, come on, they’re only one letter different. But, well they’re, okay, two letters different, but they’re really very similar.

Sometimes you Compliment the Dog Dinner

Ryn (20:07):
It’s Hund and Huhn right?

Katja (20:07):
Yeah. And so, but that’s the key is that sometimes you have to compliment the dog dinner in order to learn it. And that can be really hard as an adult. Because as an adult, first of all, we sort of think that we should know things, because we are adults and that means we are competent.

Ryn (20:37):
And you’re probably not as used to being corrected about having gotten your grammar wrong. Whereas when you’re a kid, that’s going to happen all the time.

Katja (20:43):
Right. You don’t even think about it because people are correcting it all the time.

Katja (20:46):
Yeah. But when you’re an adult like there is this weird pressure to somehow be fully formed. But when you’re doing something new, you’re a child again. Like it’s just new to you, you’ve never done it before. And so because of that pressure to like, when you’re learning as an adult, to appear to be an adult, to appear to be competent, there’s this whole component of negative self talk that is super, super common. Where people feel like, Oh I, I don’t know how to say it, so I better just keep my mouth shut. Like there’s so much fear to take a risk. Or even like this happens for me too. I’ll be playing a song, you guys, I know all of two songs, and I’ll be playing one of them. And it won’t sound the way that it sounds when my teacher plays it. And then I’m like, why is this so bad? I’ve been practicing for 30 minutes. Why can’t I get this right? And like there’s a place for that. That’s not serving anything.

Ryn (21:56):
Yeah. You know, or in a class that we’re teaching. And there’s 20 people there. And we’re like, all right, so you know how many of you have an herb that you really love and you work with a lot. And some people have a lot to say and others are like, Oh, I don’t know. Does mine count? I like ginger ale. And I’m like, that totally counts. That’s really great. Yeah. So it can be hard when you’re not feeling confident to speak up, but it’s necessary. And speak up, you know, it can mean different things. Right? So it can mean to actually speak, if you’re trying to learn the language. It can mean to practice, if you’re trying to learn your instrument. And with herbalism it means to spend time with plants, play with them. That’s what it is.

Katja (22:33):
And not just this, not just that, but also to stretch yourself. Like, Oh, I have the sniffles. Well I should try something. Like instead of, well I don’t know anything yet. So I guess I better not try anything. No. You know, some things. And it’s just the sniffles. It’s safe. Like how bad, you know, like try something, how bad can it be? I suppose you could have more sniffles. Like if you have a headache and you try nothing, well that headache could get worse. If you try an herb, maybe you pick the wrong one and also the headache gets worse, but maybe you pick the right one and it gets better. Or maybe you pick one that just doesn’t really have any effect and nothing really happens and okay, whatever. That’s data too. But if you just keep it theoretical all the time. And you’re just like, well in theory I know some herbs that are helpful for headache. That’s good, but as soon as there is a headache, either as soon as you have a headache, or if there’s a headache around you, you kind of grab that opportunity and speak up. And be like, Hey, let’s try this. And if it doesn’t work, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that you’re not a good herbalist. It doesn’t mean that you’re never going to be a good herbalist. It just means that you’re still learning. Also, headaches are very difficult. And sometimes even if you have been doing this for a long time, a headache can still be really hard to get the perfect herb for. But just because somebody had a headache and you suggested a particular herb. And they didn’t say, wow, my headache was gone in five minutes, that’s fine. Don’t worry about it. And then the real problem comes in when, let’s say that you did that and then your friend is like, guess you’re not a very good herbalist. Ah, yes you are. You’re a fine herbalist. You’re still learning and it’s okay. It’s okay.

Ryn (24:36):
Yeah. It’s okay to be learning for a long time. It’s okay to be learning always and to make mistakes even after you’ve been at it for 20 years. That’s what’s going to happen. You want to find a way to be okay with it happening.

