Saucha Part 2: Tongue Scraper Edition

I lived in England and Scotland for a combined total of four and a half years, and the last time I lived in England, I took the train to a nearby town every Thursday night for a two hour Ashtanga yoga class. The workout was thorough and sweaty and the people were wonderfully down to earth. The teacher, Vera, was one of the best I’ve ever had. In addition to rocking our worlds with the Primary Series every week, she also talked about health habits of yogis. When she came back from a month in India twenty pounds lighter, she talked about how she hardly ate any dairy foods while there, which left her lighter and more active. Sometimes we spent a section of class doing breathing exercises that were designed to stimulate our digestive and respiratory systems. One night she talked about cleansing practices for the body.  She advised us all to get a tongue scraper. “Can’t we just brush our tongues?” one girl asked.

“No,” she said. “That doesn’t do the same thing at all. Toothbrushes moves around bacteria; tongue scrapers get rid of it.”

I went home that night thinking she might be slightly nuts. Within a month, I bought a tongue scraper.

According to The Ayurvedic Cookbook Ayurveda believes good health happens by keeping the tissues nourished with healthy food, and by cleaning and removing obstacles within the bodily systems. One kind of obstacle is amaa buildup of waste that happens through poor digestion and absorption. The book also points out that while “polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT and sodium trichloroacetate were not around with the rishis [Indian sages] developed Ayurveda, it is likely that their accumulation in body tissues today would be considered a form of toxic ama.  Like food and drink, we absorb them from our environment, and if we do not effectively metabolize them and send them back out (a major task in industrial and urban environments especially), they gather in our tissues, to be dealt with” (Morningstar 6). My youngest brother and several of my students struggle with autism and other learning disorders, often attributed to a buildup of toxins like lead and mercury. The health risks of ama are very apparent to me.

I wrote about cleanliness, or saucha, a couple of weeks ago and talked in particular about oil pulling, a practice I’ve sporadically adopted over the last few months. While I have yet to be a regular and avid oil puller, I am a big believer in tongue scraping.  It’s a very, very easy habit to adopt, and like oil pulling, helps keep the body clean by starting at the entry point of the body. Since we’re entering the Kapha season, which is a natural time of year to flush out the body’s toxins and gunk, now is a great time to experiment with this physical spring cleaning habit.

All major drug stores and supermarkets will sell a tongue scraper (one type pictured below).02_tongue_scraper__colors_avail_2_0904121843_1843

To use it, place the head of the tongue scraper on the back of the tongue and gently pull forward, being careful to not put too much pressure on the tongue. You will probably notice some white gunk on the scraper; this is ama. Rinse it off and scrape again, repeating until the white gunk is gone. My usual practice is to scrape my tongue after brushing my teeth in the morning and evening. If I skip a few days, I start to notice the buildup on my tongue, and even feel my nose and throat becoming more coated.

Scraping the tongue has several benefits. One of the most obvious is that it cuts down on bad breath, by eliminating the ama from the mouth, as well as bacteria. The Chopra Center points out that tongue scraping leaves the mouth feeling more invigorated, and is a good way to balance the “heavy and dulling qualities of Kapha dosha.”  Kapha friends, take note.

Because tongue scraping removes impurities from the mouth, it also prevents those impurities from reabsorbing into the body. This is a big help to the immune system. Tongue scraping also increases digestive health by keeping the build-up out of the stomach and allowing the digestive system to function more efficiently

Finally, removing the buildup on the tongue allows a person to better taste her food and thus enjoy it more. In the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, author Mireille Guiliano discusses a friend who ate heavy, fatty meals, even in the middle of summer. Apparently this friend had been a long-time smoker, and smoking leaves a person with a dulled sense of smell and taste, so the friend compensated by eating meals with heavy sauces. A build-up of ama will do the same thing, coating the tongue and making it harder to taste the flavors of food unless it is salty, sugary, or fatty. Again, the Chopra Center points out that, “By increasing your taste reception, not only do you eat less, you also eliminate the need to add more sugar, salt, or excessive spice to the food to make it more flavorful. Many of the beneficial phytonutrients and “body signals” that your food contains are first interpreted by the mind-body upon contact with receptors on the tongue. You want to improve this communication between your food and your body by removing any coating that is interfering with that connection.”

Long story short: while Ayurveda has some practices that seem way out there (cow dung, anyone? crocodile semen?) most of them are simple and very practical, and tongue scraping is perhaps the simplest and most practical of all. We live in a world full of toxins, many of which are invisible, and many of which hide in our food. Ideally we wouldn’t eat the toxins at all, but because we can’t avoid it, we can cut out some of the toxins by adopting some daily cleaning rituals. I highly doubt tongue scraping can cure autism, but I do think eliminating dullness in our bodies helps eliminate dullness in our minds, and helps all those Ayurvedic meals (coming soon) taste better too.

