If You Think “It Can’t Hurt Me, It’s Natural,” It’s Time to Wake Up and Smell the Tea Tree

If You Think “It Can’t Hurt Me, It’s Natural,” It’s Time to Wake Up and Smell the Tea Tree

Ever Wondered “Can Natural Products Hurt Me?”

I got a call a few weeks back from a local restaurateur asking me if I had any idea how to help one of her waiters detox from Kratom.

Kratom is an Asian herb which has become popular in the past few years for pain. Her server had started taking it, without much research or thought, ’cause “hey, it’s natural!”

This type of flimsy reasoning makes my head spin and fire shoot from my bulging eyeballs. Really, people? Have you not heard of earthquakes, and poison mushrooms, and those nasty little spiders which lay their eggs under your skin? Whatever convinced you that nature is kind?

Thinking things are safe because they’re natural is an idea which has grown out of three things.

1. One hundred years of pharmaceutical companies campaigning hard to convince us that natural remedies are ineffective.

Why do they need us to believe this? Because they can’t patent an herb and, one hundred years ago, their competition was herbs and homeopathics. So we’re told that natural remedies don’t do much; what we really need is a patented and scientifically-proven drug.

They’ve done a great job with marketing! So much so that even people like you, who regularly use natural products, are muddle-headed about it: on the one hand, you believe they work. On the other hand, you’ve subconsciously bought into the drug companies’ schtick and it’s softened your view of the efficacy of natural products. Your conscious mind translates this mishmash as “natural products are safe.”

2. Living in places that are relatively tame.

Most of us no longer live in a world dominated by wild things, unless you count rats and humans who have gone feral. If you were foraging for food, you’d know for certain that Holly and Yew berries, despite being plump, pretty, and oh-so-natural, can kill you.

If you were a farmer and watched coyote eat your sheep and sat up at night with a cow sick from munching butterfly milkweed, you’d have no delusions that natural means safe.

3. Trusting experts instead of ourselves.

Another by-product of our current medical model is trusting experts to the point that, in a pinch or a hurry, we’re gonna trust someone else instead of thinking and aggressively researching for ourselves. We learned from a young age to listen to our doctor even if it went against the wisdom of our bodies.

Medically-speaking we’ve been conditioned to do as we’re told which, unfortunately, means we’re predisposed to give credence to some random-ass internet site.

These three proclivities are a dangerous combo ’cause I’ve got news for you:

Natural products are not safe merely by virtue of being natural. Click To Tweet

Kratom, the herb I was called about, contains alkaloids in amounts similar to opium and to hallucinogenic mushrooms, which makes it no better for daily use than other opioids.

Here’s how I teach about the potency of different herbal preparations:

Imagine fire. Start with the smallest of flame, a lit match or a tea light. Now grow the flame to fill a lantern or fireplace. Finally, picture a glassblowing forge, heat crackling the air.

In terms of herbal products, your most gentle product—a flower essence—isn’t even the lit match. It’s a picture of fire. This energy medicine reminds your body that it knows fire, that it can remember how to be warm.

Next in strength is a tea or a vinegar, a gentle candle flame. It takes a lot of candles to light a room!

Then there’s tincture—alcohol extract—this is a hearth fire, capable of lighting a room and cooking your dinner. In other words, capable of catalyzing transformation.

Finally there are essential oils. These are concentrates. They’re the forge, able to melt metal and glass, to quickly shift substance from one form to another. While metaphorically speaking that sounds very exciting, I know you don’t actually want to melt your insides—some oils will do the equivalent of that if you ingest them.

The airborne volatiles from essential oils penetrate the mucus membranes in your nose and hit your bloodstream pretty quickly, which makes inhalation the preferred therapeutic method. I’m not gonna say you never want to ingest an essential oil but, because they’re a heavy-duty concentrate, you need a high level of knowledge to do this safely. If you’re not willing to put in the years of study to make these decisions from a place of wisdom, stick to inhaling!

Beyond preparation of the herbs, there’s the chemical composition of the plant itself.

