• The Yogi Sommelier

The Yogi Sommelier Manifesto: Toward A Shared Appreciation

The last fifteen years have witnessed remarkable growth in the popularity of yoga and wine in the U.S. and throughout the world. As yoga traditions have been sweeping the West, wine appreciation has simultaneously been sweeping the East. Yoga and wine are everywhere.

Just as yoga  has adapted throughout history to meet the human need, so has man’s relationship to wine evolved to reflect these changing needs. The merging of yoga and wine in modern households around the world today has given rise to new questions about what it means to be a yogi and what is means to appreciate wine.  People are starting to ask questions to the effect of this:

Can you live a yogic life and appreciate wine?

If this hits upon something you’ve ever wondered, you’re in the right place. Read on.

Yoga and Wine are Everywhere

The phenomena of yoga and wine, separately, are not new in this world. ‘People’ have been practicing yoga and consuming wine in their respective cultures for millennia. Archaeologists pinpoint the origin of wine production at approximately 6000 BCE in what is now the Republic of Georgia. At the same time, in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, the earliest forms of yoga were developing in remote parts of Northern India. Both played pivotal spiritual and cultural roles in the respective societies though which they evolved over thousands of years from ancient times to today.

What is new is that these cultural phenomena, having evolved with the changing needs of civilization separately for millennia, are now beginning to intersect and overlap. For the first time ever, people are interested in incorporating yoga and wine appreciation into their daily lives. Yoga studios exist down the street from wineries in many places around the world. Trends like practicing yoga in a vineyard or taking a yoga class followed by some activity such as wine tasting in which community is created around the combination of yoga and wine are emerging.

We are witnessing a new dialogue forming around the topics of about what it means be a yogi, what it means to appreciate wine, and, consequently, how one might be able to integrate both traditions into healthy, fulfilling and balanced lifestyle.

As it turns out, when approached with mindfulness and self respect under the guidance of well-informed teachers, these two pursuits can be appreciated as one. It is a very exciting time for yoga and wine.

Yoga In the World Today

Statistics show that more people than ever before on this planet are participating in some form of yoga. In a 2016 study conducted by Yoga Alliance in conjunction with Yoga Journal and released in January of this year (2016), it was revealed that “the number of US yoga practitioners has increased to more than 36 million, up from 20.4 million in 2012, while annual practitioner spending on yoga classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories rose to $16 billion, up from $10 billion over the past four years.” In a press release detailing this report, Carin Gorrell, editor in chief of Yoga Journal adds that “more people than ever across all age groups are realizing the benefits of yoga, from stress relief to flexibility to overall well-being. Yoga is a thriving, growing industry.”

Evidence of this is everywhere. There are yoga rooms at airports, many corporations provide their employees with access to yoga, and some western doctors are beginning to recommend yoga to help heal patients. Yoga has even been recognized by the U.S. military as way to help veterans manage PTSD after returning from service. Organizations such as Mindful Yoga Therapy offer clinically tested, empirically informed programs that have helped thousands of veterans. These programs have been shown to be beneficial to other individuals suffering from severe trauma as well, such as eating disorders, drug and alcohol addiction, and diseases of the central nervous system like autism, ADHD, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

The meditative aspects of yoga have been appreciated in the U.S. since it was first introduced in the 1800s. In the beginning, yoga was mainly a topic of interest in philosophical and theosophical circles. It didn’t make its first foray in mainstream culture until the 1980s when it began to be appreciated as a form of exercise. Several of the major lineages of yoga were slowly being introduced in the U.S. through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, but it wasn’t until the health and exercise boom of the ’80s that yoga began to gain a wider audience. At this time, medical studies linking the practice of yoga to heart health were beginning to circulate as well, such as Dean Ornish’ “Effects of a vegetarian diet and selected yoga techniques in the treatment of coronary heart disease,” published in 1979.

Yet even during this period, yoga was nowhere near the popularity it enjoys today. All the early American master teachers who I’ve heard speak about this such as Rod Stryker (Tantra master and founder of ParaYoga), Tim Miller (the first American certified to teach Ashtanga Yoga), Eddie Modestini (among the first certified teachers of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga) and Nicki Doane (Iyengar and Ashtanga) remark that when they started practicing and teaching yoga in the U.S. in the ’70s, ’80s and continuing as late as the ’90s, it was not a popular activity. Yoga studios were few and far between. You had to search for yoga. Yoga teacher trainings didn’t exist here either. You had to travel to India if you wanted to study yoga formally. It wasn’t until the turn of the Millennium that yoga really began to boom in popularity in the U.S., bringing it to the state of widespread popularity and acceptance it enjoys today.

