Yoga and nutrition: how to improve your practice with food

The practice of yoga is by nature individual, directly experienced within the inner landscape of the body. When you go to the mat with your own unique body type, physical geometry, past injuries and habits, what you end up looking for in practice is a universal shape. By working with your body in asanas, you strive to get closer to balance.

Eating is also a practice in which you seek universal balance. Like yoga, food is very personal. It is important to learn how to adjust your needs to the many popular food systems and diets. Developing mindful eating practices can serve as the foundation that truly supports and nurtures your yoga. But one of the joys and challenges of developing such a nutritional system is realizing that finding and choosing the right foods is not so easy.

There are endless (and often conflicting) myths, folk tales, and urban legends in the yoga community that claim certain foods are “good” or “bad” for yoga practice. You have probably heard some of this yogic folklore: “Eat more ghee and more sweet fruits, stay away from potatoes. Don’t put ice in the water. Remember, if you’re exercising in the morning, don’t eat dinner before you go to bed!”

History of Food Myths

To understand the seed of truth that underlies these and other nutritional myths, one must begin by tracing their roots. Many theories are associated with yogic scriptures, others are aberrations of the theories found in Ayurveda. Yoga has been linked from its earliest beginnings to Ayurveda, which is centered on the concept of different body types (doshas), each of which thrives on different types of foods.

For example, Vata dosha needs grounded foods such as oils and grains. Pitta is supported by cooling foods such as salads and sweet fruits, while Kapha benefits from invigorating foods such as cayenne and other hot peppers.

The meaning of Ayurveda is that few people are representatives of strictly one dosha, most are actually a mixture of at least two types. Therefore, each person must find their own personal balance of foods that will fit their own unique constitution.

Food should provide energy and mental clarity. A “good” diet may be perfect for one person, but completely wrong for another, so it’s important to understand what diet works well for you when you feel healthy, sleep well, have good digestion, and feel that your yoga practice is beneficial, and doesn’t exhaust you.

Aadil Palkhivala of the Washington Yoga Center refers to the Ayurvedic scriptures and believes that they are only guides for practitioners, not hard and fast rules to be followed relentlessly.

“The ancient texts served the purpose of enforcing external standards until the yoga practitioner became sensitive enough through practice to intuit what was best for him as an individual,” Palkhivala explains.

Massachusetts-based clinical nutritionist Teresa Bradford has been working for years to help yoga students find a balanced approach to eating that supports their practice. She has been a yoga teacher for over 15 years and her deep knowledge of both Western and Ayurvedic nutrition provides a unique perspective on this issue.

“Making general statements about what we should or shouldn’t eat, like ‘potatoes make you sleepy,’ is ridiculous,” she says. It’s all about the personal constitution. The same potato pacifies Pitta and aggravates Vata and Kapha, but is not recommended for people with inflammatory or arthritic conditions. Cold water can also affect certain constitutions. Vata has a hard time with it, Kapha may have an increased digestive problem, but Pitta may find that it really calms her digestive system.”

How to eat according to your dosha

Many beginner yogis try not to eat for hours before practicing. Unity Woods Yoga director John Schumacher believes that frequent and prolonged fasting has a general weakening on the body.

“While overeating can be bad for your practice, making you clumsy and too fat to go deep into poses, fasting and undereating can have a more devastating effect,” he says.

“When students go overboard on fasting, they may think they are heading towards greater oneness with God, but they are actually getting closer to dehydration,” adds Bradford. “For Vata and Pitta types, skipping meals can not only cause low blood sugar and dizziness, but also lead to further health complications such as constipation, indigestion and insomnia.”

So, where do you start shaping your own balanced approach to eating? As with yoga, you need to start from the head. Experimentation and attention is the key to discovering your personal path to balance and growth. Schumacher recommends trying power systems that appeal to you to see if they work for you.

“As you continue to practice yoga, you get an intuitive sense of what is right for your body,” he says. “Just as you modify a favorite recipe to suit your own tastes, when you re-cook it, you can adapt your diet to support your practice.”

Palhiwala agrees that intuition and balance are the key to finding supportive products.

“Start by finding balance on many levels in the foods you eat,” he recommends. “Choose foods that make your body feel good when you eat them, and long after you stop eating.”

Pay attention to your digestion process, sleep cycle, breathing, energy levels and post-meal asana practice. A food diary can be a great tool for charting and drawing. If you feel unhealthy or unbalanced at any particular time, look in your diary and think about what you have been eating that may be causing these problems. Adjust your eating habits until you feel better.

Conscious of your food

Apply the same mindfulness and observation to how you plan and prepare meals. The key here is the combination of ingredients that should harmonize and complement each other in taste, texture, visual appeal and effect.

“We need to learn how to use our six senses, our own personal experience of trial and error,” advises Bradford. “Climate, activity during the day, stress and physical symptoms are what help us determine our daily food choices. We, as part of nature, are also in a state of change. An important part of the flexibility we cultivate in yoga is to make us flexible with our products. Every day, at every meal.”

Don’t accept any “rules” as truth. Try it yourself and explore yourself. For example, if you are told that yoga practitioners do not eat for seven hours before practicing, ask the question, “Is this a good idea for my digestion? How do I feel when I don’t eat for so long? This works for me? What could be the consequences?

Just as you work in asanas to align and realign your inner center, you need to learn to recognize what foods your body needs. By paying attention to your body, how a certain food affects you throughout the entire process of eating and digestion, you will gradually learn to understand exactly what your body needs and when.

But this, too, needs to be practiced in moderation—when becoming obsessed, each sensation can quickly hinder rather than contribute to balance. In the practice of food and yoga, it is important to stay alive, conscious and present in the moment. By not following strict rules or rigid structures, you can let the process itself teach you how to perform at your best.

Through the joy of exploration and the unleashing of curiosity, you can continually rediscover your own individual paths to balance. Balance is key both in your overall personal diet and in planning each meal. When developing or modifying a recipe to suit your personal tastes, you must consider a number of factors: the balance of the ingredients in the dish, the time it takes to prepare the meal, the time of year, and how you feel today.

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