The word ‘junkie’ gets attached to way too many things these days. Before writing this, the language nerd in me decided to look it up in the dictionary. Most sources describe a junkie as someone who is addicted to drugs, but a few also add the secondary definition: an avid fan of something. As Merriam Webster Online put it, “a person who gets an unusual amount of pleasure from or has an unusual amount of interest in something – a television news junkie.”
With this positive perspective, I will gladly admit that I am a caffeine junkie.
You might be wondering what yoga sutras have to do with caffeine; let me first explain what a sutra is for a wider audience. The word sutra comes from Sanskrit and can be translated as thread or rule. You may have heard of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is a very old text from India that defines yoga, describes its effects and proposes a basic approach to those effects. Not everyone who has a regular asana practice is well-versed in the yoga sutras. However, on several occasions, I have practiced with a room full of yogis sweating and straining on their mats while the teacher quoted this very popular sutra: “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture”.
As yoga has made its journey to the West, it has changed the lifestyles of many. Even so, a lot of yogis I’ve met still indulge in things that are popular in modern lifestyles, such as caffeine and alcohol, which have been proclaimed by some as running counter to yoga practice. I’ve gone out to have a coffee or a beer on many occasions with other yoga practitioners. Why not? The Bhagavad Gita, another ancient yoga text, claims that yoga is for those who eat and sleep neither too much nor too little (6.16, The Yoga of Meditation). I’d say that extends to beverages, so let’s be low-key junkies and take the middle path so we can enjoy an occasional cocktail, beer, or cup o’ joe!
Let’s be clear about who’s savoring that beverage, though. Is it the body or the mind? Are we physically addicted or emotionally?
Scientists have clarified the matter and discovered that it’s the brain that tells you how much you need that steaming cup. The brain becomes chemically dependent and over time, requires more of the stimulant to get the same high. It’s not me, it’s my brain that’s hooked on coffee!
Patanjali states that a person tends to build an identity based on their thoughts, just as I do when I say, “I am a caffeine junkie.” What’s more accurate is that my brain is a caffeine junkie, or on a more subtle level, my mind is. It’s my mind that goes back and forth, telling me that tomorrow I’ll cut back, or today I’ll just have half a cup, or that I deserve a cup because I had a hard morning.
Then there’s the optimist in me, telling me that if I do get the jitters from that cup of coffee I debated over, it’s just another chance to practice using what I’ve learned from yoga to calm myself. In the yoga sutras, yoga is simply defined as the process of bringing the mind to stillness. This means that when it comes to my mind’s endless bargaining for the next aromatic cup, I can stop, take a step back and notice where those thoughts come from, how I feel as I think them, and what it’s like to let them just pass through my mind.
This is how I navigate the spiraling mind chatter that comes with my twin passions for coffee and yoga.
There are many of us out there that love the two, so many that a quick Google search reveals countless articles answering some variation of the question: is caffeine compatible with yoga practice?
Many authors give suggestions for how to replace their liquid pick-me-up with a sequence of yoga postures or breathing practices. Here I’d like to address a different issue: not how to avoid caffeine, but how to use your yoga practice when you give into the temptation and go overboard.
The next time you find that you can feel your heart racing, sweat breaking out on your skin, or that feeling of shakiness from one cup too many, remember: the exhale phase of the breath is vital to calming the nervous system, releasing muscular tension, and focusing the mind. In my experience, the two breathing practices that have been most helpful are Ujjayi or Kapalabhati breath; on the other hand, some might find Nadi Shodhana more calming. If those words sound like mumbo jumbo to you, here is a simplified approach: take any yoga posture and breath with exhales that are twice as long as your inhales.
Another key principle in unwinding from caffeine is to bring awareness to the lower half of the body and any downward movement. More experienced practitioners will be able to find that downward motion in almost any pose. For those needing more guidance, try any one of the following poses: Chair (Utkatasana), Variations 1-3 of Warrior (Virabhadrasana), or Goddess. These poses work the leg muscles directly and give you a chance to burn off the caffeine buzz.
If you’re like me – not totally ready to say goodbye to caffeine – know that you can still be a yogi even if you need drinkable pick-me-ups daily. Maybe you’ll quit someday sooner or later, maybe not! At risk of sounding like I’m ripping off the 12-step-approach that AA uses, I’m going to say that probably the best solution in a case like mine is to build an altar to coffee and surrender my decision-making habits to a higher power.
I imagine a tiny demitasse with the steaming brown liquid, sitting on a small wooden platform sprinkled with shiny, aromatic beans, and me, seated before it with legs crossed, eyes closed, and breath coming in and out.
Each inhale, taking in the aromas of java; each exhale, releasing it, reminding myself that sometimes just the smell is enough.
I do my best to accept myself as a work in progress and when I hear my inner voice criticizing my love of coffee, I remember what the yoga sutras call pratipaksha bhavanam. It’s a way of catching negative thoughts and turning them into positive ones. When I notice myself thinking, “I am a coffee addict,” I breathe, smile, and follow that thought with this one: “I am a human being that is enthusiastic about yoga and coffee.”
Illustration by Claire Ashley Mackay
YOGIS TALK ABOUT #COFFEE
“I encourage coffee drinking before/during yoga classes at our studio. We are a power vinyasa space. I have done the research, and caffeine before exercise can help with performance and muscle output.”
I’m a social coffee drinker. I Don’t need it, it’s a treat. Hence I totally feel it when I have it… it’s a drug, no doubt about that. Strong physical practice works it off.
If we’re really doing the practice – listening deeply and asking for guidance, moment to moment, instead of acting reflexively and only out of habit – then if “have some coffee” shows up as guidance, do it! It’s only the mindlessness of doing anything that feels un-yogic to me.
Coffee agitates the liver, and thus increases body temperature. Given that the liver is stressed in twists and backbends, coffee consumption may not be a wise long term strategy for an asana practicioner. That being said, I love drinking coffee, especially in cold weather.
I used to live in Italy and was an espresso addict, which made my practice very rajasic. I’ve since backed off and lean more towards sattva during my practices. I believe in balance and that a little coffee is beneficial, but not right before or after your practice. If you drink coffee, appreciate it just like you appreciate your breath during meditation.
In my humble opinion, coffee is compatible with life. To me, that means I am alive because I drink coffee. That dark hot goodness that lightly – and sometimes not so lightly – jolts your senses, is something I’m not willing to part with. Read more in Kim’s blog.