“Why is there a tongue scraper in our bathroom?” — and other adventures in trying my first Ayurvedic cleanse

Ghee and tea, oh my

For the past week, my husband has put up with more of my yogi ways than usual around our house. The other night he came out of our downstairs bathroom and asked very matter-of-factly: “What is a tongue scraper?”

I explained that I had bought the tongue scraper now housed in the bathroom because scraping your tongue in the morning is part of the 10-day Ayurvedic fall cleanse I’m participating in.

He didn’t ask me any more questions after that — although I’ve kept him more informed than he probably wants to be about the morning ghee protocol, the evening oil massage, and the castor oil purgation to come.

This is my first-ever cleanse. I’ve always been weary of cleanses, because most of the ones I’ve been told about have instructions that boil down to: Don’t eat, take these supplements and stay close to a bathroom for two days. Thanks, but no thanks.

I was much more intrigued when the opportunity to participate in this cleanse came up, since it’s based on the principles of Ayurveda. Sweetening the pot even more was that I would not be doing this cleanse alone, but rather going through it with a group from Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor.

Ayurveda as a way of life

Kate O’Donnell of Ayurveda Boston, who provides Ayurvedic consultations (remotely if needed) and is leading our cleanse, describes Ayurveda this way on her website:

Ayurveda is not merely a system of medicine, it is a way of life.

Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is the oldest continuously practiced health-care system in the world. Ayurveda is the science of nature, largely preventative medicine, enhancing self-awareness to help us make choices that support well-being. This system encourages us to catch imbalance before it begins to create disease.

We had a kickoff meeting last Friday evening, with Kate, who also teaches Ashtanga, joining us from Boston via a Google+ hangout. It was extremely helpful that she started out with the fundamentals. According to the principles of Ayurveda, toxins are stored in the body’s fat, because the fat’s not going anywhere. So the design of this fall cleanse — to de-gunk the body — is to get the body to start burning stored fat. How to do that? Well, start by not feeding the body any fat — which means eating only three non-fat meals a day (no snacking in between!) spaced far enough apart that the body goes into fat-burning mode.

And the cleanse addresses more than what we consume. There’s the morning neti pot and tongue-scraping. (See the Kiki Says video on the practice of scraping the tongue.) There’s also dry brushing and abhyanga, the art of the oil massage.

In short, this is not about weight loss. This is about flushing toxins, regaining an effective digestive system, and maybe even gaining a new lifestyle that’s balanced and supports well-being on the deepest levels.

Three tracks — and don’t be a fundamentalist

This cleanse was billed as one that you could do while still going about your daily routine — the third reason why I decided this was the cleanse I wanted to try. Kate was great about emphasizing that this is not the time to be a fundamentalist, and she offered three different “tracks” depending on how your life is going at the moment. In our cleanse manual, Kate writes:

The largest cause of dis‐ease is stress, so if you are uncomfortable or stressed out, you can always shorten the cleanse. The nervous system must be calm in order for the body to burn fat and remove toxins. There is no reason to force yourself to do anything. Use this time to explore yourself, not to give yourself a hard time.

Our group members all went through three days of a pre-cleanse together, in which we cut out caffeine, soy, dairy and meat. We focused on whole grains such as quinoa and rice, and on cooked greens and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Then, people took different routes for the main cleanse:

  • Some stayed with the pre-cleanse diet for five days.
  • Others changed to a mono-diet of non-fat kitchari, the yogi comfort food of basmati rice, split mung beans, steamed vegetables and spices. Kitchari is very easy to digest.
  • Some opted for the full cleanse, which is the mono-diet but with the added component of taking warm ghee — clarified butter — in the morning. The idea with this version is that the ghee starts to permeate our tissues, dislodging toxins and bringing them down to the colon.

Some, like me, are doing a four-day main cleanse. Others are going for five.

‘Gheetotaler’

Organic gheeSo yeah, the ghee. I was waffling on whether to go the mono-diet route or the full cleanse with ghee, and in the end — thanks to my husband’s encouragement, actually — I went the ghee route. I’m really glad I did, because it turns out that I’ve been able to go about my daily business even with the ghee protocol. And shhh — I didn’t mind the teaspoons of warmed up ghee in the morning. (I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it either.) As my friend Tim (who has decided he is now a “gheetotaler”) described it, “It’s like taking in the essential spirit of the best bucket of popcorn you ever had.” Some in our group decided that the ghee is great with a ginger tea chaser (which is allowed in this cleanse).

