Thursday, January 6, 2011

Coffee: Boon or Bane?

This post is inspired by Claudia's recent post about the effects of coffee-drinking on yoga practice. Does drinking coffee help the practice? Or is it something that, like any other stimulant, gets in the way of achieving a balanced state of equanimity, and should therefore be avoided?

It appears that yogis can generally be divided into three schools of thought when it comes to the place of coffee in the yogic life:

(1) The "No Coffee, No Prana" school of thought 

This is something that Sharath is supposed to have said. There is some dispute about the accuracy of this quote (somebody has suggested that it should be "No Coffee, Prana".)

But we'll just assume that "No Coffee, No Prana" is the correct quote. Skippetty has also attested to the correctness of this quote. As the phrase suggests, people who belong to this school of thought believe that coffee is needed to "jump-start" the yogic engine and get the prana flowing in the morning. Skippetty also said that Mark Whitwell said that Krishnamarcharya used to drink 5 cups of coffee a day. So apparently Krishnamacharya also belongs to this school of thought.

I have good reason to believe that B.K.S. Iyengar also belongs to this school of thought. I once read somewhere (I can't remember exactly where) about this interesting episode from his younger days. He said that when he was a young man, he used to get up at 4 in the morning, have some coffee with his wife, and then commence his pranayama practice. Sometimes the pranayama practice was so taxing that he got exhausted and went back to sleep! Apparently, sometimes even coffee is not enough to get prana flowing!

So as you can see, the "No Coffee, No Prana" school of thought has many illustrious adherents. 

(2) The "Yoga is My Coffee" school of thought 

As of right now, I know only one person who belongs to this school: Me. Even though I drink coffee daily, I do not need coffee to get me started on my yoga practice. This is how my morning goes. I get up, drink some warm water, and do my Buddhist prayers. And then I do my Ashtanga practice. And I only drink my coffee (usually a double espresso) after my practice. Why do I do this? Well, for me, my yoga practice is sufficient to wake me up: So, yoga does for me what coffee does to others. I mean, if something like kapotasana can't wake me up, what can?

You may ask: Why do you still drink coffee then? Well, I like the taste and the "kick" that double espresso gives me, even if I don't need it to wake me up first thing in the morning. Part of it may also stem from a certain attitude of rebellion. I come from a family that is pretty strict about not taking any stimulants. When I was growing up, my mother disapproved of coffee, because she thought that, being a stimulant, it can't be good for the body. So maybe my coffee-drinking is an act of rebellion, in a way.

(3) The "Coffee is Rajasic/Not Sattvic, Don't Drink It" school of thought

Adherents of this school believe that coffee gets in the way of the yoga practice because, being a stimulant, it creates imbalances in the nervous system that leads to imbalances in the physical body. Coffee is also a diuretic. Which means that it drains the body of precious fluids that are needed for lubricating the joints and for circulation.


Which school of thought do you belong to? Maybe there are also other schools of thought that I have not taken into account of here. If so, please share.

Frankly, I have some reservations about the "No Coffee, No Prana" school of thought. If adherents of this school actually believe that coffee is absolutely necessary to "jump-start" the yoga practice in the morning, this just can't be right. I mean, think about this: If I have my history right, coffee was only introduced to India when the British arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries (somebody please correct me if I'm wrong about this). But yoga has been around for far longer than that. So, if coffee is absolutely necessary to jump-start the yoga practice in the morning, then the yogis who were practicing in all those centuries before the British arrived were totally fucked! But we know this can't be true. If it is, we wouldn't have yoga today: Yoga would have died out long ago because those pre-British occupation coffee-deprived yogis weren't able to get their prana on.

Or maybe it is true: Maybe yoga only gained widespread popularity in the last century because with the advent of coffee, yogis like Krishnamachrya and B.K.S. Iyengar found the extra "juice" that gave their practices and teachings the "edge" that had been lacking in the practices of pre-coffee-era yogis... If this is true, then we owe whatever yogic knowledge we have today at least as much to a chemical substance (caffeine) as to the teachings and practices of the teachers of the Krishnamacharya lineage. Damn! Doesn't that make us all... addicts?

Maybe I need to start drinking coffee before my practice, after all. I could be doing at least fourth series by now...       


  1. Great post Nobel, I like the presentation of the different "schools" of yoga and coffee... well done!, you know which one I am on, pass me the java!, speaking of which I should be in bed by now...

  2. When the alarm goes off at 4AM, I'm not thinking about 'achieving a balanced state of equanimity'. But it sure is a lot easier to get up to make some coffee than to head straight to the mat.

    The flaw with 'yoga is my coffee' is that it presumes you made it to the mat already (and not wake up a few hours too late vaguely remembering pressing the snooze button repeatedly).

  3. Doesn't Sharath get up at 2am or something crazy? If I did then I'm sure I'd drink coffee before practice too! I know some people choose to take coffee in the morning to (ahem) get their digestion moving before practice...
    I started with coffee, then switched to green tea, and now some days I don't even have that before I go to the shala. It doesn't seem to make a huge amount of difference for me.
    And I read that the full quote from Sharath was "no cows, no milk; no milk, no coffee; no coffee, no prana." which is interesting considering how many ashtangis are vegans!