There’s Always Something to Learn

Katja (24:48):
Yeah. That’s why it’s so much like language acquisition and so much like a musical instrument, because you will never be done practicing those. It doesn’t matter. I mean, like I’ve been speaking English since I was learning to talk and I still make mistakes, right? Like everybody makes mistakes when they talk. And it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been playing an instrument, it will never be perfect. There will always be a new song to learn. And that is true of herbalism too. There’s always something new to learn. You have to do it every day, but you’re not not learning if it’s wrong sometimes, you know?

Ryn (25:30):
Yeah. Every day. Yeah. You have to do it every day, right? It won’t work very well if you just do it once a week. You want to do it every day to really internalize what you’re up to. These kind of changes that you’re trying to make. You know, with an instrument, there’s muscle memory that you have to develop. And that does take repetition. With linguistics, it’s the same thing actually. Like there’s muscles in your throat.

Katja (25:54):
Yeah, and in your tongue.

Ryn (25:54):
And in your tongue that you need to train to make that trill sound or that deep guttural stop or whatever it is. That’s not always the easiest thing to do. And you have to keep practicing it. You have to keep renewing it. And it doesn’t necessarily have to take a ton of time on a daily basis. Right. There’s a large, there’s a big argument to be made that it’s better to have, you know, five, 10 minutes every day then once a week for an hour. Right?

Katja (26:23):
Hmm. I’m sorry. I got lost. Once in Germany, I was on a school trip, like a sleepover trip and the word for night and the word for naked are very, very similar. Especially if you are having trouble with those deep, guttural whatevers. Because the word for naked is nackt and the word for night is nacht. And I had not yet learned to make that noise. And so I was saying good night to everybody except really I was saying good naked to everybody. And everyone was cracking up. And that night we all stayed up really late and they made me just keep spitting until I got that noise. Yes. That’s the thing. That’s the thing. You gotta just keep doing it until you get it. And hopefully you have friends around you who will laugh with you. Hopefully you have friends around you who, I mean, nobody needs to laugh about herbalism like, well I don’t know. There have been some funny…

Ryn (27:34):
I think you probably have to sometimes.

Katja (27:35):
There have been some funny mistakes along the way, but most of the time it’s a matter of just having that spirit of adventure. Having that spirit of camaraderie. And being able to look at this as an adventure. Like I’m going to try this cool new thing. Hey, want to try it with me. And find the friends who are like that and share your new skills with those friends because they will encourage you. And if you formulate a tea and it tastes terrible, they will only laugh in the good natured way, right? Because sometimes it’s fun to laugh. Sometimes you will make tea and it tastes terrible. We still do that and we drink it anyway because you don’t waste it. But you know, you just have to laugh. Like you have to make the funny faces. And just keep going and not worry about, Oh, I really ruined this batch. Nah, just don’t even think about that. You learned something. That’s all there is. Yeah.

Ryn (28:45):
Now, of course, with all of this, we’re not just like promoting irresponsibility in your herbal practice, you know? It’s not just like, yeah, go out there, eat plants off of the ground, take everything. It’s going to be totally fine. You can actually get into trouble that way. Right? There are some herbs that are strong. There are some plants that are poisonous. And you can’t sort of flippantly just try it in every single case. But there’s a vast world of herbs that you can know and trust to be very safe. And the vast majority of the herbs that we work with and ever talk about on our podcast or in our courses are very safe. And we find that to be more appropriate for the people that we work with today. The kinds of conditions that we’re helping people navigate. You know, these are generally nourishing herbs, supportive herbs, gentle herbs that are going to exert effects to correct an imbalance and bring things back towards center and all of that. We don’t frequently work, in our practice anyway, with those kind of herbs that are really strong and super forceful and make things happen. Those did have a more important place in the practice of herbalism when that practice was indistinguishable from the practice of medicine. But times have changed. And although not every herbalist in the country or in the world works the way we do, well we do. So this is what we talk about.

Safety First

Katja (30:11):
Yeah. It’s just sort of like, if you need something that strong. Like if you have some kind of heart problem and you’re thinking about Foxglove, honestly, it’s safer to go to a doctor. And we don’t need to think about like, we’re not adversaries to conventional medication. We’re partners with conventional practitioners. And the reason that it’s actually safer to get heart medication pharmaceutically if you need it at that level, rather than working with Foxglove, is that the Foxglove, the dosing around that is super sketchy. Like it’s really hard to not kill somebody.