Taking the plunge

Tonight, I’ll be taking the castor oil purge (!), which is the end of the main cleanse. That’s another first for me, as you can imagine — I’ve never even tried the castor oil bath that ashtangis are enamored of, much less ever ingested the stuff.

Bathroom counter

Part of the Ayurveda seasonal cleanse toolkit: neti pot, tongue scraper, dry brush (in back), sunflower oil. (Sesame oil is actually recommended for the oil massage, but I am allergic to the stuff.)

After that, it’ll be three days of a post-cleanse that’s similar to the pre-cleanse — and from there, return to what will hopefully be a new normal. I loved the pre-cleanse diet, and hope to start integrating more of those types of meals into my daily life. I already use the neti pot and I’m not adverse to incorporating the daily dry brushing and the tongue-scraping. (Not sure what my in-laws will think about all these new additions to the counter space when they visit next weekend, since they’ll be taking over that bathroom.) The oil massage does feel lovely, but it’s too time-consuming for me to do more than once in a while.

That said, I must admit that I am looking forward to drinking coffee and pomegranate oolong tea lattes again. I was surprised that I wasn’t really hungry during this cleanse — found it quite filling, in fact. Who could guess that I had the discipline to not snack. What it turns out I missed most were my drinks, like cranberry juice and almond-milk-based tea lattes.

Goodbye for now, rajas

Especially since this is my first cleanse, I can’t say enough how important it was to have a skilled cleanse leader in Kate — and to have the support of the group (we stayed connected through a Google group). A cleanse can bring up some intense emotions, and it’s helpful — and more fun — to go through it with friends.

During the pre-cleanse, my body was, as apparently happens to many people, achy. Since starting the ghee protocol, I have definitely felt the need to go slower — way slower — during my day (a very strange feeling for me to have!). Heading into the cleanse, Kate had cautioned us to only practice primary series during the cleanse, but said that some of us may need to do very abbreviated practices. (Turns out I was in the latter group — more than anything, my body has needed time to rest this week).

What’s been so interesting to me is that my mind has seemed quieter somehow during the main cleanse. If my head space were a college town, it feels like the end of the term, when students have all left for the break. While I do miss the rajas a bit — you should see how much I am putting off until next week — I have to admit that this is nice.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Lowering the ugh factor: 7 things I’ve done for my digestive system

Photo of ginger via london_lime's Flickr photostreamToday’s mail brought the regular round of advertising circulars. Ponderosa Steakhouse’s unlimited sirloin steak and shrimp offer on weekends. Applebee’s new — NEW! — blackened chicken penne and Bourbon Street chicken and shrimp. Jet’s Pizza.

Eh, eh and eh. None of it is at all appetizing.

(OK, full disclosure: the pizza is still kind of appealing.) The larger point is, the longer I practice Ashtanga consistently, the harder it is for me to eat out. Like many teenagers, I developed a taste for awful fast food in high school — the Mexican pizza at Taco Bell, the fish sandwich at McDonald’s, the curly fries at Arby’s. While my eating habits have improved — slowly — over the years, I have terrible proclivities compared with the yogis I know. I don’t like juicing. I have zero desire to eat raw food. And so on.

Over the past year or so, however, what’s been exciting for me is that I’ve been craving better food, even if I haven’t necessarily been eating better food.

Is it possible that I’ve been retraining my cravings? I hope so (pizza cravings notwithstanding).

Now the big challenge is making it happen: Craving better food and then converting that craving into action by actually eating better food. This is hard because it would require that I spend more time acquiring and preparing food. In my current kitchen calculus, if it takes four steps, it’s on the time-consuming side. And I consider tearing off the packaging to be one step. I know, I know  . . .

It’s not just a matter of principle for me. I really need to eat better, because it’s been affecting how I feel. This past December, after my tests for celiac problems came back negative, I devoted a blog post discussing that ugh feeling plaguing my digestive system. A follow-up blog post listed some great suggestions shared with me.

I’m cautiously happy to report that I’ve been feeling better over the past few months. Here are some steps I’ve taken — thanks the advice of a range of people and, in one ironic case, a fast-food delivery joint — since December:

  • Practiced nauli more consistently in the morning.
  • Started taking probiotics (one capsule daily).
  • Dramatically reduced my coffee intake — down to about one or two cups a week at this point. (I’ve substituted this habit with a pomegranate oolong tea latte from Biggby in the mornings. While this is an improvement, it’s also expensive to do this several times a week, so I have to wean myself off this soon too.)
  • When possible, switching from cow’s milk and soy milk to almond milk. (Looking back, soy milk never sat all that well with me. But I had this idea that it was healthier. Almond milk rocks! Who knew.)
  • Started ditching bread and wraps as much as possible for lunch (hello, sandwiches held together with large Romaine lettuce leaves!).
  • Began to eat a little bit of shaved ginger sprinkled with cayenne before dinner.
  • Started eating smaller dinners.

