The newest episode of our university podcast, ‘MindfulU at Naropa University,’ is out on iTunes, Stitcher, Fireside, and Spotify now! We are excited to announce this week’s episode features Brigitte Mars adjunct faculty in Naropa’s BA Contemplative Psychology program.
Naropa University professor Brigitte Mars leads students and the overall community in understanding the value of herbs and plants to the body, the mind, and more. Today’s episode focuses on Brigitte’s work with Naropa students.
Full transcript below.
Brigitte is an herbalist and nutritional consultant of Natural Health with almost fifty years of experience. She teaches Herbal Medicine at Naropa University and The School of Health Mastery in Iceland. She has taught at Omega Institute, Esalen, Kripalu, Sivananda Yoga Ashram, Arise, Envision and Unify Festivals, and The Mayo Clinic. She blogs for the Huffington Post and Care2. She is also a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild. Find out more about Brigitte: brigittemars.com/.
Herbal Health and Healing
Hello. And welcome to Mindful U at Naropa. A podcast presented by Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
I’m your host, David Devine. And it’s a pleasure to welcome you. Joining the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions – Naropa is the birth place of the modern mindfulness movement.
[MUSIC]Today, I’d like to welcome Brigitte Mars to the podcast. She is a distinguished professor here at Naropa teaching in the BA Psych department. I really appreciate you sitting with us. We both hang out in the same community. We also live near each other. And I – I literally adore you dearly so it’s really a personal pleasure on top of the podcast pleasure. So, thank you for being here.
I am so honored. Thank you, David.
Awesome. So, would you like to introduce yourself a bit more?
Surely. My name is Brigitte Mars. And I’ve been working with herbal medicine for like over 50 years. My grandmother who is French Canadian was an herbalist and when I was just a really little girl I said I want to be able to do that to help heal sick people and wounded animals. And, uh so it wasn’t very long before I started turning all my school work into an opportunity to learn more about plants. So, if I was you know studying French I would write about herbal medicine during the French Revolution or uh so – I have taught at Naropa for – maybe 30 years. Since the early 80s. So, it might even be longer than that, but it’s really such a pleasure and honor the diversity of students and I teach many different classes in my autumn semester at Naropa. Uh today was Natural Remedies for Overcoming Addictions.
So, when I teach my class I always like to bring some kind of plant that maybe is growing that they are seeing every day in their walks. And I’ll talk about the herb of the day. We’ll talk about its Latin name, the meaning of the name. Is it edible or medicinal? I also brought in a tray of sunflower sprouts so they could see a way to do kitchen gardening and then we spoke about uh some of the root aspects of addiction and how we can use nutrition and getting more alkaline and yoga techniques and what herbs can help.
And so, every week is different, but I love the classes I do at Naropa. Monday we’re doing medicinal trees. We’ve done the therapeutic value of culinary herbs. The history of herbal medicine. So, my intention is to get the students proficient so that they feel comfortable using natural remedies for themselves and for the people that they encounter. And you know rather than thinking that this is something way out there that has no scientific basis. Natural medicine – herbal medicine has been used by millions of people for thousands of years.
And, there’s such an opportunity to tie it into various cultures. We do focus a lot on herbs that are growing in our community, but we also talk about herbs that maybe are used in (?) medicine or Asian medicine, South American medicine so I really love that opportunity but…on the other hand we’re not just trying to get people to just use herbs as a band aide. We want to look at why are people sick? What could we do to improve our stress level? How can we improve ourselves nutritionally?
So…it’s you know great fun and always an adventure and the – for the final project the students will write a paper on an ailment of their choice. Something that maybe is close to them that they would like to help somebody with or help themselves with.
So, I do a lot of things. Everything I do is with natural medicine. I have written 14 books. And, books have titles like my latest one is called, The Natural First Aid Handbook. And it just came out and interesting enough I wasn’t planning it but there’s a whole section in this book on things you can do if you’re in a hurricane or an earthquake or a fire or uh you know survival techniques. Finding water when there is no water.
