The Yogic Diet
And he knew that food was Brahman. From food all beings are born, by food they live and into food they return. ~ Taittiriya Upanishad 3.2
Dietary choices are very personal. The foods that we consume must be chosen with consideration for what is optimal for our individual health and well-being. For example, if eating a vegetarian diet is not healthy for a particular person, it would be foolhardy for that individual to become a vegetarian — even if they did so in the name of ideology. On the other hand, it is easy to fall into un-mindful habits padded with lengthy justifications to back these choices. As with all things in yoga, it is wise to listen to the teachings with a receptive mind, and then come to your own conclusions through your direct experience and analysis.
There are practical, philosophical, psychological, and spiritual reasons for the yogic diet, which were understood thousands of years ago and still apply today. However, the classical or traditional yogic practices are ascetic in nature. In other words, the yogi removed himself from society and material comforts to go into deep contemplation in order to study the nature of the mind, learning its tendencies and eventually transcending the physical body all together. Our challenge in the 21st century is to navigate these traditional practices and to assess how they apply to our individual, present-day circumstances.
Anna, or food, is the first word for Brahman or Supreme-Consciousness. Everything in the universe is food. The inner Self is the eater of food, which is everything. All that we see is food for the soul. Our development as a soul depends on our ability to eat and digest the food that is our life. Food carries prana, or the life force, and sustains it in the body. Therefore, the yogi eats a diet that is pure or sattvic to encourage the development of the higher qualities of peace, love, and awareness.
The Upanishads state that the mind is made up of the subtle vibrations, portion, or the essence of food. Life can be viewed as an interaction between matter and energy, or food and the eater of food. If the food that is taken is pure, then the mind has proper building materials for the development of a strong and subtle intellect, and good memory. The yogic diet brings inner peace to the mind-body network and encourages spiritual progress.
Diet is an essential part of yoga because it promotes the health and wellness of the physical body, which is the foundation for a yoga practice to proceed effectively. A yogic diet is a natural diet free of additives and preservatives, and easy to digest. By choosing to eat a pranic diet, consisting of pure foods filled with vital energy, the yogi seeks to develop the higher energy of the mind.
Traditionally, the yogi eats a simple, natural, and wholesome lacto-vegetarian diet consisting of grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and dairy. Eating is a discipline of both the body and the mind, and is in accord with the principle of ahimsa or the reverence for all life.
The yogis believe that the three qualities of nature, or the three gunas, are present in all things, including food. The three gunas are: sattva, the quality or essence that is pure and balancing; rajas, the quality that is active, stimulating, and agitating; and tamas, the quality of inertia and dullness. When we eat, we are not only consuming matter, but also the energy present in matter. Therefore, the three qualities found in the food we eat not only influence the functioning of our physical body but also influence our mind, thoughts, and emotions.
Consequently, the guna that is predominant in our own mind influences our attitude towards food in general, as well as what foods we choose to eat. Therefore, the yogi avoids foods that leave one overly stimulated (rajasic foods) as well as foods that leave one feeling heavy and lethargic (tamasic foods). Instead, the yogi eats foods that render the mind calm and the intellect sharp (sattvic foods).
Sattvic foods are natural, fresh, pure, light, nourishing, ripe, tasty, and easy to digest. Rajasic foods are bitter, sour, salty, pungent, hot, stimulating, and dry. Tamasic foods are dry, old, decaying, foul smelling, distasteful, or unpalatable. Foods that have been processed, canned, or frozen, are cold or stale, or have been violently obtained are tamasic foods.
Eating is our first interaction with our environment. If that is not based upon love and compassion, all our other actions are bound to suffer. ~ Dr. David Frawley
The preparation of food is another aspect of the yogic diet because it is believed that the subtle energy of the person preparing the food is absorbed into the food. Thus, the strict yogi prepares food for themselves or has someone who loves and cares for them prepare their food. The process of cooking is an excellent discipline that involves giving to others, organization, and can be a learning opportunity for working well under pressure while staying calm. Food preparation also encourages cleanliness, imagination, creativity, and responsibility.
Instead of eating being a mindless sensory experience, our attitude toward food and our choices that follow have the potential to be a spiritual practice. Our planet is suffering from tremendous imbalance. Every choice we make has consequences, and what we choose to eat also has greater implications. We live in a country where obesity is skyrocketing, yet there are people all over the word — and even here in this country — who go hungry. Yoga asks us to take full responsibility for all of the choices we make. Even if a vegetarian diet is not right for you, moderation and mindfulness is always an option. The preparation of food is yet another opportunity to give and receive love. As the saying goes, “we are what we eat,” and what we eat is what we express. The question then becomes: what do you want to express?