Getting to Know Your Herbal Allies: Tulsi
Aah tulsi. Aromatic, delicious, beautiful, and sattvic, tulsi is one of those magical Ayurvedic herbs that can benefit just about everyone. Our corner of the world is currently heavy, cold, and gray—what a perfect time to immerse ourselves in an herb that offers to anoint us with its lightness, warmth, and clarity (yes, please!). We highly recommend you first brew a soothing cup of tulsi tea to heighten our time together as we share the wonders of this beautiful herb and what it can do for you. Pull up a chair, get cozy with your tea, and join us as we tell the tales and sing the well-earned praises of this Queen of Herbs.
This vibrant green herb with its halo of cheerful blossoms carries the venerable Latin name of Ocimum sanctum, or holy basil. This is a nod to the longstanding title it has held as a spiritual herb. In fact, it is called the most sacred plant on earth in the ancient Vedic Puranas.1 From the tradition that gave us Ayurveda, and by extension Ayurvedic herbalism, that’s saying something. To this day, tulsi is still accredited with this title, and it is widely used for its medicinal properties. Tulsi has a fascinatingly intertwined history as both a revered spiritual herb AND a highly effective tonic widely respected in herblore. It’s impossible to say which came first—its use in herblore or its spiritual recognition—but in the end, looking at both gives a greater understanding and a deeper respect for tulsi.
Tulsi’s presence is steeped within many Indian myths (we won’t get into them here, but they make for very interesting reading!) as well as in daily lives across the world. Some spiritual traditions consider tulsi to be the embodiment of the goddess Lakshmi, with her spiritual powers infused within the plant.2 In this way, you could say that owning a tulsi plant is like caring for a living blessing that constantly purifies your home. It is no wonder tulsi is grown in many home courtyards throughout India where it is offered daily puja (worship), gratitude, and reverence. (And tulsi leaves make a delicious tea, which is regularly enjoyed within the Indian home, thanks to their homegrown stock.) Actually, the lack of a tulsi plant in a courtyard is considered by some to give a feeling of emptiness and dullness in the home.3
Tulsi is also present in some pretty big life transitions in Indian culture. Tulsi plays a huge role in kick-starting the wedding season across the country. Only after the completion of Tulsi Vivaha (the yearly ritual in which the tulsi plant is symbolically wed to Lord Vishnu) is it considered a good time to start planning a wedding. Tulsi is also present at a much different juncture: thanks to its purifying nature, it can be found at the deathbed. By placing tulsi upon the dying person, it is said to help cleanse the soul of sin and to help stop the cycle of rebirth.4
Tulsi’s recognition as a deeply spiritual herb goes beyond India’s borders and is even rooted in some profound legends within Christianity. For example, tulsi is said to have greeted Christ’s disciples at his tomb after his crucifixion—the tomb was empty, but the surrounding countryside was carpeted with blooming tulsi. A few hundred years later, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine found a hill similarly covered in this aromatic plant. According to legend, hidden under this hill was the cross of Christ. From these legends, tulsi became a Christian symbol of holiness and spiritual birth. 5 It can be found to this day in Christian rituals—for example, as a powerful purifier, it has a role in the Greek Orthodox tradition of preparing holy water.6
Ayurveda also recognizes the sacred nature of tulsi. Its Sanskrit name translates as “the incomparable one.” This could be interpreted in several ways, but perhaps it simply means there are literally no comparisons or substitutions for this herb and what it has to offer. After all, tulsi is high in sattva—the principle of light, perception, and clarity. As a sattvic herb, tulsi infuses you with its divine energy—body, mind, and soul, in true Ayurvedic fashion. This could explain its rather inspiring power to heighten awareness and mental clarity, as well as its unique ability to open the mind and heart to love and devotion. (We bet you’re enjoying your tea on a whole new level now…)
On top of that, tulsi can increase ojas and prana.7 Ojas is one of those somewhat nebulous yet crucial concepts of Ayurveda. Among a slew of benefits, ojas is directly linked to the immune system. More ojas means a healthier immune system. And for a quick taste of its other effects, more ojas also means more joy, vigor, and “juiciness” infused throughout your life. And then there’s prana—that which animates us, our vital life force. Ojas protects prana, and tulsi increases both!8 Talk about a win-win setup.