And, avalanche and all that. And I’ve written a book called the, “Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine”, “Addiction Free Naturally”, “Healing Herbal Teas – the Country Almanac of Home Remedies.” So, I have not deviated from my course of being sort of a conduit to help connect people with the plants. Because you know I think a lot of people walk through this earth and they think that there is a bunch of weeds growing around and most of these are plants that have served humanity. Have been used for food or medicine and now take the dandelion as an example, so nobody gets out of my classes with thinking that dandelions are something they can spray. They’re going to think wow I should be making a tea out of dandelions or a salad of it because every part of that plant is useful.
I think out of meeting you I started putting dandelions in my smoothies.
Yay! And the flowers are edible. They’re high in lutein which is good for our eyes, but so my intention you know not only to get my Naropa students to feel comfortable to try natural remedies but you know also to live a more ecological life. We talk a lot about landscaping your yard with edible plants rather than using a third of our nation’s water supply to grow grass. To identify the plants around you. To respect them. We talk a lot about survival techniques. Kitchen gardening uh we also talk a lot about food because I don’t want to just band aide an ailment. Oh, you have a headache – just take an herb. It’s like why are you getting headaches?
Yeah, like what is the root of the ailment that you are experiencing?
And, you know you might think that this is a subject that you have to study for years and years and granted herbal medicine is a subject. You can dedicate your entire life to. But, this is also something that you can start doing right away. Because who is going to go through a semester at school and not encounter if not themselves their roommate – a stomachache, a headache uh a cold, a flu. And, you have the opportunity to say you know instead of taking a pharmaceutical drug I’m going to try peppermint tea or ginger tea and then you see that it works.
Yeah. Awesome. Naropa has done this really cool thing too where they have taken really big rocks and painted them. They place them next to herbs that are on the campus and they write what it is. So, sage. Uh lemon balm, lavender, rose hips, rosemary and I always find that really cool. I always walk by the lavender and the lemon balm and I just graze it with hand and smell my hand and it’s such a nice little pick me up.
And Naropa has wonderful gardens on it. So, we don’t have to go really far to do an herb walk. And in one of the early classes we do we call it herb walk where we walk around Naropa campus. And identify the plants and talk about and taste and smell. So, it’s very multi-dimensional and I love to show them this plant called soap wart. So, I – I grab this little plant with pink flowers and say who has some water they can donate and then I get this plant to lather up and say you could use this to wash your hair or wash your whole body with and its biodegradable and it grows near creeks.
Wow, I didn’t know that. Very cool. Yeah and you take herb walks for the community as well. So, you take out people and show them what is around how you can forge for – herbs and essentials and talk about that.
Absolutely and you know right now there is so many places on our planet where people are without food or water because of some sort of natural disaster and wouldn’t it be great if you had learned in school that that plant you thought was a weed is actually wild spinach or wild artichokes? Because it could save your life. Or if you were lost in the woods for example. So, its – it’s fun. It’s an adventure, but it’s also very practical because it can save your health. It can save you money and it’s also good for the planet. So, I you know one of my mottos is good for the people, good for the planet.
And it seems the sort of herb foraging is very localized to where you are and we are in Boulder. Is there like a specific herb that you see a lot that you really like and use in everything. You show it to your classes. Is there anything that is one those ones that you really like to work with?
Well, I think all my students learn that nettles is an amazing herb and you may have experienced nettles. They do sting you.
Yes, they do.
Yes, they sting you but they are also a profound medicine. Very high in iron and natural remedy for hay fever and allergies. Nettles strengthen the kidneys and adrenals and they even learn that getting stung with nettles can be even therapeutic for things like arthritic hands and fingers. Some students you know play guitar or use their hands a lot or get injured in the martial arts and nettles can be an ally to increase circulation to the area and ultimately reduce inflammation. And I think they’ve heard me say you know when in doubt use nettles – it’s just a good herb for so many things and I do like to focus on herbs that they’re going to see when they graduate that they’re going to know these herbs whether they live in the east coast or another continent even. So, I try to make it very practical. Uh another class we do that’s fun is herbal businesses. So, we take a little tour and we walk to a number of herbal businesses that are right in this area. We go to uh places like Pharmaca and Rebecca’s Hypothecary and the Savory Spice and (?) and Tonics. And you know I am so delighted because a number of my former Naropa students now have herbal companies, herbal stores, cosmetic companies and some of them I know that they first created that product in class as an assignment and now they’ve got a national company. So, I celebrate their success and its always a great joy when I go to like a big convention somewhere in another state and I see my students flourishing and thriving and having evolved what they were doing in – at Naropa.
