Don’t eat Palak Paneer: Five odd things I learned from Yoga

crop2_240x240_5thoct14Yoga is fun even if you stick to the core asanas and prānāyāma.

I, however, picked up a few unexpected treats as a yoga sādhaka (student) at India’s National Institute of Yoga, named after the country’s fifth prime minister, Morarji Desai (in short, the MDNIY).

I completed a month-long Foundation Course in Yoga Sciences for Wellness (FCYSW) at the MDNIY in October 2014. The course is packaged well, with daily lectures after the practical sessions.

Here are five surprising things I learned there.

1. Do not eat palak paneer, the dish. Eat palak (spinach) and paneer (cottage cheese) separately.

This came in a lecture of the MDNIY Dietician Manjot Kaur. She has apparently been around for a while at the MDNIY. She has a popular lecture on diet and nutrition as part of the FCYSW syllabus.

People of varying ages and levels of awareness enroll for the FCYSW. Kaur thus has a sort of captive audience. Everyone wants to know what they’re doing right or wrong about food. She keeps it simple – offering easy tips.

I was floored by the bit about palak paneer, considered a vegetarian delicacy in north India. “Never eat palak paneer,” Kaur said, “Palak is iron and paneer is calcium. Iron neutralizes calcium which nullifies the nutrition value of palak paneer.”

The best way to do it, she said, is to cook and eat them separately.
That, by the way, is exactly what I do. I keep palak simple. I wash, rinse, chop and scramble palak in a little oil. That’s it. I had no idea of how palak nullified paneer in the popular dish.

All celeb chefs in India list palak paneer in their repertoire. It is often served at weddings and parties. Some crave for it. Any insight on it is big. I didn’t expect to learn anything about it as part of a yoga course.

But I did.

2. We breathe through each nostril by turn for 90 minutes.

Sleep is a tricky issue. It is something all of us crave for at the end of the day. And yet, we understand so little of it.

Out of the blue one morning, in the middle of a practical session in the foundation course, MDNIY Yoga Instructor Vinay Bharati began to talk of breathing. He said that our left nostril provides cooling energy, like the moon. Our right nostril enables heating energy, like the sun.

“Have any of you noticed that we tend to alternate our breathing for an hour-and-a-half by each nostril,” he asked. I’m not sure if anyone knew but none of the 40 persons there said anything.

“This is why we roll over to the other side in sleep (called karvat in Hindi),” he added. I’ve known sleep for about 35 years of my life; the rest of the time I knocked myself out by alcohol or other drugs or both. That doesn’t count as sleep.

I barely know anything about sleep. I listened, fascinated. So this is why I roll over in sleep.

“Have any of you noted that the right nostril opens up after four minutes of Vajrasana,” Bharati asked. Of course we hadn’t.

Vajrasana is a super asana that basically involves folding one’s legs inward by the knees to sit on the heels. (Caution: Yoga ought to be learned and practiced only under an expert teacher’s guidance.) It is the position that Muslims take when they pray. It is the position many Japanese sit in.

I began to pay attention during my vajrasana. It is true – the right nostril begins to open up after four minutes.

Of course, we breathe by both nostrils at the same time too. But there is a rhythm to breathing that has nothing to do with us.
It is autonomous and super functional. I learned this at the MDNIY. Did I expect to? No.

3. There are 84,00,000 yogasanas. That’s right, 84 lakh.

It is a bit like the Hindu concept of three crore gods. Evidently yoga too evolved over the years.

Most people can barely manage 20 asanas consistently; yogis perhaps a hundred. A mahaguru (great teacher) like BKS Iyengar possibly a thousand. That’s most likely it.

Do as much as you can, you can only know a drop in the ocean of yoga. “How many can we teach you,” wondered Bharati.

I’m still digesting this. Yogasanas are principally postures based largely on what other life forms – mammals, reptiles, birds, insects – do. The elephant, lion, frog, crab, snake, peacock and a great many other life forms make an appearance in daily yoga.

Astonishingly, munis and rishis observed and internalized all this. As small fry, I’m transported with each asana.

But 84 lakh? Maybe in 2,80,000 lives, at 30 asanas in each lifetime.

4. The day has biological energy too, like humans.

Ayurveda lists three basic biological energies in humans – vata, pitta and kapha. Imbalance in these energies causes disease, says Ayurveda. Celeb self-help guru Deepak Chopra, for instance, relies on this.

The traits and behaviour of people vary according to their biological energy. “One look can tell us the nature of your emotions, conduct and health,” said Nidheesh Yadav, Yoga Consultant at the MDNIY.

Yadav has a couple of lectures in each foundation course and evidently they are popular. Everyone wants to know what is in store for them. Yadav says their energies, and thus the future, can be read by those who know these things.

The bazooka from Yadav was that the day, a cycle of 24 hours that we measure time by, also has vata, pitta and kapha energies. “You can divide the day into six energy zones, three each for the day and night. And figure out what time zone works best for you,” he said.
The best time to awaken, by this insight, is 3am when vata energy operates. Largely, the 3am to 7am and 7am to 11am cycles of vata and pitta energies seem to be best periods for many.

Mornings are my best time of the day. I like the sun and moon and I seem to be brimming with energy. I have pulled in tons of energy late night too for many years but the intervening period between dawn and night has been one of tapering off.

Now it began to dawn on me. Not entirely yet, but just enough to make sense. Did I think I’ll learn this when I enrolled? Nope.

5. Only one family on earth makes sutra neti the way it is recommended.

Sutra neti is a cleansing exercise named after the cleanser. Sutra is thread and so it may be understood as nasal flossing by a thread. The thing is that sutra neti has to be made carefully the way it has been laid down.

It goes through your nose and throat. It can make a life, by clearing the air passages and allowing more oxygen into the system. It can mar your life by tearing the nasal passage if you use neti made of rubber or something else.

Done right, it can make you feel like you’ve just begun to live.
*There’s only one family that makes sutra neti the way it has been laid down. We sell them at ₹6 each. What do you think this family lives on,” asked Bharati one day.

This seared through my brain. Who is this family? How come no one else does something so sacred? How many lives have been enhanced by this family’s work? How do I pay them back for what their work has given me?

It turns out the family lives in Trilokpuri, a rundown colony in east Delhi usually in the news for strife. Last we heard , an elderly woman does it. Apparently, she gets her hands burned at times because half the neti has to be dipped in hot beeswax to give it a smooth coat.

They’re worth a story by themselves. Did I expect to learn of this? No.

Yoga is intense and personal. Travelling the self can take a lifetime. It’s something you might want to know.

The course I was in at the MDNIY was full of little delights and surprises. I’ve only listed the five that were etched on my mind.

Maybe you’ll do better.


More from the author

How India’s National Institute of Yoga needs to smarten up

10 things yoga did for me in a month

Rating Team Modi: How many will make it to 2015?

The scary BJP work ethic Modi should change

Modi beware: All Indian politicians end in failure

10 things I support Narendra Modi on

The descent of Arvind Kejriwal

What the new Lok Sabha would look like with proportional representation

Sonia’s time is up, not Rahul’s

Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi.

Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at


Image: Getty Images