What is the Yoga Diet?
By Paul Rodney Turner
Ayurvedic educator and yoga teacher Scott Blossom believes, “Eating is perhaps the single most important act for one’s yoga practice, because nourishment of the body’s tissues forms a foundation for nourishment of the mind and emotions.”
It is this body, mind, spirit connection that is at the heart of the yoga tradition.For example, imagine practising yoga while feeding yourself nothing but meat, white breads, sugar and caffeine. No doubt, your mind and body would be completely disturbed with such a diet. It’s easy to see that a balanced, calm mind is much easier to attain if you nourish your body-temple properly. But what exactly does it mean to nourish your body-temple properly? Just how do you eat like a yogi?
Admittedly, taking your yoga practice to the dinner table may be challenging, primarily because the classic yogic texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita don’t list any specific foods for following a “yogic diet”, but rather talk generally about the alchemical and psychological effect food has when categorised in terms of their principle quality – sattvic (goodness), rajasic (passion), tamasic (ignorance).
Aspiring yogis are warned to be conscious in their choice of foods and encouraged to choose foods from the sattvic category, or foods that are fresh, pure, pleasing to the heart and mind.
While there is no specific menu for yogis, experts of the tradition agree that a yogic diet should consist of foods that enhance clarity of mind, peacefulness and make the body strong. In other words, a diet that is consistent with the goals of the physical practice.
According to the Ayurvedic tradition, sattvic foods include most vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and ghee (clarified butter). In contrast, tamasic foods (such as meat, onions and garlic) tend to make the mind dull and the body lethargic, while rajasic foods (such as hot peppers, salt and coffee) promote hyperactivity and tend to agitate the mind.
However, it would be naive to suggest that only sattvic foods keep your body feeling strong and your mind clear. What is best for you and what will best support your yoga practice is also determined by your unique physical constitution (known in the Ayurvedic tradition as vikriti) and your current state (prakriti). Both need to be considered. For example, a person whose physical constitution is low in ‘fire’ would do well to include more fire foods in their diet, like hot peppers, goji berries and of course more cooked foods. Whereas someone with a high ‘fire’ constitution would do better on a diet of raw fruits and vegetables.
In other words, what you need as an individual may be very different from what someone else needs. Similarly, what you need now in your life may be very different from what you needed 10 years ago, or will need 10 years from now. The pragmatism here makes you appreciate the wisdom of the ancient sages when they chose not to lay down a strict yogic diet for all to follow, but rather provided guidelines in terms of the spiritual, physical and psychological effects of certain foods on the body, mind and soul.
In the same way that you learn to listen to your body when exercising, you must listen to your body when it comes to food. Only you will know what is right for your body, mind and consciousness. The rules of nutrition and food combining are always overruled by time, place and circumstance, and, more importantly, how each food affects our state of mind and consciousness.
However, despite the unique needs of each body, true yoga masters will still insist that a yogic diet take into account the core values and philosophical teachings of yoga, specifically the concept of ahimsa (or non-violence). While many modern yoga teachers do teach that ahimsa is an important facet of yoga practice, how they put that principle into action varies considerably.
Just as different styles of yoga teach different versions of the same poses, yoga teachers will sometimes teach contradictory interpretations of the Yoga Sutras. But while personal interpretations are not entirely wrong in principle, it must be understood that food choices are inextricable from our spiritual evolution.
As Jivamukti Yoga co-founder David Life says, “Not everyone can do a headstand, but everybody eats. Because of this, what you eat has more impact and matters more than whether you can stand on your head”.
The interpretation of ahimsa is widely debated within the yoga community. For David Life, who has been committed to an animal-free diet for decades, actively encourages yogis to see veganism as the only dietary choice that truly honours ahimsa. “In the Yoga Sutra, it doesn’t say be non-harming to yourself or people who look like you. It just says do no harm,” he says.
It is interesting to note that this same kind of loose interpretation of the sacred teachings is found in Christianity, where the Bible clearly stated, “Thou shalt not kill”. There is no room for interpretation here; to “not kill”, includes all forms of life and yet modern Christianity does not promote a vegetarian diet, but rather endorses the wholesale killing of millions of animals. Indeed, in many editions of the Bible, the Sixth Commandment has been conveniently changed to: “Thou shalt not murder”, thus positioning the argument outside the moral need to respect non-humans.
Clearly, with such varied perspectives, food cultures and personal experiences, developing a diet that reflects your ethics while honouring your physical needs can be challenging. But in the end, most yogis will agree that part of the practice is to at least develop awareness about what you eat. Try and spend time educating yourself about diets you could follow while also learning about the origins and properties of the food you buy. While it’s important to listen to your body, it is just as important to explore the parameters of what it truly means to live without harm to others and yourself and what is important to your spiritual development.
