I fasted for 40 days to seek spiritual insight. This is what I learned.

A nearly universal feature of spiritual traditions around the world, fasting plays a role in Christianity, Judiasm, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and countless other religions.

But with the exception of some pagan reconstructionists, fasting isn’t something emphasized in modern witchcraft or neopaganism in general.

The lack of information about fasting as a pagan or occult practitioner lead me to experiment with it from that perspective.

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Before we go into exactly what motivated my personal experiment with fasting, let’s go over what didn’t:

1.  I did not fast to lose weightI did, of course, lose weight.  And to the extent that I feel transformed physically by the inner revolution of the experience, I suppose weight loss contributes to the sense of “rebirth” into a new body.  But weight loss was not the primary goal. Also, I never left a healthy weight range, although I was on the higher end of that range before the fast, and I am on the lower end now.

2.   I did not fast to debate about the health benefits/dangers of fasting.  All kinds of claims loom around the internet about fasting and its benefits to health.  Some of them are pretty plausible (fasting increases insulin sensitivity) and some of them are downright dangerous (fasting cures cancer).  I’m not here to make any claim about the health risks or benefits.  That’s not what I was out to do.  I’ll let people far more qualified than I deal with those issues.

I ask you not to confuse this article with an endorsement of fasting in general, but simply consider it an account of my experience with the practice.  It really isn’t for everyone.

Fasting powerfully effected both my mind and my body.  I entered this journey with a lot of respect for what I was about to do, and I set limits.  The most important for me:

1.  I planned to stop immediately if fasting interfered with my work, or my ability to care for my child.

2.  I planned to stop immediately if I dropped below a healthy weight.

3.  I planned to stop immediately if I felt fasting seriously effected my emotional or physical health.

3.  I did not fast to support a spell.  But I think that would be interesting.  This fast was not part of a spell or ritual, but I think fasting in place of an offering to add power to spell work or ritual is an interesting idea.  I may try it.

Please note:  Mine was not an absolute fast, or a water fast.  I ate about 500-600 calories once a day, which was enough of a challenge for me.  I don’t know that the exact nature of the diet itself matters, but I tried to stick to simple, humble meals.   Mostly plain vegetables and rice.

Here’s why I did want to fast:

1.  To enhance the mind/body connection.  I tried short water fasts of 2-3 days before this experiment.  Very quickly, I experienced how sharply and directly fasting connects the mind to the body.  I wanted to know if a longer fast might deepen this connection.

2.  To promote mental clarity.  In particular, Buddhism and Hinduism have rich traditions of fasting to aid meditation.  Experienced fasters often claim enhanced abilities to visualize, more vivid dreaming and longer attention spans.  As someone with lots of interests and a notorious tendency to jump from one task to another, the idea of heightened concentration really intrigued me.

3.  To promote and deepen compassion for others.  Please do not misunderstand me.  As an otherwise well-fed person living in the first world, I obviously recognize that a voluntary period of fasting for personal spiritual growth bears no comparison to the hunger experienced by those living in starvation around the world.

However, I think at least exploring the sensation of deep physical hunger opens a sense of greater compassion for those who live without the luxury of daily bread.

Gandhi’s fasts especially inspired me to try fasting as an act of reverence.   Reading about his life during this time enriched my fast.

4.  To strengthen self-discipline.   Self-discipline behaves much like a muscle—the harder you work it out, the stronger it becomes.  I didn’t believe in the beginning that I could really do this for 40 days.  I was wrong.  And being wrong about that makes me wonder what else about my own limitations I’m wrong about.

5.  To change my relationship with food from one of impulsivity and thoughtlessness to one of mindfulness and respect.  Fasting forced me, in a very direct way, to confront the hang-ups about food my culture and upbringing impose on me.

In that way, I found it nothing short of life-changing.

Fasting taught me a lot, and almost all of it surprised me.  Here’s what I learned.