Yeah that is so awesome. Very cool. So, you said you taught, today right?
What did you teach today? Because you say you had like an herb – you say you focus on an herb usually.
Well, today the topic was natural remedies for overcoming addiction. So, we talked about you know why addiction happens. The root causes of it. Uh sometimes its people crave substances they’re allergic to. It may be that that they are very acidic. It may be that they are trying to balance their blood sugar. And so, for every addiction we talked about sugar, tobacco, alcohol, caffeine and what are some of the remedies you could do for it. So, for example there’s foods that you could eat that help you to be more alkaline that are going to reduce cravings. There’s things that you use as supplements that are going to help balance your brain chemistry. Such as GTF chromium or glucose tolerance factor, chromium for example or the importance of getting adequate protein and adequate fats in your diet.
We also talked about the importance of journaling because you know rather than using something mindlessly it might be good to make a list in your journal of what are other ways that you can reward yourself.
And so, the students came up with all kinds of ideas like I could make a long-distance call and check in with my sister. Or I could watch a movie. Or I could go for a walk. I could work in the garden. I could take an aromatherapy bath. So, just to know that there are things we can do that can help us cope with stress or overwhelm or depression that don’t evolve traumatizing our bodies with some unhealthful way.
Yeah. There is something that you said a while back ago to a student – he was talking about how he’s on the phone all the time and he was concerned about the waves that were coming through the phone and what you suggested to him was put a crystal on your phone. And I thought that was like such a cool idea to like help transmit the – the waves that are coming through to our brains that ultimately affect us you know?
Well, they do sell these little things that are supposed to minimize the electromagnetic frequencies, but I’m hoping the students gain from their time with at Naropa life skills that will be with them forever. That will affect the way that they parent or give birth or even carry onto the next generation.
That is so awesome. Very cool. And you said you brought in a tray of sunflower seeds?
A tray of sunflower sprouts to show them that what do we do when the mother gets cold and we maybe aren’t outdoors because there is several feet of snow on the ground, which can happen here in Colorado. That you can grow sprouts in your kitchen and so sunflower sprouts you could grow them in a tray of dirt with about a quarter inch of organic potting soil and one tray of sunflower sprouts can produce constant food for a month. So, I know a lot of the students are concerned about their food budgets and a lot of them don’t drive. They’re riding bikes in the winter and all that so it’s like how can we be empowered and how can these young people get ideas that are going to carrying them in a better way forever.
I love it. And that’s another class I do. Natural remedies for longevity. And I demon – we do these exercises called the Tibetan Five Rights and we talk about cultures around the world that are known for long life and what are some of the foods and herbs that they use. And I tell them early on its not just about herbs. It’s about herbs, it’s about uh emotional state. It’s about food. It’s about you know having positive things, exercise, yoga.
Lifestyle. So, all these things seem very supported at Naropa with all the programs that are offered. You know arts. So, even today in addiction we talked about uh drawing a picture of what an addiction feels like and — creating ritual to get rid of a habit that you don’t want to keep any longer.
It seems like if you get into the herb world of trying to make yourself better or just feel good – it also is an imitation to involve more of a lifestyle that suits that. You know because you’re not going to be doing the herb thing and still want that addiction. Because you’re mindfully focusing on something to get rid of it. So, I have a question for you – what kind of herbs help focus people for school, for studying, for you know because we’re in a scholastic environment. Is there anything that you suggest to the students – like this will help you focus, study or have this cup of tea because it really puts you in the game. Or anything like that?
That’s a great question David. Well, one herb that I like a lot and I do suggest to the students is essential oil of rosemary. So, a little trick that my children did when they were young is if they were studying for a test, I suggested that they smell rosemary essential oil or if you had a sprig of rosemary from a garden you could crush it and smell it and then when you go take the test if you would smell rosemary again – it would help you to be able to recreate that space you were in when you were filing that information. So, that’s one thing. And you know of course focus is really important. So, if we’re in class and we’re texting or doodling – we’re probably not present. So, I do think a lot of people who have a hard time in school maybe have food allergies and they’re attracted to eating the wrong things that are really affecting their ability to focus. So, we talk about you know again good protein. Getting lots of greens. Eating all the colors of the rainbow uh eating a wide variety of flavors and not doing things that are detrimental to our consciousness.