Ryn (30:46):
Yeah. If this is an unfamiliar example, there’s this plant called Foxglove. And its Latin name is digitalis. And from that plant you can extract a constituent called digitoxin. And nowadays there’s a pharmaceuticalized version of that called digoxin which is very powerful and super-intense. But you know, it’s a pharmaceutical, so you can dose it down to the nanogram, and be super precise about what’s going on. With the Foxglove plant, it’s hard to know from year to year or from plant to plant, how much digitoxin is going to be present in there. And so there are safe ways to work with it, but they require a lot of training under somebody who’s done a lot of work with it. And honestly, there aren’t that many folks with that kind of training, or even fewer with that kind of experience running around out there today, in large part because, as you said, if you need that agent, it’s safer to get the pharmaceutical version.

Katja (31:43):
It really is

Ryn (31:45):
There’s so many plants that don’t work that way at all. You cannot pharmaceuticalized Nettle in any effective manner. Right. And people have tried to do that with St John’s Wort and failed miserably. So but those plants that, like, their potency is due to some, you know, intense alkaloidal constituent. So frequently you’re way better off to just let the pharmacognosy people go to work. Let them take that out. Let them titrate it down and everything, you know. So there are many plants where it’s just way safer to work with them in that way.

Katja (32:19):
But those plants also really aren’t represented in what we practice and what we teach. And when you’re doing your experimentation, you’re not just walking out and saying, what’s this? I don’t know. I guess I should eat it. You’re experimenting with what you have learned. You learn a little bit, you try it out. You learn a little more, you try it out. It’s alright that you don’t know all the things yet. You learned a thing, you’re trying that thing. And when we’re talking about working with herbs like Thyme and Oregano and Sage and Chamomile and Tulsi, these are all safe herbs to try. Yeah. You might find out that you have an allergy, you know.

Ryn (33:01):
Right. Yeah. Or you might find that the herbs isn’t a good match for you, right? And so like the two major things that we think are most important for working safely with herbs are to work with gentle herbs overall. And then to have some familiarity with these ideas around things like energetics, right? Because those can help you to choose safer herbs at that level below toxicity concerns. At the level more of like, is this a good match for my body? And there’s a lot bound up in that, right? That involves having some clarity about the herbs and its degree of safety or its degree of potency before you start putting it in your mouth. Right. And it also has things after you’ve done that when you’re like, okay, I’ve tasted this herb now. It was one that I had heard of and it was from, you know, this other place that I was visiting. And I’d heard of that or before and never got a chance to work with it. But I know that people consume it as food sometimes. And they consume it as medicine other times. And I know what part of the plant they work with and so on. But I’ve never heard anybody describe its flavor, or nobody ever wrote about it in energetic terms. But you taste it and you’re like, wow, this is like pungent and spicy and has a little like puckering feeling on my tongue. Now you know some stuff. You know that that’s a warming and a drying plant, right? You know it’s got astringency going on. It’s got some stimulation effect that’s going to be coming from there. So if you have that foundation to work from, that can like level up your safety of experimentation.

Katja (34:33):
I want to say too that we don’t work with the herbs we work with because we’re afraid to work with stronger herbs. We work with these herbs because they are the herbs that get the job done. And even when it comes down to crazy, this new coronavirus that everybody has a lot of fear around. We are starting…didn’t we say we weren’t going to talk about that today.

Ryn (34:59):
We’re not talking about it this week.

Katja (34:59):
We are starting to see case studies where the case wasn’t severe enough to go to the hospital. So they were managing at home with the assistance of an herbalist. And those case studies are starting to be documented in the US. And what are we seeing as effective? Thyme steam, right. You know that to keep the airways moving, to keep the ability to breathe. And as the feeling of shortness of breath is coming on, to do another steam. And recognize that, Oh, okay. That helps to open the pathways. And so even in a situation where we’re dealing with something that is infectious and scary and we aren’t really sure. What we’re finding is that the boring herbs, the like not dangerous and whatever herbs, the safe, boring herbs are completely effective. I’ve worked with all kinds of crazy situations that I’ve supported people through. And I’ve never found a need to go to you know, plants that that could be dangerous to work with. That’s just never been something that I’ve needed to do. The plants that we work with are safe and they’re effective. They work for our situation, especially when you also make changes in food. Make changes in how you sleep and how much sleep you get. Make changes in lifestyle. It is sufficient. It is effective. And I don’t feel the need to work with things that are unsafe to experiment with.

