by Kara-Leah Grant
Since stopping regular coffee drinking back in 2013, I have become fastidious about never drinking coffee before practicing or teaching yoga. Since I practice every day, and teach often, there are very rare windows when caffeine is an option for me.
At a recent summer festival, I realised how deeply this belief I have about the importance of not having caffeine in the system when practicing and teaching was ingrained.
A couple of hours before I was teaching a class, I bumped into my teaching assistant sipping on a coffee cup.
I was aghast and before I could stop myself burst out with;
I hope that’s not coffee! We’re teaching in two hours!
She looked at me sideways.
Yes. It is. I needed a pick-me-up.
Now, I was the one teaching the class, but my assistant would also be working with students. I realised I had assumed that there was no way she would drink coffee before doing this. Her response indicated to me that it had never crossed her mind there was any issue with having caffeine in the system before assisting.
I walked away wondering…
Had I gone too far? Had I become dogmatic and puritanical about coffee and yoga?
Or was I sensing something important that many other teachers and practitioners weren’t aware of?
Research was required.
I hit my book case and pulled out a number of books I thought might make comment on coffee including Beryl Bender Birch’s Power Yoga, The Kundalini Yoga Experience and Donna Farhi’s Teaching Yoga. The only mention of coffee I could find was in Beryl’s book on page 60, and then it was limited to the medical impact of coffee, which can vary widely from person to person.
No mention in the others that I could see – not even Donna’s book!
I turned to The Hatha Yoga Pradipika and flicked through. Unfortunately, the issue of using this 16th century text to base anything on quickly became clear. This particular text advocates avoiding bad people, fires, women, early morning baths and travelling – especially at the beginning of practice. And suggests living in a rat-free hut with a small door. It’s difficult to separate out what aspects of the text are culture and time specific and which aspect are universal and infinite.
The Yoga Sutras are clear about cleanliness in suacha, one of the five niyamas. Yogis are meant to imbibe only pure food, including no meat and intoxicants. However I couldn’t find any elucidation on coffee in particular, or on why it might be contrary to the yogic path. Probably because coffee was only introduced into India in the 18th and 19th century when the British arrived!
It was time to turn to Mr. Google and see what he knew. Armed with a catch-phrase I’d spotted on Instagram when I got into a discussion with a close friend about coffee and teaching, I hit the search button.
“No coffee, no prana!”
Or so said Pattabhi Jois, apparently.
I read through almost ten different articles and blogs about this ‘No Coffee, No Prana’ and why Pattabhi might have said it and what it possibly meant.
It appears that Pattabhi had no issue with coffee, and used to insist that his grandson Sharath drink it before practice.
Yet as Paul Mitchell Gold writes in his article More Ashtanga Myths: Coffee Prana and Rajasic Practice
It’s perfectly clear that, as a strong stimulant, coffee is very rajasic. As such, it would seem to be an obvious thing to avoid in one’s yoga practice since it can cause mental disturbance and agitation. So, I wanted to share a few thoughts on coffee.
First, a moment to define rajasic. In yoga philoshopy, all matter, gross and subtle, is composed of combinations of three qualities called gunas. Sattva is the principle of understanding, lucidity and peacefulness. Rajas is the principle of change, movement and dynamism. Lastly, tamas is the principle of inertia, dullness and ignorance. The entire process of yoga practice is to increase our sattvic nature while decreasing and mitigating the effects of rajas and tamas. Rajas and tamas, however, are not intrinsically bad. As examples, we couldn’t get anything done without rajas and we couldn’t sleep without tamas. It’s all a matter of balance and the way in which rajas and tamas can be obstacles to yoga practice and our spiritual evolution.
Gregor Maehle, in his book Ashtanga Yoga: The Intermediate Series, is also cautious about coffee-drinking yoga students:
“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.” (Footnote no. 16 on page 125)
Greg is one of the few people I’ve found that comments on any relationship between coffee and prana.
Apparently, Krishnamacharya drank five cups of coffee a day (he once worked on a coffee plantation).
And when Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar got back together for a catch-up, what did they do (according to this account)? Drink coffee!
Confused yet? So was I! So I took a break from writing, went and taught a class, and then headed to my favourite local cafe, Tay Street Cafe for a coffee.
I don’t drink coffee often anymore and I wanted to take a more direct, experiential approach to this article. So I ordered a single shot soy flat white with lots of cinnamon. If you know anything about Ayurveda… milky with lots of cinnamon is the best way to mitigate the negative impacts of coffee on your system.
So I’m sipping coffee.
And I’m contemplating this extract from an article on Kino’s website Sharath in Copenhagen, Coffee in Ashtanga and a Strong Mind.
Sharath quoted Yoga Sutra 2.48: Tato Dvandva-anabhighatah, that states that when the yogi’s mind is strong, peace is maintained in the face of opposites such as pleasure and pain or attachment and aversion.
In order to avoid getting hooked into the cycle of suffering the equanimous mind is a crucial development along the spiritual path of yoga.