This is were Kratom comes in. Alkaloids are pretty tough on the body for a number of reasons.

I think it’s important here to remind you who I am: Hi. My name’s Maia Toll, registered herbalist with The American Herbalists Guild. I own two herb stores—one in Philadelphia, one in Asheville—and an online shop at www.herbiary.com. I LOVE botanicals. I spent a year in Ireland studying with a traditional medicine woman and have taught everywhere from the jungles of Peru to the University of Pennsylvania. Most importantly: I don’t want you to be scared. I want you to be smart.

A few days back, I got an email from a past student who is creating an herb and permaculture program for the prison system. She wrote “the act of making medicine from something you grow is a profoundly powerful act of self care.” I couldn’t agree more.

Something deep, profound, and ancient happens when you step into this medicine with your mind and your heart, your body and your soul.

Botanical medicine is an entry into alchemy. It’s a way to remember yourself and to re-engage with healing on all levels.

I invite you to step into this wisdom. To remember that plants have personalities and potencies, just like people. Nature is a myriad of things: kind is only one possibility.

I always love to hear from you: scroll down to share your experience working with plant medicine.

Big hugs—



Failure, Rejection, and Keeping the (Self) Faith

Failure, Rejection, and Keeping the (Self) Faith

The rejection was written in less than 144 characters:

Not Interested (STOP).

Like a tweet or a modern-day telegram.

I stare at the words, my mind spooling backward to earlier in the day:  Asheville crowded with summer tourists, a confused woman in a blue Camry in the wrong lane. I opened a gap in the relentless traffic on Merrimon Avenue and let her through. She plowed forward, oblivious to everything but her own panicked disorientation. Where’s my wave? I thought.

I wave at the hopeful part of me, the part that really wanted this, and give myself an hour for sad and disconsolate.

Not Interested (STOP).

One hour.

‘Cause if I know anything, it’s this: wallowing in the dirty water of your failure only gets you a bladder infection. It’s a good way to waste a life.

I could break your heart (and you could break mine) with stories of our rejections, our failures, our almost-rans and not-quite-good-enoughs.

But hear me on this:

Failure is fuel. Burn it like jet propellant straightening your spine and sparking perseverance. Click To Tweet

Let it ignite your desire.

And then you do what desire dictates: you move toward this thing you love. This thing that drives you. You find a back door, an open window, a never-before-used path.

You re-find your self-faith by putting one foot in front of the other and recreating your world.

Twelve hours later I have 3 new proposals sent.

This is success.

Tell me about a triumph. Tell me about a time (past, or present, or future) when failure fueled you forward. Comments are below!

Big Hugs—


Astrology for Agnostics

Astrology for Agnostics

I’m a tough sell when it comes to spirituality organized by someone else. I used to put astrology in the same box as religion; the only way I made it through the Jewish part of my upbringing by tucking a novel into my prayer book and forcing my mom to grab my elbow very time the rabbi said “please rise.” I was baffled by my parents insistence on going to synagogue because, as far as I knew, neither was sure they believed in God. What? I thought. Are they hedging their bets?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized there are many kinds of belief. There’s the belief of your mind, a form of believing which wants to be rational and absolute. Then there are also beliefs of the heart, soul, or body, none of which are tied to the mind’s rationality.

To a snarky teenager these dichotomies seemed false and hypocritical but (thank goodness!) the world is more complex and layered than my younger self knew.

We live between dichotomies: yin and yang, light and dark, inhale and exhale.

Thus I believe in astrology and I don’t believe in astrology.

Despite my agnostic stance, I’ve been indulging an astrology addiction for the past twenty-four years.

At first it was a small obsession: a weekly dose of Rob Brezsny‘s Free Will Astrology downed like a shot to get me through long hours building models and drawing elevations during architecture school. Years later, I’d feed my astrology fix in the subway, thumbing through The Village Voice as I waited for the F train.

What’s the attraction?

Astrology is a great big cosmic metaphor, one of many doors into the collective unconscious.

