For many of us in the West, Yoga started as an “exercise practice”. We would show up one or twice a week to a “Yoga” class, where we performed various asanas. We kept coming back because we felt calmer and healthier after each session. But somewhere along the way we felt the need to explore this thing call Yoga. During our exploration we realized that it is not what we thought it was, it’s even better. Yoga is a path to walk the spiritual journey to self-realization; it is a combination of tools to connect body, mind and breath “spirit” by concentrating in the present moment. When you are living in the now, it is hard not to notice your actions and how these affects not only yourself but also life as a whole.
In the initial stages, yoga is a process of healing. Dietary habits have contributed significantly to our disease. The two biggest problems we face are over eating and wrong diet. According to yoga, mind and body are both made from the same substance, so whatever affects the mind affects the body and vice versa. There is no yogic diet book out there, which is why yogis follow the ancient Indian text of Ayurveda.
In Ayurveda foods are not divided into carbohydrates, protein and fats. Instead it classifies them according to the effect they have on the body and mind. There are three types: satva, rajas and tamas. Tamasic food is the kind of food, which makes us lethargic or sluggish, while Rajasic food is that which brings about activity or restlessness. Whereas, Sattvic food is the kind that makes you feel light, energetic and enthusiastic.
Sattvic foods are those, which purify the body and calm the mind. They stimulate the body and mind into action. Cooked food that is consumed within 3-4 hours can be considered sattvic. Examples - Fresh fruits, green leafy vegetables, nuts, grains, fresh milk, certain spices.
Tamasic foods are those that dull the mind and bring about inertia, confusion and disorientation. Examples – Spicy food, onion, garlic, tea, coffee, fried food.
Rajasic -Overly tasty foods, stale or reheated food, oily or heavy food and food containing artificial preservatives fall under this category. In excess, these foods can cause hyperactivity, restlessness, anger, irritability, and sleeplessness. Example – Non-vegetarian diet (meats), stale food, excessive intake of fats, oil, sugary food
Not just, the right kind of food is important, it is vital to eat the proper quantity of food at the right time. Overindulging leads to lethargy while under eating will not provide enough nourishment. Most of the times we know that our stomach is full but tempted by the taste buds we tend to indulge. The right amount of food cannot be quantified into cups or grams, when we listen to our body attentively we will know when exactly to stop! Thankfully Yoga teaches us to listen to our body.
The hands have also been termed as the “measuring cup” for all our needs. Even the distance between the joints of each finger is a unit of measure (angula), cosmically designed to measure spices, herbs. In Ayurveda, the term anjali refers to the volume that can be held by your two hands cupped together. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar often states that when you cup your hands together, that is the right amount of food intake one should have to keep a healthy balance.
Another important factor is how much to chew our food. Saliva provides the first enzymatic breakdown of food when you chew properly. Chewing each bite 25 times before swallowing is the healthy beginning to fully digesting your food.
With this been said, we might eat the right kind of food in the right quantity but if we are irregular with our timings then the whole system goes for a toss and the natural rhythm of the body is hampered.
Ayurveda also prescribes a more personalized diet according to the nature of our constitution. Knowing our constitution will help us understand the best time to consume food as individuals. There are three Doshas (energy forces), Vata, Pitta and Kapha. These Doshas are a mix of the five great elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space. Ayurveda states that there are eight possible constitutional type, Vata, Pitta, Kapha, Vata-Pitta, Pitta-kapha, Vata-Kapha, Vata-Pitta-Kapha. Knowing our constitution will give us a better understanding on how we are affected by life and all that it contains. It will specially give you insight on the correct times to ingest food depending on your constitution. For example a predominant Pitta, usually will need to eat food every 3-4 hours, a Vatta person is irregular, one day they might need three meals and maybe another day they feel like they only need one. For Kaphas resisting hunger and thirst is easy, so they can eat less meal easily through out the day but they can easily become attached to food for emotional fulfillment. I must address that we all have these three forces in our bodies but some are more predominant than others. It is important that these 3 aspects work well together because when they are in harmony it is unlikely that you will suffer from health disorders or have excess weight. Also knowing our doshas makes us realize why food that might be favorable for someone might be harmful for a person of another constitution. The point of knowing our Doshas is to make sure every decision we make towards our bodies it’s in harmony with our constitution, to ensure the balance of this forces.
Another aspect of the yogic diet is the understanding of the Yamas of Yoga, or codes of conduct, one can grasp the value of connecting with oneself and the community through eating. One of this conducts is called Ahimsa or non-violence; Swami Maya (Maya Tiwari), renowned author in Ayurveda, defines the Yoga principal of Ahimsa or non-violence as a “commitment to protecting nature by choosing wholesome foods” and that by living Ahimsa, one is reclaiming the spirit of harmony and non-violence within you, which brings joy and abundance to the family and community”. After all we are what we eat!
