by David Crow, L.Ac.
As in humans, metabolism in botanical species can be understood in terms of prana. The subdoshas of vata, also referred to as the “five pranas,” are regarded as the outer manifestations of prana, or “lower” forms of prana that are directly connected to the gross physiological elements of the body as compared to the more refined levels of prana residing within consciousness. These pranas function within the bodies of plants in ways that parallel their functions in the human body. Prana vata could be described as the plant’s metabolic intelligence that governs its respiration, intake of nutrition, and immunological power; udana vata is the plant’s exhalation cycle; samana vata is assimilation of nutrients within the plant’s tissues and cells; vyana vata is the plant’s circulatory power; and apana vata is the plant’s excretory system.
While sharing these similarities of pranic functions with humans, plants have one fundamental difference: they do not have nervous systems as the primary conduit for prana. Here we might postulate that plants do not have sthula prana, the prana connected to a physical nervous system, but that they have sukshma prana, the prana that flows through a subtle nervous system, or at least some form of nadis. This hypothesis is plausible if we consider that there are many documented experiments proving that plants have sentient awareness in spite of lacking a physical nervous system, expressed by liking and disliking of different kinds of music, responsiveness to individuals, and so on.
A Plant’s Production of Essential Oils
Approximately ten percent of plants produce essential oils. The biological process of creating essential oil molecules within a plant is referred to as a “secondary metabolic pathway,” meaning that it occurs subsequent to more fundamental physiological processes.
It is interesting to note that most aromatic plants are not vulnerable to common pathogens and pests that affect non-aromatic plants; it is therefore likely that the appearance of these secondary metabolic pathways represent botanical immunological evolution. What is even more intriguing is the historical evidence that those who have worked with essential oils during times of epidemics, such as distillers, perfumers, and physicians specializing in the use of aromatic medicines, were less vulnerable to contagious illnesses than the general population. This empirical observation points to the possibility that chronic exposure to the aromatic molecules produced by enhanced botanical immunity has the potential to stimulate, enhance, or somehow educate human immunological responses, a possibility that is now receiving increased attention among researchers.
The Evolution of Flowers
It is also fascinating to discover that after millions of years of gradual evolution during the early formative stages of the biosphere, the sudden appearance of flowers and their aromatic attractant molecules within the botanical realm was the original stimulus for the explosion of biodiversity in our current planetary epoch, culminating in the appearance of Homo sapiens. In other words, we are the descendants of flowers.
Here we can observe more dimensions of prana at work within the world of aromatic plants. The first is the appearance of essential oils as a botanical evolutionary development; likewise, prana is the force behind evolutionary processes, the unfolding of Prakruti through time and space, whether it is evolution within species based on adaptation or spiritual evolution within an individual. The second is the biological role of essential oils in plants as immunity from a wide range of pathogens; likewise, prana is a fundamental aspect of immunological strength and potency. The third is the affinity that volatile aromatic molecules have with the air and space elements that promote the diffusivity of their attractant and repellant molecules into the atmosphere around the plant; likewise, the elemental nature of prana is that of air and space.
The Lungs of the Earth
A perfect example of prana functioning within these dimensions is a conifer forest. The air and space (prana) of the forest is diffused with the rich, sweet, balsamic green notes of the essential oils produced by the trees. These oils are the expressions of the trees’ collective immunological intelligence (prana), which we could call a type of “community immunity.” This intelligence developed over time in response to exposure to multitudes of pathogens, and represents evolutionary forces (prana) at work within the trees.
In this example of the conifer forest there are direct anatomical and physiological parallels that point to the deep underlying biological unity between humans and plants. The lungs have a similar anatomical structure to trees: the trachea is the trunk, the bronchi are the large branches, bronchioles are smaller branches, and alveoli are the leaves. Likewise, the majority of essential oils used for treating upper respiratory conditions and mucous membranes of the lungs are derived from the leaves of trees, such as eucalyptus and tea tree, or from needles of conifers such as pine, spruce, and fir. In Chinese medical terms, the antimicrobial, decongestant, mucolytic and immune-enhancing properties of these oils are specifically for treating “wind cold” and “wind heat,” i.e. airborne pathogens affecting the upper respiratory system; likewise, the oils produced within the leaves and needles are released by the trees directly into the air to be carried on the wind. Here we find one of prana’s most important definitions, given by the ancient Greek physicians and philosophers: “pneuma,” the “breath of life,” upon which we are directly, inseparably, and biologically dependent with each respiration.
Chi and Prana
For many people who are familiar with both Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, prana and chi are similar, if not synonymous, concepts. Like prana, chi is a fundamental principle underlying both medicine and spiritual practice. Like prana, it is conceived as a vital energy that is part of every living thing. Like prana, the flow of chi is described as being associated with both respiration and with subtle and refined currents within a non-physical nervous system: the meridians and acupuncture points. Like prana, chi is the foundation of health, vitality, and immunity, while its disturbance and decline are the cause and result of illness. Like prana, chi is also described in macrocosmic terms, such as tian chi, “sky breath,” used in ordinary language for “weather.”
The Chinese character for chi is comprised of two ideograms that signify “steam rising from rice as it cooks.” In medical terminology this image describes the vaporous essence that is released from nutrients under the influence of digestive fire: the pranic energy of food released from rasa under the influence of agni.
This image also offers an excellent analogy for the process of distillation of essential oils.
During distillation, fresh aromatic plant material is placed inside the still, either submerged in water or subjected to steam. As the water boils, the heat breaks apart the cells containing essential oils, releasing the volatile constituents. The aromatic steam, consisting of water and volatile constituents, rises from the still, travels through a condensing coil, and emerges as aromatic water. The volatile molecules then separate, creating a layer of essential oil and a layer of hydrosol.
To be continued…
Please visit Anima Mundi Herbals to find the highest quality essential oils, including eucalyptus, other tree oils, and several flower oils that I have sourced over the years.
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