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All About the Doshas (With Dog Photos!)

I first learned about doshas during my yoga teacher training two years ago. While I had heard of Ayurveda, I didn’t know what Vata, Pitta, or Kapha meant, and the first time I took a “What’s Your Dosha?” quiz, I struggled to pick myself out of the options. It was a little like when I took personality tests back in high school youth group (“Are you phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, or melancholy? What animal are you? Are you an introvert or an extrovert?”) Doshas are similar to personality, but more comprehensive because Ayurveda looks at personality, mind, and body as an interconnected package.

Since learning about the doshas I am gradually understanding why one friend can wear a tank top on a thirty-degree day while the girl next to her huddles in a puffy coat, and why my brother can eat semi-rotten meat while my sister has a hard time eating chicken. Understanding doshas helps me understand why my creativity is high in the autumn (but my ability to finish projects is not) and why I can be so sleepy at 10:00 p.m. but power-cleaning my bathroom at midnight.

The book Eat, Taste, Heal, by Yarema, Rhoda, and Brannigan, describes the doshas as, “biological energies found throughout the human body and mind. They govern all physical and mental processes and provide every living being with an individual blueprint for health and fulfillment.” They are connected to the five elements of space, air, fire, water, and earth. While doshas are not visible themselves, one can see the effects of them as well as their qualities. I’ll describe some of these qualities, but know that a person might not have all aspects of a particular dosha—just a propensity towards one or two.

The doshas also exist in the seasons, time of day, and time of life. I’ll go into this in a later blog, but just know that Ayurveda translates as “science of life” for a reason. All of life connects to these five elements, and how the seasons and times of day affect the doshas in our lives is quite fascinating.

For now though, I’m going to really dumb this down. And I’m also going to use my three dogs as dosha mascots, because the internet loves dog photos.

Kapha

reclined copernicusCopernicus in his natural state

A Kapha dosha is made up of the qualities of water and earth, and translates as “that which sticks”. Qualities of Kapha are cool or cold and wet, as well as sticky, dull, soft, moist, static, and heavy. This list of adjectives might not sound sexy, but Yarema et al. says Kapha has qualities of building the body as well as lubricating it, and keeping the body working is definitely sexy.

Doshas have locations in the body, and key locations for Kapha are the chest, throat, lungs, head, lymph, fatty tissue, ligaments, and tendons. The chest is important here—Kaphas love, whether it’s other people, food, or things. Kaphas are also good at patience, and forgiveness, unless imbalanced, in which case they tend towards greed, attachment, and mental inertia. When eating and exercising right, they’re healthy and peaceful. When not, they turn into couch potatoes (“I got stuck” is a common refrain of one of my Kapha friends). Paying attention to food intake is also important—while they love food and love to eat, they also easily gain weight.

I picked my Golden Retriever-mix Copernicus as this dosha’s mascot because he is happiest lying on the rug with his face in a bowl of food. He is healthiest, however, and least likely to get possessive of his food and toys when he gets a run or a walk every day. Ayurveda always addresses exercise as well as health, and points out that vigorous exercise is the most essential for a Kapha, but they’re the least likely to want to do it. Once they get going, however, they usually have great work ethic and endurance.

I’m not a Kapha, but I’m not surprised that some of my favorite people are.

Pitta

christmas BaileyBe ye not deceived by this photo–when Bailey, my Pitta-pit bull isn’t curled up on a couch, she’s fighting to get there or begging for a walk or a run. 

Fire and water are the elements for Pitta, and the word Pitta translates as, “that which cooks.” Cooking is a transformative act, and Pittas are in the business of spreading and transforming.  The physical locations of Pitta in the body are in the small intestine, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, blood, eyes, and sweat—in short, the places in the body that change a substance into something else. Some words often used to describe Pitta are oily, sharp, hot, light, moving, liquid, and acidic. Pittas often sweat profusely and literally can overheat. They usually hate hot weather.

The sharp element is obvious in the psychology of a pitta. Pittas have a bright personality and can demonstrate joy, courage, intellect, and willpower. They can also explode with anger and jealousy, and physically, they are prone to rashes and heartburn.