As a vegan and lactose intolerant individual, I feel the need to discussed the topic of dairy and meat consumption in more details for those who might have some questions about it. First we most remember the reason why dairy is mention in the ancient Indian texts. Dairy has been part of a yogi lifestyle for thousand of years, but it has only been consume in small quantities and in a pure form. Unfortunately, in this modern time this ways have been alter creating different consequences to our body and minds.
Consider the changes that cows go through before they come to us. The animals that we eat are injected with toxic antibiotics and hormones. They are fed with POP (Persistent Organic Pollutants) sprayed and genetically "enhanced" feed. All of this can be passed on to humans, as you really are what you eat, these adversely affect our health.
The hormones given to cattle have been developed to increase the meat content and milk production. The hormones are administered by placing a slow-release tablet under the skin of the cows' ears. At slaughter, the ears are cut off and thrown away.
Infections are rampant because cows are kept in such close proximity to one another. So, along with the hormones, cows are fed large amounts of antibiotics to fight off infections. To compound the problems with raising cows, the calves are fed the blood and other slaughterhouse waste from slaughtered cows. The rationale of the scientists is that they are fed this stuff as protein. Really, whatever health concerns the cow may have had, worms, cancerous tumors, is recycled back into the next generation of cattle, pigs and chickens.
All sort of diseases have been link to this consumptions here are just a few examples. Prostate, breast, and ovarian cancers have been linked to dairy consumption. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University and author of The China Study, says casein (the main protein in milk) is one of the most significant cancer promoters ever discovered. Think about how often children are pushed to ingest milk, yogurt, and cheese. Childhood diets rich in dairy products are associated with cancer in adulthood.
We’re supposed to drink milk to protect against osteoporosis, right? So why do the countries that guzzle the most dairy have the highest osteoporosis rates? We now know that it’s not just calcium intake, but absorption and loss. When we eat diets high in animal protein (milk included), our bodies become acidic and calcium is drawn from our bones to neutralize that acidic environment, cheese is particularly acidic.
Last year, the USA “Healthy Eating Plate” food guide pushed dairy off the plate, based on Harvard’s assessment that high intake can increase the risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer, and also suggesting that foods like collards, bok-choy, and baked beans are safer choices than dairy for obtaining calcium. Speaking of calcium sources and absorption, did you know that kale contains more calcium per calorie than milk (90 grams per serving) and is also better absorbed by the body than dairy? And that’s just one plant food you can eat. Other plant-foods boosting calcium includes: beans, nuts like almonds and seeds like sesame, broccoli, collards, whole-grains, and tofu.
Meat and dairy pack heaps of cholesterol and saturated fat to one’s diet. A low-fat plant-based diet, what yogis call Sattvic diet, has been shown not only to prevent heart disease, but also reverse it. Before you think low-fat dairy is okay, it has been linked not only to increases in allergies, but also type 1 (childhood-onset) diabetes.
These are just some basic scientific bridges that exist between diseases and the consumption of meat and dairy products. There are plenty of extra arguments and information out there, but I hope this gives you a better understanding why we should ditch these products from our diet for good. Not only, we will be physically healthier, we will also become more loving and caring individuals, as we won’t be ingesting the negative emotions of these animals. Esoterically, the fear felt by the animal as it waits to be slaughtered and the hatred it feels for the one who slaughters it, changes the composition of its flesh and increase fear and anger in whoever eats it. The more the violence involved in the collection of our food, the greater the violence in our lives. By stopping the consumption of these products we will also keep ourselves out of the participation of their death, which is part of following a non-violence discipline in a Yogic Lifestyle.
I suggest consulting an Ayurveda physician to decide what kind of food is necessary for you and which aliments should be avoided. I also encourage you to choose organic products as often as possible as they bring us the best benefits while enhancing our environment. It is definitely worthwhile to pay some attention to the food that we eat, as the ancient Indian texts saids, we are what we eat.
All this information may be overwhelming at first, but all you have to remember is to take the first step. Start by becoming aware and present during meal times, this will give you great insight on how different aliments respond in your body. Getting to know your predominant Doshas, will bring you more knowledge on who you are as an individual and how your day to day choices, specially food, affect your life. Following a Sattvic diet, while keeping in mind your constitution will bring the most benefits. Practicing the yoga discipline codes is a natural extension to all this previous steps and vice verse. Been grateful for your food and making sure you eat them in a relax positive state of mind will do wonders.
We most remember there are many paths to living a yogic life and depending on which one you decide to follow, your diet will probably change too. Finally, I encourage you to be kind to yourself and remember that change takes time. Celebrate your achievements and inspire others to become conscious of their actions, as they affect us all collectively. Remember that yoga is not a diet, it is a lifestyle. It is about being consciously present as much as possible in your life. Detaching from the "illusion" and being one with all that is. If you can master this, better food choices will follow without much effort.