Food and Yoga
"All creatures are born from food, are sustained by food, and in the end get consumed as food. Food was born before all creatures and is therefore called the medicine for all." - Taittirya Upanisad
There are five bodies according to yoga - the physical, energetic, mental, intellectual and causal bodies. The external physical body is called the body of food (anamaya kosha). Why? It is made of the food one has eaten and nothing else.
According to Ayurveda, if one has good sleep, appropriate exercise (yoga) and correct diet, most health issues will be resolved. These are the three prime factors for good health. The most important support for yoga and good health, apart from sleep, is food.
According to yoga everything is food for some creature. Even our bodies are food for other animals. Not only is everything food in the sense that it is physically consumed, but what we absorb through the senses is also regarded as food. Food feeds the body and the mind - both need to be nourished.
There are three parts to the food we consume - one part feeds the body, one part feeds the mind and the rest is eliminated as waste.
The Three Gunas
According to yoga there are three fundamental forces in the material universe. These are known as rajas, tamas and sattva.
The three gunas operate in the external world, in our sense organs, our bodies and minds.
Yoga is dedicated to cultivating the sattva Guna: sattva means intelligence or sentience. Sattva is opposed by tamas (ignorance) and agitated by Rajas (pain).
Intelligence or sattva also has the quality of tranquility, peace and purity, while the quality of rajas is tainted by passion, distress and pain and indicates activity, while the quality of tamas indicates dullness, immobility, laziness as well as ignorance.
Pure, sattvic food nourishes the body and mind, is easy to digest and the waste is eliminated without difficulty. But impure food which is rajasic or tamasic leads to sickness, mental stress and digestive disorders.
Rajasic foods stimulate passions and cause stress and pain in the body, tamasic foods dull the mind, make one lethargic and heavy, while sattvic foods feed the mind with positive qualities and leave the body feeling light and energetic.
While the three gunas operate at all levels of the material plane, it can be said that they operate most strongly in the mind, while three doshas (ayurvedic consititutions) operate predominantly in the physical body. The three doshas are kapha, pitta and vatta. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into any depth regarding the doshas beyond a quick characterization.
The three essential ingredients which make up the physical body are known as ojas, tejas and prana - or substance, heat and energy. These essential ingredients of the body need to be in balance - when they become out of balance they manifest as the three doshas - excess substance is kapha (mucus/fat), excess heat is pitta (inflammation/ heartburn/anger), imbalanced prana is vatta (gas/stress/tension).
Each person has a unique constitution - an individual combination of the three doshas. Usually one dosha dominates and a second one supports it, rarely do all three doshas have equal balance in an individual. Yoga practice is mainly about managing the ups and downs of the doshas in the body and the gunas in the mind.
According to Ayurveda one should eat according to one's constitution (dosha), work, time of year, age and other factors. Yoga practice needs to be balanced against other commitments and responsibilities or it will cause more stress than benefit and so eating habits will partly support yoga and partly support work and family life.
Foods recommended for yoga are triodoshic foods - they are good for balancing all three doshas.
Since everything is food for some creature it is better not to think negatively about other people's food choices. Our attraction to particular food types is based on unconscious desires - we have a sense that this food will give us a certain kind of satisfaction and choose it for that purpose.
Food which does not support yoga:
Apart from milk and ghee (derived from milk) - no other animal products are suitable for cultivating a calm state of mind. Animal products introduce a host of unwanted chemicals and hormones into the system which agitate and dull the mind and are toxic to the body.
Not all vegetarian foods are suitable for yoga. Some foods over-stimulate the mind and stress the body - some foods dull the mind and make the body stiff.
Foods to be avoided include: caffein, chillies, onions and garlic, unripe/overripe fruits, processed foods, food additives, bitter, sour and salty tastes, unripe vegetables, fermented/rotting and oily foods, alcohol, fish and meat.
Processed foods should be avoided: protein powder, cliff bars, smart water, oven ready meals - even "healthy" power bars and frozen foods are usually filled with additives you do not want in your body. Furthermore, these foods have been denatured and have lost their wholesomeness.
There are two problems with ingesting chemicals which are not meant to be human food - they may cause immediate unwanted mental reactions and it may be impossible to easily eliminate them from the body - leading to sickness and disease.