Ryn (36:41):
Yeah. You know, some of the stronger herbs that we do work with are things like Lobelia where, you know, that’s, that’s kind of self-limiting. You know, you’re only going to take a dose so large, and then you’re going to vomit. So it won’t take more than that. You know, or I mean Garlic is a potent herb. Clove is really potent. But of course we’re not out here telling people to, you know, drink an ounce of clove tincture all at once or something weird like that.

Katja (37:05):
Right. Also that would, I think that would be very difficult to do.

Ryn (37:09):
That’d be intense. Yeah.

Katja (37:09):
Like one drop of clove tincture is so intense. I don’t want more than that.

Ryn (37:15):
Right. So, you know. Yeah. That’s just the way we get it done.

Katja (37:20):
Yeah. Well I think that we should also maybe share a little bit here. I once had a music teacher who said, never let them see you practice. And you know, he was a music teacher I had in high school.

Ryn (37:36):
Who is the them in this?

Katja (37:36):
Anyone. Don’t let anybody see you practice. Anytime that anyone observes you making music, you should be at performance level.

Ryn (37:49):
Woo. That’s a lot of pressure.

Katja (37:50):
It was a lot of pressure. But he really believed it strongly. Well, he was also a trumpeter and I was not learning trumpet, but that was his primary instrument. And you know, there’s some ego associated with that so whatever.

Ryn (38:07):
The internecine politics of band camp are completely foreign to me.

Katja (38:12):
Well, anyway, as I have grown up, I really think that whole idea needs to be obliterated. Because I think that instead, first off, if you think that you can never be seen in public unless you’re at performance level, that takes all the fun out of it. But also that’s so much pressure. And what that tells you is that it is never okay to not be perfect. I think instead we should all be modeling learning behavior, and modeling for one another that we don’t have to be perfect. It’s okay to be progressing. And I think that if we all could model that behavior, we’d also all be kinder to one another.

Ryn (38:54):
Yeah. I mean, in herbalism, a lot of that is anytime that you’re in a position to teach others, to get real comfortable saying, I don’t know. That’s super important for a teacher. It’s important for a clinician too, you know. When we have students who are in our clinical roundtables and they’re seeing their own clients. Even before then, when they’re in the clinical herbalist training and they’re learning about the skills you need in order to do that. Over and over again, I’m just drilling this lesson in all the time. You’ve got to be comfortable saying, I don’t know. You’ve got to be enthusiastic about saying, I don’t know, because that means you’re about to learn something, right? Or to start a new experiment. Yeah. Really, really critical.

You Will Make Mistakes

Katja (39:36):
Well, so not only do we sometimes not know, but sometimes there are mistakes. One mistake, you know, my mother always said about me that I was not able to learn from other people’s mistakes. Like I had to touch the thing to know for sure that it was hot. And the first time that I can truly remember learning from somebody else’s mistake was that Rosemary was telling me about a time that she was working with someone who had a cough. And she was like, I’m going to get rid of this lung infection. I’m going to burn it right out. And she took a bunch of ground mustard and she made a mustard plaster. Like she made a paste out of the mustard and put it all over the person’s chest. Now that’s a legitimate way to work.

Ryn (40:26):
Yeah, it’s a folk remedy.

Katja (40:28):
You know, like you’re to absorb that heating pungency in through the skin, into the lungs. But what she actually ended up doing was raising blisters. Like she burned their skin so badly by leaving it on too long that she raised blisters up.

Ryn (40:45):
Yeah, a lot of folks who do that nowadays, they’re like, you got to put wax paper on the skin and then the plaster goes on top of that.