If ahimsa is a focal point in your values, you should be exploring how your food choices can cause the least possible harm to yourself, other beings and the planet. If you are attracted to the principles of bhakti (devotional) yoga, you may want to offer your food first to the Divine as explained in my book FOOD YOGA – Nourishing the Soul.
Yama and Niyama
The yamas and the niyamas of the Yoga Sutras directly relate to universal morals and personal observances that should naturally be applied to diet. Yama means self-restraint, self-control and discipline. The yamas comprise the “shall-not” in our dealings with the external world as the niyamas comprise the “shall-do” in our dealings with the inner world. The very first yama is ahimsa.
Ahimsa is abstinence from injury that arises out love for all, harmlessness, the not causing of pain to any living creature in thought, word or deed at any time. By definition, ahimsa suggests that the foods you eat should not cause harm to you or anyone else. The natural questions therefore are: Is the food I am eating causing damage to my body? Was anyone or anything harmed unnecessarily in the creation or processing of this food? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”, you are not practicing ahimsa.
This and satya are the two main yamas. All other yamas are in support of these two. Satya means truthfulness in words and thoughts.
The fifth and final yama in Patanjali’s teachings is aparigraha. The term usually means to limit possessions to what is necessary or important and to not take more than one’s allotted quota. A yogi therefore would ask, “Am I eating more than my body needs to be healthy?” Am I wasteful with food? Or, are my eating habits causing others to go hungry?
The Yamas and Meat Eating
No matter how you look at it, taking the life of an animal or supporting the slaughter of an animal simply to satisfy the cravings of your tongue is violent – violent to the animal and violent to the earth and therefore a blatant transgression of ahimsa. For example, every second of every day, one football field of tropical rainforest is destroyed in order to produce 257 hamburgers.
Considering the volume of medical evidence in support of a plant-based diet and the absolutely clear teachings of Patanjali, the Ayurveda and the Bhagavad-gita to avoid foods that are tamasic in nature, eating the flesh of animals is clearly damaging to the body, mind and consciousness.
Finally, the principle of aparigriha (not hoarding) is also transgressed when meat is consumed by the simple fact that the factory farming of animals is responsible for more than 30 percent of world grain production being fed to animals, rather than humans. Animals like cows and sheep are traditionally grass eaters. The introduction of grains like corn, soy and barley into the diet of factory-farmed animals is a result of ranchers wanting to decrease the time to fatten cattle and increase the yields from dairy cattle.
A vegan way of life (no flesh foods, eggs, dairy, leather or other animal by-products) proactively supports an ahimsa lifestyle in the following five ways:
(1) Compassion to animals
(2) Preserving the earth
(3) Providing more food for the hungry
(4) Preserving our health
(5) Promoting peace and unity.
Granted, just existing in this world causes some kind of harm to other creatures or the environment. Being vegetarian, for example, involves taking the life of the plant, which is why some strict practitioners of ahimsa like the Jains will avoid root vegetables and only consume fruits, seeds and grains. Eating plants is natural for humans, but because they are much lower on the food chain, less harm is caused. Also, since animals have more developed nervous systems, the pain felt by taking their life is not equal to the pain a carrot feels when you pull it from the ground!
Furthermore, a plant-based diet causes less violence because the animals raised for consumption have eaten tonnes of grains before they themselves are slaughtered. For example, Steve Boyan, PhD of Earthsave states: “Before a cow is slaughtered, she will eat 25 pounds of corn a day. In her lifetime she will have consumed, in effect, 284 gallons of oil. Today’s factory-raised cow is not a solar-powered [“grass-fed”] ruminant but another fossil fuel machine.”
If our eating is not based on love and compassion, we are destined to suffer the ramifications of violence. Dr. Gabriel Cousens believes that, “Everything in the universe is food, therefore what we eat is God, and therefore feeds our souls. This awareness that food affects our minds is not owned by yoga alone. The great Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras once said, ‘As long as men massacre animals they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap joy and Love.’ ”
Cousens also points out that, “Compassion and non-cruelty toward animals are linked morally and spiritually to world peace. Killing an animal for food, even one that we raise ourselves or hunt, is a violent act, which we forget in consuming its flesh.”
Even more significant is the fact that when we eat the flesh of these animals, we also take in the vibration of this cruelty into our consciousness. “The science of Ayurveda also teaches that food is the basis of the physical body, which in turn is the support of the mind. Right diet, therefore, is the basis of both physical and mental health and an important foundation for spiritual practice,” he contends.
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