Another way we pollute the body is through taking supplements and indiscriminate use of allopathic medicines. I believe that if you have good diet and yoga one should, in general, not need medicine or extra vitamins. There are a few yogic and Ayurvedic remedies which can help to eliminate most chronic conditions and give some protection against viral infection. I personally try to avoid using allopathic medicines but, of course, you should take your doctor's advice into consideration.
For instance ginger tea with lemon is very effective for combating sore throats, coughs and colds. Black pepper soup is also effective for clearing colds. Ginger tea is also excellent for warming the body on cold mornings. Yoga is about balance so nothing should be to excess.
What are sattvic foods?
Yoga is supported by sattvic food that nourishes the body and cultivates a calm and quiet state of mind. Some foods support this while tamasic and rajasic foods dull or disturb the mind and undermine yoga practice.
However, the quality of the food is not the only thing to be considered. The quantity of food, preparation, timing of meals, environment while eating, mental attitude and other factors will affect the way the food is digested and assimilated.
Sattvic food consumed in a tamasic or rajasic atmosphere, with a distressed mind, at the wrong time of day, in negative company etc. will not yield the positive desired results.
Food should be organic, fresh, in season and locally grown. It should be acquired through honest means: even though food may be pure, if it is stolen or is bought with money earned through work which causes harm to others or the environment, then it will not give the desired result.
"Wheat, rice, barley, corn, milk, ghee, natural sugar, butter, honey, dried ginger, snake gourd, the five vegetables (5 leafy greens mentioned in GS), mung beans, pure water, these are very beneficial to those who practice Yoga." - Hatha Yoga Pradikika
Most fruits and vegetables support yoga. Sour fruits can be sweetened to eliminate the rajasic effect of the sour taste. Some foods are heavier - better in winter to keep the body warm, sweeter foods are better for summer as they promote coolness.
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, spicy, astringent and bitter. All foods have all six tastes but usually one or two tastes dominate and the others are reduced. Diet for yoga should have a predominantly sweet taste. That does not mean one should eat candy all day although Krishnamacharya* did.
The sweet taste leads to contentment and happiness. The word for happiness in sanskrit is "sukha" - almost the same as the word "sugar". It is recommended that one thoroughly chew the food - one should drink the food one has liquified by chewing. It will be found that the grains recommended for yoga: wheat, rice, barley become sweet when cooked and well chewed.
Yogic diet recommends the following proportions for the ingredients of a meal: grains 60-70%, legumes 10-20% and vegetables 10-15%. Food should be 2/3 solid and 1/3 liquid. This is the diet recommended for an intense practitioner who does not have to work hard. More protein and different grains/pulses may be required for someone who has to work hard physically or has to deal with stressful situations.
It is ideal for yoga practice to eat twice a day - once between 11am-12pm and a second time around six or seven hours later. Midday meal should be the main meal and the evening meal should be lighter. Fruits can be eaten at any time though it is good to allow the stomach to rest, so snacking is not recommended. If life is stressful and you have to work had, a third smaller meal is needed.
Ayurveda further recommends:
"Eat when you are hungry, drink when you are thirsty, but never drink when you are hungry or eat when you are thirsty."
The tenth yama explained in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is Mitahara - "measured food" or the right quantity and type of food. Mitahara is regarded as the "kingly" or most important of the yamas (not mentioned separately in the Yoga Sutra).
Today, overeating and lack of discrimination about ingredients consumed is common. This is perhaps the largest cause of disease in modern times. Reducing the amount of food and choosing ingredients which are exactly what the body needs has a huge positive impact on health and wellbeing and paves the way to yoga.
In fact, change in diet will have a bigger impact than asana practice in the long run - obviously the combination of the two is ideal.
What does yoga suggest about the quantity of food to be consumed?
The stomach should only be 3/4 filled - 50% by solid food and 25% with liquid food. It is difficult to understand what this means initially since most people overeat and the stomach has swollen in size.
Another way to measure this is by the number of mouthfuls of food eaten at each meal - the recommended number is 32. This is no excuse to make each mouthful as big as possible! The idea is to eat less - this will be found to have a large positive impact on health and sense of wellbeing.
