Confessions of a Hungry Yogini

There really aren't many pervasive rules when it comes to yoga, but if there is one we can all agree on, it must be this: yoga asana should be practiced on an empty stomach.  Right?  Surely, one shouldn't scarf a turkey sandy or slurp a bowl of soup before stepping on the mat, but some of us might want to think twice about doing any kind of intense practice (ahem hem... Ashtanga... ahem...) on nothing but coffee and prana.

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.  

Since this discovery, I have changed my pre-practice eating habits.  Rather than starve myself until after practice, I start my day with a nourishing, carb-heavy breakfast, wait a few hours, and then roll out the mat.  This way, I'm not embarking on a 2-3 hour practice journey with nothing for fuel but my own muscle.  And my sweat, while it may not smell like roses, doesn't wreak of cat pee.  So while you morning yogis are sweating your hungry little asanas off, I'll be sitting down to a big ol' bowl of oatmeal or spreading peanut butter on a slice or two of toast.


  1. I've suffered the same "cat pee smell" problem myself at times, whether after sweating heavily after yoga, intense cardio, or weightlifting. I never realized the culprit was probably ketosis. I recently gave up refined sugar and flour (all the white stuff) and noticed the smell coming back again; now I know why. Amazing how the body can adjust itself. Thanks for the insightful post.

  2. I'm glad you've brought this issue up. I eat my main meal before evening yoga classes and there's barely an hour before I start the class. This works fine for me and my incessant appetite but I feel ashamed admitting it to "serious" yogis! It's ridiculous, we're all different and if a rule isn't working or is dangerous for you why follow it blindly?

  3. Well hurrah for hungry yoginis. I am ALWAYS hungry and due to my metabolism/various food intolerances/digestive disorders I have to eat little and often or pass out. So practicing on a completely empty stomach is a no-no for me.

    Funny story: my other half is an Astanga practitioner (I'm not) and he once went to class after eating a huge bowl of egg fried rice. During bandha practice the rice started to make a hasty reappearance and he had to make a hasty disappearance.
    Moral of the story - a little food before practice but not whole portions of egg fried rice!

  4. HAhaha... yeah, I know the smell.

    Which reminds me. I've mentioned that I'm ill: some time ago I had to let a dietitian evaluate what I eat for a couple of days as I have a really restricted diet and she was supposed to give me advice. I baked some mofo chocolate chip cookies just before the days when I had to register my foods and I considered cheating(!) but I decided to go with honest and register the two-three huge (double palms-sized kind of huge) cookies I ate every day for those three days. Her hospital-sanctioned verdict? Still too few overall calories coming from sugar. There's a lot of carb- and sugar-scaredness out there that I don't subscribe to, but that really surprised me. There's nothing wrong with the occasional cookie, or spoonful of sugar in the coffee, or honey-roasted granola, as long as it's a part of a varied diet. I don't have a food motto, but if I did it would be the opposite of KISS - "keep it simple, stupid" - it would be something like keep it complex, stupid, haha...

    Thanks - another insightful post, yay :-).