Like most Pittas, my pit pull Bailey is muscular, quick, and loves to exercise. We’re definitely alike in that way. When we go running, she’s determined to be in the lead. While pit bulls aren’t known for their stamina, they are known for their stubbornness, which has gotten her through many a long run. The bull-headedness shows up in her need to be the only one on my lap, the first to get her leash on, the first one up in the car or to the food dish. And when I tell her no, she replies with the face of a teenage girl getting grounded.

Pittas are good at getting things done. They’re also capable of running over people in the process, and when they get stressed out, they often respond to the rest of the world with an attitude of, “Why’d you have to do that?”  Yarema says, “There is a saying that imbalanced Pitta individuals don’t go to hell; they simply create it wherever they go!” However, when balanced they are motivated and joyous, as well as natural leaders.

Vata

eye archimedesArchimedes, a boxer-Australian Shepherd mix, standing still for a photo.

archimedes and LindseyArchimedes after a long run with one of my speedy friends. Note he is still hopping.

The Vata dosha is built on the elements of Space and Air, and Yarema et. al say Vata translates as “wind” or “That which moves things.” The qualities of Vata are dry, rough, light, cold, subtle, and mobile. If you think of a dry leaf blowing in the wind, you have a perfect image of Vata. If you’ve met my Australian shepherd mix Archimedes, you have another. The dog is always, always moving. He runs up to twenty miles with me when I’m training for marathons, and the only reason he doesn’t go farther is because I don’t want to carry that much water for both of us. After a long run, he still ambles around the backyard, barking at squirrels and passing cars. One of the defining words for Vata is vocal, and he only has to be locked in his room for a few minutes before he begins expressing his vocal stylings.

The physical locations of Vata are the colon, thighs, bones, joints, ears, skin, brain, and nerve tissues. Breathing, talking, conducting nerve impulses, pooping–these are all the territory of Vata, as is creativity, flexibility, and quick thinking. When a Vata is imbalanced, she can be plagued by dry skin and anxiety, as well as constipation, insomnia, and a host of other disorders; Ayurvedic texts say a Vata imbalance accounts for sixty percent of health disorders. When balanced, she can be a creative and gifted communicator, as well as compassionate and dynamic. Part of this balance involves eating foods with some substance (NOT sugar) and learning how to sit still. Meditation can be one of the most beneficial practices for a Vata type.

The goal in learning about doshas is to learn how to maximize the potential of the one (or two) we were each born with, while also learning to keep the dosha in check. My doshas are Pitta and Vata, and depending on the time of year, one will be stronger than the other. As a result, my constant challenge is not letting motion and the quest for achievement dominate my life. Meditation, a regular schedule, creative outlets (especially writing), and careful attention to my food, sleep, and exercise choices have been hugely beneficial for me. They also didn’t all come naturally, so if you try Ayurveda, hang in there. And try one thing at a time.

I’ll be blogging more on one thing at a time in the upcoming weeks and months. In the meantime, if you’d like to figure out your dosha or read more about Ayurveda online, check out http://doshaquiz.chopra.com/ or https://www.ayurveda.com/online_resource/doshas_elements_attributes.html

StoryCorp and Anne Patchett

Earlier this week I wrote a blog about ahimsa, nonviolence, and briefly mentioned that many students of yoga say that ahimsa extends to subtler types of violence towards others–like worrying about and trying to change them. It turns out, I’ve recently learned, you can’t change other people. There’s a huge difference between worrying about someone, and supporting someone. This Friday’s story from NPR‘s StoryCorps demonstrates support–being there for someone and listening–perfectly. In summary, ten years ago Kevin Berthia went to the Golden Gate Bridge to jump off. His daughter had been born premature and the medical bills were upwards of $250,000, he didn’t see a way out of debt, and he was horribly depressed. But a highway patrolman standing there saw him when he climbed over, and before Berthia could jump, the officer, Kevin Briggs, started talking to him. They talked for an hour and a half and eventually Berthia came back over. The part of the story that moved me the most was when Berthia said to Briggs, “I was just mad at myself for being in that situation and I was embarrassed. But somehow the compassion in your voice is what allowed me to kinda let my guard down enough for us to have a conversation.”

I love the reminder that compassion can be enough sometimes.

I’m also reading Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, the story of her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, who suffered from cancer as a child and was left with a disfigured face. While Lucy made up for her disfigurement with an outsized, boisterous personality, she also suffered horrific depression and was especially burdened with the fear she would never find someone to love her. This fear sometimes led to destructive, needy behaviors. During one of Lucy’s bouts of depression, Patchett writes of trying to comfort a sobbing, despondent Lucy.  “I was stunned by the rawness of her pain,” she writes. “I came to understand that night in the sports bar, safe from the blinding rain, that I could not worry about Lucy anymore. I knew then it was just too enormous for me to manage and that worrying about her would swamp me. If I was swamped by worry, I would be useless to her. It was even possible that I would desert her, and that was the thing that could never happen. I decided that night I would take all the hours of my life that could so easily be spent worrying and instead I would try to help her.”

