How to Oil Pull: Lenten Reflection on Saucha

In my efforts to combine this week’s niyama of saucha or cleanliness (also translated purity and clearness of body, speech, and mind) with my Ayurvedic research, I give you the first of three ways of cleansing the body, starting with the point of entry for most of our food and germs: the mouth. Some of these methods have been easier to implement than others. I’ll let you guess which is which at the end of the series. 

Buy a jar of coconut oil. It will be more expensive than you think it should be, unless you buy from Trader Joe’s. Bonus: the Trader Joe’s brand tastes better. Definitely drive to Trader Joe’s.

Read how to do it online. Results will vary between “eewwww argh the worst!” and “life-changing.” Benefits include whiter teeth, fresher breath, a de-germed mouth, lack of sickness ever again and life everlasting. Or, at least whiter teeth.

Get up in the morning. Don’t eat; grab a spoon and the jar of coconut oil first. A teaspoon will do. You will probably think that looks insufficient. It isn’t. Really, it isn’t.

Put your tablespoon (because you won’t listen the first time) of coconut oil in your mouth. If you were lucky enough to buy from Trader Joe’s it will taste like coconut. Otherwise, it will probably taste at best like lip balm. Just so you know, coconut oil comes in a lard-like form in the jar. It heats up in the mouth and turns to liquid. So much liquid.

Set a timer for twenty minutes, if you’re the kind of person who remembers to set timers.

This glob of coconut lard will melt like slow lip-gloss-flavored ice cream on your tongue. It won’t seem so bad. At first. The websites invite you to gently swish the oil around your mouth. If your cheeks hurt, they say, you’re swishing too hard. So you swish, and swish, and notice that this oil seems to have morphed into a lake in your mouth. Puff your cheeks out. Look around the room, wildly, for a trashcan. Check the timer, and notice it says you have done this for five minutes. Despair, and spit, but in a trashcan, not a sink (oil does bad things for drains).

(Don’t swallow the oil though. The idea is to get the toxins out of your mouth before they get to the rest of your body.)

The websites will encourage you to simply grab another teaspoon and try again, continuing to swish and spit and re-imbibe coconut oil as needed. You’ll probably decline.

But if you come back to oil pulling on another day, you might find you can last a little longer. And that your mouth does feel a little cleaner. Eventually you’ll learn you can feed the dogs (and even communicate with them in looks and muffled sounds) and take a ten-minute shower while swishing. Eventually, you’ll get up in the morning and walk straight to your jar of oil.

Don’t stop flossing, brushing, or hanging out with your dentist though. Ayurveda happily works with modern medicine, not against it.

Why it works: Single-cell microorganisms in the mouth are covered in a lipid, and when they come into contact with an oil, they attach to it. So the oil attracts all the nasty microorganisms, traps them in the oil, and takes them along when you spit everything out.

Benefits: Prevents and treats gingivitis, plaque, and bad breath. Some users say it prevents other diseases because the germs in the mouth can’t move to the rest of the body.

Hangups: Gagging on the oil the first few times, no Trader Joe’s within an hour’s drive, figuring out how to get ready for work in the morning while swishing, especially if you live with people or animals who rely on your words. Fear not though. You can get a few words out while the oil is still a chunk in your mouth, and I’ve learned how to tell my dogs to go outside, come inside, sit, and stay (sort of) with an elaborate series of grunts.

How it connects to purity and clearness of mind and speech: Ayurveda doesn’t put the body and mind into separate systems, so what you do for the body, you are also doing for the mind. On a basic level, if your body (especially mouth and teeth) is healthy and feels good, your mind will probably feel better too. Practically, oil pulling is a great way to practice thinking before you speak, especially in the morning when the brain is groggy and reactionary.

I’ve also found it becomes a meditation, in its own way, because there’s this activity I have to concentrate on doing, and that can focus my mind off the millions of stupid anxieties vying for attention, and on to the present. Swish. Breathe. Pray. Get dressed. Feed the beings you love and live with in silence and gratitude. When your timer hits twenty minutes (someday it will) spit out your oil and microorganisms, and imagine some of the toxic anxieties are leaving your body with it.

On Staying Put

Grow us slowly, persistently, and deeply, Lord, to be people who watch without distraction, listen without interruption, and stay put without inclination to flee. Amen.

