For two weeks in June, I participated in a morning Mysore program with David Swenson. I rose painfully early each day to be on my mat by 6am. I practiced for 2-3 hours in hot, humid conditions on a completely empty stomach. In a way, it was a wonderful experience and I say this with a tone of sweet nostalgia: it was also total agony. The heat and humidity coupled with the tapas of Ashtanga had me sweating what seemed like gallons and quickly depleted all my reserves. I made it through practice every morning on the uplifting energy of the room and little else. Every day after practice, I would shovel some food into my face like a zombie and, shortly thereafter, pass out cold for 3 or 4 hours of heavy sleep, only to wake in an unshakeable haze. Those two weeks are still a blur in my mind.
I know some of you seasoned yogis rise before the sun every morning to do your practice and have done so without issue for years. You have my utmost respect and admiration, but I fear I will never be among you. At first, I thought my difficulty with morning practice was nothing more than an adjustment period, but eventually the signs of something more came to light.
I started to give the situation more consideration when I noticed that my incessant sweat during practice smelled strongly of ammonia. One day, midway through the second week of the Swenson program, I walked into my closet and was assaulted by the sour, acrid smell of cat pee coming from the hamper. As some of you know, I left the banes of my existence -- the couch and cat -- behind with my ex when I moved, so there was no mistaking the culprit: me.
And so, with my curiosity piqued, as anyone would, I googled: "sweat smells like ammonia." Thousands of results turned up, most of which were posts on body building forums. Upon further exploration, I learned that ammonia-scented sweat is a sign that the body is in ketosis, a state in which the body has used all available sugars and turns to fats and protein as the primary energy source. Ketosis may be caused by alcoholism, starvation, and diabetes... basically anything that interferes with the body's ability to regulate blood sugar levels. When no food is available in this state, the body burns its own fat and muscle. Hence, the reason body builders would be most wary of ketosis, and hence the reason for my depleted strength and insufferable exhaustion after practice every day.
Some medical and fitness experts seem to say that ketosis is nothing to worry about and even recommend inducing ketosis through a low-carb diet as a means of losing weight (Atkins, anyone?). But for someone with low blood sugar and low body fat, ketosis can be dangerous. Ammonia is produced as a byproduct of the breakdown of protein for energy. If the body cannot expel the accumulation of ammonia efficiently through urination, exhalation, and sweat, ammonia may build up in the blood, causing muscle fatigue and neurological impairment.