Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Yoga: Raw and uncooked

Flickr: Indiana Public Media
People in my yoga classes sometimes talk about 'going raw.'  I never met a person who aspired to rawdom before I did yoga, but many years before I walked into a yoga class, I remember reading this article on raw food in the New York Times and this one paragraph always stood out in my mind:

"Although he does a two-hour ashtanga yoga workout each morning, he subsists on about 800 calories a day, which most nutritionists would consider starvation level. (The recommended daily allowance for an active adult male is 2,900 calories.) Raw-foodists claim, however, that uncooked calories metabolize more efficiently -- although there is no evidence for this. When I suggest that vegans I've met often look sickly, he shrugs. ''What we perceive as healthy may to a certain extent be socially determined,'' he says. ''They may have been very healthy and just looked weird to you.''

 Now, I don't mean to go all Hungry Girl, but my immediate reaction was: 800 calories a day while working out for two hours a day?  And he's a dude maintaining his weight, even a very low weight?

Of course, when I started doing yoga, I began to meet more raw people. Well, I guess we are all raw, except for maybe people who tan an awful lot.

Now I like a good sun salutation every now and then, but I have no desire to try to get most of my nutrition from the heat of the sun through photosynthesis.

I still recall one guy who had just come back from some sort of yoga conference gushing about how he had practiced with a particular teacher and she was "73 percent raw, except for dark chocolate and the occasional glass of red wine," versus another of his friends who was about "57 percent raw."  Kind of like the crappy juice boxes I begged my mom to buy me were 70 percent fruit juice or whatever.  I never really drank those Capri Suns, though, I just liked to squirt them at things.

When the guy mentioned that several of the 'pure raw' foodists he met struggled with their weight, I grew even less enthusiastic about a way of eating that seemed designed to bring your energy levels and metabolism into a state of sluggish torpor. True, I know some raw foodies who are quite thin (and often have a pile of other self-imposed health taboos such as dairy/wheat/soy and of course meat). But whenever I eat too much raw food (living off of raw nuts and veggies, usually because of a lack of time to prepare anything elaborate), I feel draggy rather than 'glowing and full of energy' like you're supposed to feel.

Plus, being able to cook and eat meat, according to scientists, is why our brains got so big, in  evolutionary terms.  Of course, me being me, I tried to point this out in my argument with Yoga Man, when he insisted that "raw was how people ate in a state of nature" but he pooh-poohed my objections, strapped on a loincloth and bounded into his truck (which had a bumper sticker in Sanskrit on the back) before I could bring up Prometheus and stuff like that.

I love yoga, and am grateful every day for how it has transformed my life, but the extreme 'anti-consumption' side of it has always disturbed me.  There is intense hostility to, well--food--in some quarters because food is consumption and consumption is bad. Yoga people are supposed to be nonjudgmental, but if you subscribe to any yoga Facebook feed or read yoga blogs, you know that  there is plenty of judgment going on about how people eat.

The only way not to be judged it seems is to eat foodlike substances that are not like real, dirty, bloody nasty food itself: juice and raw protein bars from approved companies with little halos on the wrapper. The possible cooked exception is rice and beans from a very expensive vegan restaurant. It seems so primitive--like ancient peoples thought that eating a bull's heart would make you strong, some yogis think if you eat something raw, you are like freebasing the sun's energy or something.

The uncomfortable thing that no one wishes to acknowledge is that even if you are eating raw those organic veggie packed smoothies require quite a bit of tilling of farmland and you are causing some sort of 'destruction' of some kind. To say nothing of all the packaging. Of course, there is also a very positive element in yoga which suggests that some destruction and consumption is necessary for growth but that can be drowned out by the guilt of well, consuming when it comes to food.

So I guess for some people, the solution is to eat next to nothing and living off the heat of the sun as a source of infinitely renewable energy.

There has always been something odd about calling yourself anything, according to yogic terms.  Isn't the whole point of yoga to listen to your body and to do what seems to serve the moment?  It's hard to believe that an 800 calorie raw diet will serve a seventeen-year-old athlete any more than a fancy 2,000 calorie restaurant meal is really good for a sedentary office worker. Or even me, who feels much better eating some cooked salmon and broccoli rather than buying some dusty box of raw health food cereal with lots of health claims on the back. Who knows how you will need to eat from one day to the next if you really listen to your body?


  1. "Raw was how people ate in a state of nature," is true, if by "people" he means "homo habilis and some of your earlier homo erectus dudes." I'm no anthropologist, but I would bet a lot of money that cooking meat was one of neanderthal man's top two favorite things to do with fire, on a par with not freezing to death.

  2. Yes, I'm willing to concede the downsides of many forms of technology, but when it comes to 'contained heat for warming and cooking food' I have to admit I see nothing but unequivocal awesomeness. It is also very ironic how hostile some yogis are to heating up food given how yoga is performed in an artificially-heated room in most areas of the country, three out of the four seasons a year.

  3. I enjoyed this article. What struck me immediately, it is not just the "yogis" I listen to people all day who talk about the evils of sugar, meat, carbs.blah, blah. I say, "Just enjoy your food" Complicating food is taking away one of life's greatest pleasures. How many friends tables can you be invited too, when you have complicated food issues?
    Everything can be enjoyed in moderation.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  4. @Velva--also, quite often the most 'obsessed' people are not even necessarily the healthiest people, either, I have found.

  5. In "Youth and Reincarnation" - the first yoga book I ever read - the yogini insists she can live on air and proves it by going on an 800-calorie per day diet, drinking only Metracal, and not losing more than a few ounces (at least that is how I remember the story). Which may explain why I am not losing weight despite exercise and healthy eating - I'm breathing too much!

  6. @bittenbyknittin--that's hilarious! It seems like the universal yoga 'brag point' is 800 calories. I wonder if they know how many people they have turned off of yoga from saying that...I do yoga, but I also do other physical activities and intend to keep my metabolism way too fast to attain Enlightenment.

  7. Restricting your calories that low and being so thin you look sickly sounds more like an eating disorder than anything else. It really frustrates me when people purport this as being healthy because it only encourages people with anorexia that what they are doing is good for them. Arrgh.

  8. @Joanne--yes, that is true :( I have to say I have seen big juicing fanatics who aren't sickly thin(quite the opposite) but they often claim a myriad of other health problems. Even if someone is of 'average' weight who does this doesn't necessarily mean they are healthy in terms of their energy levels and such.