These days, I try to arrive everywhere early, just so I can drink a cup of coffee or read a few pages of a book before the next thing on my schedule. Now is just such a time. I still have 40 minutes free before my evening class, and I’m already sitting in the coffee shop next to my studio.
So, what about this coffee thing?
When friends, students, and readers learn that I drink coffee, they usually comment about it, and I find this interesting. Some people who’ve read my book Mavi Orman write and ask me if I still drink margaritas and eat chips and salsa. Yes, of course I do!
“Aren’t these forbidden items?” they ask, but who says they are? What about not eating after sunset? Aren’t there rules and regulations to follow to have a good practice? I think there’s some confusion in the minds of some people who want to take yoga seriously into their lives, specifically about how to eat and drink in the yoga world.
When I started practicing yoga in Thailand, I set rules for myself right away. I’ve always loved setting rules for myself (and for others for that matter) anyway, so I embraced this opportunity, and the disciplined soldier in me celebrated my decision!
I’d already lost the zest for alcohol and cigarettes due to overusing them in the previous decade, so a ban on these was not a major change for the soldier in me. In the winter before I went to Thailand, my friend Ayşe had suggested we follow a chicken diet that entailed eating nothing but fowl for a month, except maybe a salad or two.
This diet was supposed to make us lose six pounds, but it didn’t. As you can imagine, by the end of the month, I lost the desire to eat anything with wings on it. My disgust for it was so strong that I still can’t stand the sight of chicken on a plate!
Around the time I started yoga, I was already getting tired of my Thai-Lao breakfast, which usually consisted of Larb (a mixture of mint, lemon and the roasted meat of some unnamed animal) with sticky rice. Taking a break from eating meat actually sounded like an attractive idea, so quitting meat, especially chicken, was not a challenge. The soldier within me had loftier aspirations anyway: He deemed that coffee, soy milk, sugar, salt, and fish and other seafood should also be off limits.
And so began my meals of papaya salad, white rice, and green tea. When I returned to Istanbul after eight months, my skin had almost turned orange from all the papaya. My mind was fixed on trespassing into my forbidden zone of ice cream, coffee, fish, corn chips, and French fries.
Something is very well explained in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) seminars: Whenever we focus on not doing something, the thought reproduces itself. Whenever a thought is focused on prohibition, the brain continues to think about the prohibition continuously.
A decade before starting my papaya/rice diet, the mother of my friend Yasemin took us to a dietician. Since we were not getting tired of our obsession of losing weight, she thought we may as well continue our madness under the supervision of an expert. We were seventeen at the time, and we truly believed that if we ate only half a packet of diet crackers and one (yes, one) red mullet a day, we would lose our “extra” six pounds.
I remember my hands shaking out of hunger-driven nervousness before every mealtime, and I drove my mom crazy with grumpy impatience while she cooked my single mullet. Then on the weekend, when Yasemin and I got together and easily tempted each other, we would break the diet with a McChicken meal at the nearest McDonalds!
We were seventeen-year-old girls who were suffering from a lack of self-confidence rather than any extra pounds, so the dietician handed us lists of what to eat in a day: three fruits, 100 grams of meat, two dishes of vegetables, and so on. (By the way, we once considered one whole water melon as one of the three fruits!)
There was one more thing, however: An X. He explained that the X could be anything, but it could only be consumed once a week. It could be ice cream, a bagel, chocolate, street food, hamburger, French fries, or whatever we wanted! This X immediately became the only dream in our dear young brains! We constantly talked about what the X would be for that week, and we made special plans for the day when we would eat the X! X was the forbidden fruit for us, and we were reproducing its idea in our minds over and over. Isn’t this exactly the story of the forbidden fruit?
The Yoga and Ayuverda texts give some suggestions for eating and drinking for a healthy, balanced body with a calm and centered mind and a deep yoga practice. This is true, but they also draw our attention to how all these suggestions should be arranged according to your bodily constitution and how each person should explore the food that nourishes him or her in a wholesome way. Certain foods have the potential for agitating the mind—such as meat, fish, alcohol, coffee, salt, and sugar—but they may not have this effect on everybody. On the other hand, rather than being agitated by these foods, some people may become agitated because they try to overcontrol themselves.
I always mention in my writings that yoga is not about control. Discipline, which is different to control, is needed to gain the ability to patiently observe what is good for us and what is not. I find the best way is to monitor myself during my practice every morning. Unless we have the metabolism of a 15-year-old boy, any food we eat late the previous night will still be in our bowels the next morning.
Yogasana is a practice that deepens as the breath gets slower and longer. The more space we have in the navel area, the freer the breath becomes and the stronger the core center of the body. Experiencing such strength and freedom makes me want to reduce how much I eat at nighttime. Of course there are some nights when going out with friends, eating and drinking, is more worthwhile than performing a deep yoga practice in the morning. Afterwards, I don’t much worry about my inner organs and the following day’s practice.
Also, if I feel weak, tired, stiff, or reluctant while doing yoga in the morning, I take a look at the previous day’s food. I do the same thing in the mornings when I feel flexible, strong, and full of joy and enthusiasm, because whatever I did the previous day has yielded good results for me. (Do bear in mind that factors like stress, overworking muscles, sports, staying in the sun for too long, and dehydration also affect the following day’s yoga as well.)
My teacher often tells us that a yogic life cannot be led by control and prohibitions or by recipes that may work for some but not for everyone. He mentions that everyone has different needs when it comes to foods, and each of us should arrive at a diet by slowly exploring the foods that suit us the most.
The idea of forbidden fruit is a great pleasure to the obsessive mind. Imposing rules on eating, living, behaving, and making love are all different forms of the same obsessive mental pattern. As discipline and control do not mean the same thing, yoga practice does not evolve with imposition either. Yoga is about exploring one’s true self through the study and understanding of your real needs, your shadows as well as your gifts. The way to go about it, I believe, is by staying curious and in love!