Katja (40:51):
You know? Literally, it’s the first time that I ever was like, I’m never doing that. I’m never doing that. And I have never done that. I just don’t work with mustard in that way whatsoever. Mustard goes in the dinner. That’s it. That’s the only way I work with mustard.

Ryn (41:08):
Maybe we should try it sometime though to like break that fear.

Katja (41:09):
Nope. No, no. I have learned that lesson. I do not need to do it. You know, but I definitely have infused dry St John’s Wort in oil and then ended up with just a total…

Ryn (41:27):
Yeah, I think I remember that one. That was kind of like, I really want to have it. I know you’re not supposed to do it with dried. Just try and see what happens.

Katja (41:33):
Let’s just do it. It’s going to be fine. It wasn’t fine.

Ryn (41:36):
Turns out that’s good guidance and it doesn’t work.

Katja (41:39):
Yeah it doesn’t work.

Ryn (41:39):
So don’t bother with that one. I tried to infuse cayenne into oil once. I don’t know why oil is so hard, but…

Katja (41:45):
You were like, I really want hot oil. I want like tiger balm oil.

Ryn (41:52):
Yeah. So I stuffed a bunch of dried Cayenne peppers in there and poured the oil on and waited and everything. Came back and tasted it. And I’m like, I guess it’s Cayenn-y. Not really. So, that’s not the right way. I’ve since learned like powdering helps, heating it while it’s infusing helps a lot, you know, so there’s tricks and everything.

Katja (42:09):
Yeah. Fresh peppers will be a little better too. But still like if you really want to get that super hot, it turns out you have to make a tincture, and then put the tincture in the salve. And heat off the alcohol. It’s a whole process. It’s pretty fun. But it turns out it just doesn’t come out in oil.

Ryn (42:29):
Yeah. Well I’ve also had other fun learning experiences, mistakes with with hot, fiery herbs. So Garlic taught me some lessons when I was first learning herbalism from you. One was like, you can take a clove of garlic and you can kinda just very gently, just like twice. Right. Okay. You’re done.

Katja (42:49):
Just sort of like squeeze it with your teeth.

Ryn (42:52):
And then kind of just hold it in your mouth and suck on it and let the garlic juice, little amounts of garlic juice that are exuded, come down the throat and disinfect the throat and stimulate immunity and do all the other good garlic stuff. Great, I thought. A little is good, I thought. More must be better. So I bit into it a few times and then I tucked it into the corner of my cheek and I left it there for like an hour or two and I thought, great, I’m really killing this sore throat infection. Which did happen. However, I also got a chemical burn in the side of my mouth. It’s healed over 10 years later.

Katja (43:27):
10 years later.

Ryn (43:29):
But yeah, that was a mistake I made. You’re sometimes grateful when you make the mistakes on yourself. I would feel worse about this story, if I had told my best friend like, Oh yeah, yeah, chew it up and then just kind of hold it in your mouth for like an hour. It’ll be good. That would be worse.

Katja (43:46):
But like, even if you had done that, okay, then your friend would be mad at you. But that’s limited damage, you know. Like you don’t want to do that to anybody, but the damage is limited.

Ryn (43:56):
I mean, yeah. So you know, you’re your own best Guinea pig.

Katja (44:02):
Ugh. I Guinea pigged one of those things once.

Ryn (44:04):
The red root?

Katja (44:05):
Oh, there was that too. No much longer ago. Long, long ago. When my daughter was a baby and we had thrush, and I read somewhere… I mean, thrush when you’re nursing is super painful and my brain was not connected anyway. When you have a new baby and you’re nursing, your brain is not connected anyway. And I did not have my filters on right when somebody said just put three drops of oregano essential oil into a capsule and swallow it. And it’ll make the thrush go away. I don’t know what possessed me. But I did that and boy, that was not the right answer. And I did it for days. And it was not the right answer at all. And you know what the right answer turned out to be? Calendula. Like the gentlest, safest, whatever, Calendula, no essential oils necessary. I can’t even believe I did that, but I did. And my guts were wrecked for awhile.

