The quest to lead a healthier, more environmentally sustainable existence usually means embracing an in-harmony-with-nature lifestyle. For some, that translates to tending personal or community gardens, reducing one’s personal carbon footprint and negative impact on the plant or purging their households of all things chemical or toxic. For others, it manifests itself in the form of natural, eco-friendly approaches to everything from wellness to food choices.
For Buffalo-area registered yoga teacher Joshua Zimmerman, it takes the form of continually deepening his physical and spiritual connection to the Earth through hiking in places like the Adirondacks and the pursuit of wild mushrooms.
Yes, mushrooms: those ecologically essential fungi that break down organic matter, enriching the soil that supports the growth of all plant life.
But not the supermarket culinary type used for cooking. Zimmerman harvests a variety known as chaga in the Green Mountains of Vermont. A member of the fungus family found on birch and other trees in cold climates — places like Russia, northeastern Europe, the northern United States and Canada — chaga is a powerful adaptogen (natural stress reliever) that numerous scientific studies have shown may fight cancer cells, boost the immune system and lower blood pressure.
With a gnarled, charred-looking black exterior and a golden-brown inner flesh, chaga has been used for thousands of years by traditional healers. The first written record of chaga appeared in China back in 100 B.C. In “The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica Classic,” an ancient text that laid the foundation for Chinese herbal medicine, the author, a Buddhist monk named Shen Nung, called chaga “the king of the herbs” and “a gift from nature.”
A business management major and former personal trainer turned natural health enthusiast, Zimmerman discovered chaga during a time of self-exploration. Chaga became a part of his life after returning from to the U.S. after studying yoga and the teachings of the vedas — ancient sacred Indian texts — in Rishikesh, India, the birthplace of the mind-body practice.
“When I got back from India, I desired to live a more pure life, including my food choices. This led to purifying my morning coffee by adding balancing herbs and mushrooms,” Zimmerman told Tao Life in an Instagram interview. “I noticed chaga influenced a balanced mood and energy that was much more conducive to a meditative mind. I thought that in this stress-ridden world, I need to share this as medicine.”
Zimmerman and his partner and soulmate, Kristen Brown, co-founded Life Itself, which offers ground chaga and brewed chaga, and has plans to produce herbal chaga syrups, tinctures and chaga-CBD-blended products. Their goal is to introduce the benefits of chaga to everyone to help “lighten the mental, emotional, and physical load of the average lifestyle to create an enlightened existence,” says Zimmerman.
Many devotees already swear by sipping chaga in tea or coffee form to take advantage of its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties and to promote good gut health, with the thought that it may have other medical benefits.
Although no human clinical trials have been conducted, the lack of scientific data does not bother those sold on chaga’s benefits.
“Doing a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial would be great, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that chaga works and is not harmful, so Life Itself Chaga is definitely worth trying,” said one chaga lover, whose holistic approach to wellness favors natural remedies and a diet based on whole, organic, and unprocessed foods. “Besides, chaga has been a proven in human trials for more than two thousand years. That’s an impressive track record!”
The only known downside to chaga is that it may inhibit blood clotting, meaning people to have a bleeding disorder or take blood thinners should steer clear. And since there is no evidence of its safety, it should also be avoided by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
While Zimmerman is a firm believer in chaga’s health-promoting properties, he doesn’t view it as a cure-all, or an end-all, be-all. He is working on his vision of creating a special place for like-minded wellness warriors and people focused on a higher purpose.
“My aim is to open up a spiritual retreat center where people can live joyously and simply, in harmony with nature, and free to explore their connection with the spiritual” he says. “I hope to be part of a greater movement which inspires a humanity focused on harmony, love and devotion to life. I believe that we are already in the midst of creating such a world.”
Life Itself chaga products are available online and at Rochester Public Market and farmers’ markets in the Buffalo area. To order or for more information, visit thisislifeitself.com. Follow Joshua Zimmerman and Life Itself on Instagram, as connect with them on Facebook.
Interested in working with Tao Life to build a year-round retreat in Western New York, where people can teach, learn, grow and connect with each other and nature in body, mind and spirit? E-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.