Coming from a small-town, agrarian family, food was often fresh, straight from the ground, and well-respected.
Cows were reared in-house, giving us the benefits of a bio-fuel plant (from cow dung!) and homemade ice cream. Trees bore fruit through the year, and harvesting season saw us receiving bagfuls of melons and lemons from neighboring farms that we reciprocated with sacks of rice or wheat.
Junk food was forbidden; eating out was for rare occasions, and food was just another part of the day—we did not live to eat, we ate to live. My parents effortlessly set the right foundation for my “health” in childhood, which I effortlessly destroyed later in my youth.
As I waded through schools and jobs, I discovered convenient fast food, caffeine, packaged snacks, and translated them into weight gain, low energy, low immunity, and allergies.
Then I took solace in the cure-all fad of eating a “healthy diet,” only to realize that this is a term where everyone’s got a viewpoint, every viewpoint has got its research, and all research is divergent. I rode that bandwagon and tried a few diets for consistent periods of time, but nothing offered a permanent solution.
Until, that is, I discovered yoga and realized that the journey toward good health is simply a balance between freedom and responsibility. True freedom is not in eating whatever we want, and true responsibility is not in controlling everything we eat.
Swami Vivekananda had said that the ultimate goal of humans isn’t to be healthy. Food, sex, and sleep are the primary life goals of animals; our possibilities, on the other hand, are marvelous. Yet we haven’t managed to break out of our obsession with food.
As I looked back upon my childhood and these ancient philosophies, I figured that we just needed to connect and harmonize whatever diet we choose with nature. And these are the 10 secrets I discovered for doing just that.
#1: Health is in our mind.
The trouble with all diets is that they look at food as the root of all problems—and food itself as the solution. Whereas our digestive system is only a reflection of how we process or digest our thoughts. More often, mental digestion prevails over physical digestion.
In yoga, for instance, constipation signifies a possessive nature impacting those who suppress their feelings or hold onto material goods. Similarly, obesity can result from low self-esteem or loneliness. Dr. Svoboda explained sneha (Sanskrit for love) as “adhesiveness,” which roughly also translates to fat. Fat causes a chemical reaction which makes us feel loved, literally enveloping our body in a warm comforting embrace. Hence, if we don’t have enough affection in our life, we may instead try to find it through fat.
We therefore first need to address the root cause(s) and master our mind. A controlled mind does not mean counting every calorie, because then we are victims of neurosis. It is balanced, aware of our true needs, inherently seeks what’s healthy, and rejects what’s not.
Yoga practices work effectively to build such harmony between body and mind by giving us control over our breath, which controls our mind, which controls our body. Simply, breathing correctly will have a greater impact on health than any trendy diet.
#2: Food is a source of prana.
While food provides nutrition, it’s also a derivative of the universal energy called prana, which pervades all levels of life. It is that cosmic energy principle which when combined with the element of space, caused the universe to come into existence. The very sound of creation, Aum , is called pranava—that which is eternal. Health indicates an abundance of pranic energy which reflects in general vitality, glowing skin, and high immunity.
Interestingly, the cleanest sources of energy, even in our physical world, are sun and wind. Fossil fuels become energy by the action of pressure, heat, and time on the remains of dead organisms. So does food.
Hence, by simply breathing correctly with judicious exposure to the sun, we would be getting rid of unnecessary food cravings and generating large amounts of prana, supplying our body with the clean energy it requires.
#3: Eat local and seasonal.
The farther away the food is from your geography, the less relevant it becomes for your biology. Seasonal food tastes better, is more nutritious, cheaper, and has lesser impact on natural resources.
As per Ayurveda, the seasons lead to aggravation of our bodily Doshas, or humors, which loosely correspond to the air, fire, and earth principles; these are Vata, Pitta and Kapha. To balance these Doshas, we crave warming foods like soups, nuts, and fat in winter; sweet drinks and fruits in summer; and warm, salty vegetables to fire up the sluggish metabolism during rains.
Not adapting our diet with the season often leads to viral infections associated with the change of weather. We are a consequence of nature and cannot escape its governance, therefore eating as per nature’s cycles helps us not only fight seasonal allergies, but also improves our immunity.
