Role of food in yoga
Although many people don’t realize it, diet is an integral part of yoga.Much of the yogic prescription for food comes straight from the yamas and niyimas, yoga’s “do’s and don’ts” as articulated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. It is well established in Western science that a poor diet can contribute to the development of a wide variety of diseases, including Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and some cancers. Modifying the diet can, in turn, improve health, reduce the need for medications, and in some cases reverse all signs of disease. In addition, yoga would suggest that a good diet can improve your mood, energy level, and overall well-being, and even help make the world a better place.
Yoga and Ayurveda on Food
Yoga and Ayurveda categorize everything in the universe as being made up of three different properties, or gunas: rajas, tamas, and sattva.
Rajas is the property of motion, and rajasic foods tend to be stimulating, even agitating. Onions, garlic, red pepper, and coffee are a few examples.
Tamas is the property of inertia. Tamasic foods tend to be heavy, stale or low in nutritional value, and can induce lethargy. From a yogic perspective, they lack prana, or vital energy. Fast food, junk food, and something that’s been sitting in the fridge for a week are all considered tamasic.
Sattva is balance, and sattvic foods are fresh, pure, and high in vitamins. Think of fresh fruit or a plate of steamed, organic greens.
Diet is the centerpiece of yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda. India’s traditional system of medicine characterizes foods based on their taste and makes dietary recommendations based on how foods with different tastes affect people of different constitutions. For example, people with fiery pitta constitutions might be advised to refrain from overly spicy foods in favor of foods with bitter, astringent, and sweet tastes. Hyperactive vatas, Ayurveda suggests, benefit from eating warm, nutritious meals on a regular schedule, emphasizing sweet, salty, and sour tastes. Kaphas, with their tendency toward inertia, may be told to cut back on sweets and high-fat foods, opting instead for spicy, bitter, or astringent foods.
Using Yogic Awareness to Guide Food Choices:
Finding the right foods is in part a matter of trial and error.
Yoga encourages people to develop their internal awareness (a regular yoga practice is a great way to do this) and study themselves to figure out which foods work best for them. A particular food might taste good, for example, but if you feel lethargic afterward, you can’t sleep well, or your meditation is more distracted than usual, it may be that this food isn’t agreeing with you.
Encouraging your students to keep a food diary, in which they write down what they eat and how they feel later, is a great way for them to study themselves. Self-study, or svadhyaya, is, of course, one of the niyamas, or yogic observances. If you suspect that a student’s health or well-being is being adversely affected by a particular food or group of foods, a yogic approach would be to eliminate the food or foods from the diet for a week or two and see if that makes any difference. Then reintroduce the suspect food (one at a time if it’s more than one food), and again ask the student to tune into how they feel. If symptoms lessen or disappear only to recur on reintroduction of a food item, that’s strong evidence that it may be problematic. When your students make this kind of discovery for themselves, they may be much more motivated to avoid the problematic foods than if the advice comes from someone else, such as a doctor…
Related Post: What is Viruddha ahara or Incompatible foods?