Thursday, June 30, 2011

Coffee and the practice: A few scattered musings on the Elixir of Immortality

[Image taken from here]

"Black as the devil, Hot as hell,
Pure as an angel, Sweet as love."

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord

Happy Moon Day! Since this is the new moon, you are probably not practicing. Quite possibly, you might be sitting somewhere, enjoying a nice cup of coffee. This is, in fact, what I am doing right now: As I write this, I am sipping my regular morning double espresso :-)

It seems, then, that for many of us, coffee is just as much a part of our daily lives as our practice. In fact, one can even argue that coffee is actually more a part of our daily life than the practice: We don't practice on moon days, but we still drink coffee! For those of us that drink coffee, that is... If you are one of the lucky few who are not in any way dependent on this substance, well, you have my greatest respect: If I were wearing a hat right now, I'd take it off to you :-)

In case you are wondering, this is NOT me taking off my hat to you.
[Image taken from here]

It appears that there are different opinions as to the merits of coffee, even within the Ashtanga community. Many of us know Sharath's famous saying: "No Coffee, No Prana!" I also read something somewhere where somebody claims that Guruji once called coffee the Elixir of Immortality, or something to this effect.

However, many Ashtanga teachers have expressed reservations about the place of coffee in relation to the practice. Matthew Sweeney writes:

"Some individuals also like to drink coffee first thing in the morning, both to aid the bowel movement and to wake up from feeling tired. That is, coffee is used to do both these things rather than actually addressing the issue. First of all, the question of why you are tired should be addressed. Secondly, if you are, either go to sleep earlier or practice later. If you drink coffee to help practice, then it can be said that what goes to practice is not you, it is the coffee. My point here is not to condemn coffee. It is a part of life and may be relatively supportive. I use it here as an example of the illusions you have that may need to be addressed." (Sweeney, page 21)

Gregor Maehle takes an even stronger position on the effects of coffee on practice, claiming that caffeine consumption actually has a direct effect on the physical practice itself:

"Coffee is a stimulant that mobilizes and expels prana that otherwise is used to stabilize the pelvis. This is not a moralistic statement but is based on observation. Over the years, most of my students who had a tendency to have a twisted or imbalanced pelvis were those who insisted on continuing their coffee habit. Decaffeinated coffee or tea does not appear to have the same destabilizing effect." (Maehle, footnote no. 16 on page 125)

Whenever I read Maehle's words here, I can't help but wonder just how he supports this claim. I mean, a variety of physical and psychological factors can contribute to pelvic imbalance: How does he succeed in isolating caffeine consumption as a decisive contributing factor, among all these different possible contributors? I'm not saying he's wrong: I'm just wondering out loud.

In any case, why is there such a divergence in opinion about the merits of coffee? In my now-famous (ahem!) post, "Coffee and Siddhis: A Fantastic Tale", I propose the fantastic hypothesis that perhaps the coffee that the Jois's brew and drink is imbued with some special yogic power, or siddhi, and thus possesses some special properties that ordinary coffee (the kind that Maehle is referring to) lacks: In other words, the coffee that Sharath brews and drinks gets the prana flowing and focuses it, while the coffee that the rest of us drink totally messes up the prana and throws the pelvis all out of whack! (Disclaimer: This is only a fantastic hypothesis. I am not making any scientific claims here. Definitely do not start throwing rotten eggs (or spilling stale coffee) at me.)   

Another possible reason for this divergence might lie in one obvious geographical fact: Both Sweeney and Maehle are from Australia! Perhaps there is something about the atmospheric conditions down under which affects the composition of prana in coffee when it is brewed in that part of the world, so that (perhaps) coffee that is brewed in Australia has certain prana-scattering effects that are not found in coffee in the rest of the world! (Disclaimer: Again, I mean this as a purely fantastic hypothesis. If you are from Australia, please do not take offense. Uh oh, am I going to start losing Australian readers? Well, if you are an Australian Patriot (or whatever the Aussie term for this is, excuse my ignorance), please feel free to challenge this claim :-))

Yet another possibility is that coffee affects different body-types/dosha-types differently. Perhaps, depending on your body-type/dosha-type, coffee can either really get your prana on in the morning, or really mess up your prana flow. I think this sounds somewhat plausible, although I have no scientific/ayurvedic evidence to back it up.