If you are always running towards pleasure, running from pain, fighting against aversion and fighting for attachment then the very motion of your actions will fuel the wheels of karma and further bind you into conditioned existence.
But if your mind is strong and you consciously choose your path as appreciation, joy and gratitude for every sip of life, then your freedom is already evident in each moment both in your practice and in your life.
This tells me more than everything I’ve read so far on coffee and yoga. Here’s what I know about coffee and yoga.
Coffee impacts our nervous system.
When we teach yoga, we are in effect creating a “group nervous system” (Shiva Rea calls it entrainment). In essence, our nervous system regulates with the nervous system of everyone else in the group.
If we teach with an agitated nervous system – rajas – then we are contributing rajas or agitation to the group nervous system. This is contrary to the role of a yoga teacher, which is to support the student in becoming more sattvic.
Therefore, if you as a teacher care about the impact of your nervous system upon your students, you will refrain from coffee before teaching.
Some mitigating factors. If you are very tamas before drinking coffee, it is possible that the coffee won’t bring you into a state of rajas, but will instead make you more sattvic. Possibly. Do not use this as an excuse. Being very tamas means barely being able to drag yourself off the couch.
When it comes to practicing yoga after drinking coffee, the same process applies. We practice to bring ourselves into a sattvic state of mind.
Increasing rajas before practice through caffeine makes this process far more difficult. That said, if you’re getting up at 4am to do your practice on a cold winter’s day, perhaps caffeine counteracts strong tamas. Perhaps!
I’ve almost finished my small single shot and my state of being has gone from sattvic to rajas.
I feel slightly agitated and have so much energy I’m going to explode out of my seat. This is the impact that coffee has on me now. It’s like a line of speed. This is why I don’t drink it very often, and why I never drink it before practice or teaching.
However, other people don’t have such a strong reaction to caffeine. Neither did I though… until I took a break for ten days, allowed my system to reset itself, and then tried caffeine again. (Read that article on coffee and addiction here.)
From that blank slate, I was able to perceive with clarity the true impact of caffeine on my system.
Yes, I could have habituated myself to it again… but what for? Because one thing I’m noticing with my yoga practice, fifteen+ years in, is that I am slowly but surely being purified. My diet is purifying, the intoxicants I ingest are purifying, my thoughts, deeds… everything… it’s all purifying.
And as I purify, I become more sensitive and more attuned to the subtle nuances of energy and substances.
Which is why I was horrified when my assistant was drinking coffee before assisting me. From my perspective, this was an irresponsible action to take that dishonoured both the practice and the students.
However, my assistant isn’t in the place I’m in. Coffee may not affect her in the same way at all. She wasn’t teaching the class, only assisting. From her perspective, there was no issue. I was the one being dogmatic.
The only issue with coffee and yoga arises when we as teachers and students become attached and addicted to our caffeine fix and so will rationalise, justify and defend our right to drink coffee.
I see and hear a lot of that.
So here’s my challenge to you. If you’re reading this article then obviously you are curious about the impact of coffee on your practice. I suggest you forget about looking externally for the answer, because there are no answers out there. (And as I found on Google, it’s confusing as all hell.)
Instead, take the most yogic path possible and work with self-inquiry and experimentation. Here’s a few krama (stages) to work with:
Courageous as all hell and ready to get to the truth about you & Coffee?
- Try ten days with no caffeine. You need to clear your system out completely first.
- Then, from that place of purity, make yourself or order the most beautiful coffee ever.
- When it arrives, turn the act of consuming it into a sacred meditation.
- Start with staring at the coffee deeply for at least a minute. Admire it’s beauty.
- Smell the coffee and notice the impact on your system. Don’t taste it yet.
- Smell it a couple of times, and sit with the smell.
- Finally, take one small sip and swirl it in your mouth, tasting every last molecule.
- Sit with that small sip for at least a minute or two and see if you can discern what’s happening in your nervous system, and in your body.
- Feel into it. Take another sip.
- Drink the coffee exceedingly slowly, feeling each sip as it permeates your body.
- By the end of the coffee you should have a very clear idea of the impact of caffeine on your system. Meditate on that.
Nervous as all hell but still curious about coffee?
- Restrict your coffee drinking to AFTER you practice and/or teach yoga.
- Notice any attachment or strong desire arising to consume coffee BEFORE practice and/or teaching.
- Notice the justifications of the mind.
- See if you can determine how attached/addicted you are to coffee by how strongly your mind reacts, justifies, defends, kicks back.
Fiercely clinging to your coffee and don’t give a fuck?
- Notice that.
- Go read up on the Kleshas.
- Inquire into your clinging. Why is coffee so important? Why does it have so much power over you? What are you so afraid of? Who is the boss of you?
- What are you defending? And who is it that’s defending?
Let me know how it goes for you.
And if you know of any other sources referencing the impact of caffeine on prana, please leave a comment with a link. I want to know!