Our parents or grandparents naturally ate what was seasonal or organic and rarely adapted to modern foods. What we’ve been eating since childhood is the most suitable food, and any new additions should be gradually introduced. It’s therefore critical to inculcate good food habits in children early, and leading by example is the best way.
#4: Eat fresh, wholesome foods, not processed items.
A disheartening outcome of the modern age is the popularity of packaged, ready to eat foods. Originally invented for the armed forces, as were most modern pesticides (chemical warfare), this new technology got the perfect break into the mainstream with the advent of feminism.
As women broke tradition and took up jobs, most households struggled with the question of who would cook, and the quick answer lay in packaged foods and ready-made meals. Perhaps the majority of health issues we face today are because a generation of men refused to get into the kitchen and share responsibility!
Food should be eaten fresh—freshly cooked or freshly picked is ideal. However, we regularly eat stale food that’s lost its prana, suffer through denatured leftovers in the fridge, consume excessive caffeine, and ignore our body’s demand for rest. We have turned the process that should’ve created life-giving energy into one that produces lethal toxins. As much as we can, we should cook food at home, shop for fruits and vegetables regularly—it’s therapeutic, don’t buy for the week. And even if that’s not always possible, support local home chefs in your community; it’s a lot better than food from a factory.
Equally, eating too “pure” in this age can be detrimental. A balanced diet and a limited exposure to germs helps to keep the library of our immune system up-to-date.
#5: Food prepared with love is powerful.
A meal made with love and devotion by those who care for you has far greater pranic energy and offers deeper satisfaction to mind, body, and soul. Food prepared by a chef who loves her or his art and derives joy from serving will be more fulfilling than food prepared by disinterested staff or a commercial establishment concerned only with profits.
This is because thoughts are energy—what we feel and think is energy. Electrochemical reactions in our brain generate thought by using up energy from a glucose molecule. Energy does not get destroyed, it only gets transformed and thoughts once generated don’t disappear but get subsumed into our environment as positive or negative energies. That is why one feels low around a person who is sad and uplifted around one who is full of joy. That’s why the thoughts going on in your mind as you cook permeate your food. And why food from a holy temple is considered prasadam—the purest food for man’s spirit or why nothing is ever as good as mum’s special pie.
The ideal food is therefore grown organically with devotion, harvested in season with joy, purchased and cooked with love, and consumed with gratitude. Perhaps the reason ancients had approached everything with prayer and a sense of piety was to infuse this positive pranic energy in all acts.
#6: Food influences our thoughts.
Food is categorized per the three gunas—or qualities of nature—which are Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. All nature, including all matter, every living being, and even every action is made up of these gunas. These gunas indicate the type of food as well as the type of environment that food creates in our mind.
Sattvic foods create balance; they are fresh, in season, and natural. Sattva represents light, knowledge, balance, and purity. These foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, milk, grains, legumes, etc. One should primarily eat Sattvic foods as they are harmonizing.
Rajasic foods are stimulating; they increase mental and physical activity. In excess, they mislead us into doing more than our capacity, resulting in failure or injuries. These foods are hot in nature and include items that are oily, spicy, salty, and caffeinated. Rajasic foods should be taken in moderation.
Tamasic foods create dullness; they represent the principle of inertia and result in a poor sense of judgment. All stale foods are tamasic, and even freshly cooked food becomes tamasic after a couple of hours of preparation. These include meat, alcohol, processed foods, onion, garlic, etc. Tamasic foods are strictly discouraged for those on the spiritual path and best kept to a minimum for others.
#7: Eat with awareness.
It’s important to eat with full commitment to the act of eating—no talking, television, or movies as that makes us eat mindlessly. This awareness extends to being aware of our emotional state while eating—food should be consumed in a relaxed manner and never if we’re agitated or disturbed. Yet many of us eat under stress, mulling over assignments or presentations, having working lunches, inconsistent meal times, or rushing through meals while walking or driving.
Even denying our cravings has consequences. Once a craving for high-energy food has set in, the body in an anticipatory response starts preparing for activity and storing glucose, which when not utilized gets converted to fat. It’s not just food that can trigger insulin, it is also our mind by simply thinking about food. So, when someone says they gain weight by simply looking at a piece of dessert, they are probably right. Awareness helps us reconnect with our body and become more mindful of what we put it through. It gives us the ability to not crave a decadent dessert in the first place!
