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 ama, a 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).
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.