The exact origin of turmeric is not known but it originates from South or Southeast Asia, most probably from western India.
Turmeric is a sterile plant, and does not produce seed. It is thought to have arisen by selection and vegetative propagation of a hybrid between the wild turmeric (Curcuma aromatica), native to India, Sri Lanka and the eastern Himalayas and some other closely related species.
Turmeric has been grown in India since ancient times. It reached China by 700 AD, East Africa by 800 AD and West Africa by 1200. It was introduced to Jamaica in the 18th Century. Today, turmeric is widely cultivated throughout the tropics.
Turmeric was probably cultivated at first as a dye, and then became valued as a condiment as well as for cosmetic purposes. It is often used in cooking as a substitute for the more costly saffron. In the 13th century Marco Polo wrote of this spice, marvelling at a vegetable which exhibited qualities so similar to saffron.
Familiar to the contemporary world as a prime component of curry powder, the orange-yellow rhizome’s striking colour lent it a special aura in ancient India. It has always been considered an auspicious material in the sub-continent, both amongst the Aryan cultures (mostly northern) and the Dravidian cultures (mostly southern) and its value may extend far in history to the beliefs of ancient indigenous peoples. Turmeric’s common name in the north, haldi, derives from the Sanskrit haridra, and in the south it is called manjal, a word that is frequently used in ancient Tamil literature.
Turmeric has a long history of medicinal use in South Asia, cited in Sanskrit medical treatises and widely used in Ayurvedic and Unani systems. Susruta’s Ayurvedic Compendium, dating to 250 BC, recommends an ointment containing turmeric to relieve the effects of poisoned food.
Turmeric has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties and can help you avoid discomfort associated with strength-building postures by reducing the buildup of free radicals that occurs as your muscle tissues consume oxygen; this also reduces post-practice pain and recovery time. Research published in the 1993 Journal of Ethnopharmacology (vol.38) showed turmeric to be a nutrient for connective tissue, stabilizing the collagen fibers and preventing adhesions caused by stress and overstretching.
Traditionally, turmeric is said to provide the energy of the Divine Mother and grant prosperity. It cleanses the chakras, purifies the channels of the subtle body and helps stretch the ligaments and, therefore, is highly recommended for the practice of hatha yoga. Mixed with honey, turmeric can be used externally for sprains and strains. Cinnamon bark is known throughout Asia for its ability to strengthen, warm, and harmonize the flow of circulation into the muscles, joints, and bones. And in the Taoist yoga systems of the Far East, a combination of peony root and licorice root is used to reduce muscle tension.
On the path of yoga the opportunity to cultivate flexibility is a gift that comes to us in many forms in addition to asana. It is a simple alchemy found in the way we live and work, our diet, emotions, and the karmic actions that affect the physical and subtle body. In a society where we look for the answers to our suffering in a pill, we must not forget that nature has given us herbs not only as remedies but also as special energetic foods to help us grow in our lives and, most especially, in our yoga practice.