If you’re not a person who remembers your dreams or wants to analyze your Freudian slips, astrology might just be a fun door to stroll through. Plus the movings of the cosmos have been used in conjunction with plant medicine for thousands of years.


Because the moon pulls the tides and the water table, which directly affects plant growth. This simple fact links earth and everything which grows upon her with the stars and the night sky. As above so below.

Each new moon, I hop on a webinar with the women in my online community, which gives me a chance to pause and reflect on what’s going on for me and how it syncs up with what’s going on in the larger world. The serendipity of these group gatherings is astounding; even while our minds refuse to fully believe in the astrology thing, we all can feel ourselves in-sync and responding to a collective energy.

When I think of myself as living between earth and sky, the context for my life broadens. Click To Tweet

Instead of looking at happenings through the lens of work or family or community, I look at my place under the stars. I ask how my life is a reflection of the shifting seasons.

Here in the South, the wheel is turning and we’re slipping toward spring. My peonies are pushing up, feathery leaves still the deep aubergine of new growth. My mind is full of new thoughts and plans: seeds of things to come.

(I have a deep love affair with the seed metaphor: the seed is everything a seedling needs to take root, but in order for the new plant to thrive every bit of the seed must be used up. The seed becomes a dry husk which falls away, a shell of an earlier incarnation…)

So what, you ask, does this have to do with astrology?

The New Moon is passing through the sign of Aries, the first sign in the zodiac associated with the element fire and, being first, with new beginnings. New beginnings look different for each of us.

Some seeds need to freeze to germinate, but others, like sequoias and manzanita, need to burn.

So as we begin a new astrological cycle, think about your personal patterns: are you a seed that craves the cold stillness of winter or do you need a good burn?

Do you rise like Venus on the half-shell or like the Phoenix bursting from the ash?

Astrology is one of many tools for seeing and feeling into the patterns of the world.

Humans are hardwired to explore and understand patterns. If astrology isn’t your thing, choose another way to dive into the mysteries of the cycles:

  • Close observation: try drawing the new leaves as they emerge from the soil or watch the way a candle flame curls and dances.
  • Oracle cards: I love these for mining your own subconscious.
  • Explore sacred geometry and fibonacci sequences.
  • Dive into DNA and the mysterious patterns of our blood.
  • And for finding your personal patterns, nothing beats keeping a journal!

When you begin to unravel the patterns around you and dive deep into your own cycles, it becomes a heck of a lot less scary to be a seedling bursting from its shell.

Wishing you the energy to emerge from the cocoon of winter and start anew.

Big hugs—




Communion, Devotion and Keeping the Faith: Why I Blog

Communion, Devotion and Keeping the Faith: Why I Blog

Blogging is an act of faith.

Three years ago, when this blog graduated from random occurrence to weekly newsletter, I didn’t realize I was making a commitment to noticing the curious and the intriguing, the magic in the ordinary, the way the light reflects off a dew-splattered leaf or the scent of rosemary in the afternoon sun.

I didn’t know that in bleak moments when life seems annoying or painful or heart-wrenching, I would still be finding lessons and bright spots because I had made a promise to both myself and you to create something worth reading every Sunday morning.

I didn’t understand that blogging would become my act of communion, first with the world around me and then with you. (more…)

Loving Your Inner Elephant

Loving Your Inner Elephant

I’m going to ask you a question.

Don’t think about it. Don’t research it. Simply notice the first answer that flashes through your mind.

What animal are you?

Tune into your body, your animal self. Feel into your toes and see if you can sense the beating of your heart.

Now ask your body, your physical self, which animal it’s most like.

No changing the answer! This is your body’s truth.

And this is mine.


Hold on! Before you scamper to the comments to write how I should love my body, before you diagnose me as having a self-esteem issue, let me tell you a story.

I’m lucky to be friends with my acupuncturist. I don’t know which came first, the friendship or the acupuncture, but at this point they’re completely entwined.

