By all accounts, the Basils are hot herbs, and Tulsi is no exception. Hot herbs get energies moving and flowing. Have you ever noticed how long your fingers stay hot and tingly after cutting a habanero or other spicy chili pepper? That’s a rather dramatic example of a Hot herb at work. Tulsi, however, won’t leave you burning.
Tulsi, unlike chili pepper, stirs energies up on the inside, getting them moving along the channels and helping strengthen those channels so they can handle the motion. In many ways, Tulsi works at a more subtle level, helping the body, mind, and spirit make more room and capacity for what you want to carry and kicking out what’s no longer useful, including emotions and thoughts that have stagnated or weighed you down. Tulsi’s motion is one of expansion, making plenty of space and generating strength to hold that space. Rather than purely clearing, Tulsi promotes balance. It also helps you adapt your patterns to focus on opening the areas you most need to open. For some, that may be the heart center while for others it could be the crown or the root. That ability to shift focus is part of why Tulsi has been labeled an adaptogen.
Traditional Western Herbalism and Tulsi
European physicians of old made more use of Tulsi’s cousin, Basil or O. basilicum, than they did Tulsi. Both are ruled by Mars, giving them potentially combative qualities and making them good for countering invaders like the common cold and flu. Both are detoxifiers, helping to usher wastes out of the body. Like Rosemary, Basil and Tulsi are both stimulating and relaxing in nature. They’ll help you relax before bed and they’ll help you get moving and focused in the morning. The real difference between Basil and Tulsi is that Tulsi operates at a more subtle level. Traditional Western Herbalists of old relied more on Basil than on Tulsi for detoxification, although Tulsi was known to them as an herb for detoxification for cannabis users.
Today, Traditional Western Herbalists turn to Tulsi to help bring balance to the digestive and nervous systems. Matthew Wood connects Tulsi and Basil with damp, stagnant tissue states characterized as depression or torpor. He describes the primary qualities of Tulsi and Basil as both heating and cooling, which points to their adaptogenic nature. Tulsi is useful as a detoxifier, particularly for the deeper organs of the body or to clear long-term stagnation from the system. Today, Tulsi helps us release the wastes and toxins associated with modern life, particularly those resulting from an imbalanced lifestyle. Stress, overwork, exhaustion, depression and anxiety, PMS, insomnia, and exposure to substances like heavy metals, pesticides and other chemicals, and CBD or cannabis use all cause the kinds of accumulations Tulsi can help clear.
Ayurveda and Tulsi
Ayurveda has long drawn on Tulsi as a protector and detoxifier. Tradition connects Tulsi with the Goddess Lakshmi, ruler of wealth, prosperity, and health. Like Lakshmi, Tulsi creates an environment where only the light can thrive, making plenty of space for abundance in all forms. Tulsi is used in Ayurvedic medicine to bring balance back to the body-mind-spirit, particularly after a long sojourn in darkness.
Cannabis users are an extreme example of how Tulsi was helpful in doing so. Cannabis slows the system, dampening pain and creating a temporary euphoria or peaceful state in the mind. Temporarily, this can be quite helpful. Used long-term, the body adapts to Cannabis by letting wastes begin to accumulate. Cannabis is connected to the Water element, and is strongly Kapha increasing while being aggravating to Pitta. Cannabis is considered Prabhava in Ayurvedic terms, meaning it has special action on the on the body. In this case, the prabhava nature of Cannabis slows and dampens the system considerably and ought not be used long-term as it will unbalance the system over the long haul. Tulsi, on the other hand, is considered sattvic or generally creative and balancing. Tulsi is suitable as a daily use herb for a lifetime. It’s balancing nature can help offset the effects of long-term Cannabis or CBD use by clearing the Tamas or accumulated waste they have generated. Tulsi reduces Kapha while increasing Pitta and allowing Vata to remain balanced.