Fasting intensified my sense of mind/body awareness powerfully.  Just becoming aware of the sensation of physical hunger verses “mental” hunger is a revelation in a world where many of us go weeks without ever hearing our stomachs growl.

Even though this wasn’t a true water fast, I think this fast required more discipline than the short water fasts I’d done before.  Whereas in a true water fast, your hunger eventually subsides and stays that way for a very long time, eating once a day means triggering the metabolism and appetite.

Resisting it in that period after a meal really tested me, especially if I was in a setting that encouraged feasting, where well-meaning friends and family pushed food in my direction.  That none of them knew about the fast probably exacerbated it—-but I don’t know.

Knowing may also have made some of them more insistent.

By the way: people are really, really weird about fasting. 
While the acceptance of fasting as a practice varies widely in different cultures, in the United States, people seem particularly unsettled by it.  It’s almost taboo.  If you go around telling people you’ve dropped down to 500-600 calories a day, they usually:

1.  Think you have an eating disorder.  Particularly if you fall on the lower end of your weight range.

2.  Believe that abstaining from regular meals is inherently unhealthy.

3.  Question your mental health or think you are involved in a cult (if you tell them it’s for spiritual reasons).

4.  Do, think or say something equally ridiculous.

For all these reasons, and also because I think silence intensifies acts of reverence, I only told my husband about my fast.

Surprisingly, no one else seemed to notice.

To the annoyance of servers all over town, I ordered a lot of tea and water at restaurants, but I still went out with friends and family.  I continued to teach two yoga classes and two belly dance classes a week.  I chased after my toddler with plenty of energy.  I ran my handmade website without any extraordinary difficulty.

It interfered much less with my day-to-day living than I expected.  Actually:

Fasting definitely sharpened my focus.   In the beginning, it really interfered with my thinking.  A constant state of hunger distracts even someone with laser concentration.  Personally, I’m kind of flighty as it is.  So I struggled.  A lot.

I fought my impulses very hard at first.  I doubted myself.  I rationalized.  I bargained.

But eventually, the hunger goes away.  It’s bizarre.

After about a week, the hunger started to fade.   I read about this phenomenon, but I doubted it completely until it happened to me.

After two weeks, as my stomach began to tighten up and even small amounts of food left me feeling very full, it became almost more difficult to eat than not to.  At first, I found it a little alarming.  It’s so counter-intuitive.

However, once it happened, a fog seemed to lift, and suddenly, my sense of focus and awareness opened up a lot.

Reading, writing, meditation and creative pursuits held my attention much longer.  I often got “lost” in my tasks in a way that more shallow concentration simply doesn’t accommodate.

Prolonged fasting demanded much more from my mind than my body.  Before the fast, I expected to experience a near-debilitating toll on my body.  In fact, I felt energized most days.

Generally, I don’t engage in high-impact exercise.  My regimen mostly consists of low-impact dance, long, brisk nature walks and yoga.  But my active life continued mostly uninterrupted.

In fact, I was able to go deeper into more challenging yoga poses, relax more fully in them and hold them longer.

But mentally, fasting completely reworked my wiring.  I never realized how impulsive my relationship with food was until I spent a month constantly reminding myself: don’t lick the spoon, don’t taste-test the spaghetti sauce, don’t take the chocolate mint on the dinner check, don’t accept the free sample at the grocery store, and yes, a stick of gum counts.

For strength, I left offerings of bread or food on . . . pretty much any altar that welcomed them.  Certain Hindu and Buddhist temples in particular encourage food offerings, although you must be careful to look up the specific customs of what offerings are appropriate (meat almost never is, but in some cases, neither is garlic or mushrooms).

Sometimes, I just went on a walk with dog or baby and left offerings of handmade bread in the woods.  I found this really cleared my mind and kept me centered.

I carried also wore or carried tiger’s eye to remind me of my own inner strength, and I left the 5 of Pentacles tarot card on my altar.

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The Five of Pentacles is sometimes called “The Poverty Card” and symbolizes humility.  It seemed appropriate.

All of these things comforted me as I struggled through the more challenging hours and days of my fast.

