The “Ideal” Yoga Diet. ~ Pranidhi Varshney

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yoga diet

It’s time for us to get real about food.

As asana practitioners, most of us are delicately aware of what we use to fuel our bodies, and how that fuel directly impacts our health and well-being. This is one of the gifts of the asana practice—an intimate knowledge of what our bodies need to function optimally.

If practiced without compassion and constant ego-checking vigilance, however, it can lead to increased rigidity and an amplification of food-related neuroses that most of us have struggled with throughout our lives.

There’s no doubt that eating disorders run rampant in modern day society. I wonder, though, how many more of us engage in disordered eating.

We may not starve ourselves, but I certainly know women who truly eat only one meal a day. Not because of lack of resources, but because we’ve told ourselves that we don’t need or deserve to be full.

I was recently volunteering at a yoga conference and felt ashamed of bringing down two slices of pizza from my hotel room to eat in front of my fellow volunteers as we completed our shift. 

I felt ashamed!

Would they judge me for eating gluten? Would they judge me for eating cheese? Would they judge me for eating more than one slice?

In the end, I fought my way through the shame, brought the pizza down, and ate it anyway…but I found myself thinking—how has a practice designed to build love and acceptance turned into a hotbed of judgment?

It’s time for us yoga practitioners to take responsibility for wearing our dietary choices like badges of honor.

Gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, raw, sugar-free. The list these days is endless. These diets surely help some people come into their optimal health but none of them is a cure-all for what ails us.

Too often, I see social media posts extolling the virtues of a dietary lifestyle based on restriction.

I joke with some of my friends that I should start a new hashtag to counter all the ones currently on Facebook—#AshtangisWhoEat. I understand the desire to want to share the things in our lives that have helped us, but I question the efficacy of promoting lifestyles that encourage us to deny, restrict, and abstain.

Can we stop glorifying symptoms of supposed detoxing and call them what they really are? Symptoms of hunger. A consistent asana practice already improves digestion and purifies the body on a daily basis.

I understand the benefits of an annual or semi-annual cleanse, but living in a constant state of “cleansing” promotes a distorted ideal of perfection.

After all, yoga practice is not about attaining perfection. It’s about attaining presence.

I’d like to shift the conversation to how we can learn to eat in accordance with the ethics laid out in yoga philosophy. How can we eat in a way that’s non-harming to ourselves and to the world around us?

The answer is going to be different for different people, and that’s ok. There is no one-size-fits-all magical diet, just as there is no one-size-fits-all method of practice. Same destination, many paths.

I currently eat a vegetarian diet, with varying amounts of eggs and dairy depending on my needs and desires.

Ghee is important to my well-being and I find joy and peace in making it out of organic butter from healthy cows. I revel in buying fresh fruits and vegetables from the farmers market, and cooking them in nourishing ways. My husband is an ethical omnivore and does his best to eat meat that’s raised sustainably and with concern for the animal’s well-being. We both experience food as an integral part of our lives, and have some of our most joyful moments sharing a meal with loved ones.

My raw, vegan friends may not find the same value in our choices but I hope they would see them as valid, rather than as an affront to health and wellness.

Diet is an evolution.

As our practice evolves and we flow through the stages of life, our needs and our bodies change. My diet now, as I continue to advance in the asana practice, for example, is likely quite different from the types of food I’ll find nourishing when I’m pregnant.

Our practice teaches us to be strong and flexible, in body and mind. Let’s find a way to honor the structure we each need in our own lives, and be accepting of others as they find the food that fills them.

Before most meals, I take a moment to honor the sacred act I’m about to partake in by chanting this Sanskrit mantra:

brahmarpanam brahma havir

brahmagnau brahmanahutam

brahmaiva tena gantavyam

brahmakarma samadhina


The act of offering is Brahman

The offering itself is Brahman

The offering is done by Brahman, into the sacred fire which is Brahman

He alone attains Brahman who, in all actions, is fully absorbed in Brahman

This mantra is traditionally said before meals and is a reminder of gratitude for the nourishment in front of us. In my humble interpretation, I experience the act of eating and digesting itself as a source of wonder.

I view each bite as an offering to the body. I bow in gratitude to all the resources it takes for food to reach my plate, and I remind myself that the only way to unconditional love and acceptance is through the practice of unconditional love and acceptance. There are such rich lessons in this mantra for all of us.

Our bodies are vessels that we must keep healthy, flexible, strong, and capable of meeting life’s demands.

Let’s encourage each other to eat holistically, in a way that nourishes our bodies, our spirits and the planet.

Let’s reclaim the joys of eating—whether the food be cooked or raw, animal or vegetable, spicy or sweet. 

Let’s set aside our judgment and embrace food for what it is—messy, complex, comforting, and delicious.

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anonymous Jan 3, 2015 10:06pm