-Book of Common Prayer

Last spring I attended a Bryan Kest workshop at City Yoga in Indianapolis. In the morning he led me and about 150 other people in a power yoga class. By the end of the two and a half hour class, the windows were fogged, the thermometer read ninety degrees, my mat was a slip and slide, and my clothes were soaked. The afternoon’s class was another two and a half hour class called LSD—Long, Slow, and Deep. He compared it to now-popular yin yoga classes. “Don’t worry,” Bryan said. “We won’t get off our butts the whole class.”

I love fast, intense, sweaty yoga classes. With my doshas of vata (movement) and pitta (transformation and fire) I’m happiest when feeling The Burn, because I have Achieved. This self-satisfaction is only one part though. Managing the anxiety is another. For a long time, this burning—running miles, cycling, plyometrics, kickboxing—was how I incinerated the emotions that made me weep and throw things. For a period of time, it was one part of an intricate formula that kept me from hitting myself.

The hard workouts in my life have value, but I’m learning I can’t do them all the time. Ayurveda supports this, saying vata and pitta types need more sitting to calm down, swimming to cool off, meditation to center everything. But that’s not my natural tendency, and often I let the fire burn me up and the wind blow the ashes away. Occasionally an old hip injury from track flares up, and it’s only been in the last year that I won a five-year battle with plantar fasciitis (probably by not overtraining so much). Initially yoga was how I balanced my hard workouts—until I figured out how to make yoga a hard workout too. “Can a pitta go to hot Bikram classes?” Tiffany, an ayurvedic teacher asked her class at a workshop. “Yes. But keep in mind it will probably only be pittas in there, and they’re the last ones who need it.” Dosha, incidentally, can be translated as “to spoil,” and like an overly salty dish or too-sweet dessert, it is the too-muchness, the excess of our doshas that Ayurveda says causes problems. I have needs and I also have wants. My wants are closely linked to my ego, which is not very wise but is very convincing.

* * *

Despite Bryan’s intense morning class, I was irritable by the time I returned to the studio. Too many emails. No good coffee shops. Too much unfinished grading, and the kicker: my mat was still damp. As I squelched back into place in the studio, Bryan handed us straps, mentioning that one time when he taught an LSD class, a guy walked out yelling, “F*ck you, Bryan.” I didn’t really believe him though because this was a stretching class, and I have this bad habit of believing if my body can handle it, my mind can too.

Once we were on our backs, stretching one leg at a time overhead, I understood that student. In an ashtanga or vinyasa class, we hold stretches for five to ten breaths; in a hatha class, maybe a minute or two. This stretches the surface layer of the muscle, and afterwards everything pulls back to normal. In yin yoga, the instructor has students hold the stretches for three to five minutes, sometimes even as long as ten. The time spent in the pose takes the stretch beyond muscle, making an imprint into tendons and ligaments. In the moment that imprint doesn’t feel good. After a minute I was fidgeting. By two minutes I felt the pose branding my muscles. By three minutes, when Bryan called time, I whispered thank God—until he had us extend the leg wide and hold it another three minutes.

My brain flailed in hamstring-stretch shock. To feel muscular intensity while moving helps keep the brain engaged on not falling over. To feel muscular intensity when you can’t move is to look at a highway in a desert, or outer space. There is nothing to pull the attention away from the internal experience, and the brain seizes up, says nope. Nope nope nope. Instructors like Bryan know this, and coach their students to focus, as always, on the breath. The practice of sitting and watching (the yogic philosophy of Svadhyaya, or self-study) has a captive audience in yin yoga. And it is a hard practice to learn.

* * *

Yin yoga is a way to detox the muscles, meaning it’s also an emotional detox. Many yoga instructors believe that our muscles, especially our hips, store strong emotions and certain stretches release them. This flood of released toxins sends my brain into panic during the process. Last week after a hitchy day of work and a mounting to-do list, I did an online yin class while on the verge of a panic attack. I started crying during the first hamstring stretch, then later in pigeon and still later in a wide-legged forward fold. When I began practicing ten years ago, this happened a few times, but since I no longer punch the floor in pigeon or hyperventilate in wheel, I thought I’d released these emotions for good. Apparently the emotions just got better at hiding. Ayurveda also says it’s a crime against wisdom to deny the body certain things, like hunger, sleep, or in this case, tears. I used to turn sadness into anger and slap myself; later, after I left a bruise, I just went numb. That doesn’t make the toxins behind the sadness go away though. Alone in my red-tinted bedroom, I surrendered to the pose and let the tears out.

