All In Good Taste

Yoga gives us the techniques to harness the sense of taste, thereby increasing our willpower and discriminative powers.

No organ causes so much trouble as the tongue. It can get us into endless strife outside as well as inside. Talking and eating rank amongst the hardest body processes to control. Indeed is the tongue which is responsible for many of the quarrels and misunderstandings in the world, as well as for much of the dietary indiscretion which leads to indigestion and further health. The tongue is a channel by which the mind communicates with the outside world, satisfying inner needs and desires as well as expressing thoughts and feelings. The tongue is so powerful an organ that some people eat only to satisfy it, without even thinking of the other 32 feet of digestive tract.

Protected by the teeth, the tongue is potentially a doorway to higher, blissful experience. With control, it can produce gentle speech and beautiful song, it can savour tasty dishes, or in yogic sadhana can taste the nectar of immortality (amrit).

Directed outward towards the world, or upward and inward as in khechari mudra, the tongue can be a useful and amazingly intricate tool for exploring both the outer and inner worlds.

The tongue is also a sensitive mirror of body health. A perfectly healthy body will have a rosy pink tongue with no coating. Any digestive upset, no matter how mild, will produce a fine white fur on top of the tongue. In more obvious disease the coating becomes thicker and darker as in fevers. The tongue should be cleaned every morning while cleaning the teeth as this prevents accumulated toxins from being swallowed and going back into the body.

Taste Receptors

The sense of taste is mediated by taste receptors situated on the upper portion of the tongue and also to a lesser extent on the palate, pharynx, and tonsils. Medically speaking, the receptors are said to send four different kinds of taste sensation to the brain and mind, though the exact mechanisms are not known. The taste sensations are scattered mainly over the surface of the tongue. The tip of the tongue is sensitive to all four, modalities - sweet, bitter, sour, salty - but mainly to sweet. The sides of the tongue are sensitive mainly to sour (acid) things but also to salt. The back of the tongue is sensitive to bitter. The taste we experience is a result of the combination of these primary tastes and various smells, as all foods have different quantities and qualities of the basic types. Sensation of hot, cold, touch and pain is also sent from the tongue to the brain and these play an important role in the evaluation of taste.

Ayurvedic Analysis

Ayurveda describes 6 different tastes adding pungent and astringent to the medical 4. It states that the nutritive power of food depends to a large extent on taste. The ayurvedic classification of taste is as follows:

  1. Sweet increases energy in the body and stimulates the senses. It produces moisture, cold and heaviness, and can therefore be said to increase the tamo guna. It is composed of the earth and water elements.
  2. Saline helps digestion, removes excess wind (vata), secretes phlegm (kapha) and is moist and warm. It is composed of the water and fire elements.
  3. Bitter is unpalatable to the mind but it sharpens the appetite, assists the digestion and helps eliminate toxins. Foods with this quality are karella, wormwood, quinine and hops. It is dry, cool and light, being composed of the air and ether elements, and increases sattva guna.
  4. Sour is the acid, tart taste found in vinegar, lemons, juice of unripe fruit (sour apples, sour grapes), products of fermentation (unsweetened yogurt or curd).
  5. Pungent is more a quality of taste than a taste itself and is said to be the product of irritation. It is a sharp, hot, pricking, biting quality as found in chilli, radish, ginger and other such spices. Having the elements of fire and air, it is said to increase the digestive fire and the rajas guna.
  6. Astringent qualities in food restore harmony by contracting the soft organic textures and binding the body elements together. Lemon peel has this effect, making the mouth feel dry and contracted. It is also found in unripe fruit. Having the elements of earth and fire, it is dry, cool and heavy.

From this classification of taste we can see that certain foods will have specific effects on the body. We can affect our temperament, body-type and so on just by the food we eat, For example, excessive amounts of sweet food, when not balanced with the other aspects of taste, increase the heaviness of the body and make the senses function more strongly. Thus the material nature begins to predominate and to affect the mind, making it heavy and tamasic. Of course, the desire for sweet food reflects a certain state of consciousness, but by indulging in our desires we only increase the tendency. A desire for chillies, on the other hand, reflects a different state of consciousness. Chiles and other hot food tend to make the body more rajasic and energetic. Bitter foods balance the diet and increase sattva by purifying the body. Bitterness takes the mind away from the senses so that it is able to objectify them.

A sattvic or pure diet is a balanced, bland diet. However, we can use chillies and sweet food, if desired, and maintain sattva as long as we are not excessive in any direction. When we practice yoga, diet is an adjunct to the raising of consciousness. But this does not mean that strict limitations must be imposed. Control over the senses is a spontaneous outcome of regular yoga practice.

Taste and Nutrition

Taste is not just for pleasure, enabling us to enjoy a wider range of sensual experiences. It also has a protective value. Experiments by Richter show that taste plays a critical role in nutrition and in maintaining a constant internal environment. Rats suffering from a shortage of some nutrient, due to endocrine abnormalities, craved and selectively ate those foods which replaced their deficiency. Taste provided the sensory cue by which these discriminative selections were made. Animals whose taste nerves are cut are no longer able to correct deficiencies by regulating diet.

The sense of taste is therefore a means of tuning into our deeper instinctive and intuitive side. It can point out what we need and what we want, but it is up to our own inner sense of discrimination to decide what is the correct way to proceed. If we are aware or sensitive enough, the taste receptors will signal 'bad' food or harmful food, and we can spit it out before it enters the body. Of course, what we experience depends to a large extent on our previous mental conditioning. For example, if we have had a bad experience from eating pumpkin, we may tend to remember this every time we eat pumpkin, which then becomes a 'bad' food. These experiences clutter our perception and make it difficult to discriminate between truly harmful food and imaginary danger or individual dislike. A system is required to find our way out of the morass of past experiences and conditioning so that we can sense and feel clearly, without an intervening screen from the past. Yoga provides techniques which increase sensitivity and mental clarity. These methods uncork the bottle of the past and release the hold which past experiences have on us.

