Much as I love to travel, I sometimes hate to pack my bags because of the unpleasant side effects of life on the road. My regular diet and asana practice often fall by the wayside, creating a domino effect of sluggishness, weight gain, and guilt about not taking better care of myself.
Case in point: On a recent trip to West Virginia to visit my husband's meemaw (that's West Virginian for grandmother), I seemed to ingest only foodstuffs made from the three southern food groups: grease, sugar, and white flour. I put things in my mouth in Charleston that in Los Angeles we'd surely arrest people for eating. And the only physical practice I was able to maintain was that of walking to and from the buffet line in air-conditioned restaurants.
I have been reassured to find out that others—with yoga practices more evolved than my own—experience the same problem. But these exemplary yogis have honed strategies to make any trip healthful. Planning well, staying grounded, appreciating the local bounty, and knowing when to go with the flow make it easy.
Cultivating awareness—of your body, your need for food or movement, your environment—is, not surprisingly, a crucial first step to feeling good when you're away from home. When you get out of your normal routine and environment, your emotional needs can dictate a comfort food fill-up when you're not even hungry, says Caren Raisin, a registered nurse and Ashtanga Yoga instructor who directs lifestyle programs for Dr. Dean Ornish's Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California.
"The first thing I do when I get where I'm going is kick off my shoes and feel the floor. I take a couple of minutes to stand in Tadasana [Mountain Pose]," says Raisin, whose work for the institute frequently takes her away from home. "Breath is the core of our practice, and it's what we need to always begin with."
The celebrity yogini and Yoga Trance Dance creator Shiva Rea would heartily agree. The first order of business when she arrives at a destination is to get herself centered. "I'm like a cat; I get low to the ground. I do inversions, Shoulderstand, Headstand, hip openers. I want to get stable, get grounded," says Rea, who practically lives on the road: She travels at least two weekends out of every month and makes an annual pilgrimage to India.
Have Kitchen, Will Travel
Food makes all the difference in creating this grounding effect. Rea, renowned among yoga conference-goers for what she calls her yogini café, cooks Ayurvedic meals right in her hotel room. She never leaves home without a hot plate, a pot, bamboo utensils, and a bag of rice and mung beans. She even admits to packing hearty vegetables like kale in her suitcase and to seeking out cubes of butter to make her own ghee on the spot—all in an effort to keep life as regular as she can. Like a spice merchant from centuries past, she carries bags brimming with cumin, ginger, turmeric, Indian curries, and chutneys. Her motto: If you're checking one bag at the airport, you might as well check two and come prepared to eat well.
"When you're traveling, the food can be so destabilizing," Rea says. "I find it very grounding to cook—to create a little home away from home. When you cook for yourself, you know the source of the food, and you are putting love in it."
On average, Rea prepares two "home-cooked" meals a day when she's traveling. Generally, she makes some form of kitchari—a mix of rice, lentils or mung beans, spices, and vegetables, cooked together like a stew, that is viewed in the Ayurvedic tradition as a highly digestible, healing food. "People think it's so much trouble, but it takes me about five minutes to throw ingredients in a pot in the morning. When I leave to teach, I turn off the hot plate, and when I come back, it's all there for me. I tell you, I am never sick, and at the end of these conferences, I am like, 'Gee, what a wonderful weekend.' When I don't do it, it's another story."
Cooking is also a community builder for Rea: She's been known to serve up to a dozen people from her hot plate, her hotel room becoming a kind of mini-ashram of goodwill. She says cooking can be a gift you bring to your hosts as well as an act of service. "Learn to make some basic recipes like mung beans and rice," she advises. "If you stay with people and offer to cook, they are so grateful."
Give the Gift of Food
If cooking a meal on your trip isn't practical, you might try bringing a basket of fresh fruits, whole grain breads, raw nuts, or other wholesome food as a gift to people you're staying with. You could also put the local farmers' market on your sight-seeing itinerary—guaranteeing a chance to stock up on fresh foods.
If you're staying in a hotel on business, with limited time for foraging excursions, though, it's best to come prepared. Instant oatmeal, dried fruit, and nuts don't take up much space in your bag and, with a cup of tea, can make it easy to start your day off well. Scott Blossom, a yoga teacher and doctor of both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, suggests soaking almonds in water overnight to make them more digestible. Raw pumpkin seeds, soaked overnight in lightly salted water, make an easy snack that's high in essential fatty acids, protein, zinc, and iron.
Blossom, like Rea, often cooks for himself on the road. At a bare minimum, he takes a powdered green supplement, like dehydrated wheat grass and spirulina, to mix into a glass of fresh juice. "It's very digestible and gives you a lot of protein," he says. Blossom also suggests packing snap peas, which travel well and keep their crunch for days, without refrigeration.
And if you've enjoyed a meal or three so unlike your regular diet that you wind up feeling bloated, he suggests spending the next day on a modified fast of ginger tea and fresh fruit. "Apples, pears, and berries are much better than oranges or bananas for this purpose," says Blossom. "The key is to eat very lightly so that your digestive fire has a chance to rebound." Blossom is a big fan of ripe pears while on the road. (Gently press on the bottom of the pear; a slight give near where the blossom once was signals ripeness.) "They have a lot of fiber and are very moistening, and they're easier to digest than apples."
Raisin doesn't travel with pots and pans, but she finds that simply asking for help finding foods she likes can be a way to engage others. When confronted with a menu not appropriate for her vegetarian diet, Raisin asks for plain pasta and raw or steamed veggies, then adds olive oil and vinegar. "It's a perfect little meal," she says.
On a recent trip to Spain, she learned the art of the smoothie by asking hotel staff to put the fruit they usually served with breakfast into a blender and give that to her in lieu of the eggs and meats. "They looked at me a little strangely but were willing to accommodate me," she says. "I find people will bend over backward to help you if you just ask with a smile."
Celebrate What You Have
Kundalini yogini Anna Getty, creator of the Divine Mother Prenatal video series, travels extensively in Europe several times a year and always packs a hand-held blender, utensils, and a thermos. Getty looks online to find local farmers' markets, which she says bring her into intimate contact not only with beautiful food—think fresh black currants in Britain and the artichoke-like cardoni in Italy—but also with the culture of the place she's visiting. Seeking out health food stores is also a way of taking in the lay of the land: "I find the craziest little places—even if they have just a box of soy milk."
Getty says that though she comes prepared to follow her eating regimen, she stays open to what comes her way. "I don't want to be too rigid. I want to embrace what's in front of me," she says. When the raw-food devotee found herself in the English countryside facing fresh scones with clotted cream, or deep-fried chips in an Irish pub, she nibbled away. "Instead of saying to myself, 'Oh my god, I'm so bad, I'm breaking my practice,' I say, 'Whatever is in front of me is going to nourish me.' Take the judgment off it. Bless it, enjoy it, and know your body is getting what it needs."
Sounds good to me. Just as it is important to be prepared when we travel, it's equally important to let travel change us, right? That thought inspired me to reconsider some southern staples. Now collard greens are a favorite in our home: Instead of the traditional stewing of the greens with ham hocks, brown sugar, and lard, I chop and steam the tough leaves until they are bright green, then sauté them in olive oil with fresh onion and garlic, and season with fresh lemon. It's a recipe that's sure to go on the road with me to Meemaw's house next year.
Samantha Dunn Camp is the author of Not by Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life.