So, I also think that uh greens are super. They help the brain better utilize oxygen. I – I think I say almost in every class – eating greens is a discipline. One meal a day. Green leafy vegetables.
And so, you know hopefully this is something they’re going to remember and hear my voice long after I am gone. So, uh also in Asian medicine the health of our brain has a lot to do with the health of our kidneys. So, I try to encourage them to explore the realm of eating foods that are black in color. Uh because the black color indicates the presence of minerals.
So, things like black quinoa, wild rice, black rice, black beans. My favorite is chia seeds, which are high in omega three fatty acids. So, it’s not unusual that I’ll you know bring something to the class every week to you know try this, smell this, try this tincture. Smell this essential oil because it can’t just be a lecture. It’s got to be some kind of experience that you will remember and really become engrained in your consciousness.
So, you talk about eating the colors of the rainbow. And how does that resonate within the body. Because I know there is some sort of a color of a food will help a certain organ? Or —
Absolutely. Well we could look at the reasons that the plants have colors is for a reason but it usually also indicates what nutrient is in the plant. So, we can look at things that are red and say a lot of red foods maybe have lycopene in them – like tomatoes and watermelon and guava. Uh we could say a lot of orange things have beta carotene in them. A lot of yellow things might be rich in vitamin C. Green usually there’s chlorophyll and then blue, indigo and violet might indicate the presence of anthocyanins. Uh that are very strengthening for the capillaries and for circulation to the brain, the eyes, the ears. And, you know it’s really easy to get into the – I just eat beige food kind of thing, but if you think about like wow I could have like purple cabbage and uh green kale and red beets and black beans like wow so maybe that’s going to affect how they take care of themselves the rest of their life if they remember that someone said eat those colors.
And, yeah, the American diet is shamefully beige and uh lacks color. So, if they can get that that’s going to help.
Here is a fun question. So, when you’re seeing like a bag of carrots. There can be purple, there can be white, there can be orange, there can be yellow – do they all help the same organ? Or do the different color carrots kind of go different places to help?
Well, you know that is a really good question. And I – I’m not sure about that but I know carrots are hybridized to become orange. And that actually increased the nutritional value. But, I will say that I’m always going to suggest that they go for the most colorful. So, rather than buying the white beets, go for the red beets. Rather than go for the pale iceberg lettuce – like letÕs go for the kale. So, its – it really just means uh a wide variety of color and I wouldn’t be surprised if we learn that well the purple carrots have anthocyanins in them too.
It’s very cool. It’s really interesting to think the color of the food is actually pointing us in the direction of how it could heal us.
So, you talked a little bit about essential oils. Kind of am curious like what do you know about them? It seems like another world that you might have dove into since you do the herbs and then there is like a distilling process to get the oils.
So, one of the classes we do is on aromatherapy. And, aromatherapy is the use of essential oils of plants and you know as we’re sitting here doing this interview – you see I have a plethora of essential oils. Like cardamom and feel free to smell any of them that you like. Uh they’re wonderful and so I – get them to understand that essential oils are very potent. That even just smelling them can be a helpful too so for example you’re spending a lot of time at your desk. Uh rather than thinking oh I need more chocolate or I need more coffee you could just smell some essential oil and our nasal cavities are in such close proximity to our brains that it can affect your states of consciousness. I know last week I talked about that I realize that there’s a lot of people who maybe use substances and they’re doing it because they want to bond with someone. Like they might not usually smoke but there’s a cigarette being offered and it’s at a party and they want to be with that person I said you know you could bring in a bottle of essential oil with you to party and offer somebody would you like a hit of jasmine? You know —
It’s a great way to make friends. And, uh another thing is since we talked about addiction today I said you might feel like oh you need more sugar or you need more coffee but you could smell some essential oil of cinnamon for example and it would help to satisfy your brain. And you know because I’ve written 14 books and writers are such notorious substance abusers uh I try to show that well there’s other things you can do besides damaging your health. I don’t want to write all these health books and then – be a terrible example. Uh so I find that having a selection of essential oils can be a great tool for calming stress and anxiety. So, you might be going down the I’m freaking out neuro pathway and then you open up a bottle of lavender oil and smell lit or share it with someone and all the sudden you feel that you’re going down lavender lane and its al lot more peaceful.
