We’ve all been there — standing in Tadasana with our stomach growling, or feeling like we just can’t summon the energy for another Surya Namaskara. Our energy is depleted and our minds can’t help drifting away, picturing all the things we will eat as soon as our yoga class is over.
In our busy lives it can sometimes be difficult to decide upon the the most effective nourishment to support and sustain our practice. All too often I’ve found myself eating a late and hurried breakfast or lunch before running into class, not stopping to realise I haven’t left time to digest my food. Many times, this lack of mindfulness has impacted upon my enjoyment of the class and it has even had a negative impact upon my overall digestive health.
Asana, with its forward and back-bending poses, its twists and inversions, can feel impossible if your stomach is full. I find this sensation of heaviness can mess with my balance and, because blood has rushed to my stomach to aid digestion, I’ve found myself feeling lethargic in class and longing for my Savasana.
Stretching and contracting when the stomach is full can put pressure on the ring of muscle at the top of the stomach which can often force food back up the esophagus, taking painful digestive acids with it. This can be particularly true for people who have hypothyroidism like me, because the condition can deteriorate this muscular valve leaving it too weak to close properly. In some more extreme cases, a hiatal hernia can form or be aggravated. This is a very uncomfortable condition where part of the stomach herniates, or becomes trapped above the diaphragm.
Having experienced the distraction of being hungry in class myself, and also having realised the mistake of eating too much before I practice, I recently set out to discover the ideal way to nourish my body before practicing Asana. During my quest, I asked a number of yogi friends, all of whom practice a variety of traditions and at various times of day. The response was wide so over the past few weeks I’ve tried a range of their suggestions to discover what works best for me. Everyone I spoke with agreed that it is wise to ideally leave a three-hour window after a large meal before attempting any form of Asana. Some preferred to wait until after class to eat again whilst others relied on a light snack such as a small piece of fruit or a handful of nuts up to thirty minutes before class.
If, like me, you enjoy early morning practice such as Mysore style Ashtanga then I discovered practicing on an empty stomach suits me best. I don’t seem to feel hungry before eight AM. In his book Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar advocates cocoa or milk if a completely empty stomach is too difficult and I have been experimenting with having a small cup of Chai Tea with a little warmed almond milk before Mysore, which has been especially uplifting on chillier mornings. There’s something very comforting about Chai when the birds are only just starting to sing.
When practicing mid-morning I’ve split my previous breakfast portion in two by eating a small breakfast before class and a light snack after. With my digestion in mind, I’ve been keeping my breakfast light by opting for oatmeal or pre-soaked buckwheat grouts cooked with a plant based milk and I’ll often add a spoon of tahini for healthy fats and calcium and a little fruit which more often than not will be a handful of berries. My other option for a light morning meal is an avocado smoothie. (I whizz up a quarter of an avocado with a handful of berries, a tablespoon of coconut yogurt and a cup of coconut water) I find a small of glass of this doesn’t weigh me down or feel heavy in my system. If needed, I follow this after class with one of the snacks listed below.
If I’m feeling low in energy later in the day and in need of a snack before class I usually opt to eat this an hour before my practice. I’ve found that my digestion is just too slow to fully process food any quicker. My favourite snack options are:
- Bananas: These sweet delights have a good level of potassium which have helped keep me hydrated during more dynamic classes like Jivamukti. To stop the sweetness raising my blood sugar levels I eat my banana with a handful of nuts.
- Almonds: These really keep me going when my energy is flagging and I find even a small handful can really fill me up. They contain potassium, magnesium and vitamin E which keeps my muscles working hard.
- An apple with some nut butter: I love apples. I know they are high in the sweet stuff but they are so practical to eat on the run and there’s really nothing quite like the delicious crunch of a really fresh, crisp apple. If I really need a pick me up with a bit more staying-power, scooping some raw almond butter onto an apple slice is my idea of snack heaven!
- An energy boosting Matcha Latte or a nurturing Turmeric Latte. I often grab these from my local wholefoods café next to the studio or I take my own home-made version in my flask.
I’ve spent a few weeks now experimenting until I’ve found what nourishment best suits my practice but these ideas might not be quite right for your body type or the style of class you enjoy. I suggest you try a few strategies and really pay attention to your energy levels and digestion until you discover which foods, and how much of them, your body needs keep both your digestive flow and your Vinyasa flow, happy.