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.


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