Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Well Balanced Yogic Diet

We were in Twisting Warrior Interlock (aka Bound Rotated Side Angle) in Ana Forrest's morning intensive yesterday, and she invited us to take in the "nutrients of the twist". I really like the idea of postures "feeding" us. It's a reminder to use the postures for the sake of our own health and growth, rather than badges of accomplishment.

Like fruits and vegetables, each posture has its own unique set of vitamins and minerals. What are the elements of a posture that determine its nutritional content? Physically, we can consider what parts of the body are engaged or relaxed, where the breath moves, the amount of effort required to hold the pose, the length of the hold, our orientation to gravity, etc. Rod Stryker divides asana into 6 loose categories: forward folds, back bends, lateral stretches, twists, extensions and inversions. He associates these categories with different physical, energetic and mental effects. For example, backbends and laterals tend to be stimulating, uplifting, and energizing. Forward folds and inversions are soothing, calming, and quieting. (Our Home Practice workshop explores this system further). It quickly gets complicated, though, because the way you breathe or visualize in a pose can change its effect. Ultimately, there is no substitute for personal exploration of the nutritional benefits of each pose.

From another angle: the stress (or intensity) of a pose, in itself, is therapeutic. Studies of the effects of stress on mice have shown that some level of stress is necessary for the healthy development of a living organism. Mice raised with zero stress are weak, lacking the resiliency gained from adapting to stressors. Yoga poses offer safe, self-regulated doses of intensity. Ana Forrest seems to favor this type of nutrition, given her long holds, standing sequences of 10-15 poses in a row, and deep abdominal work.

We can ask: what does a well-balanced diet of yoga look like? Like food, the "right" yoga poses vary with the individual, depending on age, health, energetic needs and mental state. But in general, to continue the food metaphor, we do well to consume a wide array of poses to ensure we have all the nutrients we need to continue our spiritual growth. From this perspective, I find Ana Forrest's style a bit narrow to be practiced exclusively. She places little emphasis on relaxation, softening in poses, forward folds (in my limited experience). But what she does, she does really really well. She serves a delicious meal - I just wouldn't want to eat it every day.

Yet to eat many different foods in one meal brings its own problems. An interesting fact: the body uses a different mix of digestive juices for each type of food it eats. Going nuts at a buffet confuses our digestive system, weakening its ability to digest any individual nutrient fully. We assimilate most effectively by eating just a few types of food at once. There is a whole art of food combination, explained exhaustively by Paul Pitchford in Healing with Whole Foods (in short: eat carbs with vegetables, or vegetables with protein, but not carbs and protein together).

To further flog the food/yoga metaphor, a class that includes a little bit of every kind of pose may have a similar, confusing effect on the body. An advanced class that throws in every big pose is like eating a meal that mixes Thai, Indian, Italian and Mexican all together. In my classes, and my own practice, I try to create a balanced series while still building up to one or two more intense poses. So the standing sequence may prepare the body for a big backbend, and then the rest of class works to balance out the effects of the backbend. Or: a variety of appetizers but then one or two main dishes, with an aperitif to aid digestion.

As a final note on this theme, the yogic scriptures strongly emphasize that dietary modification is necessary to have success in yoga. I don't think us householder yogis need to restrict our diet to ghee and rice, but there is a natural progression from awareness of the body in yoga to awareness of how food affects the body. The more sensitive we become, the harder it is to ignore the unpleasant feeling of overeating, too much sugar, or too many refined foods. In this way, I think yoga is one of the best ways to lose weight in the long term. Rather than forcing yourself to change how you eat, change arises naturally as a result of increased awareness.

No comments:

Post a Comment