“No Coffee, No Prana!”
The relationship between coffee drinking, yoga practice and yoga teaching.
The founder of Ashtanga Yoga, Pattabhi Jois, famously came up with the saying: “no coffee, no prana (life force)”. This suggests that coffee is not only part of the lifestyle of yogis of Pattabhi Jois’ calibre, but is in fact an integral aspect of their routine.
However, should coffee really be a part of yogic lifestyle?
If you have ever come across the basic principles of ayurvedic nutrition, you will know that coffee classifies as a ‘rajasic’ food. In other words, it falls under the label of those foods which are considered stimulants, such as onion and garlic, or pungent foods like chilli. This is as opposed to ‘sattvic’ foods, like grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, – which should constitute the pillars of the ideal yogic diet – and differently from ‘tamasic’ foods – foods which are over-processed or no longer fresh; perhaps surprisingly, mushrooms also fall under this label in the measure in which they grow in the dark (though I must say that two of my best friends absolutely hate mushrooms so they would agree that they are evil).
In sum, traditionally, Ayurveda’s take on coffee is that its consumption should be avoided altogether. This is because, being a stimulant, it can cause irritability and aggressiveness, qualities which are not desirable for a yogi.
This aspect is ever more important when considering the potential interactions of the yogi with the others. For instance, some argue that if the yogi is going to teach, they should avoid consuming coffee or caffeinated drinks before the class. This is to ensure maximum clarity of mind, patience and fairness toward the student(s).
While the above considerations are crucial when exploring the relationship between nutrition, specifically coffee consumption, and yoga, it is also to be said that traditional Ayurveda does not take into account aspects of our frantic modern lifestyles, culture, and recent findings on coffee.
In fact, a number of scientific studies have proven that coffee consumption can have benefits such as protecting from type II diabetes and Alzheimer’s or dementia; improving brain function and physical performance; increasing the metabolic rate and providing antioxidants; protecting the liver.
How to reconcile these opposing conceptions?
My personal opinion is that everyone is different in terms of size, shape, habits and cultural background. This also extends to coffee consumption: everyone reacts to it differently.
The relevance of this statement becomes apparent when taking into account Ayurveda’s own classification of people as having different doshas or body-types: vata, pitta and kapha (or a combination of two with a dominant and a sub-dominant dosha).
For instance, symptoms of an unbalanced kapha dosha include a low metabolic rate and water retention, which can be countered by consuming black coffee. Similarly, some vata people may take coffee with milk in order to achieve a grounding, nourishing effect. People with a pitta constitution, instead, may balance their dosha by adding some natural sweetener (such as maple syrup or organic cane sugar) to coffee. Coffee’s benefits can be enhanced by combining it with the right amounts of milk or natural sweetener aimed at customising it to one’s dosha.
In addition, the mind-set in which one takes their coffee can also affect the way they react to it: a coffee grabbed in a rush and chugged while running on the way to work is processed by the body in a very different way than a coffee brewed with love and consumed sip by sip, with appreciation.
In conclusion, I think that – while coffee has no place in an orthodox following-the-rules-to-the-letter yogic diet, it can be consumed in moderation if one finds that consuming it is more beneficial than harmful to them.
After all, everyone is different: where for one coffee may be poison, for another it may be medicine.
M. Stella Scarpellini
YTT 200HR, March 2018