Yogi Diet: The Smoothie Gap

In one of those TV show motifs that I often wish I could more efficiently do as a writer, I’ll begin by saying, “Previously on the Confluence Countdown…”

About six years ago, after suffering from mounting health problems I won’t go into because it’s tedious even for me to talk about, I tried (at the semi-desperate recommendation of my doctor) a raw diet. My sister recently visited from Texas, and I described it to her as “the craziest of crazy California diets.” I try not to eat anything cooked, or even heated over 118 degrees. She looked at me as if I said I was a cannibal.

It was a gradual process. I’ve stuck with it because the results were immediate, tangible, and in my blood work and bone density tests.

Because it’s a health and not a religious thing, it wasn’t one hundred percent and it wasn’t immediate. I still ate (and still eat) cooked foods on occasion, but I had a very hard time giving up wheat. Eventually, everything went except coffee (which I will not give up because I’m not that crazy). And the results were so undeniable, so visible, that Steve switched over to a mostly raw, wheat-free diet (yes, you have to say that: we don’t eat even sprouted wheat, for even more complicated reasons).

Although I still eat cooked food out with friends and with family, everybody knows about my diet, so it always threatens to take over the conversation. It’s an issue at times at work: Once at a long lunch meeting I took out a container of raw jalapeno, cherry tomatoes, basil, mint, and green beans and started eating along with everyone else. The meeting carried on, but all eyes were on my container. A colleague sitting next to me couldn’t take it anymore, put down his tuna sandwich, and said, “That looks so healthy it’s making me feel sick.” Similar things happen with students: In office hours once, gazing over my lunch, I was asked if my diet meant I was a “hippie.”

I’ve even had to offer defense for it to Tim Miller and Nancy Gilgoff. Tim thinks it’s too extreme and Nancy thinks it’s too vata.

So every once in a while I have these kinds of Waterloo moments where I realize just how far down the rabbit hole I’ve gone. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?) It’s a moment when I realize how interconnected my life, my practice, and my diet have become. I’ve just had one of those moments in a series of Facebook messages on, of all things, smoothies. In particular, the use of fruit and protein powder.

When a friend I haven’t seen in a very long time posted a simple, “Anyone know any healthy smoothie recipes?” in her status, like an idiot, I chimed in. Amidst the suggestions of bananas and berries, I was talking hot peppers and ginger. As the conversation got more detailed, I began to see what I was suggesting might seem a little…crazy.

I am implying something.
I am implying something.

The smoothies Steve and I eat are more like liquified salads. Heck, they’re not even really salads, since there’s no lettuce. If it’s green, purple, or leafy we put it in. Here’s a list: all kale varieties, spinach, mint, parsley, cilantro, dill, cabbage, celery (with top), whole carrots (with tops), tomatoes, cucumber, broccoli, water cress, bok choi, oregano, and in a pinch, brussels sprouts. For extra flavor we’ve used ginger, whole lemons or limes (with peels). The liquid is filtered water. I’m not saying all this goes in at the same time, but any given smoothie could have five or six of these things. I ask you, is that not crazy? Still say no? What if I told you we have a couple 24-ouncers every day? My friend described this as “wretched.” Ah. You’re probably right, I thought.

So immune has this made us to sugar craving that we hardly eat any fruit. Fruit in a smoothie? Why? That’s when I knew I’d gone over the edge: Bananas seem like high sugar fruit to me. Eat a red banana or a plantain and you’ll see just how hyper-engineered a seedless, yellow banana is. And that we don’t consume any of that other smoothie staple, protein powder.

The mere suggestion that protein powder might not be all that good for you can garner you a great deal of disdain in some circles. But one of the earliest and simplest lessons I learned on a raw food diet came from Michael Pollan, who pointed out that if it needs a package—no matter what kind—it’s processed somehow. Protein powders are simply processed whole foods, and many of them are mostly wheat. Even raw protein powders are mostly processed peas. We just eat the peas. Sometimes, they go in a smoothie.

But this brings me to the less tangible repercussions of the way we eat. While it has made enormous differences in our health and well-being—really, beyond price—and while it’s clarified the practice of Ashtanga and eased that path to a great degree, made the impossible possible, it has also made it hard to connect with others over the dinner table, out in the world. I get concerned when I see a little girl munching on a bag of Goldfish. And I want to tell my friend on Facebook to leave the banana and the protein powder out.

So deep are the roots of this change, though, that I’ve come to realize it’s hard to change one thing without changing everything…eventually. For me, Ashtanga was the wedge that opened a crack in the shell of my old life, and as it widened, more changed, and more, and is still changing–an exciting and frightening thought, really.

Perhaps for my friend, the wedge is leaving out the banana.

Posted by Bobbie

Yogi diet: One thing we learned while eating in India

We ate well in India.

Dosas and idli at breakfast. Paneer and other curries at lunch. Different rice dishes. Sweet lime sodas. There was a run of days where we at so much (and, due to the travel and the temple visits, so late) at lunch that we skipped dinner.