Another lens to view tulsi is through its adaptogenic properties. Adaptogenic herbs are huge allies to us in today’s busy, overwhelmed, and overstressed world. Among its other adaptogenic friends like ashwagandha and ginseng, tulsi holds its weight as one of the finest adaptogens available.9 Tulsi helps the body cope with stresses, large or small, that are often experienced in daily activities. Feeling overwhelmed and ungrounded? Tulsi can help calm you down. Feeling stuck and unclear? Tulsi can help lighten your mind and bring clarity (there are those sattvic qualities at work again!). It doesn’t stop there: tulsi even helps reverse the effects of stress and supports the body’s ability to rejuvenate. 10
Tulsi has been deliciously called “liquid yoga” by some. Like yoga, tulsi’s properties help nourish the holistic self while bestowing a mellowed-out sense of well-being. And, like yoga, tulsi bestows clarity, awareness, and calmness.11 Whether you chalk this up to its high levels of sattva, its adaptogenic properties, or its ability to increase prana and ojas, (and in the end, these are all linked to tulsi’s properties) this is one powerful, divine plant.
Beyond the phenomenal work we’ve already discussed, tulsi also helps to reduce kapha throughout the body and mind. It supports the lungs by removing kapha buildup and promoting healthy, uncongested breathing. It also balances excess vata or kapha in the head and nerves. And, tulsi is used to soothe vata in the digestive tract. If that wasn’t enough, it promotes healthy circulation thanks to its work in the plasma tissue layer (rasa dhatu), and, by extension, tulsi encourages a strong and healthy heart. The list continues: tulsi helps promote healthy weight management thanks to its effect in the adipose tissue layer (meda dhatu), and to top it all off, it mysteriously helps maintain a normal body temperature. WOW. What a list! But then—we are working with the most sacred of Ayurvedic herbs, so this is no surprise.
While tulsi can be incredibly beneficial in such a wide spectrum of situations, it is important to note that it is not normally recommended when there is a health situation involving high pitta. Tulsi is warming, so if pitta is a factor, it is best to combine it with cooling herbs.12
It goes without saying that tulsi is a pretty complex and amazing herb. But the way in which you can use it to enjoy all these benefits is very simple. You are welcome to drink the powdered tulsi as a tea in warm water, or take the liquid extract. It can’t get any simpler than that. This is all it takes to support your health in all the ways tulsi knows how—increasing ojas, fostering sattva, protecting prana, balancing vata and kapha, and on and on.
From there, you can explore further. If you’re experiencing a little excess kapha, add some honey to your tulsi tea. If you would like to increase the sattvic qualities and promote even more ojas within, Ayurvedic wisdom recommends taking tulsi with ghee (and, ghee also supports your ojas).
Perhaps you’re working on digestive troubles due to excess vata. Try combining ginger, fennel, cardamom, and tulsi and mix with hot water to make a tea that will support healthy digestion. Drinking this before meals will enkindle your digestive fire. If you’re looking to benefit your mind and tap into tulsi’s ability to promote awareness and clarity, mix it with some brahmi/gotu kola and bacopa.
Here at Banyan, we definitely lean on tulsi when it’s time to support our immune systems. We take a combination of one dropper-full each of Tulsi liquid extract and Ginger liquid extract several times a day (you can, of course, choose to use the powder and make a tea). This is like gently but effectively jump-starting a lagging, tired immune system that needs some power to get recharged.
If you can’t tell by now, we seriously love tulsi. It is incredibly versatile and effective, and we have included it in a LOT of our herbal formulas and products. Looking for respiratory support? Check out our Lung Formula and Bronchial Support Herbal Syrup. How about general kapha management? Tulsi is in our Healthy Kapha tablets, paired with a few of the quintessential kapha-busting herbs.
Tulsi is also a great herbal friend to invite into your daily routine practices. Abhyanga, anyone? Tulsi is in three of our massage oils: Daily Massage Oil, Vata Massage Oil, and Kapha Massage Oil. And thanks to its ability to support healthy circulation, it’s also in our Breast Care Balm.
Sattvic, ojas-full, adaptogenic, beautiful, and downright delicious, it’s a bit of a mystery how one small herb has so much to offer. And, for the record, there is absolutely no way we encompassed the entirety of this herb in this one blog. Perhaps you will discover more on your own journey to well-being. We will now leave it to you to find how tulsi can be your herbal ally. As for us—well, we’re off to make another pot of tulsi tea.