* * *

After Bryan had us finish nine minutes of various hamstring stretches on the right leg, he asked us to pause on our backs and notice the difference in the two legs. “One’s fully cooked, right?” he said. We replied with sighs of pleasure. Maybe that was the point where I noticed my irritation was gone, where the agony of the muscles and brain and tendons and mind chatter and lack of calorie burning became valuable. We pulled our left leg into our chests, ready to begin. “Do you hear that sound?” he said. The room was silent, but something was different. “That’s the sound of your ego running out the door.” We laughed and extended our left leg, no longer feeling apprehension or panic, but instead feeling something much closer to wisdom, something much closer to peace.

The Yamas, Niyamas, and Ash Wednesday

I’m not sure who first told me yoga was evil, or bad, or at least suspect, but I remember that A) I had to be taught it and B) I internalized that belief for a long time. I never heard it directly from my parents, but it was always just known in my culture, the way my culture also knew recycling was stupid and Catholics and Democrats weren’t real Christians. Yoga got lumped into the evils of “New Age,” although we had no idea what that really was, except that all the vegetarianism and meditation might snatch your brain.

So it was with some surprise that after college, when I finally started experimenting with yoga classes (at gyms who insisted there would be no Eastern philosophy or religion in the class) I noticed that I actually felt more connected to God, perhaps even more faithful when I was taking yoga regularly. I suspected that it had something to do with why I also felt calmer after class, why I sometimes felt relief in pigeon pose, and why occasionally I cried in savasana, the final relaxation portion of class where everyone lies on his or her back, eyes shut, doing nothing but breathing.

Ten years later, I still feel calmer after class, relief in pigeon, and every so often, I’ll find surprise tears in my eyes in savasana or meditation. I’ve still been trying to understand why I’m better at loving God and my neighbor as myself when I’m doing yoga regularly, and this struggle to understand has led me to a yoga certification and helping other prospective teachers earn their certifications.

Right now I’m helping with a teacher training program, and we’ve just finished studying the yamas and niyamas—ten ethical guidelines that make up the foundation of yoga philosophy. This is the second time I’ve studied them this closely, and probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve heard a yoga instructor teach on them, but like the Scriptures I’ve read many times since childhood, they always seem to speak to my life. This time around, I’ve been thinking of them a lot.

Most of my study of the yamas and niyamas has come from the book The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele, a book I highly recommend. Yoga Journal has also been a big supplemental help, and additionally I’m reading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as translated by Swami Satchidananda, a yoga guru who emphasizes interfaith study and community. There are eight limbs, or guidelines to a purposeful life in yoga, and the yamas and niyamas are the first two. Asana, or the physical practice of yoga is the third, pranayama, or breathing is the fourth. Numbers five, six—pratayara (withdrawal of the senses), and dharana (concentration)—work together to enable number seven, dhyana, or mediation. When these seven things are working together, one can approach Samadhi, often translated “bliss” or “interconnectedness” or more simply, “the peace that passes all understanding.” Personally, I like thinking of Samadhi as peace, and I like thinking of it as a goal we move towards, but can’t struggle to achieve. Achievement has been a motivator my whole life, but it never brings the ease or calm I’m looking for. Meditation combined with yoga, treating other people well, and breathing deeply, however, have come the closest to bringing me peace, even if just for moments.

The yamas are restraints, or guidelines for our relationships with others. They are ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence, non-excess), and aparigraha (non-covetuousness). Don’t be violent, whether to yourself or others. Don’t lie, or steal, or squander your sexual energy, or covet your neighbor’s belongings.

The niyamas are practices for ourselves, and are saucha (cleanliness, purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (heat, self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender). Be clean and content and disciplined. Pay attention to yourself, and surrender to God.

Knowing the yamas and niyamas and even being able to correctly pronounce the Sanskrit is one thing; applying them to my life, or even my yoga practice, is entirely another. But today is the second day of Lent (another thing my Christian culture definitely didn’t acknowledge), and Lent has always been a time for preparation and sacrifice in order to be a better person. In addition to giving up sugar during Lent, I try to add a good habit to my life, and this year, in addition to lemon juice water and early bed times, I think I’m going to pay extra attention to these disciplines. I’m terrible at Bible studies, but I love looking for connections between my faith and my yoga and my writing. So for the duration of Lent, I’ll be using this space to write about the yamas and niyamas, and where I see connections to life and faith. I’d love your thoughtful insights.

