Yoga teachers get this often: “We’ll go get a cup of coffee… oh wait, do you even drink coffee?
I do. But many yogis don’t. Where does this come from?
Yearning for purity of body and mind are deeply entrenched in yogic traditions, so it makes sense traditional Yogis like Swami Sivananda believed that any stimulant should be avoided.
In his own words “If you really crave for perfection, control of mind and success in Yoga, avoid these narcotics by all possible means.” “These narcotics” included tea, by the way.
Ayurveda to the rescue
Lucky for you, Yoga has a medicine sister science that might have a more nuanced approach: Ayurveda, might have the “wiggle room” you have been looking for.
I will try to keep it simple here: in Ayurveda there are 3 main “types” of person: Pitta (fire), Vatta (wind) and Kapha (earth). People who are Kapha tend to be more grounded and lethargic, thus, they might be benefited by a little jolt of a cup of Joe.
But to Pitta and Vatta types, who already tend to be energetic or buoyant, coffee might exacerbate those features. Furthermore, there are other things to consider besides caffeine: coffee increases acidity, and if you have an imbalance of Pitta or Vatta you may be better off without coffee altogether.
If you are into Ayurveda, I recommend this article on Ayurveda and Coffee, it is rather complete.
The effects of Caffeine in Meditation
If you are concerned with the effect your morning brew might have on your meditation (I was), then you should know that the science here is anything but conclusive.
First, coffee has a different effect depending on your genes. There are at least 7 different genetic markers that change how you metabolize coffee. Once again, in the interest of simplicity, let’s just say that humans fall into one of these 3 profiles:
If you are hypersensitive:less than a mug full and you will get jitters, palpitations and probable insomnia. You might have to wait twice as long to metabolize coffee… so you should probably stay away from it.
If you have normal sensitivity: if you are in this group, you are part of the majority, which means you can drink anywhere from one to three cups of coffee a day (depending on the strength) and you’ll be fine, so long as you drink early enough in the day.
Hyposensitive: If you are in this group, which accounts for about 10% of the population, you might drink a double espresso at night and then be able to fall asleep even if you aren’t too tired.
Watch out, you may actually be drinking a ton of coffee to feel something, and that may not be exactly great for you either.
As you can imagine, there is gradations and people who fall between these categories, which might explain why there is such a big difference in how people feel the effects of coffee in meditation.
If you get sleepy, a bit of caffeine might be exactly what the Guru ordered, in order to get a bit more attentive and focused. If you are more sensitive, you might find your mind racing.
This brings me to the following important question:
What exactly is coffee doing to your brain?
It seems like science is not 100% done with this question, but from what we know, caffeine molecules bind to adenosine receptors and do not let them “receive” the real adenosine.
Translating that into English, your body builds up adenosine throughout the day, a chemical that tells your brain is time to sleep. But if caffeine blocks the receptors of that chemical, your brain never gets the signal that is time to sleep.
In “Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine”, Stephen R. Braun, explains that caffeine is not a direct stimulant. Rather, how “buzzed” you get from coffee depends greatly on your genetics and other physiological factors, so it really depends on your body and your brain in terms of how much “excitation” you get from it.
Although far from a complete answer, science also knows that some types of memory and attention are indeed incremented, and most people see a boost in how fast they can do certain tasks. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will do a better job, that they will be more creative… or that they will enjoy their meditation more.
The effects of coffee however, extend much further than just alertness. Coffee has an effect on serotonin, norepinephrine (like adrenaline) and GABA receptors. That may mean a boost in how you feel emotionally, how stiff your muscles feel, and how you metabolize fat.
As you can see, drinking coffee, especially long term, has many effects on the body and the mind.
Should you become a drinker? Should you quit altogether?
Please stick around. The second installment of this article is here, and has important information to help you determine what to do about your coffee habit 🙂