Patchett adds that she had been raised in Catholic school, by nuns who preached that “the world is saved through deeds, not prayer.” In situations where other people might either get sucked into other people’s dangerous actions by joining them or fretting over them, she let Lucy do her thing, whether it was spending too much money or having lots of (too) casual sex. But she also visited her at a hospital in Scotland, sent her updates about her submissions to American editors and magazines, drove to see her when Lucy went to get an abortion, and listened to her when she cried. Somehow, in a friendship that seemed to have so much intensity, Patchett balanced the fine line between support and worry and maintained a friendship that also gave back to her.

Patchett couldn’t ultimately save Lucy. She died of a heroin overdose at age 39. Briggs couldn’t save Berthia either–Berthia had to climb back over the railing onto the bridge himself and then go home to his life. We can’t change other people and we can’t rescue them either.

But we can keep them talking, and sometimes that’s enough. At the end of the StoryCorp interview, Briggs, the police officer, said one reason he was able to encourage Berthia to keep talking to him was because he’d been through depression himself. My friends who have experienced depression do the best job of encouraging me to talk out whatever manic or sad thoughts I’m trying to hide in my head. On this side of depressive anxiety and a divorce, I have an easier time encouraging my students to keep talking to me. Those who have faced and named their demons are able to sit with others while they do the same, which is why Briggs and Berthia are friends today. “You know, we’ve been through similar things in our lives and I’ve never been around anybody that’s seen me at a more vulnerable state,” Berthia said. Later he added, “And, you know, I don’t trust a lot of people. So for you to never judge me and just to have that trust, that’s what keeps us afloat and different from any other friendship.”

You can read and listen to the whole StoryCorps narrative here: http://www.npr.org/2015/03/06/390970491/ten-years-later-two-strangers-revisit-what-might-have-been-lost%26live%3D1?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150306

Nonviolence: How to Ahimsa if You’re a Recovering Pitta

I’m on vacation this week, and while I travel a lot, this is the first time in a very long time that I’ve gone to a place without students, family, or work obligations (calm down senior portfolios, I’ll get to you . . . later). Something about giving oneself the time to go on vacation, and go on vacation without a full schedule, seems appropriate for talking about the first of the yamas, and arguably one of the most important: nonviolence.

(Although after my 11-mile run today, my hamstrings are asking if we could perhaps be nicer to ourselves tomorrow. Baby steps, I suppose).

When I was five, and later when I was twenty-five, I went through a phase of hitting myself. As a little kid, when I got disciplined I’d bite my hand, hit myself with a belt, or slap my face. I have some ideas as to why I slipped back into slapping myself as a married PhD student, but none of the reasons make a lot of sense. The self-hitting continued through coursework, a move from England back to America, and the first two years of a new job. One night during a game of Wii gone weirdly ugly and competitive, I was crying in the bathroom and hit my face hard, twice. This wasn’t the first time I’d done that, but it was the first time I hit myself so hard that I jarred out of my angry cry and felt the beginnings of a bruise. I hadn’t yet read about the yamas and niyamas, but what I had just done felt like a sin. According to yogic philosophy, it kind of was. I’d just disregarded the first yama: ahimsa, or nonviolence.

When people think of yogi stereotypes, they think of incense-scented vegetarians who name-drop Gandhi and protest war. Not necessarily true: plenty of people who do yoga also eat meat and drop f-bombs instead. But this concept of ahimsa carries through yoga, no matter how the practitioners look or act. Even the most vigorous classes tell students to respect their bodies and their limitations by not going too far into a pose. This is because any yoga teacher worth his or her 200-hour training knows you start the process of non-violence in the world with your own body. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Bible says, assuming that we have a shot at loving our neighbors if we have some experience with it towards ourselves. “Be the change you want to see,” says Gandhi. “Put on your own life jacket first,” said one of my yoga instructors. “You can’t help anyone else if you’re drowning too.” (The only person who ever really said the opposite was my eleventh grade Bible teacher, who, in addition to saying depression was a sin, also said that Jesus was saying to love our neighbors more than ourselves, and that loving ourselves at all was probably a sin too).

When I was a freshman in college I ate one meal a day while doing two-a-day workouts and participating on the track team. The wrongness of it was only apparent when I bombed a workout in mid-spring and my coach  ordered me to eat better. Since I’d wrecked my metabolism for years, I made up for eating right by longer and harder workouts. I didn’t lose any weight—proof that I needed to workout harder!—but I did give myself some overuse injuries and failed to meet most of my athletic goals.