We didn’t shy away from things. Nothing was too spicy, too unfamiliar. Part of the diving into the experience, the culture, was about the food.

We relished it. Even the relish.

But we also learned this: We’ve turned the corner on raw food. If there was any doubt, three weeks of eating cooked food and only cooked food was the reminder.

Our diets at this point need to be mostly — like 85% or so — raw.

(The one exception? Bobbie said I was looking thin after our trip, so I jumped on a scale and … yep. I lost about 10 pounds in India, when I thought I might have gained a little. Bobbie got on it later. Same thing. We’re skinny. So we are going to probably indulge a little this weekend, while staying sane about it.)

We were careful while eating, after the first few days of buffets especially, to moderate our intake. We found a point where we didn’t feel too stuffed — a feeling we never get when eating raw. You might feel like you can’t stomach another bite of broccoli, but it isn’t the same, “I’m soooo full” feeling you have after a decadent cooked meal.

Neer dosa, via simplyspicy.blogspot.com

The raw diet, in other works, is working. We knew it, but India gave us a chance to test the theory.

It also confirmed that wheat, for us, is a culprit — although it’s not some gluten war we need to fight. (Bobbie does seem more sensitive to wheat than I am, though. We’ll see how that develops.) When we had naan or roti or puri (sweet, sweet puri) with our meals, we invariably felt worse when we finished. By mid-trip, the amount of bread we were eating plummeted, much to my dismay. (See “sweet, sweet puri” comment above.)

Which is why the discover of neer dosa was right up there with the greatest discoveries of the trip. Dosa, in rice form? Yes, please.

Since we’ve been back, we’ve been throwing every conceivable raw food in our mouths. Salads galore. Avocados. More salads. We wondered if we might need to readjust. Nope.

It is like it was: Immediate, consistent energy. No feeling too full. A lightness from what’s going in.

I do sense some neer dosa in my near future, though.

Posted by Steve


Yogi diet: Do I have to start Second Series?

Bobbie and I pretty often get told some version of the following: “It’s great you both practice together.”

You probably can list off the reasons this is true (meaning why it’s “great” not why we hear this a lot): similar sleep schedules; appreciation for the rigors of what the other person is doing; the ability to include Ashtanga into vacations; we’re able to go to workshops together and both can travel down to see Tim Miller.

A final thing is that we share the same healthy habits, especially when it comes to food. Bobbie just detailed this last week, and we’ve kept a running log of our mostly raw diet.

Well now we’ve hit a snag. And while it may not be as big an issue as a household where one person is an austere Ashtangi and the other is knocking back pizza and hamburgers every week (or one in which one Ashtangi has to also help prepare food for a family of non-yogis, especially kids), it’s a new twist to our co-yoga journey.

As Bobbie just wrote: “First Series is about purifying and cleansing. Second is about strength.”

I’m perhaps eternally going to be on First. Bobbie’s now doing all of Second. Her diet’s suddenly all about strengthening foods while mine’s still cleansing.

Dinner isn’t as easy anymore.

So what to do?

Well, we could start preparing separate meals, with perhaps some overlap (the bulk of purifying raw vegetables and unprocessed foods). Or maybe we make it simpler by just adding something strengthening into Bobbie’ meals.

I’ll admit to throwing a bit of a protest at that idea. Why does she get the extra, satisfying dish? Just because she’s busting out Karandavasana?

It’s when I start to protest that the far more simple solution pops to mind: Start Second, stupid.

Of course, there are at least two major problems with this:

  1. I still struggle with Primary poses.
  2. I haven’t been given any of Second. (Sort of plays off the first, right?)

The issue then becomes one of tradition. Do I fudge things to accommodate other factors? Circumstances have relegated me to practicing at home (now for the foreseeable future). Do I pull together all the threads into a design of my liking that says, “The universe is telling you its time to at least dabble.”

After all, there is not uniform agreement on when someone should advance. Yes, we all know the major and typical sign posts: Marichy D, Supta Kurmasana, etc. But there are teachers who talk about more internal signs — the quality of the breath, the focus of the mind — and their guidelines might …

Well, just because I like the sounds of their teaching, doesn’t mean I should flit to it like a butterfly.

Perhaps the answer is to modify First, ever so slightly, to enhance the strengthening poses that exist there. Longer Utkatasanas, Virabhadrasanas, crow poses. Concentrate on the pull backs and jump throughs. Work on that 100-breath headstand.

And then sneak bites of Bobbie’s strengthening foods when she isn’t looking.

Posted by Steve

Yogi Diet: No wheat, partly to mostly raw, and a little annoyed

When I first switched to a raw diet six years ago, it was out of desperation. My immune system was so weak, pneumonia was an annual occurrence. My bones were leaching calcium. Although I was a faithful Ashtangi, I was constantly sore, and any improvement in my practice cost me days of extra extra soreness, and I just couldn’t keep on muscle. My doctor was baffled. After informing me that I had early signs of osteoporosis, she suggested I try a raw diet. Why not? I thought. Nothing else had worked.