On the upside, my one pauper’s meal a day tasted amazing. 

An old English proverb goes something like this:  “Hunger is the best spice.”

Even if it was just brown rice and raw vegetables with no sauce or butter, every flavor exploded on my tongue.  I noticed a heightened sensitivity to spices and salt.

I also found myself much more consciously grateful for food, much more respectful of how I used it, and more aware of when and how I ate it.

I went to the farmer’s market get the freshest possible ingredients.  I rubbed green beans between my fingers and gently squeezed cucumbers, fully appreciating them with all my senses when I made selections.  I prepared almost everything from scratch.

And I took my time eating.  I took pleasure in it.  It took much less to feel satisfied.

One benefit of my fast did not occur to me until I checked my bank statement:  Fasting saved me a lot of money.

Our food bill often creeps pretty high—not because we eat a lot, but because we eat well.  I try to feed myself and my family whole foods, avoid fast food, processed food and mostly either make my own or get it from a trusted source.  This benefits my health, but it doesn’t benefit the purse strings.

I set aside this extra savings.  Initially, I thought about using the money to buy canned goods for a food bank.  But local food banks proved surprisingly difficult to find!

So I plan to donate the money directly to a charity yet-to-be-determined, preferably one that benefits world hunger.

(ETA:  I donated to the organization Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.)

Now, a few reality checks.

While this proved to be a mostly positive experience for me, I want to avoid downplaying the intense and sometimes unpleasant side effects.

I was often irritable.  I noticed some pretty sharp mood swings during my fast.  Nothing super dramatic, but I sometimes felt “blue,” or unable to tolerate minor inconvenience.   This usually passed quickly.

I was cold all the time.  As my resting metabolic rate started to drop, so did my body temperature.  Even on warm spring days, I wore sweatshirts and socks.  I think this type of prolonged fast would be much more uncomfortable during the colder winter months.

I had a hard time sleeping.    Fasting undeniably interfered with my sleep cycles.  Particularly once I entered deeper ketosis, I went at least 48 hours without sleep several  times.  However, I experienced sharp mental clarity and the lack of sleep didn’t seem to impact my performance on any level I was aware of or made aware of.

Simply put, I struggle to sleep deeply, but I also didn’t seem to need as much sleep.

In general, fasting was really, really hard for me.  Like most people, I fought a lifetime of conditioning to maintain a strong fast.

Although I fasted without any serious impact to my daily life, my inner world rocked completely.

To give you a point of reference, I lived under the burden of a pack-a-day smoking habit for more than a decade before I quit 6 years ago.  This 40-day fast tested my will at least as much as the first 40 days I quit smoking.

Having said all that, I definitely want to do it again.

Feel free to leave any questions in the comment section, or share your own fasting experience.

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10 Ways to Use Dandelions in Witchcraft

While you’re weeding your spring lawn, pull these little beauties up and throw together some magick.

10 ways to use dandelions in witchcraft

Use them in sun magick.  A bright, yellow, full-sun flower makes a cheerful addition to any solar or daylight ritual.

Include in creativity and inspiration spells.   Dandelions begin to come up just as the winter fades completely, symbolizing hope and and new beginnings.  Include dandelions in spells to jump start projects or break a creative block.  

Press them in your Book of Shadows.  Dandelions wilt quickly, but they press well!   Press between the pages of your Book of Shadows or journal to infuse it with positive solar energy.

Add them to little wildflower bouquets for woodland spirits.  Planning an outdoor ritual this spring?  Gather dandelions and other wildflowers as an offering to the woodland spirits.

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Use them in spells for bravery and courage.  The word “Dandelion” comes from the french word dent-de-lion, meaning “tooth of lion.”  Use them in mojo bags for confidence, bravery or courage.

Include in wishing spells.    In many regions of the United States, people remember as children finding dandelions after they’ve gone to seed and blowing on them whilst making a wish.  Adapt this charming tradition to a wishing spell for a nostalgic ritual.   Makes a lovely feature in children’s spells and rituals as well.