Some authorities maintain that pleasant tasting food is essential for life and is the first prerequisite for good digestion because of its effects on the mind. For the gastric and intestinal secretions to flow, the complex interaction of the brain and nervous system are required, and this determines the quality of digestion. Bating tasteless, monotonous food becomes a stress rather than a pleasure. Its lack of taste or distaste activates the parasympathetic nervous system rather than the sympathetic, as in the normal situation. Little gastric juice flows and indigestion results. Tasty, pleasant and nourishing food stimulates the sympathetic system and encourages a plentiful outpouring of the digestive juices. Therefore, the nutritive properties of food depend not only on the quality of the food itself, but also upon the way in which it is prepared and the atmosphere in which it is eaten. One's mental attitude is also of great importance in good digestion.

The Psychology of Taste

We realise the importance of taste when we look into the psychology of the idiom 'in good taste'. We judge the world around us by how it tastes to us, for example:

  1. Sweetness is associated with those things which are pleasing and agreeable - sweet words. We may enjoy the sweetness of success. A tweet person is amiable, gracious, sympathetic and understanding. One may he sweet-spoken, sweet-souled. The term 'to be sweet' on someone means that you are strongly attracted to that person. You may then do some sweet-talking and that person may become your sweet-heart.
  2. Sour is the opposite of sweet. Sour people are cross, crabby, morose, unpleasant. One who wears a 'sour countenance' is likely to be jealous, unsympathetic and irritable.
  3. Bitterness is said to be a disagreeable taste, and some people associate it with medicine. A bitter experience is painful and distressing to the body, mind and soul, but from it we learn some of the most valuable lessons in life. We speak of bitter grief, bitter feelings, bitter tears hitter scorn, the bitter side of life. Keats wrote "Ah, bitter chill it was!" emphasizing the coldness associated with it.
  4. Salt implies earthiness and a practical nature. In food, salt is added for flavour and seasoning, and a salty nature is full of the wit and piquancy which seasons life. To be 'worth one's salt' means to be efficient and deserving.

Enjoying with Awareness

The sense of taste permeates life at many levels. As an exercise in awareness, pick out the different tastes of your next meal and enjoy, savour and watch them fully. This is the tantric approach to conquering the sense of taste and bringing it fully under our control. Instead of trying to cut off the senses forcibly as is enjoined by some spiritual aspirants, tantra tells us to enjoy all those things we like and not to suppress. By maintaining awareness while we are stimulating our senses, we can trace their origin back to the mind. In this way, detachment develops and we learn to control our senses, turning them on and off at will. Awareness also provides the solvent for desires, ambitions and frustrations that too often manoeuvre and lead us to misuse out taste buds. Taste, according to yogic psycho-physiology, is associated with swadhisthana chakra, the centre of pleasure gratification and preservation of the species. Pleasure gratification, which is a strong motivating force in all of us, can manifest in two main ways, through food and through sex. If either of these aspects is over-active because of imbalance in hormonal secretions, excessive stimulation of the nervous system, or strong subconscious desire, then it may overpower our will and result in over indulgence. We cannot stop doing what we desire to do, for there is no conscious willpower to say 'No'. We can, however, practice yogic techniques which balance the swadhisthana chakra system and thereby regulate excessive desire. Meditation allows us to become aware of the role of craving for tastes and other associated pleasures in our lives. In this way we gain knowledge about ourselves.

Taste Sadhana

The tongue is used in many yogic practices to help control the fluctuations of the mind. The technique of khechari mudra folding the tongue backwards, is used to stimulate the brain and to signal the mind that we wish to turn our attention inwards, creating a psychic gesture. Khechari is a tantric technique allowing us to transcend the senses and the mind through the sense of taste itself. We use the tongue, which is usually pointed outward towards the external world, as a means to travel in and up to the spiritual heights.

In the full form of khechari mudra, the tongue is folded back into the pharynx and then reaches upwards to touch a gland at the back of the nose, just below the eyebrow centre, which secretes either a poison or a nectar, depending on our state of consciousness. By practicing khechari mudra we can actually taste this secretion. Most people practice nabho mudra, the simplified version of khechari mudra in which the tongue is held against the soft palate. Over a period of time it becomes more and more supple so that it can slowly approximate the advanced form.

In the ancient yogic scriptures it is stated that:

  • "When the yogi now curls his tongue upward and back, he is able to close the place where the three paths meet. The bending back of the tongue is khechari mudra and the closing of the three paths is akasha chakra. The yogi who remains but half a minute in this position is free from illness, old age and death. He who has mastered khechari mudra is not afflicted with disease, death, sloth, hunger, thirst and swooning." - Hatha Yoga Pradipika 8: 36-39
  • "The body becomes beautiful; samadhi is attained, and the tongue touching the holes in the roof of the mouth obtains various juices... first he experiences a saltish taste, then alkaline, then bitter, then astringent, then he feels the taste of butter, then of ghee, then of milk, then of curds, then of whey, then of honey, then of palm juice, and lastly arises the taste of nectar." - Gherand Samhita III 30-32 25

According to these texts, the sense of taste can be used in the practice of khechari mudra as an instrument to measure the state of our physical and mental purity, thereby aiding us on the path to spiritual attainment.

In the heightened states of consciousness definite changes occur in the brain, endocrines and chemical structure of the body. The glands mirror this change so that when khechari is performed, we taste the sweetness that is within us. This taste is actually monitored in the brain and the experience is said to be so overwhelming that one drop of this nectar confers bliss and immortality.