“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances of survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
~ Albert Einstein
Our natural instinct is to be healthy and yoga practice helps us to tune in to that instinct. Yoga helps us to cultivate harmony and balance in every aspect of our lives, including diet.
The food we eat contributes to both our physical and mental well being. Food has a subtle, yet powerful effect on our consciousness; the yogi endeavors to keep the mind calm, clear and sharp and chooses a diet that supports this attitude.
In yogic literature, the energy of the universe is described as having three essential qualities called gunas:
Sattva: Purity, wholeness
Rajas: Activity, passion
Tamas: Inertia, inactivity
The whole of the material universe is continuously affected by combinations of these qualities. How do you feel right now: tired (tamas); alert (rajas) or at peace (sattva)?
When we begin to examine our lives in this context we often find a tendency to be caught up in one guna more than others; I know that I have a tendency to be quite rajasic sometimes.
The yogi seeks to be in the mode of sattva as much as possible.
Sattva is the ideal condition for yoga practice and is the platform from which the yogi is able to transcend the binds of the material universe. The character of a food and its effect on our mind and body determines its category of guna:
Sattvic: easily digestible, fresh, juicy, nourishing and tasty
Rajasic: bitter, sour, salty, hot and dry, spicy, stimulating
Tamasic: old, dry, decaying or dead, uses lots of energy to digest
A vegetarian diet is certainly sattvic; in fact, the word itself comes from the latin vegetus, meaning whole, sound, fresh lively—very similar to the definition of sattva.
Coffee, spicy curries and caffeine are all rajasic; meat consumption is certainly tamasic.
At the very core of the yoga tradition is the practice of ahimsa. Ahimsa means non-violence and not causing harm to others. When we consume the flesh of animals that have been slaughtered we are contributing, (albeit indirectly), to the suffering of those animals.
For the yogi, all life is sacred; every creature is a sentient being with feelings, thoughts and emotions. To consume another being is without doubt an act of violence.
But wait—don’t we need to eat meat in order to get enough proteins? This is what I was always told and ate meat without question for many years. But once I did a little research, I found out this is a bit of a fallacy.
Until about 20 years ago, it was widely believed that only meat, fish, eggs and milk products had complete proteins (containing eight amino acids not produced in the body) and that vegetable proteins were incomplete (lacking one or more proteins.)
However, modern research has found that most vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains are excellent sources of complete proteins and are, in fact, easier to assimilate than meat and also carry less toxins.
In the last 20 years, the official recommendation for daily intake of protein has gone down from 150 grams to 45 grams; recent research has found that too much protein can actually be harmful to the body.
The vegetable kingdom is the source of all proteins—vegetarians simply get it directly, rather than second hand from the slaughtered animal. It is interesting that meat-eating humans mainly eat animals that are herbivores—very rarely do humans eat carnivorous animals.
When you examine the basic physiology of a human being you will find it has more in common with a herbivore than a carnivore, no claws, perspiration though skin pores, flat back molars, alkaline saliva with well developed saliva glands, stomach acid ten times less strong than carnivores and long intestinal tracts.
In carnivores, the intestinal tract is fairly short, about three times the length of the body; this is so that meat can be passed through the system quickly, minimizing the impact of toxins. In herbivores and human beings, the intestinal tract is much longer, about six times the length of the body—fruits and vegetables decay less rapidly so can pass though the system more slowly.
The human body is unable to deal with excessive animal fat and cholesterol, which can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. As early as 1961, the Journal of the American Medical association said, “Ninety-seven percent of heart disease can be prevented by a vegetarian diet.”
Other important considerations are the economic and environmental impact of the meat industry, which is a tremendous drain on natural resources.
Millions of acres of forest have been chopped down for cattle grazing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 90 percent of all the grain produced in America goes to feed livestock bred for human consumption. The same department found that for every 16 pounds of grain fed to cattle, only one pound of meat is produced.
The world hunger problem can be solved; we already produce enough grains to feed everybody but we are allocating it wastefully to the meat industry.
A yogic sattvic diet is a natural step in both our spiritual and physical evolution as a species.
Ideally, after eating, the stomach should be half food, quarter water and a quarter empty; we are advised to chew our food slowly and thoughtfully and avoid distractions and stimulation and if possible, food is consumed in silence and with an appreciation for how the food is cultivated.
The idea is that we create a positive, nutritious eating experience that facilitates effective digestion and allows full absorption of nutrients and minerals—our consciousness is uplifted and we are in harmony with nature.
Not everyone can stand on his or her head or meditate for hours on end—but everyone eats every day.
Why not make eating a part of your yoga practice?
James Russell has been practicing yoga regularly for the last 12 years and has been teaching for six years. He teaches a range of weekly classes in Exeter and regular workshops in the southwest of England. He is a teacher for the Devon School of Yoga and teaches on their foundation and teacher training courses. James is also the founder of the community website.
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