The practice of yoga is inherently individual, directly experienced within the solitary confines of the body’s internal landscape. And why you choose to practice yoga is also personal, with as many goals for yoga as there are different personalities and life histories. But while you approach the sticky mat with your own unique body type, physical geometry, injuries, quirks, and habits, what you are ultimately seeking through the practice of yoga is the universal form. By working with your own individual patterns within the universal form of the asanas, what you probably hope to discover is a place of balance.
Eating can also be considered a practice in which you seek universal balance. Like yoga, eating is a highly personal activity-you learn to adapt your needs to the many popular nutritional systems and diets. Developing a mindful eating practice can provide a ground that truly supports and nurtures your yoga.
But in developing this kind of supportive nutritional practice, one of the joys and challenges is understanding that (as with everything else in yoga) there is no easy “one size fits all” solution for finding the right foods.
For better or worse, within the yoga community there are endless (often contradictory) myths, folk tales, and urban legends asserting what foods are “good” or “bad” for a yoga practice. You’ve probably heard at least some of this yogic eating folklore before: “Feeling stiff? Eat more ghee or more sweets, have only fruit before you practice, and whatever you do, stay away from those potatoes! If you’re eating out, definitely don’t let that errant bus boy put ice in your water, and above all, remember that if you’re practicing in the morning, don’t eat dinner before you go to bed!”
History of Food Myths
To understand the seed of truth that may lie at the heart of these and other food myths which are so prevalent in yoga communities, begin by tracing their roots. Many theories stem from yogic scriptures, and others are aberrations of theories found in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of preventative health and healing. To understand the relevancy of these yogic food myths to your diet, it’s essential to examine them in their original context.
Yoga from its earliest inception has been integrally tied with Ayurveda. Central to Ayurveda is the concept of varying body types, each of which thrives on different kinds of foods.
Vata types, for example, need grounding foods like oils and grains. Pitta types are supported by cooling foods, such as salads and sweet fruits.
Kapha types benefit from heating and invigorating foods, such as cayenne and other hot peppers. A classic premise of Ayurveda is that few people are strictly one type, and most in fact are a blend of at least two types. Each individual must therefore find a personal balance of foods to fit his or her own unique constitution.
Just as certain yoga poses are appropriate for certain people or at particular times, so it is with what you choose to eat. Food should provide energy and clarity. A “good” diet may appear very different from one person to the next, but you will know your diet is working well for you when you feel healthy, sleep well, have strong digestion, and feel your system is supported rather than depleted by your yoga practice.
According to Aadil Palkhivala of Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington, the references to food in the scriptures and Ayurveda are meant only as guidelines for practitioners to follow, not rules set in stone.
“Ancient texts served the purpose of providing external standards to be followed until the yoga practitioner became sensitized enough through the practice to intuitively know what was best for them as an individual,” Palkhivala explains.
Teresa Bradford, M.S., a clinical nutritionist and health instructor at Helios Health Center in Boulder, Colorado, has worked for many years to help yoga students find a balanced approach to eating that supports their practice.
Bradford’s background as a yoga teacher for more than 15 years, and her in-depth training in both Western and Ayurvedic nutrition, give her a unique perspective on the issue. “Making general across-the-board statements about what we should or should not eat, such as ‘potatoes make you stiff’ is ridiculous,” Bradford says. “It’s all a matter of personal constitution. Potatoes tend to be pacifying to pitta and aggravating for vata and kapha types, but they are not recommended for people with inflammatory or arthritic conditions.”
Bradford also sheds light on the puzzling ice water folklore. “Cold water can affect certain constitutions. Vata types can have a hard time tolerating it, and it can also amplify sluggish digestion problems in kapha types. But pitta types might find that it actually soothes their digestive systems.”
Going for hours without eating before practicing is something many yoga students find themselves experimenting with. John Schumacher, director of Unity Woods Yoga in Bethesda, Maryland, feels that frequent and extended fasting has an overall weakening effect on the body.
“Though overeating can sabotage your practice by making you groggy and too full to go deeply into the postures, fasting and undereating can have a more debilitating effect,” Schumacher says.
Bradford is especially emphatic about the myths surrounding fasting before practice: “When students get spaced out from food deprivation, they might think they’re heading toward the ‘big merge’ with God, but it’s just that they’re walking around hypoglycemic and dehydrated.” She says that for vata or pitta types, skipping a meal can cause not only low blood sugar and dizziness, but may lead to further health complications such as constipation, poor digestion, and insomnia.
So where do you start in forging your own balanced approach to eating? Just as with a positive yoga practice, it’s a matter of being mindful and intelligent. When approaching either a yoga or a food practice, experimentation and alert attention are the keys to discovering your personal path to balance and growth.
Schumacher recommends that if you find any eating system appealing, either Western or Eastern, try it out to see if it’s a good fit.
“As you continue to practice yoga, an intuitive sense of what is right for your own body will emerge,” he says. “Just as you’d modify a favorite recipe to fit your own tastes as you prepare it repeatedly, so you can adapt a food system to support your practice.”
Palkhivala agrees that intuition and balance are the keys to finding supportive foods. “Start by looking for balance on many levels in the foods you eat,” Palkhivala recommends. “Select foods that feel good to your body both as you eat them and long after the meal is over.”
Notice patterns in your digestion, sleep cycle, breathing, energy level, and asana practice after eating. A food diary can be an excellent tool for charting these patterns. If you’re feeling unhealthy or unbalanced at any time, look back in your diary and consider what you’ve been eating that might be causing the problems. Then adjust your eating habits until you start to feel better.
Apply this same careful level of observation to how you plan and prepare your meals. The key here is combining ingredients so that they harmonize and complement one another in taste, texture, visual appeal, and after-effect.
“We need to learn how to use our six senses, our own personal experiences of trial and error,” advises Bradford. “The climate, activities of the day, stressors, and physical symptoms are things that help us determine daily food choices. We, as part of nature, are also in a constant state of flux. An important part of the flexibility we cultivate in yoga is being able to be flexible about our food choices, tuning in every day, at every meal.”
To increase your food flexibility, don’t simply accept the “rules” of others for what, when, and how much to eat. Question and explore for yourself. For instance, if you’re told that yoga practitioners don’t eat for seven hours before a practice, question it: “Does that sound like a good idea for my system? How do I feel if I go without eating that long? What are the benefits for me? What are the detriments?” Getting more and more bound up by rigid rules and restrictions, such as inflexible food dos and don’ts, only serves to further imprison us.
Just as you work in a yoga posture to align and realign with your inner core, so you can learn to recognize what foods your body needs. By bringing attention to your internal sense of what
is appealing and what effects different foods have on you throughout the eating and digestion process, you will gradually learn to recognize exactly what your body needs and when you need it.
But this too should be practiced in moderation-becoming obsessed with tracking every sensation can quickly hinder rather than promote balance.
In both food and yoga practices, it’s essential to remain alive, conscious, and present in the moment. By not adhering blindly to strict rules or rigid structures, you can allow the process itself to teach you the best way to actually go about the practices.
If you are able in this way to keep all of your “systems” open, through the joy of exploration and unfolding curiosity, you can continually rediscover your own individual paths to balance.
Balance is the key, both in your overall personal diet, and in designing each meal. When developing or modifying a recipe to fit your personal tastes, you must take into consideration a number of factors: the balance of ingredients in the dish, your available time to prepare the meal, the season of the year, and how you’re feeling today.