The balancing nature of Tulsi is what makes it unique. Ayurvedic practitioners recognize Tulsi’s ability to reduce fever as prabhava. While Tulsi increases Pitta, it also helps release fever from the body. Tulsi is commonly used in blends designed for cold and flu recovery before, during, and after illness. It’s also used to increase virility, fertility, and sexual desire and to improve digestion and circulation. K.P. Khalsa and Michael Tierra suggest working with Tulsi starting at a lower dose and increasing until you reach the results you desire. According to Khalsa and Tierra, Krishna and Rama Tulsi are fairly interchangable, with Rama Tulsi being more for digestion and Krishna Tulsi for detoxification. Vana Tulsi, according to Khalsa and Tierra, can be combined with Vana Tulsi for a balanced tri-Tulsi blend.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Tulsi or Sheng Lou Li
For the most part, Traditional Chinese Medicine makes use of Basil rather than Tulsi. In TCM practice, Basil is used as a tonifying food with an affinity for the stomach, spleen, and lung chanels. According to Maoshing Ni and Cathy McNease, Basil is best used to treat wind-cold conditions, including those that accompany vomiting, diahrreah, and food poisoning. They suggest Tulsi tea specifically for food poisoning.
Considering the balancing nature of Tulsi’s energy and its affinity for detoxification, it seems likely that Tulsi would have a strong affinity for the Stomach channel, where not only food is digested but also the raw experiences of our daily life is also processed. Tulsi’s ability to both calm and stimulate the mind connects it both with the Stomach Channel and the Heart Channel or the seat of the Shen. Tulsi’s diaphoretic and detoxification actions would be described as outward or expanding energies. The balancing aspect of Tulsi’s energies is neither strongly draining nor strongly building. Instead, it is an herb of transformation with an intelligence that helps Tulsi and oneself to make sense of what needs to stay, what needs to go, and how to create the space needed for the body to return to a state of balance and health. In TCM, this connects Tulsi with similarly powerful tonic herbs like Reishi, which promote longetivity by caring for the inner fire or Yang in a balanced way modern herbalists and Traditional Western Herbalists refer to as Adaptogenic.
Tulsi as a Spiritual Medicine
Hindu temples, sacred places, households, and practitioners have a long history of planting and caring for Tulsi. Often revered as a manifestation of the Goddess on Earth, Tulsi’s connection with Lakshimi is well-known. Tulsi has long been used as a meditation aid as well as a household medicine.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to take Maia Toll’s Earth Medicine 101 class, which focused on tools for opening to the Energetic nature of plants through direct experience. Maia led us through several exercises, including a Cupping of Tulsi. We each had the opportunity to connect with Tulsi through the experience of seeing, smelling, and tasting tea made with her leaves…before we knew it was Tulsi with whom we were working. It was remarkable how the experiences we each had and reported were different in nature, yet held a common thread. Some folks felt Tulsi like a heart-expanding energy. Others were reminded of beautiful past experiences or beings from their past who were particularly joyful or loving. Still others felt more grounded or more light and opened. The common thread we all noticed was that Tulsi invoked enlightening and expanding energies for all of us.
In The Illustrated Herbiary: Guidance and Rituals from 36 Bewitching Botanicals, Maia Toll talks about Tulsi’s message as one of adaptation and acceptance. Tulsi asks us to be right here, where we are, and let that be enough. In this way, we expand our current thinking to make space for Spirit in our lives and to make space for our lives in Spirit. This is the give and take of Tulsi, that is why Tulsi can both calm and stimulate or cool and heat at the same time. The enlightening and expansion we felt in Maia’s class was the energy of Tulsi being present with us and letting us be present with her, acceptance of and adaptation to one another that moved many of us to a place beyond words where we felt at peace if only for those few prescious moments.
Matthew Wood describes Tulsi or Basil as being good for those who feel hopeless, particularly those who have struggled with a dark or challenging situation for some time. If moving through life you feel isolated, lost, alone, and numb, Tulsi may well be a good herbal ally. Tulsi was classically used to help long-term Cannabis users and other folks who had relied on similar potent substances to get through life to detoxify and return to a state of balance. Tulsi’s action is not necessarily dramatic in nature, as those substance can be, but it is potent and safe to take every day for a lifetime for most individuals.
Cautions for Tulsi
Tulsi is generally balancing in nature, making it one of the few Tri-doshic herbs, meaning it’s relatively safe for all types of constitutions and conditions. Pregnant women should avoid using Tulsi except under the supervision of an herbal practitioner with midwife, doula, or similar experience in working with pregnancy and herbal practice. Tulsi may aggravate acid reflux, according to Maria Noel Groves.
- The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs: A Contemporary Introduction and Useful Manual for the World’s Oldest Healing System
- The Earthwise Herbal, Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants
- The Tao of Nutrition: New and Expanded Edition
- Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care
- The Illustrated Herbiary: Guidance and Rituals from 36 Bewitching Botanicals