Nutrition Q&A with yoga teacher Shiva Rea


Shiva Rea doing a yoga pose. (AMIRIMAGE.COM/AMIR MAGAL)
May 10, 2011

The principle of “ahimsa,” or doing no harm to living things, is considered by some to be so central to yoga that it requires serious practitioners to be vegetarians. However, Shiva Rea, one of the best-known and busiest yoga teachers in America, takes an inclusive approach to food for herself and her 12-year-old son, Jai, with whom she lives in Malibu, Calif.

“Enjoyment and celebration of life have such a positive effect on us,” says the longtime yogini, 44. “If we get too rigid about food, we lose out.”

Rea will be in Washington on May 15 to participate in DC Yoga Week’s Yoga on the Mall event. I spoke with her by phone to get her take on eating healthfully as a yoga practitioner. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

What should a regular person taking part in Yoga on the Mall eat before and after the event?

Leave yourself an hour and a half or two hours’ digestion time beforehand. When going for a whole day of yoga, you need to eat. And bring snacks: raw walnuts, raw almonds, fruit.

I would make breakfast and lunch. In California, we worship avocados. It tends to be dry here, and they’re a great source of healthy fats. I use them in wraps. I also make a pesto with walnuts, basil and olive oil. I don’t even use garlic. It’s so good.

You could make a fantastic omelet with lots of vegetables. Whatever feels healthy and wholesome is always going to give you good energy, especially if it has healthy carbs, fats and protein.

I’m into food. Food is our fuel. Everybody’s ancestry plays a role. Whole foods always taste the best, as opposed to packaged, processed.

You don’t seem to be at all militant about not eating meat.

I was vegan for like 16 years. I became a vegetarian when I was 15, for animal activist purposes. But my family is Swedish, Irish — that whole part of the world where dairy was important. I figured out my body loves goat cheese and sheep cheese. I rely on that for protein, as well as all kinds of beans. And definitely I’ll have fish when I feel my body needs it. I don’t call myself a vegetarian.

What did you have for breakfast today?

Well, I’m doing a “clean program,” detoxing for spring, so I just had water. But I just made a shake, with blueberries, almond milk, dates, bee pollen and a rice-protein-based thing, and some digestive enzymes. It’s a three-week detox program, not eating after the sun goes down, and smoothies in the morning and evening. It’s giving your body a rest.

What about when you’re not doing detox?

I’ll make a shake with almond milk, almond butter, cacao powder, throw a banana in there, dates and bee pollen. You’re set to go — as long as your digestion can handle it.

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned eating french fries and Fritos as a child. Are those foods still part of your life?

They are for my son! He’s really pretty healthy, so when we’re traveling, he can have any kind of chips he wants. On the plane, he can have a soft drink. It keeps him satisfied. If I try to restrict his diet in this extreme way it would create a backlash. Every child has to have some french fries occasionally. I bake fries for him here. He’s not a vegetarian.

Talk about your diet.

My favorite way to eat is the Mediterranean diet. Fava beans in olive oil. I basically live in olive oil. You could put me in a vat of olive oil.

I know that you follow ayurvedic principles [an ancient Indian approach to health and wellness] in your diet. Do alcohol and coffee fit in?

It really depends on your constitution and ancestry. Wine, for someone that has French or Italian blood, has been proven to have health benefits. I’d suggest you find some good organic wine. In California, we’re so aware of the effects of pesticides, we don’t eat grapes unless they’re organic.

I’m not a wine drinker. My ancestors would like a beer.

Coffee, for [people with certain ayurvedic constitutions], can be too acidic. They should stick to green or black tea. I personally don’t drink coffee at all.

Do you do your own gardening, or do you not have enough time?

We just moved. I want to set up a garden. I’m not there, but I want to be. I’ll start with kales, chards, basil, clilantro. Anything green. Kale — you can eat too much. But beet greens. I’m crazy about beet greens.

What do you eat that might surprise people? Something you indulge in?

Coconut ice cream, made with coconut milk. I like the cappuccino-flavored variety as a special treat. I make my own chocolate sauce with cacao powder, cacao butter or coconut oil, and agave nectar. It’s not bad for me, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily good for me.

You should enjoy these things. It’s fun. Everything in moderation. That’s conventional wisdom, but it’s also ayurvedic.

The thing that happens in yoga is you become attuned to your body, so you really enjoy what you eat.

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