#8 Eat in moderation.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that a third of the stomach should be left empty when eating. While consuming a range of foods is important to gain all essential nutrients, the diversity in one meal should not be extraordinary. Yet today, we over-indulge with enormous portions, unhealthy ingredients, and excessive variety.
Moderation comes when we chew our food properly, which slows down the eating process and reduces our intake. Eating fast makes us overeat and become sluggish, as energy goes into completing the process of chewing in the stomach, because we were too lazy to do it with our mouths! Moderation is further facilitated when we sit on the floor cross legged (active sitting) as opposed to on a chair (passive sitting). This keeps our body alert, concentrates the digestive juices in the stomach area and just maintaining this uncomfortable pose on a full stomach limits overeating—you will get up before you’re fed up!
Lastly, it’s a good idea to “detox” occasionally by fasting so the digestive system gets a break. Again, one should not go to extremes and pursue excessive fasting; it might offer instant weight loss, but can be permanently damaging.
#9: Use your senses to maximize digestion.
The food we eat should literally feed all five of our senses and, to begin with, should be visually appealing. It should even smell delicious and sound good—whether the crunch of apples or aroma from spices, it all contributes to the process of digestion.
Healthy fruits and vegetables have vibrant color, spotless skin, and will be firm if they’re fresh (though in today’s world it might just signal abundant fertilizer and pesticide usage). If you can access and afford fresh organic food that’s great, if you can’t it’s still great. Say a prayer and enjoy what you’ve been lucky enough to find on your plate. After all, it’s a being of nature that has given up life so you can have yours.
Our fingers, upon touching food, trigger signals to the brain about heat, texture, and spice so the digestive juices can start flowing. Therefore, traditionally food was eaten by hand. It also helps us control how much food we can take in every bite. Additionally, the minor chakras on our finger tips help infuse the food with healing pranic energy.
We should remember that our senses, and especially taste buds, are a matter of habit. You can reset them if they’ve become immune through overuse of processed foods with strong chemicals and preservatives. It takes 40 days to break an old habit and 90 days to establish a new one—all it takes is patience and perseverance.
#10: Spiritual implications of food.
Food is also a critical factor in the human spiritual evolution. Good thoughts, actions, and food result in good karma; bad thoughts, action, and food result in bad karma. Non-attachment and neutrality results in no karma—the elusive ideal state.
We incur karma every time we eat—the degree of which depends on the type of food. All creation is segregated into five groups: plants, insects/aquatics, birds, animals, and humans. Plants are the lowest form of life as they are made out of only one element, and humans are the highest form as they’re made out of all five elements. The higher the number of elements in an organism, the higher degree of karma is incurred in killing it. Consuming plants (water) incurs lesser karma than killing insects or fish, which are made of two elements (earth, fire). Killing fish incurs lesser karma than killing birds which are made of three elements (earth, air, fire) and so on.
Since everything we eat for food is sentient, it is not possible to live without taking away life. But by eating from the least detrimental food group available, we minimize our debt to nature. The lesser our account of karma, the faster we progress in the spiritual journey. Not just food, even waste is discouraged in ancient societies—imagine the karmic debt we create for throwing away a few grains of rice when each grain contains life.
The road to health is a continuous struggle between responsibility and freedom.
There’s an old adage that says limit your indulgences or nature will limit them for you. Our goal should be to get back in harmony with nature, sourcing our energy from its natural abundance and giving back our due as a part of this universal community.
Instead, we’re eating too much of one thing and too little of another. We’re eating what our farmers can’t cultivate without chemicals. We’ve damaged our efficient body systems by polluting our mind with inferior thoughts and severely depleted nature and its resources—our soil is undernourished and so are we. We pump ourselves with medicines and antibiotics at the drop of a hat and do the same with our food. Isn’t it so overwhelming that you find yourself reaching out to take a deep breath right now?
So, take a deep breath, start here with the first step, and gradually make your way through the rest. Never put yourself through unnecessary stress over weight or trying to keep up with a diet. Don’t make it so important that everything else becomes secondary or clouded by it. Food should not become such a strong limiting factor in our lives that we start defining ourselves through it. Always listen to this magnanimous body and to nature—leverage the power you hold, the power of being human.
Author: Namita Chandra
Editor: Travis May