  4. eh... I think anything can be picked up and picked apart and made into a rule or something to do or abstain from. I love coffee, but could do without it if I wanted to. It tastes so yummy! I also love the ritual. Decaf tea could do the same (and does, at night). I never think about it being right or wrong. (mainly because I don't care! Takes enough energy just to practice)

  5. What an interesting question Nobel!

    Here's my coffee and practice experience:
    When I first started practicing, I drank coffee in the morning, but did practice in the evening after work. I was working 7-3:30 then and had to be up by 5:30 to be at work on time...morning practice would have been too early even for me, a "morning person".

    But...about the time I was given kapotasana I hit a month long string of insomnia events. I would fall asleep with no problems, then wake up 3 or 4 hours later and not be able to go back to sleep. After a month of feeling like a zombie, I stopped drinking coffee in the morning. The insomnia stopped as soon as I stopped drinking coffee in the morning.

    My feeling was, after I started the frequent deep backbending, I didn't need the coffee. Now it's about 6 years later. I've never gone back to coffee, although I still love the smell! I've been practicing in the morning for the past 5 years or so with no pre-practice stimulants (coffee, tea, etc.). As long as I'm practicing second, I'm energetic when I finish practice. Occasionally on the day I do primary though, I will fall asleep in savasana. :)

  6. Thanks Claudia :-)

    Dhr Bibberknie, I totally hear you about its being easier to get up and make coffee at 4 in the morning than it is to head straight to the mat.

    The trouble with me is that for me, getting out of bed (whether to go make coffee or go to the mat) is hard one way or the other. So at some point, I must have decided that I may as well just head right to the mat (Besides, I don't have an espresso machine, so there is no incentive for me to go make myself my favorite drink).

  7. DDMel, speaking of getting the digestion moving, I heard David Williams say at a workshop a couple of years ago that he does Nauli Kriya in the morning before practice for that purpose. I don't know enough about kriyas to mess with that, but it sounds like it probably would have the same awakening effect as coffee.

    Your version of Sharath's quote is interesting. Now I feel that we must get straight about exactly what the quote is. Maybe we should ask Claudia to ask Sharath this question when she goes to Mysore next week (What do you think, Claudia?).

    Evelyn, I hear you on this. Life is too short to be obsessed with the rightness or wrongness of everything we do, or to be obsessed with justifying every little action. Liking something is reason enough to do it (if it doesn't harm others). But I just have a habit of picking things apart.

    Christine, your experience is very interesting. Now that you mention it, I think Mr. Iyengar did say something somewhere about the effects of a deep backbend being like a shot of espresso. So if he is right, then you and I are "drinking" the yoga equivalent of espresso shots at least five days a week :-) (except on Fridays and Saturdays).

  8. Is it really necessary to belong to a 'school of thought'? Can't we just have coffee if we want to without analysing it to death and making a whole philosophy out of it??

    What Sharath says is 'no coffee, no prana'. Sorry if some people would like it to be the opposite. It is a remark made in jest, his eyes are twinkling. Obviously he's saying it's fine to have, but not that everyone has to have it or they won't have prana! Jeez, why do people have to take things so literally??

    I think we can really muddle ourselves up picking up phrases out of context from senior teachers and analysing them on the Internet.

    I have it for the reason Mel mentioned, it gets the digestion moving quickly. Decaf has the same effect by the way, it's a property of coffee, not caffeine.

  9. Susan, I think you are quite right about the analyzing-things-to-death part. I obviously wasn't there when Sharath said that. Sometimes I like analyzing things just to see where a certain line of thought would lead if taken to its logical conclusion (It's basically what I do in my "real" job). But I agree with you; there is always the risk of taking things wildly out of context.

    I didn't know that coffee by itself (and not caffeine) can have the effect of getting the digestion moving. Learnt something new again :-)

  10. Oh, Susan, I do notice that you use "analysing" rather than "analyzing", which is American. I just enjoy noticing these little differences in spelling between American and British English ("colour" as opposed to "color", for example). When I grew up in Singapore, I was taught British spelling, but since I have lived in the States for the last 10 years, I have become so used to American English that I don't even think about this difference anymore.

  11. Ah, Canada is halfway between in spelling. We do 'colour' and 'centre', but 'analyze' like the US... I think so anyway (?). I'm pretty sure the 's' there is something I've picked up living in the UK.

    My education is in languages and translation... so if you want to analyse spelling, grammar, stylistics or comparative translations to death, then I'll be happy to participate with you ;-)

  12. Ok here's my current understanding. Both Iyengar and Jois may be a bit misguided as to how prana actually functions in the body. I don't care to detail why but there is a lot of experience riding behind this even though they are "masters". Popularity does not equal proficiency, look at Britney Spears.
    Prana is NOT physical so coffee won't do anything to help with prana besides maybe clearing the digestive track or something secondary. What coffee does do is excites the nervous system. So does rigorous exercise a la vinyasa which is based off of rigorous exercises for youth, not for everyone. Iyengar works a little bit differently through the static poses that may generate some prana but does not have the proper channels to flow through as there is no movement with breathe to balance the prana properly and it makes their practitioners rigid and stuck. I did this for years and have seen it in action. It's weird.
    In the long run you end up depleting your prana when you do all of this or burn out your nervous system, and necessitate coffee to get you going, or intense yoga, or both in the case of the old timers who have worn their body out due to not properly understanding their gurus advice and making stuff up. Ayurveda will help you understand this too. Coffee and vigorous exercise is only good for fairly sedentary people who don't really practice this stuff. If you had control or knowledge of prana you would have hold of the life force and wouldn't likely need much coffee. My two cents.