So it seems that the jury is still out (and will probably be out for a very long time to come) on the effects of coffee on our overall health and well-being in general, and on our practice in particular. So if you are a coffee-drinker, please continue to enjoy your daily cup/s of coffee. If you are not a coffee-drinker, well, continue to not drink coffee (duh?).

Come to think of it, this may be a good place to conduct a poll (I seem to be in a poll mood lately; polls are fun, aren't they? :-)). You will see a coffee poll in the top right-hand corner of this blog. Please take a moment to cast your vote.

Last but not least, I think this is also a good place to indulge in some pretentious poetry writing. In this spirit, I present you my latest coffee poem (written pretentiously in old English, to boot):

Ode to that Exotic Black Beverage from Distant Shores

Hail Ol' Coffee!
What Thick Black Brew
Hath from Distaff Shores
To Yonder Coffee-table Traveled?  
Some like Thee Black,
Others have Thee with Cream
And possibly some Sugar.
Some Hail Thee as the Elixir of Everlasting Life,
Others Revile Thee as a Prana-scattering Scourge.
Art Thou Boon or Bane to Ashtangis with their Stupid O'Clock Morning Routines?
If Thou Art Boon,
Wherefore Art Thou not Universally Loved and Revered?
If Thou Art Bane,
Wherefore do so many swear by Thy Thick Luxurious Body and Richly Textured Skin?


  1. I'm amazed that coffee has inspired you to write such a long post! :) I concur with your questioning of Maehle's statement, it's anecdotal and there are so many reasons why one's pelvis is unbalanced.

    I'm a loyal post-practice espresso drinker. At the new yoga studio I go to, there's post-practice chai available everyday with its legion of fans who can get quite evangelical in asking you to 'try some chai'. Maybe that could be fodder for a future post - the merits of chai vs coffee? ;)

  2. Hmm... getting evangelical about chai? Interesting! Yes, "chai vs. coffee" sounds like very good material for a future post; who knows, I might even conduct another poll on chai vs. coffee :-)

  3. i haven't fully read the post but isn't the new moon tomorrow, 1st July?

  4. yes!, that's what I thought, tomorrow. I went to the shala this morning, it was open...

  5. REgarding the poll: I drink an espresso every morning with a bit of milk before going to practice, but I don't really need it. For a long time I used to practice with an empty stomach; after reading that Sharath... I thought, why not me, then? But I can do without. That should be another category, maybe?

  6. Hello Ivana and Anonymous, I follow the moon day calendar of my teacher's (PJ Heffernan of Waukesha, Wisconsin) website, and it says the moon day is June 30th. I wonder if it might also have something to do with geographical location. Perhaps if you are in the UK or Europe, the moon day occurs one day later? I'm not positive about this: Just thinking aloud.

    Interesting, Anonymous. I practice on an empty stomach too (I drink espresso after practice). Yes, perhaps this would be another category ("I drink coffee before practice, but don't need it to practice.").