And Learn From Them

Ryn (45:15):
Yeah. I haven’t had too many bad ones for recommendations I’ve given. I did keep somebody up for a couple of nights once when I made a sleep blend and they had a paradoxical reaction to one of the herbs. My very first client had a paradoxical reaction to California Poppy where it made them stimulated instead of sedated. But that was exactly what we we’re talking about. That was a learning experience because that was the person from whom I learned, first of all that some people have this response to that particular plant. And then through discussing that case with others, I learned that this is actually a known phenomenon for people who are taking large doses of exogenous hormones. In this context, it was somebody who was doing a gender transition. But I’ve heard other cases that are similar. And it does seem to be a thing. And so now when I teach about California Poppy, I always like to make that note. Sometimes people will get an inverse reaction. Watch out for that if they’re taking lots of exogenous hormones. But be prepared, it could happen with anybody? You know, that’s very well known with Valerian. And now we have some Cali Poppy stories too. Or this other time, this is really mild example, but like somebody came in, I was mixing up a tea. I was thinking about herbs that were good for them. I was like, Oh yeah, Peppermint would be good. It’s got a nice relaxing quality and it tastes great. Who doesn’t like peppermint? And I even checked, I was like, Hey, wait, how do you feel about mint? Oh, sure. I like mint fine. Okay. All right. Put it all in there. Mix it all up. Send them away. They emailed me back like an hour later. I can’t drink this tea. It’s just too Peppermint. Ugh. So it’s like, all right. Come on back. I’ll reformulate for you. So that one, I guess the lesson was like give them something minty. Like, here, take this mint tincture. No, no. More than that. Would you also like a mint lozenge?

Katja (47:05):
Do you really like mint before I put this much mint in this tea? Yeah. But I mean, that’s a thing. Like, like even most of these mistakes are like, that’s fine. But even the ones that were bad that like literally caused some injury, they’re not life threatening. They’re just super annoying. Like it’s not good to burn someone. It’s not good to have a burn in your mouth. But like you healed it up.

Ryn (47:31):
With Calendula.

Katja (47:31):
With Calendula. Actually Calendula fixed all of those problems. But we have this fear. And a lot of people are not afraid to go bungee jumping. And a lot of people are not afraid to go crazy mountain biking. And yes, you’re probably going to fall over and get scraped up. And when you’re working with herbalism you might occasionally fall over and get scraped up.

Ryn (48:01):
That’s part of the fun, right?

Katja (48:02):
That’s part of it. And, I don’t know, we’ve just kind of forgotten that that’s actually okay. And it is in fact the only way to learn. So, responsibly, you learn some stuff and then you try it. You try it as responsibly as you can. And if it doesn’t go the way that you think it went, then you fix it. You know?

Ryn (48:26):
There it is.

Katja (48:27):
That’s all there is. But you have to do it. You just have to do it.

Ryn (48:34):
All right. Well hopefully we’ve inspired you to experiment a little more freely with your herbs. And I guess that’s it for the episode, yeah?

Katja (48:42):
Yeah. I do have a couple of shout outs. In fact, I have about 10 million shout outs. The problem is that I stopped writing them down after the first three because we have had so many emails. So I will give the first three and and let them stand in for all of them. Cause I really just shout out to everyone, all the people who wrote with questions and also all the people who wrote about the coron virus episodes of the pod who appreciated it and found it helpful and all the other things. zencookbook on Instagram has been sharing the podcast with friends instead of sharing germs. So yes, I think that’s a great new theme. Share the pod, not the germs. marshadorsey rhn is really excited to do the clinical herbalists program because she really wants to be able to support folks with cancer. And I’m super excited about that kind of work. And then hatha.lena on Instagram was catching up on the pod while staying home. And I’m super excited that we can provide some entertainment during a stay at home time. And everybody else who wrote in to say stuff, thank you so much and we really, really appreciate you and also hang in there. We’re going to get through this. Yeah.

Ryn (50:19):
Yeah, we will. All right. So we’ll be back next week with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you. Until then, take care of yourselves, take care of each other, drink some tea, and experiment.

Katja (50:28):
Make sure to practice. Practice a lot.

Ryn (50:33):
All right. Bye.

Katja (50:34):
Bye. Bye.


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