I’ll elaborate on three of these.

Nauli

Here is what Lisa Walford has written about nauli:

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that Nauli stimulates the digestive fire, thereby removing toxins, indigestion, and constipation. It is considered a Shat Karma, which is an internal cleansing to aid with excess phlegm, mucus, or fat.

If you don’t practice yoga, I know nauli looks crazy. But trust me — it’s not painful. I think it feels pretty good when you’re done — it’s hard to explain, but I sort of feel as if I’ve stirred the pot and prevented stagnation.

Started ditching bread and wraps as much as possible for lunch

This has made a huge difference to how I feel during all afternoon on a workday — and I’m as surprised as anyone to say that I got the idea from a fast food place. A freaky fast fast food place, in fact — Jimmy John’s Unwich. It’s a regular sandwich, except it’s got leaves of lettuce holding it together rather than a wrap or bread. I’ve been packing my own lunches with my own lettuce-wrapped creations, including breakfast sandwiches. They’re delicious, and I don’t feel heavy or bloated afterward.

Began to eat a little bit of shaved ginger sprinkled with cayenne before dinner.

This is an Ayurvedic thing. I don’t know anything about Ayurveda, but this is what the California College of Ayurveda says about poor digestion:

The symptoms of poor digestion include excessive gas, constipation, diarrhea, burping, burning, vomiting, indigestion, bloating and pain. In various forms, Western medicine has given them names such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, colitis and pancreatitis among many others. Through the eyes of Ayurveda, the practitioner comes to an understanding of the cause through examining one’s lifestyle. Faulty eating practices are the number one culprit, poor food choices and poor food combing are next in line. Together they make up the major causes of digestive disease.

Why ginger and cayenne? According to this same site:

Kledaka Kapha [subdosha governing the protective secretions which line mucous membranes] can also be too high. When this occurs it suppresses the agni resulting in slow digestion and possible nausea. This condition results from too many heavy, sweet foods and is best treated with the category of herbs called dipanas which increase agni and diminish kledaka. This includes the Indian herbs chitrak and the Ayurvedic formula trikatu as well as common pungents such as ginger and cayenne pepper.

Interested in learning more? I am too. You can start by following the Jangalikayamane blog and reading “How Jedi Knights Should Eat” from the AY:A2 blog. Here’s a juicy excerpt from that blog post, which several yogis I know have welcomed not only for its ideas, but for its perfect timing in their lives:

In any case, those years of “research” and strict food rules did teach me a lot, and did render my digestive fire extremely strong and healthy. Luckily, I kept coming to my mat every day without a break, so gradually I started understanding surrender. Now that I’m more interested in radical acceptance of my own social, temporal, and environmental contexts, and of my own desires, it is easier to nest my eating habits not only my body’s energy economy, but also in the context of personal and environmental relationships.

Had I been more in contact with my own wisdom in those days, my relationship with food would have balanced discipline with contemplation. Turns out that the Ayurvedic approach to eating does just this. The way I’ve been learning it, Ayurveda is not a set of fixes or healing strategies. It’s a holographic map of the whole web of manifest reality. The Ayurvedic approach to eating isn’t an arcane prescription for fixing one’s doshas; it’s a set of practices for becoming conscious of the inner and outer webs of our being.

You don’t even have to study it. Just imagine. What if you showed up to your hunger, and your food, the way you show up to our yoga room and to your physical practice? So… you’d put time and awareness in to getting the conditions right. Do a gratitude ritual. Care about where the recipe and the ingredients come from. Practice in silence, and in excellent company. Breathe. Act with clear, loving attention. Regard strong thought and emotional patterns with a bit of cool skepticism. Take a long finishing sequence to absorb the benefits.

Quick fix? Yeah right. Not in ashtanga and not in eating. This practice teaches us that our bodies are vehicles for past and future choices. Love the rough spots into fluidity, day by day, and let the painful stuff get easier. Recognize that especially deep patterns got there as a result of grasping and repetition, and we don’t get out of them for free.

The yoga thing is about action and observation, and finding that these two are not separate. Action can be luminously conscious. Takes practice.

So, how about applying that “99 percent practice, 1 percent theory” concept to food?

(Photo credit: “Ginger” via london_lime’s Flickr photostream.) 

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.