A rainbow of vegetables, tofu, and spices softly sizzles in a pan while vinyasa yoga teacher Daren Friesen silently repeats a mantra for community, nourishment, and well-being. The stir-fry is Friesen's contribution to a winter holiday potluck party at his studio, Moksha Yoga Center, near downtown Chicago. There, 200 students, teachers, and friends will gather around a festive candlelit table covered with stews, curries, salads, and other vegetarian dishes, all lovingly prepared and served by everyone there. "When you prepare food for a potluck, there is a subtle energy in the food that is transferred to the group," Friesen says. "It creates a sense of connection when everyone is doing the same rituals, and you can really feel that connection."
For more than a century, American churches, schools, clubs, and neighborhoods have enjoyed potlucks as a way to get together and foster a sense of unity. In the yoga community, these hodgepodge feasts encourage people to offer something special that will nourish their fellow yogis. Besides casseroles, salads, and pilafs, there's also an exchange of ideas on nutrition, yoga philosophy, asana, music, and spiritual activism. In short, community potlucks offer more than good food— they offer a celebration of, and support for, living your yoga.
"The experience of the potluck is parallel to a lot of the things that are happening in a yoga class. Everyone is giving to and partaking of the same energy," says Bharata, director of Yoga & Inner Peace in Lake Worth, Florida. His annual Christmas party and weekly Sunday evening vegetarian potlucks have been a tradition since the studio opened 14 years ago. Call it peace, lovingkindness, or connection—but whatever the feeling is, "that's how friendships and community develop," Bharata says. "People open up to each other, and that's a real joy."
Luck of the Pot
The word "potluck" can be traced back to a 16th-century book dedication by the satirist Thomas Nashe, who said he would pray that "that pure sanguine complexion of yours may never be famisht with potte-lucke." Nashe was referring to the idea that a guest invited to join a family for an informal dinner was taking his chances with whatever happened to be in the cast-iron pot hanging over the hearth. Around the late 19th century the potluck dinner party had evolved, and each guest brought a dish to share with the group. According to food historian Margaret Visser in her book The Rituals of Dinner, "The luck now lies in the uncertainty about what everyone will bring. The host can suggest what might be needed, but cannot control the quality of the offering."
Today, yogi potluck party hosts might ask their guests to contribute strictly vegetarian fare; others have a more open-ended buffet in mind. "I tell people to bring what they like to eat, and people bring their best, really special homemade dishes," says Psalm Isadora, a yoga teacher in Santa Monica, California, who puts on monthly potlucks following a free 90-minute asana class in a donated space. "The food is a spontaneous expression of the community. If I'm asking you to bring an offering from your heart, I don't want to tell you what kind."
The luck of the pot notwithstanding, these get-togethers are a good opportunity to share information about foods that are conducive to a yogic lifestyle. Friesen encourages students to bring sattvic (pure) foods to his holiday celebration. In the <a href="/health/ayurveda">Ayurvedic tradition, sattvic foods include seasonal produce, whole grains, dairy, and honey—all thought to have an uplifting, stabilizing influence on the mind and body. Friesen asks that sattvic dishes be made by hand, with fresh, organic, and unprocessed ingredients. "Sattvic foods prepare our bodies for meditation, asana practice, and Pranayama practice by creating the proper conditions in your body and mind for self-understanding and harmony," Friesen explains. When his students and fellow teachers sit down together to eat, he says, "the whole ritual is filled with sattvic energy, which conveys peace, clarity, and balance. You can taste those qualities in the food."
Just as important as the ingredients that make up a dish is the mind-set of the cook who prepares it. For yogis, potlucks are an opportunity not only to share physical nourishment but also to consciously imbue food with intention and energy that will be felt with every bite. Some cooks even chant while preparing food or repeat a silent mantra on love, gratitude, or serenity.
"When you're preparing food, you want to hold peace and lovingkindness in your heart," Friesen says. "Did you see that movie Like Water for Chocolate, when the main character cried a tear into the food she was preparing for a wedding? The whole group became emotional. It's like that. But it is very subtle and really almost imperceptible.
Lovingly making food with an intention is an integral part of the occasional potluck celebrations at the Kundalini Yoga Center in San Francisco. "We call it 'wish in a dish,'" says Awtar Khalsa. "Every-body prepares their specialty with maximum care and devotion and imbues it with their wish or prayer for the group or themselves."
The result is a buffet made up of lovingly and mindfully prepared dishes, each with its own unique flavors and feelings. When you help yourself to a bit of each person's offering on a single plate, you have a meal like no other.
Mix It Up
Of course, there's more to potluck celebrations than food. Many yoga community dinners include or follow asana, chanting, or meditation, and participants take the opportunity to practice other aspects of yoga like seva (service). In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Christy DeBurton and other yoga teachers host potlucks they call Yoga Serves along with organizing community-service projects. Among other activities, they have served a meal at a local homeless shelter, planted native trees, and washed the windows of the town's underfunded dance company. These are just other ways of living your yoga with the help of the people you practice next to.
"Choosing to live a more authentic, conscious life is not necessarily an easy path, and it is so important to have the support of others," DeBurton says. "I have gotten to know teachers from other yoga traditions whom I might otherwise never have met. We invite each other to special events, run ideas by each other for classes and retreats, and talk to each other about how to handle sticky situations in class. To me, the potlucks are what the yoga community is all about—people coming together, sharing good, healthy food with others who are interested in making the world a healthier place."
Charity Ferreira is a senior associate editor at Yoga Journal.