What we feed our senses, and how we care for them is an important, often overlooked form of self-care and a direct way to cultivate mental calm and peace. Think of the baby whose senses we protect so carefully so as not to overstimulate, and then consider for a moment how many impressions you have taken in so far today. Notice the quality of your mind right now—how dull, stimulated or quiet/peaceful?
Caring for our sense organs is a way of relieving them of excess stress and strain as well as keeping their pathways clear and nourished. Our tongue is an important organ that allows us to taste our food and supports our capacity to make speech. Without a tongue we couldn’t talk or enjoy the taste of food. Imagine that.
The tongue has taste buds for six distinct tastes: sweet, sour salty, bitter pungent and astringent. The moment our brain registers the taste of the food in our mouths, it sends a message to our stomach to secrete the appropriate enzymes to digest that particular food. The tongue is the first part of the digestive tract, and the saliva in our mouth begins the digestive process by breaking down simple carbohydrates.
Rather than balancing a meal by protein, carbohydrate, etc, Ayurveda balances a meal by including all six tastes which brings the right combination of elements and satisfaction to our palate. Westerners tend to overeat the sweet and salty tastes, and undereat bitter foods. Consider adding in a new taste to your diet this week and see how you feel. Some examples of the six tastes are:
Sweet: Most grains, fruits and fresh dairy, Brown sugar, dates, raisins
Sour: Lemon, vinegar, tomato
Salty: Salt, seaweed
Pungent: Chili peppers, black pepper
Bitter: Dark leafy greens, coffee
Astringent: Pomegranates, turmeric, green tea
Caring for our Tongue
At night when we sleep bacteria collects in the back of our mouth and on our tongue. Before drinking anything and swallowing that bacteria in the morning, you can scrape it off. With a tongue scraper or a tablespoon, scrape your tongue from back to front 7 times. Rinse the scraper between scrapings. The benefits of tongue scraping go beyond the care of the tongue itself and include a gentle stimulation of all of the internal organs.
Another yogic practice for the tongue is to massage it. Stick your tongue out, and with clean hands gently pull on it and give a massage. This is an unusual idea for most of us. When I tried it for a few weeks, I discovered how wet my tongue is! I had a washcloth nearby to dry off my hands every now and then. Massaging and kneading the tongue releases tensions and keeps it pliable. Our tongue works hard every day making sounds. For those of you who give this a try, you’ll be surprised how good your tongue feels afterwards!
Ayurveda, like Traditional Chinese Medicine uses the tongue as a diagnostic tool. The shape, color, coating and markings on the tongue are all indications of balance or imbalance in the system. For example, the size of the tongue can tell us something about constitutional type. A thick coating on the tongue indicates toxicity in the body. The color and placement of the coating tells us where that toxicity is located.
In its healthy state, the tongue is a rosy pink color. When it is excessively red, or red in one place, that indicates heat or inflammation in the body. A pale tongue indicates a need to build the blood. Every line, crack and ridge tells a story about our inner ecology, stress level and capacity to digest and absorb the food we eat. The tongue registers imbalance quickly so much of what we see on our tongue today is reflecting what is going on in the recent past. For that reason daily tongue self-examination is a way to see how you are doing internally day by day. One simple variable that we might have all noticed: the better our digestion, the less of that bad taste we have in our mouth in the morning and the less coating we will see on our tongue. The more toxicity we have, the worse the taste in our mouth and the more coating we will see.
Check out Dr. Lad’s chart below (from Ayurveda, the Art of Self-Healing) to see how the inner organs are mapped on the tongue and check out yours in a mirror. What do the markings on your tongue say about you?
Finally, a relaxed tongue, when the root of the tongue is at ease and our tongue rests lightly on the roof of our mouth, correlates with a relaxed mind. When our sense organs are relaxed, so, too, our mind will be at ease.