It will not take much time to assess how much food is recommended. Eating this way brings satisfaction without overindulgence. It allows one to put on the breaks at exactly the right moment to feel satisfied and prevent the pains associated with overeating.
Diet should also be consistent. It is not good for the system to change the diet from day to day. The basic staples should be the same - with large fluctuations in diet will come fluctuations of the mind and discomfort in the body. Consistent light diet is the best support for yoga practice, keeps the mind in an even state and supports meditation.
It should be remembered that some practitioners can be moderate and others intense. For moderate practitioners with family and work commitments not all the food disciplines will be possible or desirable.
An intense practitioner is focused on realization and has less day to day stress. But if you have a stressful job, are looking after children or are physically active and less committed to practice, you may need more food and you may need to include other ingredients and increase the amount or nature of the protein content (mung dal is recommended for yoga practitioners but if more strength is needed black dal can be used).
Nature supports both yoga and bhoga. Bhoga means experience or pleasure. Realization comes through experience, by reflecting on it and making changes based on experience. Eating should be a pleasure and food should be delicious even though one may observe certain disciplines. After a while discipline is not needed: the body and mind have returned to being naturally attuned to what is healthy.
Regulating diet regulates elimination. For yoga practice to be effective the digestive system and bladder should be empty. Many people suffer constipation and this can be exacerbated by starting a yoga practice, since yoga practice cultivates prana and reduces apana (which governs elimination).
Change in diet will help. Food should not be dry but well lubricated with butter, ghee, coconut or sesame oil. A glass of milk in the evening can act as a mild laxative. Ghee with food is also highly recommended by yogis as it increases the digestive fire - thereby making the process of digestion work more effectively.
The recommended meal timings take into account cycles found in nature and the human body. Digestive power increases to its maximum approaching midday and declines thereafter. For this reason the period just before midday most strongly supports digestion. This is the ideal time to have the main meal, especially for those with weaker digestion.
Another way to increase the power of digestion as well as to eliminate toxins from the body is fasting. Fasting has a very beneficial effect both on the mind and body. When the body has no food to digest, it starts to digest and eliminate unwanted excess tissues and toxins from the body. Serious fasting should be done under guidance, but a monthly half day or one day fast, drinking only water and no food can be undergone by anyone who is not excessively weak.
It is recommended that food not be consumed for half an hour before or after sunrise and sunset. These are ideal times for meditation and eating during these periods are likely to make the mind more tamasic (dull).
In order to obtain the sattvic benefits of food, the environment in which one eats also needs to be pure: it should be clean and uncluttered, the air should be fresh, there should be a peaceful mood. It is much better not to talk while you eat but focus on the food and its assimilation. Bathing in water has a purifying effect, even washing the hands and face increase sattva and puts one into the right sate of mind to eat.
If you eat with a busy or passionate mind, you will not digest well. Food feeds the body and the mind - if you eat on the go, it feeds the mind's active nature, if you sit quietly, there is a better chance food will feed your peace and tranquility. Eating has the tendency to amplify (feed) current thoughts and feelings.
Food preparation plays an important part in the benefit good ingredients can give. Food should be prepared by someone who loves you (that could be yourself!). A peaceful state of mind is necessary - cooking under stress will make the food more rajasic. When one eats food in or from a restaurant one has no knowledge about the type of person who has prepared it or their levels of personal hygiene. What were they thinking while preparing food for us?
Cooking is one of sixty-four yogic arts and sciences, each of which can lead to Self Realization and liberation. To cook for others is a great honor and a sacred duty.
Sattvic food is freshly cooked and should be consumed as soon as possible afterwards. As food becomes old it becomes tamasic - once re-heated, more tamasic still.
In addition to the basic staples - grains, pulses and vegetables, there are other essential ingredients to a yogic diet.
Certain herbs and spices are important for the way they aid digestion as well as their beneficial effect on the mind: ginger, cumin, fennel, coriander seeds, cilantro, basil, black pepper, cardamom (cooling effect for summer dishes).
Onions and garlic are generally completely rejected by yogis - they have subtle but powerful influence on sexual and other desires, however, food is medicine and garlic has many antibiotic and antiviral properties and may be a useful tool in cold climates to fight off colds and flu. A serious practitioner will wish to avoid them completely.
