June 27, 2014

Applying the Yamas & the Niyamas to Food. ~ Shayna Hiller


According to yogic philosophy, there are ethical guidelines called ‘yamas’ and ‘niyamas’.

The yamas and niyamas are spiritual observances that can help us live a more purposeful, healthy, rich, fulfilling life. What I love about the ancient yogic philosophy is that it’s not so ancient! We can apply the teachings in the real world, and they have the power to significantly enhance our lives. Below, I discuss a modern-day application of these ethical ideologies as they would pertain to food and nutrition.

The yamas are more outward observances—the way in which we live our lives on the outside/actions we take, whereas the niyamas are more ‘inner’ observances, i.e. how we take care of our mental/spiritual landscape.

Here are the yamas and the niyamas and how they can be implemented into our daily life around food:

Yamas: Non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and non hoarding.

Non-violence: The less processed/adulterated a food is, the less violence exists. Eating plants is less violent than eating animals. Eating ethically raised animals is less violent than eating animals that were brutally slaughtered and/or factory farmed. Eating when we are not hungry is a form of violence. Eating to numb feelings or emotions is violence.

Eating more than we need is violence.

Truthfulness: We have to be honest with ourselves. It’s important to notice our eating habits and choices. Acceptance is the key. I always accept myself where I am, and I don’t pretend everything is okay if it’s not. If I’m restricting myself, it’s time to get present with it. If I’m overeating, binging, eating too many processed foods, etc., I just become aware. That’s it. Nothing needs to change.

The simple act of being present and allowing the truth to permeate us is very powerful.

Non-stealing: During my eating disorder, I felt very undeserving of food. When I would go to a Whole Foods, I would steal food from the bulk bins and eat it quickly without paying. No bueno! When I looked deeper into this issue, my feeling of not deserving food stemmed from a subconscious feeling of not deserving love. Food is love. Another form of stealing is eating more than our bodies need. There are many people starving for a tiny portion of what we have. I now am more mindful and don’t take too much. Not only would I be stealing more food than I need, but I would also be robbing my body’s ability to properly assimilate it.

Moderation: This is my favorite. How many times have we heard the played out phrase, ‘Everything in moderation?’ Yes, moderation is the goal. Moderation, or balance, or ‘the middle way’ as Buddha so elegantly portrayed… that is the goal. When it comes to food, this does not mean moderation of M&M’s. Moderation of wholesome foods is the true meaning of moderation.

Why would we include toxic foods into moderation? So, only sometimes we deliberately harm our bodies? Only sometimes we give our bodies artificial, processed junk food? Moderation is to be observed in relation to foods that nourish us. Eat enough. We shouldn’t eat until we are ridiculously full. We shouldn’t skimp on food either. We just have to eat enough, and eat enough of the right stuff.

Non-hoarding: Hoarding is prominent in people with eating disorders. During my dark times, I would hide food in my room and not leave it in the cabinet or refrigerator, because I was nervous someone in my family would eat it. Food was like gold to me, and I actually thought I had the power to control every single morsel. It was all mine. Not theirs. Binge eaters tend to hide food in places and only eat in secret. This is hoarding. It is a form of selfishness.

Niyamas: Cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and devotion to a higher power.

Cleanliness: Eat clean food! Simple. Eat foods closer to their original form. Hint: There is no ‘potato chip tree’. A peach does not need an ingredient label. It is just a peach! Clean! I choose organic foods as often as possible, as pesticides diminish cleanliness. The more manipulated and processed a food is, the less clean and pure it is.

Contentment: We must be happy with what we have. We need to allow ourselves to find satisfaction with our food. It’s time to notice if we are grasping for more, or if we can actually be present with the act of eating itself. Can we enjoy the simple pleasures and tastes and textures of our food? I do my best to chew well and enjoy the simple act of chewing. I notice where my food came from… the farmers who grew it, the vehicles and people who shipped it, and how it eventually landed on my plate. Contentment can also spill into finding the sensory pleasure in whole foods.

Can we experience the sweetness of a sweet potato or a carrot, or have our taste buds been altered due to highly processed, over salted and sugary foods?

Self-Discipline: This is probably the most obvious, however I want to dispel the notion of ‘discipline’. Discipline should not involve punishment and restriction. Discipline is simply a set of rules or strategies that we set up for ourselves that are easy and fun. They are guidelines that feel appropriate for us. For example, I like dessert. I allow myself to eat dessert three nights per week. I only eat desserts that are made with honey or coconut sugar. I also make sure I eat greens at every meal. This requires that I plan in advance and prioritize my health. Making our health a top priority involves self-discipline.

Self-Study: It’s great to become curious about ourselves. Inquiring deep within about our habits and patterns around food is a crucial step on the road to transformation. Do I eat when I’m not hungry? Do I overeat when I’m in social situations? Do I eat to calm my nerves when I’m feeling stressed? Do I deprive myself of the things I really want? Self-study is an opportunity to get really present with the way we are, and to make some conscious choices that will direct us in the way we want to go. If we are unconsciously moving through life, we are likely to repeat mistakes. Through self-study, we can create a new reality using our awareness and conscious mind. I usually have a pen and paper or a journal handy when reflecting.

Devotion to a higher power: Gratitude. Plain old gratitude. We must notice our food. Eating is much deeper than simply fueling ourselves up. I like to make it a celebration… a rejoicing. I allow eating to be like a meditation. I chew well. Closing our eyes, deep breathing, and eating slowly can help us connect deeper to ourselves. We may actually feel our physical body being nourished by the foods we choose to eat… the energy we choose to take in. It is vital to build a happy relationship with food. Without it, we would not be!

How can you implement the yamas and niyamas into your next meal?


Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Apprentice Editor: Kimby Maxson / Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Flickr


Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Shayna Hiller