The Yoga Diet
This article is an exploration of the many dimensions of the yoga diet …
Food – Is it more than just ‘nutrition’?
The yogi understands the nutritional components of food, yet also takes into consideration many other aspects of foods which may not be apparent to the Western nutritionist. In this way, many foods that the Western ‘health-food movement’ considers to be healthy, may not quite fit the bill for the yogic lifestyle.
Of course, we all understand the importance of good physical health and its impact on daily life. And most people understand the role that food plays in the health of our bodies. The yogis have always known the superior benefits that a vegetarian diet brings on this front, which is reflected in the yoga diet.
But in spite of all the evidence on the physical level, the motivation in yoga for vegetarianism resides on several other grounds as well. Thus, when we look at the yoga diet, there are a number of other considerations.
To speak of the Yoga Life, we are turning our minds and our attitudes toward an alternate way of living. Alternate, because it is indeed “different” in many ways than approach to life that the vast majority in our society takes today… and those differences are quite noticeable when it comes to the yoga diet.
Modern Eating Habits
In modern times the attitude towards food has become a generally perverse and dysfunctional one. We now eat, for more than any other reason, to satisfy our cravings. No longer is food seen primarily as a source of sustenance – as building blocks for health and as fuel for engaging constructively in life.
Nowadays all manner of substances, inedible, semi-edible and sometimes even downright repulsive pass as ‘food’. What we put into our mouths depends not so much on its nutritional value as it does on its ability to satisfy our yearnings and ‘tastes’.
The Yoga Diet
Not only is ‘what one eats’ a point of consideration for the yogi, but so also are how much one eats and the manner in which one eats. And so, the yoga diet reflects a mindfulness of these factors too.
Watching some people devour a plate of food can make one wonder just how far, if at all, we humans have evolved from the animal kingdom. Overeating has become a big problem in modern culture. People now stuff themselves beyond the point of full, eat when they are not hungry and often eat foods in combinations and in manners that wreak havoc on the digestive process.
Many people habitually eat in crowded, noisy environments and in social atmospheres where alcoholic and decadent flavourings upholding the theme of the experience. By and large there is scarcely a concern now-a-days for where food comes from, or for who prepares what we put into our mouths.
… Most do not even give a second thought about these things. But all of these things are important to the yogi.
Purity of Food
Diet plays an important factor in keeping the body and mind clean. Besides the cleanliness that must be observed in its preparation, we must also study the purity of the elements that food offers us.
Food represents sustenance – a primary support for life itself. In Vedic culture, food is considered as an aspect of Brahman (the absolute, or God). This is why the yogis eat with the feeling that their food is an offering or gift from nature.
So also then, saints consider that each swallow gives them the power to serve God. With this level of mind, any food becomes pure. But this is a higher state of mindfulness that the average person has yet to realize.
And until one reaches this steadfast level of mind, the yogis have established some dietary rules for guidance. Those basic rules all revolve around a wholesome, nurturing vegetarian diet
Sattva and the TriGunas
In yoga, the vegetarian diet is referred to as sattva (or sattvic). Sattva is the basic, clear quality that allows for untainted perception to occur. Together with rajas (turbulent) and tamas (dull, inert), we find the yogic concept of the Tri-Gunas, or ‘three elemental forces of nature’, a concept which lies at the foundation of yoga philosophy.
Sattva brings about internalization of the mind, the movement of the consciousness inward, and a unification of the head and heart… and so it is the quality of sattva which the yogi is constantly concerned with cultivating.
The yogis understand full well that what we eat affects the state of our mind, from the perspective of these primary qualities of nature. And so, a pro-sattvic diet, is an essential component of the yoga life. A vegetarian diet, rich in fresh, natural, whole, non-spicy and chemically un-altered foods is a sattvic diet.
Extremely spicy, hot foods, stimulating food and drink, unrefined sugars and alcoholic beverages are ‘rajasic’, stimulating the passions, cravings and uncontrolled desires of the lower animal brain, distracting the mind and inhibiting it from elevated thought and profound understanding.
Meat, meat and dairy products, fried foods, stale and junk food are ‘tamasic’, creating dullness and inertness within the mind… a mental environment that is not conducive to higher thought and perception, as well as a body that is susceptible to disease.
Sattvic people have the greatest freedom from disease, and a mental state conducive to higher though and deeper understanding. And so the yoga diet should be essentially sattvic.
Likewise, the elements of sattva, tamas and rajas are infused into the food that we eat during its preparation. So the place where one’s food is made, and more so, the energetic environment and the mental state of the person who prepares the food is very important to the yogi.
If the person cooking your food is angry, depressed, stressed or of a perverse mindset, then this rajasic and tamasic energy is invariably infused into the food.
We have all experienced the heavenly taste of a home-cooked meal prepared with love and kindness – food infused with the quality of sattva by the one who prepared it. I once knew an old Indian man who had not taken a morsel of food for over 60 years that was not prepared by the loving hands of his dear, sweet wife!
One cannot expect this from eating food in a restaurant, where the kitchen is usually hidden from public view, and the typical environment within it is hectic and less than nurturing and compassionate.