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Make a divination tea.  Boil dandelion leaves and roots into tea and drink it before reading tarot or other divination practices for keen insight and clarity.

Pile them on your Beltane altar.  Dandelions brighten any springtime altar, but especially Beltane!  Put them in a vase with fresh rainwater

Drive out dark energy or spirits.  Bring bouquets of dandelion into the home to dispel dark thoughts and negative spiritual energy.

Ring spell candles with them.  Arrange dandelions around the base of an altar or spell candle to welcome happiness and playful joy into your circle.

 
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Pagan Parenting: The First Year

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Like everyone else, the moment I saw that second pink line, I knew I stood on the brink of complete transformation.

Very soon thereafter, I began to think deeply on how I planned to introduce and cultivate a spiritual life for my child.  .

Something about the label “pagan” made me uneasy when applied to my child that never made me uneasy as applied to myself.  It’s not really a word I identify with, but more of a shorthand that roughly describes the same spiritual “neighborhood” I live in—the way people who live in Tyson’s Corner just say they live in DC because no one knows or cares where McLean, Virginia is and it’s just easier to name a close-enough place.

But I felt more sensitive about labeling my child this way.

So I decided to focus on what I call “natural” parenting.  If you are interested in taking your baby down a more progressive, integrated spiritual path, but you think it’s too early, think again!

There are lots of ways to begin.  Here are some ideas that worked for me.  Obviously, your mileage may vary, but I hope to at least inspire you.

Spend time outside.  Developing a connected relationship with nature never comes too soon.  Don’t just strap your baby in a stroller and keep him there.  Find a sunny spot in the grass and let him roll around (avoid commercial lawns, which tend to be loaded with pesticides).

Work on your “psychic” connection.  Or whatever you want to call it.  The first year makes a great time to promote your unspoken bond because . . . well, babies don’t talk.  Once they learn, their thoughts are, in many ways, limited by the constraints of language.  Lay your baby on your chest and synchronize your breath to hers.  Try baby sign language.  When she’s crying and you don’t know why, stop, think, and pay attention to her cues.   Sometimes, just “listening” to my baby’s non-verbal signals surprised me with insight!

Try mommy & me yoga.  So many benefits come with some quiet, physical closeness.  Mommy & me yoga classes are playful, meditative and fun.   And if your little one freaks out, everyone in the room will understand, which takes the pressure off “controlling” his outbursts.

Include your baby in your rituals.  Try something simple at first.  A smoke-free smudge, or just bring her out under the full moon and let her enjoy the experience.

Celebrate the Sabbats together.  Try to celebrate the Sabbats on her level (see Baby’s First Mabon).

Make a “sweet dreams” sachet.  All first year parents await the night when baby lets them sleep through it!  Try filling a sachet with sleep/dream herbs and/or calming gemstones.  Hang it over the crib securely out of reach.  It can’t hurt!

Bless your baby’s blanket or lovey.  Anoint them with a diluted blend of olive oil and light essential oils for protection.

Try making your own baby care products.  Be sure you really know your herbs and oils, that you are extra cautious about common allergens and whatnot.  But making your own natural baby products connects you to what you put on your baby’s body.

Focus on natural or organic solids.   Have you ever gone in the baby food section at the grocery store and looked at the ingredients in Gerber Graduates?  I was stunned to learn that it’s even legal to market foods so loaded with preservatives and artificial ingredients to young children.  Regard your baby’s body (and your own!) as a temple.  Choose simple, natural foods to introduce.  Even if you don’t have time to cook every day, it’s almost as easy to cut up an apple as it is to pop something in the microwave.  The beauty is, they don’t know what junk food is, so they don’t miss it!

Finally, celebrate that first year with an outdoor cake smash!  We didn’t do a party, which seemed to me like it was really for the parents.  Which is fine!  But the idea of planning, making favors, invitations, ect didn’t do anything for me or my husband.