So I’m lying on the table, there’s a lavender pillow on my eyes, and the needles are doing their thing. We’re talking quietly and I’m bemoaning my constant need for tune-ups. I mutter my old riff: I wanted to be a sturdy Volvo, but instead I’m a Fiat. Constantly in the shop. Fix it again, Tony!

My friend replies, I’ve been thinking about my body lately. My animal-self. I’ve spent a lot of time working on loving my self, on self-image. But it’s all in my mind, it’s mental exercises. So I’ve been working on feeling my body, my animal self, and asking it what it needs.

We continue talking. Exploring being grateful to our kidneys, our liver. Acknowledging how much energy our bodies use in our work, holding space for people to heal.

And every time she says “my body, my animal self,” I think elephant.

Here’s the thing: it’s hard to hate an elephant.

It’s hard to be angry at an elephant for being, well, an elephant.

My choice of elephant was not my brain insulting my body, it was my body speaking its truth. And in researching it a bit it’s spot-on right down to the powerful sense of small to compensate for poor eyesight and bad peripheral vision (I have a partially paralyzed eye that doesn’t move outward so, like the elephant, I have to turn my whole head to see to the side).

Acknowledging my elephant self is actually comforting; it makes it easier for me to love me. Because an elephant simply is an elephant. It doesn’t need to be anything else.

And I love elephants for what they are. It never occurs to me to think of what they aren’t.

So what are you?

Not what animal do you like or what’s your totem. I want to know, when you reach down into your skin, what animal resonates there.

Share with me. And tell me how it feels to acknowledge your inner elephant… or jaguar… or mouse… or cricket. Tell me how it feels to live in your skin and love it for what it is.

Big hugs—





Recovering from Transcendence

Recovering from Transcendence

On my last morning in Carmel, I stood on the balcony outside my room, watching the moon set over the Pacific.

The air was thick with jasmine and pine. I pulled it deep into my lungs, trying to taste scent, to store the sensuality of this place in my mouth like a squirrel hoarding nuts for winter.

I kept thinking of a scene from Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (which for the herby amongst us is what we call The Doctrine of Signatures). In the book there is a cave, high in the mountains on an island somewhere in the Pacific. In this cave the characters have a moment that I see in my mind as a jewel.

For those that haven’t read it, it’s a pivotal scene that I don’t want to divulge, but I’ll say it’s one of those moments where two unlikely characters end up together in a sensual, lush paradise and… go read the book.

But it’s a moment of transcendence and even as I read those paragraphs strung like lights in the darkness, I was holding my breath, wondering how these fictional people would recover, would hike down the mountain, and become mere mortals again.

As I stare at the Pacific, my mind roams ahead: 3 flights home, my half-built kitchen, the dog hair balling under the couch.

On a pad next to my computer, I keep a list of possible blog topics. A year and a half ago, when I read that passage and imagined Liz Gilbert having to write herself down from the cave, I jotted recovery from transcendence. I knew deep in my core that the success of her book hinged, not on the cave scene but on everything that came after.

The challenge is in returning from a rarified experience of grace and not getting mired in the distractions of daily life.

Home at my desk, I know that my book’s success will hinge on everything that comes after. The Carmel writing retreat was a moment of transcendence that I now need to recover from, and fast.

This process is one we all go through after every retreat, vacation, and weekend at the ashram. We have to figure out how to take what we discovered and bring it home. This bit of the journey is just as important as the more exciting moments when, for just a second, we see the spark of our own divinity.

I root through my essential oils: night-blooming jasmine and pinion pine. I breathe the scents, opening my mouth, tasting the magic.

Then I crack open Liz Gilbert’s latest book:

The fun part is when you’re actually creating something wonderful, and everything’s going great, and everyone loves it, and you’re flying high. But such instances are rare. You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments… is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.

— Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

It’s time for the real work, and I have jasmine and pine to remind me of transcendence.

Your turn. How do you recover from transcendence? Share with me!



P.S. If you are a writer and this Carmel thing is singing to you, you can follow that thread here. Be prepared for magic!