I actually started using rose geranium for my cologne I guess or I just – I put a little rose on me and it – and it – I call it a pick me up. You know you smell some rose and you’re just like wow I feel better all of the sudden and it really does something to the body, to the brain, to your emotions. You know it really affects your psyche.
Absolutely. And most of the essential oils are antimicrobial. So, last week we did a class on natural first aid. And we talked a lot about that if you had tea tree oil in your backpack or purse or you know – you could do a lot with it. You could apply tea tree oil on a cut or a wound. You could use it as a bug repellent. You could apply it to a bug bite. You could put it on an impending pimple. You could apply tea tree oil on a fungal infection. So, you know this is stuff that there’s been lots of books written on it but the fact that you’re sitting in a class and you’re smelling it and maybe you’re putting a drop on a wart or something for – and you say like yeah, I recognize this. I know this. I am going to get a bottle of it. This can be in my pharmacopeia of herbal allies.
Herbal allies and you know a lot of students travel. So, it’s hard to make tea if you’re at a rock festival or on an airplane or something but if you get a bottle of essential oil you could find that you could do a lot with that.
Wow! I’m curious how do you keep all this information in your head? It sounds like you – you are a book. You know how does one keep such things?
Well, a couple of techniques – I – when I read something I highlight in yellow that which is important to me. And that’s a technique I started doing years ago. Uh plus there’s a lot of repetition. So, whatever I’m writing about I tend to read everything about it and tend to immerse myself in it. So, I feel like that’s my own study and exploration. I still study all the time. I mean this work is something I will do the rest of my life. But, I also know that even when I was 15 years old. I was pretty good at it. So, it’s not like you have to wait till you’re a senior citizen to be proficient at it. So, I’m really dedicated to it. Uh but there is you know repetition and taking other classes and a great love for it. And if I didn’t think it worked I would have lost interest a long time, but I just get so excited that wow this really helps somebody. Or when a student says you know I – I didn’t think I was going to come to class but I – tried a cup of ginger tea and so I ended up making it.
Nice. Do you ever feel like the plants talk to you? Like the soul of the plant is saying like hey I need some water or hey I need some light. I need some soil.
The plants do talk to us. So, we can attune to them uh and you know you often hear like oh they talk to plants. Hmmm, but uh – they do talk to us by the way they look, by the way they grow. There is things we can be in observation about and there is something – a whole class I will do with the students is called the doctrine of signatures. That there is a signature on plants that often tells us what they look like is often what they’re good for. So, like beets really do build the blood. And it’d be really easy to say well that’s just folklore. Yeah it is just folklore and a lot of folklore was really right on. A lot of things that people we’re saying a thousand years ago have been proven now in the laboratory. Now we know yeah beets are high in iron. They really do build the blood. Or seaweed is really nourishing for the hair or kidney beans really can strengthen the kidneys, but I also feel that learning the plants that grow around you for example very often what you need is right there. And, rather than getting stuck on I have to get this plant that comes from you know far reaches of Tibet – yeah that’s great if you can get that but there’s also a lot right here. And it’s great to learn those because that’s going to be more accessible.
Wonderful. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I love saying two quotes that are very important to me that I help my students remember. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is now. And, I’ll share a quote by Emerson. He said, “a weed is an herb whose virtue has not been discovered.”
Thank you, David Devine. Well it’s a pleasure and I hope I get to see some of you at Naropa sometime or at uh one of the festivals that we get to enjoy together.
Yeah thank you for shining your light with us. It was such a treat.
So, we just heard from Brigitte Mars a distinguished professor at Naropa within the BA Psych Department so thank you for talking with us today.
Peace and blessings. Thank you.
[MUSIC]On behalf of the Naropa community thank you for listening to Mindful U. The official podcast of Naropa University. Check us out at https://www.naropa.edu or follow us on social media for more updates.