It worked. My energy increased. I spent my very first winter ever without getting sick. Retests six months into the diet revealed I had stopped losing bone mass. My good cholesterol soared above normal. My low blood pressure had normalized. Anemia was gone. And I’d gained muscle mass and lost fat.

Then, when Steve decided to go partially raw, the whole system got taken up a notch, since we could do raw for two. Fruit really dropped off the radar. Steve saw great results as well, but he wasn’t satisfied. He decided we should stop eating grains, either raw or cooked—wheat in particular.

Things have been going swimmingly since, right up to about three months ago, when I started practicing the complete Second Series. I started feeling a bit…peckish. Especially after practice. Sometimes I would wake up hungry in the middle of the night. I was gaining strength and endurance very, very quickly. And I felt like I couldn’t eat enough.

On a raw diet, “more” can be difficult to maintain, since quantities are high to begin with: Our refrigerator would be stocked with Costco-sized bags of spinach and broccoli. The VitaMix was working like the workhorse it is. Still, I felt peckish.

You might be thinking “duh” right about now. But try to remember I don’t have any experience with this sort of thing. I’m nearly 48. How is it possible that I’d be getting stronger?

The mystery was solved in one almost tossed off comment by Tim Miller during his last teacher training. Someone asked him about diet (which someone inevitably does). He said when he started Ashtanga, like the rest of us he became immediately aware of what he was eating. He tried a “no mucus” diet, which involved increased intake of vegetables, no grains, no dairy, etc. But when he started a more advanced practice, he started to feel like that wasn’t enough. So he asked around, and started a “strengthening” diet. Nothing extreme, he said, but First Series is about purifying and cleansing. Second is about strength.

I thought immediately of Nancy Gilgoff, and the week-long adjustment workshop I’d had with her months before. The workshop was at Jodi Blumstein’s shala, which is also Jodi’s house. Every day, after practice and during our breaks, Nancy would go into the kitchen an have eggs in ghee.

So I started asking my fellow practitioners, who had way more experience in Second Series than I do, “What do you eat?”

“I have to eat meat, but it’s mostly fish.” “Lots of kicheree. I follow an aruvedic diet.” “I’m raw, but I eat raw dairy and meat.” “No starches, no grains, no dairy.” “Pretty much a normal diet, but no red meat.” “Lots of meat, all kinds.”

Tim described the diet as “strengthening,” but I learned that means something different to everyone.

The answers were all different, but everyone I asked could go into great detail about their diet choices and how they got there. The lesson I took away from this was a little painful. In becoming more aware in our practice, we become diet dilettantes—mini-experts in our own food intake. As you may be aware, this can make for some tedious conversations. You might even be thinking that it can make for some tedious blog posts. I know I am.

So, what does this mean for my own diet, and the food I share with Steve at home? I still believe that modern hybrid wheat is a very bad thing, and alternatives (“gluten free” processed products) are just as bad. Relatedly, processed foods (even “raw” ones) are bad. I still believe in mega quantities of things with color that come out of the ground, and I’m lucky to be able to afford them. But, I’m going to once again tune in to my body when I walk through the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. Goat milk kefir? Why not. Chick pea curry? Sure. But the VitaMix is still working overtime.

Posted by Bobbie

Yogi diet: Eating raw means you can eat after 6 p.m.

Lots of things have changed in the Countdown household since we both took up Ashtanga.

Via organic-health.us

There are the obvious ones: We get up way earlier and go to bed way sooner. Our diet — not entirely because of the practice, but certainly helped along — has gone raw and hybrid-wheat-free. We’re planning the Yatra to India.

There are the not-so obvious ones: Practicing the yama and niyamas; studying Sanskrit and the Yoga Sutras; investigating Darshan and Bhatki.

One thing has not changed though: When we eat dinner.

It seems that the early dinner — to make way for the following morning’s practice — is always among the top things Ashtangis talk about when listing off the changes the practice has caused.

“You’ll want to eat no later than about 5 p.m.,” I have read. “Dinners out with friends are a thing of the past.”

Well, not for us.

I chalk the fact that we still have dinner at 8 p.m., even close to 9 p.m., and then are on the mat by 6:15 a.m. the next morning to the raw diet. The food just isn’t that hard to digest. Eating raw, it is difficult to get too full, to feel that stuffed feeling one gets.

And even if you do eat a bunch, your body — once it has adjusted to all the raw food — burns right through what you eat. It’s very quick and efficient energy.

Now, I know that a raw diet isn’t sattvic and goes against Ayurvedic principles. But I also know that Ayurveda didn’t have to deal with genetically modified foods, processed foods or hybridized wheat. It is a whole different garden these days.

What I can tell you is this: By 6 a.m. the next morning, just nine hours or so later, our raw dinners are gone. We often hit the mat just as we start to feel hungry, in fact.

For any number of reasons, beginning but not ending with work, it would be impossible to push our dinner time much before 7 p.m. It isn’t a problem.

Food for thought for anyone?

Posted by Steve