Very well written and sweet article, thank you ! Our fears drive us to judgement and you have addressed this so beautifully in relation to the complex world of the vast dietary choices we have. I appreciate your grace, thoughtfulness and elegance ; )

anonymous Jul 23, 2014 5:42pm

thank you for a lovely, thoughtful, inclusive article. but if you really want "to shift the conversation to how we can learn to eat in accordance with the ethics laid out in yoga philosophy," we need to recognize that the first yama is ahimsa. the yamas are guidelines for how we interact with the world, not with ourselves; for interacting with ourselves, we've got the niyamas. so not causing harm — to animals, to the planet, etc. & we also need to recognize that yogis, by their nature, dig deep, look beneath the surface of things, just don't swallow marketing propaganda whole hog (excuse the pun!). so while you may think you're getting products from a "healthy" cow, how do you know? & healthy for you or for the cow? even cows fed an organic diet & raised on grass, which means they won't be shot up with antibiotics, still stand shoulder to shoulder getting machine milked for hours a day, they still have their babies stolen away from them so people can have at their milk — how healthy is that for the cows? for the babies? which are then either put in small confinement & fed on thin gruel so they don't build muscle & can be shortly slaughtered for veal or are beefed up & become, well, beef, or are raised to be indentured cow servants themselves. & there is, sorry to say, nothing "sustainable" about meat. no less a mainstream source than the new yorker even says so: "pound for pound, beef production demands at least ten times as much water as wheat production, and, calorie for calorie, it demands almost twenty times as much energy. livestock are major sources of greenhouse-gas emissions. … " (elizabeth kolbert) … grass-fed beef is actually even more energy- & water-sucking because the animals are slaughter at an older age. basically, there are simply too many people on the planet & too few resources for anything but a plant-based diet to be sustainable. … we each have our own paths to walk & we shouldn't judge each other for the choices we make, but we should all make our choices with our eyes wide open & take responsibility for them. we are all only doing the best we can, but we can all probably do a little better, understand how each of our thoughts, words & actions reverberates beyond us.

    anonymous Sep 6, 2014 1:03pm

    I appreciate the issues you bring up here, and absolutely, ahimsa is a tenet of yoga. Simply by existing as a human being in this world, however, we cause some harm. I view the practice of ahimsa as looking for ways to cause less harm and, at the end of my life, I hope to have done more good than harm.
    I agree that a primarily plant-based diet is best for most people. We are omnivores, however, and some amount of animal protein allows for optimal functioning for me and my body. I also hear you on taking responsibility for our choices. I'm conscious of the impact of my choice to eat some animal products and I do indeed make that choice with eyes wide open.
    We also need to take the other yamas into account. We practice satya by being truthful about our needs and acknowledging the reality of the impact we're having. We practice aparigraha by avoiding excess and waste. There's a delicate balance to be found while practicing all the yamas and niyamas and we should strive to be compassionate toward ourselves and each other as we all progress along the path.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and deepening the conversation.

anonymous Jul 21, 2014 4:45am

Just what I needed to hear….after struggling with health problems years ago I became healthy again through diet, but now feel that the need to eat the 'right' food is controlling me…. I think probably more yoga, breathing and meditation is the answer! thank you x

anonymous Jul 20, 2014 11:53pm

What a lovely article! Definitely food for thought (excuse the pun).

anonymous Jul 20, 2014 5:30pm

Yogis are people like everyone else.
We need to eat what is appropriate for our own bodies at any given time.
Isn't that the point of Yoga? Be aware. Be yourself. Honour yourself. Pay attention.
I've found over many years of practice most yogis tend to go vegetarian or vegan.
Is it because we become aware of our connectedness to the world and we don't want to cause more harm than necessary?
Maybe. Maybe not.
I do a lot of Yoga. Today I wanted a piece of strawberry pie.
So be it.
Bon Appetit!

anonymous Jul 20, 2014 5:15pm

I recently was a chef at a Yoga retreat. I would put out wonderful and diverse meals, something for everyone except meat eaters. I often served three main dishes, three salads, hummus, and non sugar dessert. Here is what I would often hear or be asked:

1. Is this gluten free
2. Was this purchased from an organic farmer
3. Was the farmer local
4. Is there any natural sugar in this
5. Was your spice bought from a free trade company
6. Do you serve raw diets I only eat raw food
7. What kind of oil do you use

On and On and On and On

Needless to say I no longer work there as I found them impossible to please

anonymous Jul 20, 2014 2:18pm

One more thing: I love your album!

anonymous Jul 20, 2014 2:16pm

Thanks Pranidhi–very insightful! I am actually also working on a blog post regarding the "right" diet for yogis for my local yoga studios. It's nice to see someone with a similar message. The "ideal" diet or what yogis should eat have created so many labels amongst us, but that defeats the purpose of practicing yoga in the first place, which is to erase all these labels.

anonymous Jul 20, 2014 11:56am

Great message, well written.. Love!

anonymous Jul 20, 2014 11:54am

This article is perfect! It’s exactly what needs to be said.

anonymous Jul 20, 2014 10:33am

Yoga is the quest for perfection therefore perfection is possible "when fully asborbed by/in Brahman" one is perfect. Yoga is the practice of union by which that which is not perfect (the ego), is transcended.

    anonymous Jul 20, 2014 9:10pm

    A valid quote to be sure. Just wondering if you agree with the article and what do you mean by perfection?

anonymous Jul 20, 2014 8:09am

Thank you for this! I eat a pescatarian diet and I eat food… multiple times per day. I'm not a large person but I'm not as slender as many yogis and I often feel like I should be eating less/eating raw/cleansing in order to attain that super-slim yogi physique. But yoga isn't about comparison and I feel good about my diet – ethically and physically. I FEEL good, which is so much more important than looking a certain way.

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Pranidhi Varshney

Pranidhi Varshney is a devoted ashtanga yoga practitioner and teacher, based out of Los Angeles. Her teaching style cultivates a sense of balance on and off the mat- simultaneous strength and surrender. Her goal is to inspire her students to build a regular practice, for only through commitment to our practice do we begin to live authentically. She is also deeply passionate about music and the arts in general. Through all her work, she aims to inspire, provoke, build community, and ultimately touch the heart. To learn more about her, and to download her album of Sanskrit mantras, visit her website. You can also connect with her on YouTube and Facebook.