Any dog or horse trainer will tell you that what is fed to an animal influences its behaviour. Although we like to forget this when it comes to ourselves, what we eat has a huge influence not only over our physical well being, but also over our thoughts, and ultimately our emotional and spiritual well being. Proper diet is the most important aspect of living a healthy, happy and fulfilling life. The yogis of ancient times knew this, and many classical yogic texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, contain advice on a yogic diet. However, proper diet is a controversial subject. Nutrition has been extensively researched by modern science, and there seems to be as many 'proper' diets as there are scientific studies. It is more than a bit confusing for someone to devise their own individual diet amidst so much, often contradictory, advice.
The advice given below is based on the classical yogic texts and on the author's experience. It also gives pointers for further research and experimentation.
Unlike modern scientists, yogis are not interested in the chemical content (protein, vitamins, etc...) of the food. Instead, food is traditionally classified according to its effect on the body and mind, using the the three Gunas: Sattva (the quality of love, light and life), Raja (the quality of activity and passion, lacking stability) and Tamas (the quality of darkness and inertia, dragging us into ignorance and attachment) :
- Sattvic food promotes clarity and calmness of mind and is favourable for spiritual growth. It is "sweet, fresh and agreeable" and includes most fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables, whole grains, honey, pure water and milk (with the reservation that commercially produced milk may not nowadays be so sattvic...). Given the amount of pesticides and chemical fertilisers used on commercial crops, only organic products still qualify as Sattvic.
- Rajasic food feeds the body, but promotes activity and therefore induces restlessness of mind. It disturbs the equilibrium of the mind and is generally to be avoided by yoga practionners. Rajasic foods include most spicy foods, stimulants like coffee and tea, eggs, garlic, onion, meat, fish and chocolate, as well as most processed food. Eating too fast or with a disturbed mind is also considered rajasic. Rajasic food should be avoided by those whose aim is peace of mind, but will benefit people with an active lifestyle. A little rajasic food can be sattvic, for example, hot spices can help digestion, and therefore help create peace of mind!
- Tamasic food (to be avoided) induces heaviness of the body and dullness of the mind, and ultimately benefits neither. It includes alcohol, as well as food that is stale or overripe. Overeating is also tamasic, as it over burdens the digestive system which has to turn all this extra food into waste, and it dulls the mind. The traditional advice is to fill the stomach half with food, one quarter with water, leaving the last quarter empty.
The nature of food can change. Cooking is the most obvious way to change the nature of food. Grains become sattvic only after cooking. Honey becomes tamasic (poisonous) with cooking. The nature of a food also change by being in combination with other foods and spices, or if it is stored for periods of time. Generally grains should be aged a bit (they become more sattvic) but of course, fruits shouldn't (they rot and become tamasic).
How and when to eat is also important. One should not eat too late at night, for there should be a gap of at least two, and preferably 3 to 4 hours between supper and sleep. Food should be freshly prepared and eaten with attention, respect and gratitude. While one should eat to live, rather than live to eat, food should be tasty, so as to be appreciated. The attitude of the person preparing the food is important as well, as the mood of the cook permeates the food. Most Indians still prefer their lunch box prepared at home to lunch in a restaurant for this reason, and some yogis only eat food prepared by themselves or other yogis.
Another important issue with a yogic diet is that of vegetarianism. Not only are fish and meat specifically listed amongst the "food injurious to the yoga" by the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (I, 59), but eating the flesh of dead animals violates the first principle of yogic ethics (yamas) as laid down by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, that of non- violence (ahimsa). Yogis believe that the fear of death permeate every cell the body of an animal when it is slaughtered, and therefore, the traditional yogic diet is lacto-vegetarian and avoids eggs as well as all animal flesh (including fish!). Indeed modern research has shown that vegetarians are generally in better health than meat eaters. Proteins that can be obtain from nuts, dairy products and legumes are generally of a better quality than meat.
Anyone who has lived for a while on a dairy farm might go as far as questioning the morality of eating dairy products when the milk is taken from a cow whose calf has been taken away and slaughtered. This is a valid point, and while milk is not inherently "injurious to the yogi", it may be that in the world we live in, only a vegan diet can really be sattvic, because of the poor treatment of the milking animal, the stress they are subjected to, and the quantity of drugs that they have to ingest (some of which undoubtingly find their way into their milk). However, I believe that dairy from farms where animals are well treated, such as organic ones, is acceptable.
Another important point to consider is how any particular diet suits an individual's particular constitution and circumstances. Ayurveda, the classic system of Indian medicine, classifies people, as well as food into three categories according to their nature. These three categories, or doshas as they are called, are Pitta (hot and oily), Vata (dry and light) and Kapha (cold and moist) and in ayurveda, the individual's diet should be tailored to the individual's constitution to keep the doshas in balance. Some foods which are recommended for a particular ayurvedic constitution may not be suitable for another; for example, while milk, a sattvic food, is generally good for Pitta constitution, it may not suit someone with a Kapha constitution. The ideal ayurvedic diet also changes depending on the time of the year. For further information, see our articles on Ayurveda, Ayurvedic diet, and Ayurvedic cooking
Finally, the issue of food combining, which has received some attention in the West in recent years, is also important, for even the right foods taken in wrong combination can cause problems. Without going into too much details, let's just say that some types of food combine well, while others, because of the difference in the digestive process they require, should not be mixed. For example, strong proteins should not be mixed with carbohydrates. To be safe, avoid mixing too many different types of food in the same meal. See "Food Combining Made Easy " by Herbert Shelton, or "The Tao of health, sex and longevity", by Daniel Reid (also offers a wealth of advice on diet and exercise) for more information on that subject.
They are many more approaches to dieting, and eating the right food, in the right amount, in the right combination, at the right time, is a difficult art, that can only be learned by experimenting and cultivating awareness of our our diet affect us. I hope that the recipes from our recipes section will inspire you!
The ancient yogis also knew the power of annual or biannual detoxification. There are dozens of ways to detoxify the body, including herbal fiber. When powerful fiber is combined with soothing and stimulating digestive herbs, they can sweep the colon clear of impacted wastes and toxins; paving the way for better absorption of nutrients and increased energy.
Christophe is one of the resident yoga teacher and chefs at the Clare Island Retreat Centre, Ireland