And, since the early 2000s, this boom has been nonstop. In a short decade and a half, ‘yoga’ – once an exotic subject – is now a household word in America. It has expanded into every level of society, from the White House to the street. In fact, yoga pants are now more common to see on people than jeans! According to an apparel metrix analysis by Editd via the Huffington Post, sales of yoga pants surpassing those of denim (a seemingly impossible feat) in 2015. In the three month period between June and August last year, sales of yoga pants increased by 341%. Whereas ten years ago it would have been inconceivable for mainstream America to wear “yoga”-themed anything in public, now it is quite common to see people in their yoga clothes, mat in tow, just about anywhere.

It is not just the US where yoga is booming. Yoga retreats are taking the travel world by storm. Lonely Planet Travel News reported in April of this year of the launch of from a startup in Silicon Valley, aiming to be “the AirBnB of yoga.” They are one of the many startups responding to the rise in demand for international yoga retreats and wellness-related tourism. According to Lonely Planet, this company’s goal is to “connect travellers looking to unwind and get healthy with hand-picked yoga retreats around the world.” They state that “yoga is a huge part of the ‘wellness tourism’ market, a growing industry that was estimated at nearly US$500 billion in 2015.” Yoga’s popularity is growing in India, too. The first International Day of Yoga was observed  by millions all over the world on 21 June 2015. In India, statistics from Wikipedia note, “the event at Rajpath established two Guinness records – Largest Yoga Class with 35985 people and the record for the most nationalities participating in it- eighty four.” This is truly incredible.

Wine in the World Today

In a similar fashion, the production, consumption and appreciation of wine in the U.S. and internationally is more expansive than ever before. It has experienced the largest growth in nations where wine is not traditionally part of the cultural landscape like the US and Asia. (Many Americans don’t know that wine grapes are not indigenous to the Americas – they were brought over by Europeans during the Colonial Period.) In 2015, the top eight export destinations for wine from the U.S. included nations for whom wine consumption is a fairly new phenomenon such as Hong Kong (third after Europe and Canada), China (fourth), Japan (fifth), and South Korea (eighth).  According to the Wine Institute’s report from July of this year, “U.S. wine exports, 90 percent from California, reached a record $1.61 billion in winery revenues in 2015”.

It worth noting that the U.S. isn’t even among the top three of world’s largest producers of wine. Rather, we are fourth, after France, Italy and Spain. We are, however, the world’s largest consumers of wine. The same Wine Institute study quoted above notes that the U.S. has been the largest wine consuming nation in the world since 2010, with California accounting for the majority of the market. According to the study, “wine shipments to the U.S. from all production sources——California, other states and foreign producers——grew to 384 million cases, up 2% from 2014, with an estimated retail value of $55.8 billion… California’s 229 million cases shipped within the U.S. in 2015 represent a 60% share of the U.S. wine market.” That’s a lot of wine.

Wine’s popularity in the U.S. is expanding at the street level, too. Wine is being produced in every state (yes!) and you can find it in almost every supermarket. As Danny Brager, Senior Vice President of Nielsen’s Beverage Alcohol Practice Area notes, “the number of U.S. supermarkets selling wine is increasing, hitting about 30,000 last year, an increase of over 1,700 stores compared to 2011…No longer confined to specialty shops and liquor marts, many grocery stores are offering a cornucopia of wines to be part of a growing category. Both consumers and retailers are reaping the benefits.”

Wine is also a player in local and international tourism. The benefits of wineries and wine-related activities to tourism are well documented. Wine tourism has been steadily increasing its share of the eco-, agri-, culinary and luxury travel businesses, with every year witnessing more elaborate and far-reaching options available in destinations in the US, Europe, and throughout the world. As more people around the world develop an appreciation of wine, it results that more people wish to visits those places where wine is produced and be immersed in the cultural experience. Wine cruises have also become quite popular, allowing travelers the opportunity to learn not just about different wines from different places, but experience wine from a multi-cultural perspective. Wine is very much the product of the land it comes from and culture behind it. The climate and geography of the region, the history and customs of its people as well as the local foods and gastronomic traditions are all elements that inform the production and appreciation of a wine.

