Healthy Yoga Practice: Does Your Practice Feed You?

This entry was posted on Nov 28, 2018 by Charlotte Bell.


More than 25 years ago I decided that I would ingest only foods that would contribute to my health and well-being, and avoid “non-foods” that have no nutritional value. Things like chemical-ridden processed foods and zero-nutrition soft drinks were officially off my food list.

I haven’t eaten meat since 1978, and spent about 12 years on a vegan diet before returning to eating occasional eggs and goat or sheep cheese. I eat local, organic and homegrown foods whenever possible and always cook from scratch. Fortunately, I love to cook.

There are times when I enjoy eating sweet treats at friends’ homes or on special occasions. I’ve tried being a dietary taskmaster with myself, and found the “middle way” to be the healthiest path. There are few things less pleasant—or healthy—than flogging oneself for eating an occasional less-than-optimal food choice.

The treats I occasionally indulge in are just that: treats. They are not my mainstay, and they do help keep me from falling into the trap of dietary self-righteousness, a common malady among healthy eaters. Plus, treats are fun and sometimes they hit the spot.

I like Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Despite my occasional treat diversions, my everyday diet is healthy, whole, organic food that contributes to my well-being. When I frame my diet this way I don’t feel at all deprived because I know that everything I eat counts.

What Makes for a Healthy Yoga Practice?

In the past 20 years or so, my intentions for healthy yoga practice have shifted in the same direction. My practice has shifted to focus on those poses that allow me to live gracefully in my body. I no longer practice poses that do not support my body’s evolutionary purpose: standing, walking, sitting, squatting, running, hiking, getting up and down off the floor.

A healthy yoga practice has required me to cross a lot of poses I once loved off my practice list. Extreme backbends? Nope. Headstand? Nope. Extreme hip openers? Nope. It’s not that my body won’t still do these poses. It will, even with bilateral hip replacements. But I realize that there are physical consequences that I’m no longer willing to abide. Living without pain, being able to walk and moving with fluidity are now more important to me than achieving fancy poses. My practice has become very simple. It feels good—physically, mentally and emotionally—while I’m practicing.

On the other hand, my ego has not always been pleased with my change of direction. I’ve had to drag it kicking and screaming into simpler practice. Early on as I was beginning to shift my practice, I felt periodic remorse about giving up fancy poses. For decades, a fair amount of my self-worth was dependent on being a person with a body that can do anything and rarely suffer any negative consequences. Who am I if I don’t do fancy poses? But bodies, like everything else, change, as do our minds and hearts.

Decades of meditation practice have taught me that everything changes. Some changes are easy to abide; others not so much. The changes that cut deepest are the ones that challenge our notions of who we are. My body’s ability to perform fancy poses gave me a sense of worth. But as my teacher, Pujari Keays, once said to me: “If you are basing your happiness on things that will change or go away—your home, your job, money, relationships, even your body—you are in for a lot of suffering.”

Think of Fancy Poses as “Dessert”

“But I like fancy poses,” you say. Fancy poses are fun. I agree. But in hindsight, I sometimes wish I hadn’t made them a staple of my yoga diet back in the day. My hip and sacroiliac joints are unstable (although my titanium hip joints work better than my original ones). I attribute this at least partly to the fact that I made extreme yoga so important.

So here’s what I recommend for a healthy yoga practice: Practice fancy poses sometimes, if you really want to. Have fun with them. But think of them as dessert. They provide the same kind of instant gratification as sweet treats, but like sweet treats, they can also take a toll. That adrenaline rush you get from extreme backbends will bring an edgy exhaustion later on, and overstretching your joints may feel good now. But your nervous system and joints may not weather well over time if fancy poses are your focus.

The basics—standing poses, balance poses, easy backbends, simple twists, forward bends—are the staples of a healthy yoga practice. A simple, mindful practice provides sustenance. Extreme yoga is fun in the moment, but may leave you with the yogic equivalent of a sugar hangover—not to mention chronic imbalances later on.

