Lunchtime yoga seemed like a great idea. But you've only eaten a light early breakfast, and you find that your practice fizzles and your mind turns crabby as your body lets you know that it needs more fuel to make it through a vigorous vinyasa class. Or maybe you've experienced the opposite: You indulged in a hearty late lunch before an afternoon class, and now you find not only that you are sluggish, but that Sun Salutations, twists, inversions—most poses actually!—feel uncomfortable.
"No matter what type of practice, yoga works best when you can breathe fully and access your whole body's energy," says Los Angeles dietitian and yoga practitioner Ashley Koff, RD. "That means that, ideally, digestion isn't happening in an intense way. But you shouldn't be underfueled, either."
The best approach is to eat small portions and to eat often. So give yourself permission to snack. But if you want to fuel your body in a way that gives you sustained energy, skip the chips and sweets and choose nutritious bites. The key to snacking, dietitians say, is to combine a serving each of carbohydrates, protein, and healthful fats. That's about 15 grams of carbohydrates (a handful of crackers or a piece of fruit), 7 grams of protein (found in a half cup or so of yogurt or a one-third cup of shelled edamame), and up to 5 grams of a healthful fat (a few slices of avocado or 2 teaspoons of nut butter). The carbohydrates, whether in the form of fruits, vegetables, or grains, are digested quickly and provide ready energy. The protein and fats slow down the absorption of the nutrients so that your energy lasts as long as your 90-minute class.
What's more, there's some evidence that eating the right balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthful fats before exercising can help you stave off injuries. "If there's no carbohydrate in your system, the body will take those nutrients from muscle, making it more likely for a muscle to tear or pull if you're in the middle of stretching it," says Koff.
Dietitian Diana Cullum-Dugan, an Anusara-inspired yoga teacher and the founder of Namaste Nutrition in Watertown, Massachusetts, suggests eating 250—300 calories about two hours before you plan to practice. That's an apple with yogurt or a handful of almonds, or a serving of crackers dipped in hummus or bean dip. "When it's time for class, your body will be energized, but you won't have a belly full of food," she says.
After practice, snack again with the same balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthful fat for sustained energy all day long. Here are some ideas for fitting balanced snacking into your schedule.
If You Practice in the Morning...
You might not be hungry first thing in the morning, but if you're doing a vigorous practice, it's important to take in a few calories beforehand, says Cullum-Dugan. "A piece of fruit might be fine before a gentle morning class," she says, "but if you are going to have a more energizing practice, that apple or banana is going to get used up pretty quickly once you get going." Cullum-Dugan suggests a smoothie with soy milk or high-protein Greek yogurt and fruit. She'll often add protein powder and flaxseed oil, which are easy to digest and provide lasting energy. And if a smoothie feels like too much to stomach first thing in the morning, a mug of tea with honey and milk before a mellow practice can hydrate you and give you a minidose of carbs, protein, and fat.
After Savasana: Refuel with a more substantial meal such as oatmeal with fruit, nuts, and soy milk. Or wrap a homemade breakfast bar in a napkin and tuck it into your bag to eat on your way to work or home from class.
If You Practice Midday...
If you fit in a class on your lunch break, you'll want to eat something sustaining but easily digested an hour or two before you practice. Try sliced apples dipped in soy yogurt with a handful of walnuts, or have some mashed avocado and sliced tomato on whole grain toast with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice.
After Savasana: Dip raw carrots, cucumber, celery, and whole grain pita bread triangles in hummus. Or pack a sandwich that incorporates fresh fruit and whole grain bread, such as sliced peaches and yogurt cheese, ripe pear and almond butter, or strawberries and honey with hemp or sunflower seed butter.
If You Practice in the Evening...
Eat a late-afternoon snack and you'll be less tempted to skip class due to hunger or flagging energy. Spread a whole grain rice cake with almond butter and top with sliced bananas, or wrap a butter lettuce leaf around crumbled tempeh or seasoned, baked tofu with shredded carrots and sliced cucumber. Or mix chopped mango, red pepper, and red onion with cooked black beans, olive oil, and lime juice to make a vitamin-packed salsa that stays fresh in the refrigerator for days. An hour or two before class, break it open and scoop it up with whole grain crackers or baked corn tortilla chips.
After Savasana: Ease hunger pangs after class by nibbling on a mixture of dried fruit, sunflower seeds, and dried coconut. Or have an appetizer-sized snack of lightly dressed edamame to tide you over until you sit down to dinner.
Lauren Ladoceour is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.