The Dilemma: Attitudes of Separation

Yes, yoga and wine are everywhere. It is a fact that many of the same people in the modern world today are doing yoga and also consuming wine. However, this is new territory for us, and there is very little information out there to help people understand how to appreciate yoga and wine under one tent.

There is an abundance of information about yoga and endless resources about wine (after all, they’ve both been around for 8000 years or so), but they are two distinctly separate sets of information. There are virtually no resources to assist the yogi in making mindful wine choices or support the wine consumer in incorporating yoga into a healthy lifestyle, let alone guidance on how these subjects can be explored in ways that complement one another. The yogis I talk to who are interested in wine report feeling like they must choose one or the other (i.e., yoga or wine) and feel guilty when they make certain choices. They are afraid of being judged for their choices and suffer in managing a dual identity as they oscillate between perceived divergent groups.

On the other hand, many friends and colleagues of mine in the wine business report physical suffering and desire more grounding in life. They, like anyone new to yoga, long to develop a yoga practice for mental and physical benefits, but don’t know where to start. They also report concerns about dogma, and (interestingly) are afraid of being judged, both by their peers and by the yoga community.

When yoga and wine converge in society today, what I have observed most often reflect another problematic attitude of separation: the “let’s do yoga and then drink” type of experience. While I understand the cross-marketing appeal of this from a business perspective these often are superficial and gimmicky events with very little substance being offered to either the yogi or the wine consumer. They offer no substantial insights into the yogic aspects of wine appreciation or practical guidance on how to integrate yoga and wine in a meaningful way. This is a missed opportunity.

The many physical and mental benefits of yoga are well-documented, including developing one’s ability to focus and tune out “the noise” of the conscious mind while tuning into our subtle intelligence we call intuition. This skill is invaluable in wine tasting, which relies heavily on intuition. It has been my experience that practicing yoga has made me a better taster by giving me the tools to expand and control my sensory capabilities, and, by extension, the map of my own consciousness. On a parallel path, my work as a wine professional and specifically as a disciplined wine taster continues to support and deepen my experience as I advance along the path of yoga.

Yoga, Wine Tasting and the Brain

Yes, I’m going there. I believe that wine tasting is yoga, and not in a gimmicky way. When approached with intention, wine tasting is an exercise in sensory discrimination and control, which is one of the deeper aspects of yoga according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the equivalent of the Holy Bible of yoga. In the Sutras, the practice of sensory discrimination and control is called Pratyahara and is designated as the fifth limb of the Eight Limbed Path of yoga. It follows the physical practice known as Asana (the third) and the practice of breath control known as Pranayama (the fourth). In the Sutras, it is considered a more advanced practice than both Asana and Pranayama and the gateway to the higher aspects of yoga that lead to enlightenment. Just as we use a yoga mat to assist us in exploring our physical boundaries in the Asana practice, our breath to explore our energy boundaries in Pranayama, wine has special qualities that make it an excellent tool to assist us in exploring the subtleties of the mind and its functions. It allows us to go into a space in which we become  witness to our sense mechanism and exercise sensory discrimination and control in a deeply yogic way.

The yogis figured this out long ago, but Western medicine is starting to take note of the impact of a practice of sensory discrimination and control on long-term brain health. Guess which segment of the population they used to conduct this study? Yogis? No, Master Sommeliers. In the current (Dec 2016) issue of Wine Spectator, journalist Emma Balta writes of a pilot study that was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in which 13 Master Sommeliers were subject to a series of tasks requiring different mental functions alongside 13 college-age students with no wine experience as controls. Their brain activity was monitored with MRIs. The results revealed not only that “the parts of the brain associated with olfactory processing and memory were more active in the sommeliers’ brains during the tasks, but the researchers also found that parts of the somms’ entorhinal cortexes, a part of the brain that plays a major role in smells and memories, were larger and thicker than those of the control group.” This was partially to be expected, but the researchers learned more: “the somms who had been Master Sommeliers longer had the thickest areas of the cortex, suggesting that experience was a key correlation” that could “lead to better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases.” According to Sarah Banks, the head of Neuropsychology at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health who lead the study, “knowing that the olfactory and memory areas of the brain are the first to be impacted by diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, we were interested to see if some people can train these brain regions to be stronger, and potentially healthier.”

