Just as a yoga practice is so much more than being able to touch our toes, a yogic diet is so much more than fitting into a pair of jeans or detoxing the physical body.
According to the teachings of yoga and its sister science of longevity known as Ayurveda, human beings are part of an interconnected web of life. These ancient sciences teach us that our own health and well-being are not separate from that web.
A yogic diet honors and respects our interconnection with all life while acknowledging the varying needs of our individual constitutions.
The ideal yogic diet is one that is considered sattvic, or harmonious, for the spiritual aspirant, in contrast to a tamasic or rajasic diet, which are believed to foster lethargy or hyperactivity, respectively. A sattvic diet helps support our other spiritual practices and is consistent with the other teachings of yoga.
Most notably, a yogic diet honors the teaching of ahimsa, or nonviolence to any sentient creature, which is the foundation of the yogic code of ethics. A sattvic diet avoids the killing or harming of animals in any way. This is why a yogic diet has always been a strictly vegetarian diet.
Traditionally, dairy (but not eggs), was an important part of a yogic diet. But what made dairy sattvic in nature in Classical India was the love of a cow for her calf, and the loving and even worshipful relationship between humankind and cows.
In our modern world of factory farming, where dairy cows and their calves experience unending suffering and slaughter, obtaining dairy is at least as harmful (or himsa) as obtaining meat, which is why many modern Ayurvedic and yogic scholars now believe that dairy can no longer be considered sattvic.
In addition to being vegan, a sattvic diet is both nutritious and easy to digest so that our overindulgence from the night before doesn’t sabotage our morning meditation or hatha practice. Sattvic foods are fresh, whole and natural. Sattvic food is cultivated with love and respect for the environment. Ideally that means it would be organic, and local foods are always a good choice.
Traditional guidance recommends eating foods that are ripe, raw or even better, lightly cooked (easier to digest), freshly prepared (eaten within four hours of preparation), and not overly spiced or oily. As a general principle we are advised to select foods which promote lightness in the body and clarity in the mind.
Within this general framework, there can still be much variation between what is right for you and what is right for me. A hallmark of the Ayurvedic system is its recognition that all individuals are just that, individual, and that we, as individuals are like a river, in a state of natural and constant flux.
What works for one person may wreak havoc on another person’s digestive system. And what worked for me when I was 20 and living in an arctic Michigan may not work for me at 40 living in the sweltering Deep South.
Ayurveda counsels us to pay attention to our own bodies and trust our own intuition. We know better than anyone what works for us and what doesn’t. If spicy foods don’t agree with us, we should avoid them. If raw foods make us sick, we should eat cooked food. If we aren’t digesting our food properly, we aren’t absorbing nutrients, and it doesn’t matter how many vitamins are in that raw kale salad if we can’t digest them. So it’s as important that we prepare our foods the right way as it is that we select the right ingredients.
In order to figure out what foods are most harmonious for us as individuals, it can be helpful to know our dosha, (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha), considered in Ayurveda to be our mind-body type. Knowing our dosha can help us organize and interpret our own intuitions and experiences. Often the recommendations for our dosha will reinforce what we already know, which reflects the real brilliance of Ayurveda. Many dosha tests can be found on-line.
There is no one size fits all yoga diet. There are certain general parameters, but within those, discovering our right diet is very much a practice of self-inquiry, self-discovery and self-discipline, like the rest of our yoga practices. The pillars of a yogic diet are that we honor our connection with all other life and trust our own intuitions about our specific and ever-changing individual needs.
Following are some general principles of a sattvic diet:
Foods to Eat:
• Fresh, sweet fruits of all types, preferably taken whole.
• Almost all vegetables except onions and garlic.
• Whole grains, such as rice, wheat and oats.
• Beans like mung, adzuki, lentils and soy (including tofu and tempeh).
• Not overly roasted or salted nuts and seeds such as almonds, coconuts, walnuts, pecans and sesame. All good natural plant-based oils like sesame, olive, and sunflower.
• Natural sugars such as jaggery, brown rice and maples syrups, molasses.
• Spices like ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, cumin, coriander, turmeric, mint, basil, fenugreek and other such sweet and digestive spices.
• Herbal teas, natural water and fresh juices.
• Foods prepared with love and mindfulness.
Foods to Avoid:
• Meat, fish, eggs and dairy
• Artificial, processed and junk foods.
• Canned food, except naturally canned fruits and tomatoes.
• Animal fats, margarine and poor quality oils.
• Garlic, onions and other over-spiced food.
• Fried food.
• White sugar and white flour.
• Artificial sweeteners.
• Old, stale, over and reheated food.
• Alcohol, tobacco and all other stimulants.
• Tap water and artificial beverages.
• Microwaved and irradiated food.
• Genetically engineered food.
• Any food prepared or eaten in a disturbing environment, or while feeling emotionally unbalanced.
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Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Lucy Kalantari