I wanted to do something to mark the occasion, so naturally, I consulted Pinterest and decided nothing seemed to have more potential for a crafty little witch than a cake smash.

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You can use herbs in the cake that have meaning to you, or decorate it with whatever happens to be in season to honor The Wheel of the Year.

I chose blackberries for their protective properties.

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I love having a spring baby, and I recall noting what wildflowers were in season when he was born last year.  I feel nostalgic now seeing them come back, and I think it might be nice to teach him that when he sees those things, it’s a “sign” that his birthday is coming.

Common grape hyacinth is one of my favorite wildflowers.

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Wild violets can even be candied and put into cakes and cookies.

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I also love tulips (we even named our dog after them!) and I plant them everywhere in the fall just so we can watch them come up now.

pink and yellow tulips

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The Role of Fire in Witchcraft

Inspired by the success of my post, The Role of Water in Witchcraft last summer, I decided to continue it as a series for each element.

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One of my earliest memories takes the form of my mother allowing me into the kitchen to watch her make dinner.   Sternly, she instructed me “Not to touch that stove, little one.”

Naturally, the moment she turned, I place my hand unflinchingly on the hot surface, giving myself a ripe little burn and a lifelong lesson about fire:

You really shouldn’t touch it.

Like all the elements, fire bears both creative and destructive force.   Simultaneously dangerous and beautiful, our respect for fire usually begins the first time it burns us!

And yes, I got a nasty burn that day.  But my mother used it to create a hot meal for us.

Same flame, same day.

I chose fire for this season because I strongly associate it with winter.  In the darkest, coldest months, fire provides warmth and light.

Let’s go over different kinds of fire and some creative ways to use it in spell craft.

Candle flame.  Easily the most convenient, common fire tool in ritual, candles are an ideal, all-purpose source of fire perfect for altars.

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Bonfires encourage groups to gather around it, making it an extremely effective focal point for group rituals and coven meetings.  Ideal for “going big” in rituals evoke empowerment or for burning spell elements in banishing rituals.

Hearth fires warm the home and create a cozy, holiday feel.  Perfect for enjoying a winter Sabbat like Imbolc or Yule.  Or, get creative and charge it with passion herbs for a date night at home.

Sparklers.  Remember how magical it was to hold one in your hands as a child, making streaks of light across the summer night.  Use sparklers to bring that same feeling to a moon ritual or night spell.

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Torches (as in the sticks with fire on the end of them, not flashlights) look a feel very ceremonial.  These are ideal for rite-of-passage type ceremonies, particularly involving the transition to manhood, or the ascension to a clergy position.

Lanterns work nicely for spring and midsummer festivals, anything involving faeries or woodland spirits, and garden blessings.

Flash paper is available at theatrical supply stores.  It’s usually used for stage magic, but it’s also great fun in spell casting!  Write spells or symbols on them and up it goes–in a flash!

Hope some of these ideas inspire you to use fire in more creative and fun ways during your rituals.  Blessed be!

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Make a Winter Hair Wreath

Most people associate the beloved hair wreath with Beltane or Litha, but I was inspired by the winter foliage to do one for Imbolc (and then I dragged a poor model out into the cold to pose in it.)

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If you’d like to do the same, here’s how!

You will need:

An embroidery hoop.  I’ve seen other people use wire, an old hanger or other bases, but these seem to work best for me and they are fairly cheap.  Available at any craft store.

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Thread.  Any thread will do, but I like a neutral color or green.

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Some natural foliage.  You can use fake flowers, too, but I think natural looks best for pictures or a one-day event.  I just looked around the landscape until I spotted some color.  The leaves and berries from this holly bush were perfect.

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From there, it’s very simple.  Take a section of the greenery and hold it firmly between your thumb and fingers.

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Then wind the thread around the bunch and the embroidery hoop securely.  Keep going, adding sections of greenery as you continue all the way around.  Don’t worry about getting it perfect or even.  A little wildness makes it look more natural.

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I like to save the colors for last so they stand out on top.

