The relationship between yoga and food has a long history. Ayurveda is basically the sister science to yoga, and yogis throughout history have turned to Ayurveda principles to guide the way they eat and bring balance to their lives.
Although I’m not an Ayurveda expert, one of the things I like about it is that it offers guidelines such as “more of X….” or “limit the amount of Y…” but it doesn’t mandate or restrict whole types of food. It seems to me, at its foundation, to be a very moderate practice of trying to help bring balance back into people’s bodies, in part through the foods that they consume.
So how does Ayurveda relate to the recent trend in yoga towards green smoothies, raw food, juice cleanses, gluten-restriction, and strict vegan diets?
I have been practising yoga for more than a decade, and teaching for the past three years. The longer I spend in this ‘community,’ the more I see teachers and students blurring the boundaries between yoga asana practice and specific diets, dietary restrictions, do’s and don’ts of eating. In general, within the London yoga ‘scene’, I see food being clumped into one of three major food groups.
Sprouted (or ‘activated’) beans and seeds
Some varieties of fruit, always in moderation, never at the end of a meal
Nuts and ‘raw’ nut butters
Processed or refined sugar
The kinds of fruit not allowed in the yes pile, or fruit eaten after a meal
Processed food of any kind
MAYBE (depending on who you talk to):
(I can’t think of anything else but it might come to me)
I’m sure this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point. I’m not very excited about a diet that consists of quinoa mixed with sprouted mung beans and chia seeds, topped with my tablespoon serving of hummus for the day.
Here is the biggest problem with the trends in food restriction in yoga: They foster extreme behaviour and give the impression of ‘black and white’ and ‘right and wrong.’ They also suggest that there is a one-size fits all diet that works “best” for all yogis, which is absurd if you also believe that we must adapt the asana to the practitioner, not the other way around.
There seems to be an implied message in all of this: how we eat will impact our asana practice. If we eat ‘cleaner,’ we will be more able to bend, bind, twist, and invert. The healthiest yogi ‘wins’ the elusive asana prize. And none of this has anything to do with the historic foundations of yoga practice.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing this might be true (or must be true) because it is shoved down our throats every day. Many studios now have cafes or juice bars attached to them, which sell exclusively raw, vegan, and/or sugar-free food. I see flyers in the studios for workshops and retreats that offer yoga asana alongside tips for juicing and detoxing. I have actually heard friends, colleagues, and students (male and female) say the following things to me:
“Dairy will make you fat.”
“I’m always amazed by how little I actually need to eat.”
“Do you know how much sugar is in that cookie?”
(Answer: "Nope. Do you know how delicious this cookie is?")
The collision of yoga with extreme food regimes and restrictions baffles me, and increasingly, it worries me too. Are we cultivating and condoning extreme behaviour among our students? Do they think we survive on nothing but kale, and if so, do they think they should as well? (Spoiler: we don’t. Or I don’t. A lot of my friends who are yoga teachers don’t either. Please don’t try to do that.) As yoga teachers, we are using our bodies pretty hard every day as we teach and adjust students, commute around London via tube, bicycle, or walking, and all the while maintaining our own asana practices. This burns a lot of calories. You must eat them back or you will waste away. The illusion that yoga teachers survive off a restrictive and meager diet of raw greens and herbal tea is just that: an illusion. Social media and instagram perpetuate this illusion and fan the flames. Yoga teachers love to post photos of their matcha lattes and 'goddess' bowls brimming with kale, quinoa, and avocado. But they never post photos of the spoonful of peanut butter that gets hastily consumed straight from the jar as they run out the door at 6am to teach a private client (surely I'm not the only one) or the second (or third) bowl of cereal that they eat for dinner at 10:30pm when they get home at the end of a long day of teaching. And this is a potentially dangerous and unquestionably irresponsible illusion to be perpetuating, intentionally or not, particularly since we are part of a community that includes men and women who are struggling with or recovering from eating disorders.
Here’s the thing: in my own personal experience occupying my body and teaching many other bodies, what you eat and how healthy you appear to be doesn’t seem to have any impact on how strong or ‘advanced’ your asana practice is. Shortly after I completed my yoga teacher training program, I dove head first into the London yoga ‘scene.’ I taught 15+ classes a week, racing all over London to do so, and I practised very intense vinyasa yoga 6 (or 7) days a week, sometimes practising twice in a day. I stopped eating dairy because I was told it was bad. I cut out all alcohol and although I wasn’t consciously ‘dieting,’ looking back, I think my diet was quite a bit more restrictive than it had ever been in the previous 30 years of my life. What happened? I lost 5 kgs in about two months without really ‘trying.’ It wasn’t a shocking amount of weight, but on somebody who is 5’3’’ and didn’t really have much weight to lose, you could tell. Gradually, over the course of the past 3 years, I have remembered that I still like eating cheese and I enjoy drinking the occasional glass of wine. I’ve also become more moderate in my asana practice, usually practising 4 or 5 days a week, and often choosing one day of less vigorous asana. As a result, I’ve gained every kilo back. Some of that weight that I’ve gained is muscle. Some isn’t.
But here’s the most important thing I learned from that unintentional weight loss and subsequent weight re-gain. My asana practice was not stronger when I weighed less. In fact, it is stronger today than it has ever been before.
Because the ONLY things that makes your asana practice stronger, in my experience, are….
Experience. Time. Practise.
Not what you eat.
And certainly not what you don’t eat.
“Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness.” (Patanjali's Yoga Sutras I:14)
I eat my fair share of salads and oatmeal, quinoa, pomegranates, kale, and yes, even green smoothies. You will find chia seeds in my kitchen. I am a vegetarian. One of the best things I make is a raw vegan freezer ‘fudge.’ But I am also an unabashed foodie and believe that life is for living. I drink coffee every day because I love it and it tastes good. When friends bake cookies and share them with me, I happily and gratefully gobble them down without asking how many grams of refined sugar they contain. No trip to Paris is complete without gooey, stinky French cheese. I make and eat homemade pancakes every Sunday morning because pancakes are delicious. I recently discovered (vegetarian) Percy Pigs and I can’t deny that they are mind-blowingly tasty. I prefer a life that allows me to eat dahi puri from a food stall on the streets of Mysore, and drink a cold beer when out for curry on a Friday night with friends. That is what balance, moderation, and equanimity look like to me. In the same way that I can't decide what variation of Utthita Parsvakonasana is right for you, I also can't tell you what you should be eating. Your diet will almost certainly be different from mine. There is no 'perfect' way to eat, and no magic food that you can add or eliminate from your diet that will change your yoga practice (or your life). And don’t go down the rabbit hole of believing that all yoga teachers have a perfectly ‘clean’ diet, or even worse, that you need to eat a certain way to be a ‘real’ yogi or have an advanced practice.
As yoga teachers, it is time to take responsibility for the messages we are consciously or unconsciously spreading. Like it or not, we are role models and what we say has a huge impact on our students. I’d propose spreading a message that is in line with the over-arching, historical approach of yoga, which promotes and fosters moderation.