I know what some readers may be thinking. Chapter 1, verse 59 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a foundational text on the physical aspect of yoga lists ‘foods’ to avoid, including alcohol. I personally agree that it is not advisable to do the physical practice of yoga while intoxicated, nor it is advisable to practice yoga on a full stomach or to perform certain asanas with certain injuries. I am not advocating drinking and doing asana at all, nor do I practice that myself. But let’s remember: the physical practice of yoga is only one limb of the eight limbs of yoga. In  the context of wine tasting, what I am suggesting is rather the use of wine as a way to explore the boundaries of consciousness in an effort to gain mastery of the senses. This is not so much an activity for the realm of the third limb of yoga, but rather an exercise in the fifth limb.

The idea of using of wine in this type of quest is not new to Eastern or Western spiritualities. The metaphysical powers of wine in Judeo-Christian beliefs is well-documented–I don’t think I need to go into that. What may be less well-known is the role of wine in the yoga tradition, specifically in certain sects of Tantra yoga. Wine is used in an extremely controlled, regimented way for the purposes of accessing divine energies in some Tantra rituals, such as the ritual practice known as kuala tantra. In this ritual, to quote an article on Tantra Yoga by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait on, “drunkenness is unthinkable—the student is required to maintain complete control over his or her body and senses at every moment. There is a famous saying among the tantrics, ‘Shame on the guru whose student gets drunk and loses control over his or her body and senses.'” This is also true in wine tasting. At the professional level, it is common to spit because intoxication impairs the mind’s ability to focus and concentrate. Socially speaking, drunkenness is not respectable. I approach wine tasting with a tantric attitude. It is my belief that we have to meet the senses where they are in order to become a witness to their mechanisms and, ultimately, transcend them.

What is new is the use of yoga and wine in unregulated, everyday life. It is my opinion that a yoga and wine event that does not approach these subjects with an attitude of integration is missing out on a big opportunity to bring people together and make a difference in their lives. Wine tasting can assist us in developing skills of appreciation and sense control to support our yoga practice, and yoga has much to teach about mind-body awareness and intuition to enhance our ability to appreciate wine–and by extension, our experience in this world.

In my first yoga and wine tasting workshop, a student shared with me the following: “I consider myself a yogi; I meditate, I practice yoga, I try to live a pure and honest life. I also love wine. I love good food, wine and the sense of community these offer. Wine seems very natural to me, it comes from the earth and is an expression of time and place. I am fascinated by wine tasting. But I often find myself keeping these two passions separate. It’s like, there’s two ‘me’s. When I’m a yogi, I feel like I can’t drink wine, and vice versa. I want to find a way to bring it all together, so that it’s just me being me.”

Rather than perpetuate attitudes of separation, I advocate for the middle path. Unity. Integration. Wholeness. Balance.

Moving Towards a Shared Appreciation

Most yogis know that yoga means “union”. The union of body and mind, sun and moon, spirit and self. Wine is also a union. It can be understood as the physical union of sun and earth transmitted through the vine to the glass. As it relates to the concept of terroir, it also represents a union of time and place. Like yoga, wine tasting is an act of mind-body awareness, facilitated through the breath. “Appreciation” is defined as “the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something” and “to have a full understanding of the situation.” I’ve heard yoga described as an act of deep appreciation, for oneself, one’s inner landscape, for the greater community. Just as doing the physical practice of yoga is only a small component of the greater experience of yoga, wine appreciation for many is a metaphysical pursuit that goes far beyond they physical act of consuming wine.

As a yogi and a wine professional with fifteen years of combined work in both disciplines, I am uniquely positioned to offer an informed contribution to this new dialogue with the intention of helping those interested in cultivating an appreciation for both yoga and wine in an integrated, balanced way.

In this blog and my workshops I aim to shed light on yoga and wine in order to guide people towards deeper levels of appreciation. I will also offer practical information about yoga and wine that readers can immediately implement in their own lives. It is my hope to contribute in some small way to evolving conversation about yoga and wine today and help us move away from attitude of separation towards a shared appreciation.

So, back to our original question.

Can you live a yogic life and appreciate wine?

The answer is yes.

Let me teach you.

Chiara Rose Shannon, The Yogi Sommelier

November 10th, 2016

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