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And there you have it!  Gorgeous.  Everyone at the Sabbat circle will want one!

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holly-hair-wreath

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Belly Dance for Pagans: The Art of the Goddess

Sometimes slow and sensual, sometimes upbeat and rhythmic, the mesmerizing art of belly dance continues to captivate me a full 10 years after I first discovered it.

I want to talk a little bit about what belly dance offers the modern pagan in particular, and why taking up this dance style compliments neopagan spirituality so well.

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Belly dance celebrates the divine nature of womanhood.  While many dance communities place high value on youth and specific body types, belly dance respects the beauty in every stage of life. Although the “triple goddess” theme is not a concept in belly dance, it’s easy to see the correlation between belly dance’s respect for the sacred feminine in all its forms, from young girlhood to full pregnancy and even well into the crone years.

Belly dance is perfect for covens.   Raising energy with belly dance in a circle is super fun!  Try “passing” the energy from one person to another, like a “wave” at a baseball game, but with shimmies or hip circles.

Belly dance is perfect for solitaries.  Belly dance is performed in groups (as in American Tribal Style), but it is also a solo art.  Solitary practitioners benefit from the opportunity to develop a unique belly dance style and have something to share at festivals or private parties.

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Belly dance is culturally eclectic.  While many people commonly believe that belly dance originates in the Middle East, no one actually knows from where what we call “belly dance” today descended.  Modern belly dance may incorporate flavors of hip hop, ballet, Bollywood or African dance.  This openness to enrichment of the belly dance vocabulary makes it uniquely adaptable.  Egyptian witch?  Try an Egyptian style belly dance.  I’ve even seen blends of belly dance with Celtic dance or Thai.

The belly dance community is generally pretty damn welcoming.   No one will whisper about you showing up to a halfa in a midriff just because you don’t have Kate Middleton’s stomach.

You’ll find a lot of pagans.  Especially in the tribal belly dance community.  It won’t take you long to run into a few “of your own.”

You’ll probably dig the wardrobe.  Chances are, there’s already something in your closet you can wear to a belly dance party or class.  I don’t know why there’s so much overlap but . . . there is.

Well, there you have it.  A few of the many reasons to make this the year you learn a beautiful new form of expression.  Blessed be!

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Natural Healing for Coughs & Colds

Cold and flu season makes for busy herbalists!

I’ve been playing around with natural cold and flu remedies for a few years now, and I’ve finally worked out a few recipes I love based on classic natural healing ingredients.

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A few tips:

Use high quality ingredients.  As with cooking, your final product is only as good as your ingredients.  Local honey, first rate herbs and pure, medical-grade essential oils make for the best options.

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Don’t play around.  Know your body, and know your herbs.  You can overdose on natural ingredients, and you can certainly have allergic reactions to them.  Always start with the lowest recommended dose and work with a qualified herbalist if you’re still new to the art.

Try recipes one at a time.  Don’t mix two different cough remedies to treat one cold.  You’ll get sick again eventually!  It’s easier to figure out what works best if you tweak one recipe at a time.

Okay, here we go.

Honey, Ginger & Whiskey Cough Syrup

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*1 tbsp ground ginger
*1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
*4 Tbsp Honey
*1 shot top shelf whiskey
*splash lemon juice

Blend well until ginger is dissolved and black pepper is evenly distributed.  Shake or stir before each use.

Take 1/2 tablespoon every 3 hours.

Lavender Peppermint Sinus Headache Compress

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*15 drops peppermint essential oil
*10 drops lavender essential oil
*2 cups hot (but not scalding) water
*washcloth

Gently stir essential oil with water in a bowl.    Soak washcloth in the solution, then squeeze out excess water.

Lie down and apply compress to your head for sinus headache relief.

Eucalyptus Muscle Soak for Body Aches

*15 drops Eucalyptus oil
*1 cup Epsom’s salts

Fill a bathtub with hot (but not scalding) water.  Add oil and salts and stir gently with your hand or a wooden spoon before climbing in.  Relax.

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