Food should be well lubricated with oil and or ghee. Ghee is one of the most valued foods and tonics in yoga and ayurveda. A spoonful of ghee with each meal is recommended.
Food should not be dry or oily. It is better to avoid frying - when the temperature of oil is heated beyond a certain point it converts more fats to trans fats, which are not healthy.
A complete meal should also include nuts or seeds - sunflower and pumpkin seeds provide many important vitamins and minerals. Seaweed is another valuable source of minerals. There are certain precious foods for yogis: pomegranate, figs, dates, ginger, sweet basil, ghee and milk.
Ayurveda recommends 6-8 glasses of water per day. Water should not be refrigerated but close to room temperature. Excess drinking of water as is the fashion has a negative health impact as does drinking too little. You can tell if you are dehydrated when your urine is yellow. Dehydration is a major cause for headaches that drinking enough water can often alleviate.
There are different suggestions for how to drink water with meals. For one who is undernourished and wishes to gain weight, water should be consumed some time after the meal. For someone more likely to overindulge and who may need to lose weight, water is consumed before the meal - to give a sensation of fullness and curb excess appetite. If the body is well proportioned, water can be sipped with the meal.
It should be born in mind that water is the only pure liquid, other drinks such as juices, smoothies etc. are food! Juices, smoothies and sweetened drinks offer a huge, often unrecognized increase in consumed calories.
It is recommended to have a break of 1-1.5hrs after consuming liquid and 4+ hours after consuming food before practicing yoga. If you practice in the morning, which is ideal, no food should be consumed beforehand.
One major concern for vegetarians is getting enough vitamin B12 - for this, milk is a very good source. In general, the milk which is available is of a very low quality and does not provide the desired sattvic benefits. However, it is possible to obtain unpasteurized organic milk from pure bred cows (cows are crossbred to produce more milk - this is of a lower quality). Cows which are maltreated secrete negative energy into the milk they produce.
Everything is food: what we absorb through the senses is also food - knowledge, light, air, sound - all this is food. We can nourish ourselves in many ways. We can also poison ourselves through all these senses.
We absorb chemicals through the skin and from the air, we are affected by electromagnetic fields, noise pollution and wireless networks, cell phone signals, toxic media messages and stressful relationships.
Objects we possess and the clothes that we wear also have an impact on our minds and bodies. For this reason yogis recommend living simply with few possessions (only what is necessary) and as naturally as possible. Synthetic materials and chemicals in cosmetics, soaps, cleaning materials and clothing are best avoided.
Even after following all these guidelines, one may still not get the sattvic benefit from eating and may end up being frustrated. If your job or actions you perform cause harm to others or the environment, this will create agitation in the mind and sattvic food will not negate the negative effects of your actions.
"Under certain conditions, food is considered precious: when it has been purchased in an honorable fashion; when it has been prepared from sattvic ingredients by a cook with a yogic mentality; when it has been prepared into delicious dishes that satisfy our taste; and when it is consumed in the correct quantity, at the right time, and with the best intentions. Those who consume precious food and develop the resulting sense of balance in their lives soon find little satisfaction with anything less. If a practitioner consumes precious food for twelve years** or more, there will be a radical shift and restructuring in her body. It paves the way for realization.
If we regularly consume precious food, our meditation will be easier. For many who do not eat precious food, meditation will be a form of torture. They will fail in their efforts. They make time for their practice; they sit morning and evening; they read spiritual books and hear the words of Realized teachers; but their body and mind will not cooperate because of their food practices." - The Sacred Tradition of Yoga - Dr KLS Jois
*"What were Krishnamacharya's favorite foods?
You might be surprised to know that he relished good food. He was from Andhra and so, relished food that was hot and spicy. He was very fond of sweets and would eat them in great quantities. With all this he would always have ghee. Ghee formed a very important part of his diet and whatever the food, it would be accompanied with large quantities of ghee. Of course, he was also doing asana-s for three to four hours daily in addition to his pranayama. His practice was extremely rigorous and that may account for his being able to handle these large quantities of spicy and sweet foods." - TKV Desikachar
** All the cells in the body are replaced over a 12 year period. Even if one has a history of bad food choices, this can be corrected over time.