This kind of self-abuse probably comes with the territory; as I’ve written before, Ayurveda would diagnose me with a very strong pitta dosha, probably bordering on a pitta imbalance at times. The pitta dosha is one of transformation, and is connected to fire and water, as well as the body’s hormonal, vision, circulatory, and digestive systems. While vatas are constant movement and kaphas are consistency and stability, pittas spread, and transform, turning food into energy, pumping blood around the body, pulling images through our eyes, churning out the hormones that keep us alive. To quote another yoga instructor, “they get shit done.” Like each of the doshas, pitta has value in our body, but an imbalance leads to anger, frustration, indigestion, acne, hypertension, and in some cases, hair loss or graying. The anger management issues in particular tend to lead to self-violence that extends into our relationships. I might not hit other people, but I get really irritated when they don’t respond perfectly. I might not beat my pit bull (who definitely has a pitta imbalance herself) when she tugs after squirrels on walks, but I sometimes react too aggressively, then I get frustrated for being impatient. And depressed because I can’t force myself to be better . . . which can make me more self-abusive. Struggling harder doesn’t get me results, but for a long time I didn’t know another way.

My student and friend Megan wrote a blog called, “You Don’t Have to Try So Hard” where she describes reaching for a shell in the beach. “I lunged for it, but as my hand hit the water, a wave broke,” she writes. “I caught only wet sand and worn shards of broken shells. They slid between my fingers as soon as I opened my palm.” This is how life goes when living with a pitta imbalance. On Saturday when I was trying to do a million things and get out the door for a long run, I snapped at my running partner. It took me an hour of running by myself before I figured it out that I’d been a jerk. “It felt like you were trying to control me, like I was a problem to solve,” he said, “and in the process you stepped on me. And it sucked.”

 In my old world, this would have been an opportune moment to put on the boxing gloves and swing back. But my old world sucked. Instead of fighting harder, I’m trying to not fight back at all. Deborah Adele says in The Yamas and Niyamas that “Our capacity to be nonviolent depends on our proactive practice of courage, balance, love of self, and compassion for others.” This isn’t rocket science, but it’s also not easy (if you don’t believe me, go watch Selma). In this case, not getting defensive and thereby violent again required courage to apologize (if saying sorry doesn’t sound particularly brave, I envy you). I probably would have also avoided this situation if I hadn’t been trying to multi-task, if I’d slept more during the week, if I’d scheduled fewer back-to-back events over the last few days. Because the Bible and Gandhi and all those yoga teachers are right, and all the people who preach martyrdom are wrong. I do a terrible job of loving other people and being kind to them if I can’t do it for myself.

Practicing nonviolence in my life has largely meant practicing kindness to my body. Treating it like an enemy didn’t work out, so I’m doing some new things that feel out of my comfort zone. Like running schedules that emphasize exercising smarter, not harder. Like doing yin yoga one or two days a week instead of power yoga. Like eating enough calories to reassure my body it can keep metabolizing food. Like avoiding workouts with descriptions like “body shock” or “get shredded,” because if I’m serious now about being a partner with my body, not an abuser of it, that has to extend to the language I use. It means I check in with what Ayurveda has to say about keeping a balanced doshas. Spicy, sharp foods and caffeine and alcohol all irritate pitta imbalances, as does rigorous exercise and too little sleep. It doesn’t mean I’ve cut these all completely out of my life, but it does mean I pay attention to what they do to me.

Deborah Adele’s last two suggestions for nonviolence—loving myself and having compassion for others—has developed with my Ayurvedic self-study. In October at an Ayurvedic workshop, our workshop leader, Tiffany, guided us through a metta meditation, which focuses on loving kindness for ourselves and others. Often, our concern for others gets masked as worry. Adele would say that worry is “a lack of faith in the other and cannot exist simultaneously with love. Either we have faith in the other person to do their best, or we don’t.” Instead of worry, she advises love and compassion. Love and compassion listen and support another person, rather than trying to fix them. Rather than trying to get them out the door faster.

When we did the metta meditation as a group, Tiffany told us to silently repeat the script she gave us three times.  Once was for ourselves, once was for a loved one, and once for a problematic person in our lives. I had tears in my eyes by the end of the first repetition. It was so simple to ask for love and safety and happiness for myself, but not easy. The script below is similar to the one we used. If asking for permission to be safe and happy feels foreign to you too, I’d invite you to try it.

May I be safe
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I live with ease.