  7. Moon days are sometimes confusing. It hapenned to me before that I checked in one website but my teacher had another schedule. Check this one out:

  8. Interesting, Anonymous :-) Well, here's PJ's website:

  9. Hi Nobel, I am from Australia and our Moon Day is 1st July. Regarding coffee, I must admit I am a HUGE fan and have 2 espressos in the morning before practice to aid bowel action and wake up! There seems to be a general trend in the general yoga community here that coffee is "bad" for you, but many of these people still drink alcohol regularly (which as a medical doctor for more than years, I find amazing as alcohol is a known toxin). It was such a relief to me to join the Ashtanga community where coffee is freely drunk! I remember attending one of Manju's chanting classes where Chai was served after , and a few people opted for coffee. There were murmurs in the room...oooh fancy drinking something as bad as coffee, but Manju put us straight, by saying that they both had caffeine so what was the issue (I am paraphrasing here).
    Having said this,I do think that it depends on your dosha and what may be out of balance at the time.
    I have some patients who actually say that their joints ache and feel cold after drinking coffee (? vata), and these are persons with NO yoga or ayurvedic background, having said this, Swami Shankardev in the Sivananda book on how to treat asthma (Shankardev is a medical doctor too, and practices in Sydney as well) , states that persons with Asthma which is generally a kapha disorder should drink a cup of coffee in the morning. From an allopathic doctor's persective, caffeine does open the bronchioles much like the drug theophylline which was used extensively in the past . I have asthma , so use this rationale to justify my coffee consumption, despite my predominantly vata constitution!!

  10. Well, I think the only big problem is when you practice in a studio and you get there very early in the morning to find that the door is closed, when you checked a website where it said the moon day was the following day... if you practice at home you are OK.
    By the way, I just split aswell, 2 weeks ago!
    I'm doing up to tittibhasana. It's a relief to have a shorter practice, although I'm finding difficulties now in standing from drobacks, which I can do, but my chest is less open after adding some Intermediate asana... I feel that I have a different practice now, actually I have 2 practices, Primary on Fridays, and Intermediate the other days, it's as if Ashtanga is giving me almost twice as much now...

  11. Hello MIn,
    Happy Moon Day! Well, right now, it is still July 1st in my part of the world... I don't know if it'll still be July 1st when you actually read this :-) I'm glad you are in a community where your coffee-drinking practice is so readily embraced :-)

    I personally also prefer coffee over chai because being a bit lactose-intolerant, chai sometimes messes with my stomach.

    I didn't know that caffeine can function to open the bronchioles, that's something new to me. I'm happy that it serves you well in this way :-)

  12. Yes Anonymous, it does really suck if you go to a studio, only to find that it is closed for moon day. This has never happened to me personally, but when I was practicing at PJ's studio in Milwaukee, it happened to a few people before. I can only imagine the inconvenience this puts them through...

    Congratulations on splitting! Yes, I think some of the Intermediate postures (especially Pincha Mayurasana and Karandavasana, but also the leg-behind-head postures) can put the spine into kyphosis (am I spelling this right?) and/or tighten the shoulders, which makes backbending and standing up more difficult. But the problem should correct itself with time as you keep on practicing. Moreover, Kino once told me that strong shoulders and upper back muscles are actually very important for safe backbending: They help to stabilize and protect the shoulders and upper back muscles from injury.

  13. In my case it's the leg behind the head asana, I think, since I didn't get to pincha mayurasana yet. But I did Primary on Thursday and everything seemed smoother, easier...

  14. Yes, Anonymous, you are probably right about the leg behind the head postures. It's interesting that everything seemed smoother for you with primary only: Many people (including myself) find backbending more difficult after doing primary only (probably because of all the forward bends in primary).

  15. Sorry, I wasn't very clear. Primary seemed smoother than before, not the backbending (today I didn't practice Intermediate). That is, after a week of not doing Primary I didn't lose any of it, neither the binds nor the strenght or the flexibility... on the contrary, it seemed more "grounded".

  16. HI Nobel, thanks for the moon day wishes!
    Caffeine and theophylline are very similar, open bronchioles, more prana? ;)) I am being a bit facetious here..
    For anyone who is interested:
    A couple of interesting links..

    May the Force be with you tooo..

  17. Hello MIn, "open bronchioles, more prana"? Or maybe "No open bronchioles, no prana?" Hmm... for some reason, this just doesn't have the ring of "No Coffee, No Prana" :-)

    Thanks for the links. I'll go check them out :-)