Coffee and Yoga: An Ayurvedic Answer

Coffee and yoga. Some swear by it. Some swear off it. Some swear by swearing off it! Since coffee probably didn't come to India until at least the 17th century, it is unlikely that anyone will dig up an ancient scroll to light our way... So what's a yogi to do?

Thankfully, yoga's sister science, Ayurveda, has kept pace with changing diets over the centuries, and modern ayurvedic doctors have some pretty clear guidance to help poor confused yogis navigate the dietary perils of the modern world.

For those of us who need a refresher: Whereas yoga is primarily concerned with the subtle body (pranamaya kosha) Ayurveda deals directly with the physical body (anamaya kosha). The goal of Ayurveda is to keep the body healthy, and in doing this, Ayurvedic practitioners believe more than anyone in that old saying "you are what you eat". Essentially, the health and balance of the body is regulated by our diet, and dis-ease is caused by "pollutants" that we consume which then wind up in our tissues. Yuck.

Ayurveda is not, however, a universal prescription. It recognises three fundamental "qualities" of the human body - called doshas - and says that everyone is made up of a unique combination of those three qualities, which in turn are made up of a combination of the 5 elements. Of course, we all have each element within us, but it's the combination that makes us way we are. As a reminder, the 3 doshas (and their elements) are:

- Vata (air, ether)
- Pitta (fire, water)
- Kapha (earth, water)

According to Ayurveda, every individual is born with a combination of the elements that give them their prakriti, or nature. A person's essential prakriti never changes, but of course everyone will move in and out of balance in their life, depending on their diet, their environment, their age, and even the seasons. To keep optimum health and balance, therefore, your need not only to eat right for your dosha, but also to be aware of imbalances (vikriti) creeping in, and to modify your diet to deal with those.  To find your dosha, take a quick online quiz (this one is pretty good and part 2 gives you your vikriti)... Although it's no substitute for a detailed diagnosis by an Ayurvedic doctor, it should at least get you thinking.

Anyway, back to the original point, what does Ayruveda have to say about coffee?  Well, first we need to think about the qualities of coffee. We all know that coffee is stimulating and drying (dehydrating + a diuretic). In the language of Ayurvedic tastes, coffee is pungent (stimulating), bitter (lightening/diuretic + laxative) and astringent (drying/dehydrating).

So what does this mean for coffee and the doshas?  Well, the general ayurvedic wisdom is as follows:

Most BalancingMost Aggravating
VataSweet, Sour, SaltyBitter, Pungent, Astringent
PittaSweet, Bitter, Astringent Sour, Salty, Pungent
KaphaPungent, Bitter, Astringent Sweet, Sour, Salty

Which lets us easily see that Vatas should NOT drink coffee, Pittas should drink it in moderation and favour decaf, and for Kaphas, coffee is positively recommended (within reasonable limits of course!), although without milk or sugar, which are not recommended for Kaphas.  For people with combination doshas (e.g. Vata/Pitta or Pitta/Kapha), use common sense in finding the right balance - for instance, a Vata/Pitta with Pitta predominance might drink decaf occasionally.

Finally, in Ayurveda you eat first for your imbalance. So if you are a Kapha but you have a Vata imbalance, coffee is out... And if you are a Pitta but you have a Kapha imbalance, then you can have a cup - but only until your imbalance is resolved!

And as Ayurveda is all about customisation, here are a few ways you can help to moderate the negative effects that coffee might have on your dosha:

Vatas: drink weak or decaf coffee mixed with plenty of warm (boiled) milk (at least 1/2 the cup) - almond milk is even better! - sweetened, and spiced with cardamom (the best spice for Vatas),  nutmeg, cloves or cinnamon.

Pittas: drink coffee mixed with warm (boiled) milk, sweetened with sugar or honey.

Kaphas: drink coffee black or use rice milk instead of cow's milk. Avoid sugar and instead, sweeten with honey, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Mmmmmmm. Enjoy!

This post is mainly based on class notes with my Ayurveda teacher, but I am also super-grateful for the wisdom found on the following websites & blogs:

- Hey Monica B (Ayurvedic blog): Customise your cup o'joe
- Eat, Taste Heal: The 6 Tastes