Our bodies and minds are constantly evolving. It’s part of being alive. If your yoga practice is to stay healthy and vibrant, it will evolve too. Of course, the way your practice or my practice evolves is entirely up to us, and depends on the truth of our bodies and minds in the present moment.

Be open to what your body and mind are telling you and revisit your intentions for practice. It’s okay for practice to change. An evolving practice is a living practice.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

8 responses to “Healthy Yoga Practice: Does Your Practice Feed You?”

  1. Once again, another really lovely article. The idea that “with ages comes wisdom” is relevant here. It might not flow to us easily, but eventually, with time, we hopefully recognize what is important and find a new sense of balance from that perspective. I look at many of the extreme poses that are competitively pushed in many classes, and I know that many years from now, there will be consequences in the joints of more than just a few students. And, they will then have to make similar adjustments and deal with their egos. Thanks again for your wonderful way with words. I always enjoy your blogs!

    • Thanks so much, Shoosh. As much as our culture denigrates aging, I’m so glad that I’ve made it this far and can see and feel what I’ve learned along the way. I am also uncomfortable when I see endless photos of people pushing into their joints to do extreme poses. I experience the consequences of having pushed too hard every day. I am grateful that my practice can be a great ally in healing some of those consequences and at the very least, keeping some of them at bay! Thanks, always, for your thoughtful comments.

  2. Avatar Jacqueline says:

    Great piece Charlotte. I agree completely.

  3. Avatar Rogelio Nunez says:

    Hi Charlotte, thanks for the blog on our yoga practice. I agree with the intent but i do have a problem specifically when you mention particular types of poses to avoid in your practice, like extreme BB and headstand….extreme poses are not for everyone and should not be done on a regular basis n my opinion..but do you consider Sirsasana an extreme pose? for those with medical or structural problems yes its contraindicated…And you have your reasons, but the way the article is written it left an impression on me that Sirsanana is an extreme pose and one that maybe avoided….for me and many i know this pose along with shoulder stand are of utmost importance in my daily practice and life….and you may have left a message that this is a wrong practice….thanks for listening. gotta go

    • Hi Rogelio, Thanks for your comment. Because I was trained in the Iyengar method, Sirsasana used to be a staple of my practice. It is a very valuable pose, if taught and practiced with patience. I loved the way it made me feel, but when I refer to letting it go in my blog, it’s from a personal perspective. I have had several car accidents that left my neck in very fragile condition. The most recent accident caused a concussion. Sirsasana just doesn’t feel good to me anymore. So I do agree with you that it can be a valuable–even therapeutic–pose. I probably should have been more clear about the fact that not practicing it is a personal choice based on my individual neck issues. I just didn’t want to bog the post down with an explanation!

      I do need to say though that many teachers don’t know how to teach it safely. This is true for other poses as well, but in Sirsasana the consequences of practicing too aggressively or for too long a period when you’re not ready can be debilitating. Many teachers don’t understand the importance of modifying the foundation of Sirsasana to account for differences in body proportions. Also, it takes years for people’s necks to gain the strength to support their bodies. That strength has to be built gradually. There are a lot of factors to consider when introducing Sirsasana, and I think in a large, competitive class it’s unwise.

  4. Avatar Kris Louie says:

    Great article Charlotte! I really appreciate the importance of personal balance when considering medicinal or dietary practice. As an active person practicing yoga, I have learned through my own food explorations and changeability in eating habits that it is a matter of taking care of yourself. Body, mind and soul when nourishing yourself.

    • Thanks, Kris. It’s so important to understand, as you do, that things change all the time. I think the real work is to remain open and mindful of what our bodies tell us, and that seems to be a practice that can extend over a whole lifetime.

  5. Avatar Rogelio Nunez says:

    Hi i understand your personal choice, thanks you for sharing, i would do the same as you, under those circumstances…I also agree with the last paragraph..
    having gone thru the IY trainings and studied w senior teachers i feel comfortable teaching it, but to beginners no, when i do its for short period and i keep a sharp eye.. i mostly teach small classes. i can’t speak for all IY teachers but i feel that we are trained very well, most other training programs that last 1,2 months or less well what can i say….are they ready to teach?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *