I am practising a little light fasting today, and to keep my mind off food I’m alternating writing about it and practising āsana-s and prāṇāyāma-s.
Here, then, is a good opportunity for me to bring together some of what I have discovered over the years about yoga and food.
1. Yogī-s tend to follow a moderate diet
The Bhagavad Gīta (VI.16) tells us that yoga is not for those who over eat or for those who don’t eat enough.
Long fasts are off the to-do list, then, as are snacks!
In hard-core yoga circles, there is a well known formula regarding eating and it goes like this:
A moderate diet (mitāhāra) is rich in foods that provide stability and strength to the body, satisfying three-quarters of one’s hunger, by filling the stomach with two parts food, one part liquid and leaving one part empty
[Haṭhayogapradīpikā (‘HYP’) I.58].
2. What we eat influences the functioning of the mind
I met a chap a few years back, big into yoga, who rather hoped he didn’t have to become a vegetarian to practise yoga when he signed up to train as a yoga teacher. He rather liked a good Sunday roast and couldn’t see himself giving up meat. He ate meat everyday, more or less.
I met him again several years later on a yoga study weekend and was surprised to note he was eating vegetarian. Really? I asked him. And he explained that the change had come about gradually and not on purpose. He felt better in mind and body when eating a plant-based diet. He still eats meat, but mostly it’s a vegetarian diet for him.
My guess is that yoga practices, done regularly, generally have a calming, soothing effect upon the practitioner’s mind and this in turn leads to a greater sensitivity and clarity about who we are, what we are really about and how we want to live.
We become aware that foods influence us in different ways and that some foods echo the positive effects of yoga practice.
There is a Sanskrit word for this and it is Sattva. When we practise yoga, Sattva begins to predominate in an individual resulting in the Sattvic qualities of wisdom, lucidity, detachment, happiness and peacefulness appearing.
3. The link between food and the mind is ancient
The Chāndogya Upaniṣad, possibly composed in the earlier part of 1st millennium before the Roman Emperor, Augustus, says annamayaṁ hi saumya manaḥ, which means something like:
As is the food, so is the mind
Indeed, the subtle link between certain foods and the quality of Sattva is well known.
The Bhagavad Gīta (XVII.8-10), which was composed around 2,500 years ago, tells us that for those people who tend towards this Sattvic state of being (and that is just about everyone who loves and lives yoga), find agreeable those foods that promote life, strength, health, happiness and satisfaction.
Those foods are not stimulating (Rajasic), like bitter, sour, salty, excessively hot, pungent, dry or spicy foods.
Neither are they heavy (Tamasic), like foods that are stale, tasteless, putrid, over processed or going off.
They tend to be foods that are savoury, smooth, firm, hearty and pleasant to the stomach. They are mostly plant-based foods with a little dairy, especially ghee (clarified butter).
In short, Sattva promoting foods are light and nourishing, and they support us not cause us difficulties. From my own experience, some dishes that include meat or fish can be Sattva. Often these are slow cooked with plenty of vegetables.
4. The power of compassionate eating
Yoga offers us an enlightened way to living and one based on non-violence (ahiṁsā). This non-violence or compassion extends, ideally, to all beings, whether human or not. It follows therefore that killing an animal for food is contrary to this aspiration of compassion to all living beings.
I mentioned that a little dairy in the diet promoted Sattva. The milk being collected, in traditional Indian living, from the cow after its calf has had its needs met. The milk is shared between calf and humans, with the calf taking priority. In other words, the calf has not had to die for us to collect the milk, as happens in the West.
The ancient commentators on Patañjali’s Yogasūtra-s, discuss the possibilities that arise when one practises non-violence and this, of course, extends to whether one nourishes one’s body at the expense of another creature’s life.
Violence of every colour diminishes through holistic yoga practices, that is, those that go beyond the yoga exercise system commonly experienced by most of us in the West.
Again, it is a result of the emergence of the quality of Sattva that can happen when you practise yoga regularly and whole-heartedly over a long period of time.
You are not forced to become vegetarian to practise yoga: that would not be a compassionate approach. You should not be criticised for eating whatever you eat for the same reason.
A ‘superpower’ – Siddhi in Sanskrit – develops in someone for whom non-violence / compassion is firmly established and that Siddhi is that hostility disappears in others (YS II.30 & 35).
There is a lovely story of a famous yogī, commonly known as the Buddha. His cousin, Devadatta, was so jealous of him that he unleashed a mad killer elephant on the Buddha. Being so deeply established in compassion (which is the highest form of non-violence), the Buddha radiated loving kindness to such an extent that the elephant could feel it. Just a few steps before it was about to crush the Buddha, it stopped in its path and calmed down.
4. A balanced approach to Plant-based eating
I used to identify as a vegetarian (sometimes as a vegan) only to discover that when on holiday in some parts of the world it meant eating one thing and one thing only. No matter the restaurant, the vegetarian option was spaghetti with tomato sauce. OK, I’m exaggerating, there was also pizza with tomato topping and a green or mixed salad. Yes, I’m still exaggerating, but you get my point that the options can be limiting and not particularly healthy. In fact, it seems to me that the meat eaters get a better selection of vegetables than the vegetarian.
At home, my family and I predominately eat vegetarian or vegan. When we go out, half my family will choose a meat option. I might choose the meat option too – but one that comes with vegetables, because I love eating them. I’ll do this because the vegetarian choice is often more Tamasic than a fish/meat option.
I also discovered that some people, people I really loved, held my dietary stance secretly against me because it seemed a political statement being forced upon them. It was also a faff and a worry for them cooking for me. I woke to the idea that my vegetarianism was, for some at least, a form of hiṁsā – violence. I now accept meat dishes offered by others when doing otherwise would cause upset or offense.
Restricting one’s own diet can be a form of violence to oneself. A friend of mine, also a yoga teacher and longtime vegetarian, needed an operation. Her recovery was not as quick as she expected. After much reflection, she came to the realization that she had to re-introduce meat into her diet to enable her body to repair and heal. It worked. And now she listens to her body, which mostly desires plant-based food and every now and then a little meat.
5. What’s my approach to eating
Over the years, I’ve noticed that my approach to eating has not been the same. It’s been ‘normal’ up until I was 20 when I gave up meat as part of a Lent fast. It was at the end of that fast, while eating a sirloin steak that I realised that I preferred the energy and lightness (Sattva) that comes from plant-based foods to the heaviness (Tamas) of meat.
I eat plants 98% of the time. Lots of different sorts, although today’s supermarkets restrict the range of vegetables.
The 2% allows me to eat meat if I am unwell – it’s difficult to dismiss the healing powers of a well made organic chicken and vegetable soup. The 2% also allows me to eat eggs and cheese and allow my friends to be more relaxed about cooking for me. I can eat out and not be forced to eat vegetarian foods that are Tamasic or Rajasic.
More recently, I have become more willing to understand how animals reared for food suffer.
My food choices happened when I was ready to make them.
If you think what or how you eat is making you ill, please seek some professional advice. Some advice is advisable if you find that your a ready to change you diet to support you better.
TKV Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga
Eknath Easwaran’s translations of The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads
Frans Moors’ translation of The Yoga Sūtras
AG Mohan’s translation of Haṭhayogapradīpikā