Of all the proverbs about food, there is none more resoundingly true than the maxim ”You are what you eat.” Your very cells are created out of the kind of calories you consume. Your diet dictates your mood, your health, and your growth or aging process. It is as important as how you sleep, or how you move. The only way to be really healthy is to understand that you are what you eat.
With that in mind, the ideal yogic diet is vegetarian, organic and fresh. While the best intentions apply to changing diet, it is important to remember that we are creatures of habit, and that no matter how much we want to, we cannot and do not change overnight. It takes 40 days to change a habit, 90 days to cement a new habit, and 120 days to make it feel like second nature. So, as much as overnight results are desired, it only takes 4 months to feel as if you have always done it this way.
Our three personality types (gunas): sattva, rajas and tamas, are a good guide to our dietary habits. The food we consume is directly linked to our personality types. Sāttvic food is uplifting and stabilizing. Rajasic food is energizing and dynamic, and tamasic food is heavy and causes lethargy. The best way to plan a yogi diet is to be aware of the three personality types and the foods that cause a person to fall into one of these personality types. For most people, fresh fruits and vegetables are sāttvic, giving the body a sense of refreshment and satisfaction. Foods that are rajasic tend to be spicy and hot, leaving the body with a sense of restlessness and exhaustion. Tamasic foods are those that induce a feeling of uncomfortable overindulgence, taking energy away rather than restoring it. While different people react to the same food in different ways, it is only by being conscious of your own reactions that you can make the healthiest choices.
Another way to plan a diet is by incorporating the Ayurvedic concept of “doshas”, or energy types. Each individual has three doshas in varying proportions. Our goal should be have a diet that balances these three doshas.
Vata- qualities that are cold, hard, dry
Pitta- qualities that are hot, sharp or oily
Kapha- qualities that are heavy, liquid, unctuous
Just as some people have more pitta in their physical makeup, others have more vata or kapha. As these qualities also exist in food, the idea is that you can balance your natural tendencies by tending to your diet, and eat the foods that enhance the qualities you need more of. Ayurveda also embraces the idea of the six tastes; sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. Ideally, all of these tastes should be present at every meal. As a minimum, they should all be present at the main meal of the day, whether in the afternoon or evening. Just as the doshas should be balanced, eating food with all six tastes keeps the body in balance. (There is a whole field of literature on the Ayurvedic diet, and we recommend educating yourself before you step into the kitchen. It can be a wonderful way to eat.)
Not everyone can be 100% vegetarian. But most people can drop their meat consumption by more than 75% without having any ill effects on health. The benefits of weight loss, increased energy and better sleep are certainly enough reasons to try it.
The best reason to cut down or cut out the consumption of meat is the practice of ahimsa. How can you condone the violent death of another creature, when there are so many other options to feed yourself? The industry that puts meat into our supermarkets also puts an incredible amount of waste into our watershed and our air. It has long been held that those who enjoy sausage should not watch it being made. Even more true- those who eat meat might well lose their appetites if they had to watch the action in the slaughterhouse. For the good of the planet, the less meat you eat, the better off we all are-
Most of us know that eating a vegetarian diet isn’t simply a matter of not eating meat. You need to balance the diet with fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts to get the nutrition you require. There are many ethnic cuisines that are entirely vegetarian, and some others that use very small amounts of meat as an additional flavor, and not as the entire dish. Americans have an irrational fear that the lack of meat in a diet is directly equal to a lack of protein, and that this leads to starvation. If meat were a required part of every human’s daily diet, the human race would have died out long ago.
While most yogic philosophies agree that meat should be avoided and replaced with fruit and vegetables, the consumption of eggs is debatable. The vegetarian standard of not eating any animal that was killed clearly leaves eggs off the menu. At the same time, the eggs we buy in the grocery stores are unfertilized eggs, which if consumed, doesn’t result in killing an embryo. As a protein that can add many benefits, such as iron and vitamin B, eggs can be beneficial to a meat-free diet. It’s an individual choice.
The vegan preference of not eating any animal based foods is an extreme form of vegetarianism, and should only be used with great education and resources. To eat a healthy diet based entirely on plants is a challenge that requires both vitamin and mineral supplements, and attention to balance. While veganism holds a high ideal, a long look around the planet will not reveal any cultures that have a dietary history of veganism. The preference of most yoga philosophies is towards a vegetarian diet with dairy products included.
Do not underestimate the importance of water. While our common cultural knowledge says that everyone should drink eight glasses of water a day, eight may not be enough. If you are a practicing yogi, you are breathing deeply and sweating every day. All that moisture lost from the body must be replaced. As you breathe, you expel slight amounts of moisture in your breath (as your breath can “steam” a mirror or a pane of glass), and the more deep breathing you do, the more water you need to replace. One hour of serious prānāyāma can expel more than a quart of water. Asana practice that works up a sweat is just as taxing as a five-mile run. Keeping the body hydrated is essential to good health. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna reminds Arjuna of his omnipresence by saying he is the taste in water. There is no more essential connection of the body to the natural world.
Many yogis hold that stimulants are poison. Alcohol, caffeine, and sugar, all play with the nervous system in a fashion that makes a yoga practice more challenging. As with meat, it only takes 120 days of doing things differently to make it feel like second nature. You don’t have to give it all up on the same day, but reducing consumption and increasing awareness can move you in the right direction.
Consider also, the spiritual aspect of food. Giving thanks before eating, focusing on positive thoughts during the preparation of food, maintaining a pleasant atmosphere at the table- all these things do add to good digestion and absorption of the nutrients in the food. Even if you are eating organic food prepared in the finest vegetarian kitchen, it may not digest well if you are eating it behind the wheel of you car while you are rushing to an appointment. Take time to remember that food is sacred, just as bodies are sacred and breath is sacred. Treat yourself with affection and respect.
The traditional wisdom about how much to eat advises filling the stomach only three fourths. Half of that should be solid food, one fourth of that should be liquid, and the other fourth should remain empty, allowing the body the most comfortable amount of space to digest.
Knowing that yoga requires an empty stomach, meals should be planned in accordance. With the same dedication and pleasure that you focus on every other part of yoga, consider your diet to be a vital part of your practice. As we strive to free ourselves from the wheel of karma, we must respect that we are physical beings with material needs, and make the best choices for our own health and the health of the planet.
- Kundalini Yoga, the flow of eternal power, Shakti Parwha Kaur Khālsa
- Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, the art of Indian vegetarian cooking, Yamuna Devi
- Bhagavad-Gita, translated by Barbara Stoller Miller
Copyright Yoga Next, 2012
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