Deborah Adele acknowledges the struggle we feel to live according to rules. “Many guides to ethical conduct may leave us feeling overwhelmed with concepts, or boxed in by rule sets,” she says. Lent and our self-imposed restrictions can feel the same way. But I’ve been overwhelmed by no rules, by freedom to do whatever I want, which is usually not what I need. So I’m inclined to believe Adele when she adds, “Yoga’s guidelines do not limit us from living life, but rather they begin to open life up to us more and more fully.”

Apples and Parsnips

I’m working on a new blog, but it’s having to take a back seat to grading and working on another writing project. In the meantime, however, I am back to cooking after making it through last week’s valley of the shadow of influenza. Yesterday I made apple and parsnip soup, inspired by the delicious soup on the menu at Payne’s, and wanted to share. The recipe comes from EatingWell.com and the link is http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes/curried_parsnip_apple_soup.html.

I doubled the recipe, because if I’m going to cook, I want to get a few meals out of the food, but for here, I left the measurements the same. The recipe calls for chicken broth, but I used vegetable stock (Better than Bouillon is my favorite). This recipe is great for February, because it’s hearty and earthy, but also a fairly light soup (there’s no cream in it, just a yogurt garnish) and makes good use of the end of fall/winter vegetables and fruits. I’m all about seasonal eating these days, as it kind of makes sense that the foods the earth gives you at certain times of year are what your body needs right then. It also seems to be working–flu aside, my trousers and I are getting along better than we were before Christmas.

Curried Parsnip & Apple Soup

Makes: 4 servings, 2 cups each

Active Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 pounds parsnips (about 5 medium), peeled, cored and chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped

4 cups  vegetable stock (you can use chicken broth if you’re a happy carnivore)

1 medium russet potato (about 8 ounces), peeled and chopped

1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled and chopped (I used Jonagold)

1 1/2 teaspoons mild curry powder

1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander, plus more for garnish

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

4 teaspoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup low-fat plain yogurt

PREPARATION

Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add parsnips and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, 45 seconds. Add broth, water, potato, apple, curry powder, coriander, cumin and ginger; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the vegetables are tender when mashed against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon, about 20 minutes. *Note: I threw the vegetables in with wanton abandon as my faithful chopper got it chopped. But I give you the actual order, and encourage you to be as orderly as you see fit.

*Also, because life, my vegetables simmered for several hours before I got around to blending them. My philosophy with soup is that longer is just fine as long as you don’t burn it.

Puree the soup in the pot with an immersion blender until smooth. (Alternatively, blend the soup in batches in a blender with the lid slightly ajar. Use caution when blending hot liquids. Return the soup to the pot.) Add lemon juice, salt and pepper. Serve with dollops of yogurt swirled on top, garnished with pinches of coriander.

* * *

Also because life, and because I like to do yoga before I eat a meal, I didn’t get around to eating it until 10:30 at night. It was pretty great. Today I’m having it for lunch and it’s now moved into the amazing category.

Hope it works for you if you choose to try it!

Happy Sportsing Day

I’m taking a forced sabbath today. I got some kind of sick and spent most of the day on the couch or bed.  Water and Nuun rehydration tablets have been my friends. This is really, really not ideal because I helped with an all-day field trip to Indy yesterday to see Good People (Which is excellent! Go see it!) at the IRT and eat really tremendous food on Mass Ave. It was great. I also have so, so much grading to do and planned to spend today hunched over essays. And the body said, nope.

Sometimes being sick makes one extremely introspective and grateful, like for being able to almost finish Anne Lamott’s Grace (Eventually) Thoughts On Faith before the influenza sent me to bed. Like holding down fizzy water for the last hour. Like managing a short walk in the snow to a friend’s house to watch the Sportsing Bowl, and especially like the snow day my university declared for tomorrow.

However, my heart goes out to the family and friends of Dallas Davis, a student at my university who died in a car accident this morning.  Some of my colleagues had him in class, and said he was the kind of student who always saw “the good, the delightful” in other students’ writing and thought. I didn’t know him, but whenever these tragedies happen in our community, I wish I had. I probably could have learned something from him. Maybe it’s not too late. We are approaching the slog of the spring semester, where prepping for classes and grading essays feels like it requires superhuman energy, and here in February, I don’t have much of that at all. It’s not second nature, at this time of year, to remember to praise students for what they have done well. But it’s so essential  because that’s how all of us get through in February. Tomorrow, whether I’m still lying on the couch trying to drink water or sitting up on the couch trying to grade, I’m going to try to think of my world the way Dallas would have.

Go with God, Dallas. May your kindness and delight linger with us.