A yoga diet is among the most important aspects of the practice.
This food-as-medicine, taken three times a day (at least, ahem), is what the body, mind, and spirit feed on. And many yogis believe that committing to the right principles make for a calmer mind and healthier body. In fact, the two appear to be directly related.
Not all yogis commit to the same diet because different teachers highlight different foods. However, when I lived at the Satchidananda Ashram, (aka Yogaville in Virginia) we ate what's considered a classic yoga diet that abides by the teachings of Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga.
According to Rev. Lakshmi Barsel, Ph.D., a senior Integral Yoga teacher who teaches classes on the ancient yogic texts, the dietary guidelines in place at the ashram are all based on the principles of what's called a Sattvic diet, a very clean way of eating that promotes a balanced, focused, and peaceful state. As a result, yogis often abstain from the following foods:
1. Meat, Fish, and Poultry
At the ashram in Yogaville, fish, meat, and poultry are not allowed. This aspect of the diet is rooted in the "8 Limbs of Yoga," an eight-fold path thought to lead to enlightenment. The first two stops along the path (even before you get to the postures) are the yamas (social restraints) and the niyamas (self guiding principles). These ethical principles relate to how we treat others and how we take care of ourselves. One of the yamas is called ahimsa, also known as non-violence or non-injury. In order to have love and compassion for all living beings, yogis don’t believe in eating them.
Additionally, according to Barsel, humans aren't physically meant to eat flesh. Our intestines are too long and our nails too short. Not to mention that our teeth aren't sharp enough to properly chew it. As a result, meat has a negative impact on our bodies, causing a toxic build up.
"These toxins make our minds and bodies restless and eventually unhealthy," she says.
At the ashram, alcohol is completely off limits because yogis believe that alcohol disrupts the mind’s ability to stay calm in meditation. If the goal is reaching the bliss and peace of enlightenment, then alcohol can take you off this path. Our minds present enough hindrances on their own, so adding more distraction through diet is problematic.
Coffee, or an excess of caffeine in any form, are considered overly stimulating, which can disrupt meditation. Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol can buckle the nervous system, creating a lack of focus in the mind. Not to mention that coffee can eventually drain the adrenals and cause fatigue.
4. Garlic and Onions
According to Barsel, the ancient Ayurvedic scriptures, the Suśrutha Saṃhitā and Charaka Saṃhitā, which are written in Sanskrit, both describe a Sattvic diet and classify all food according to how they impact the body and mind. Onions and garlic are considered overly stimulating and again, disrupt meditation and make people more aggressive.
"If you want a peaceful quiet mind, or if you are easily agitated, angered or frightened, you might want less of these foods in your diet or to avoid them altogether," says Barsel.
But that doesn't mean that you can't have flavor. Omitting garlic and onions from most any recipe is a cinch, or substitute them with ginger, turmeric, and asafoetida where appropriate. (Asafoetida is a spice powder, also known as Hing, that’s derived from a giant species of fennel. It can be substituted for onions and garlic in recipes.)
Some yogis eat eggs and many find them to be on balance, a very healthy food. But at Yogaville, they were not served because the ancient yogic texts say that the body has difficulty digesting them.
"The protein of unfertilized eggs resembles the protein of meat in that its toxins cannot be eliminated by our bodies before they putrefy within our systems," says Barsel.
6. Eating Too Much in General
Sometimes it's not the food itself that's the problem, it's an overindulgence of anything, according to Barsel. She contends that if we eat too much of any food beyond our capacity to digest it, we'll overload the system and render the excess food almost useless. And at the very least, we'll slow our digestion down. That stagnant digestion causes the mind and body to become dull and heavy. This is all described in the ancient yoga text "The Bhagavad Gita."
Not All Yoga Diets Are the Same
Just like many yoga teachers have different variations of yoga postures, the diet of a yogi can vary from teacher to teacher. Many traditional ashrams advocate vegetarianism as well as avoiding most caffeine, alcohol, etc. But the interpretation of ahimsa--the practice of non-injury-- is different among different types of yoga.
For example, in Jivamukti Yoga, practitioners are taught that all animal products violate the cardinal rule of ahimsa, and as a result, most practitioners are vegan. On the other end of the spectrum, some yogis eat meat because a vegetarian diet doesn't work with their Ayurvedic dosha (constitution).
While yoga practices may not be in agreement on every tenet of a yogi's diet, most agree that one should pay close attention to everything that goes into their vessel to ensure optimal health.
And, of course, sometimes you can slip up or disregard certain aspects of the diet that do not work for you. That's where judgment comes into play. Lighten both the harsh judgment you place on yourself and that which you aim at others for their diet choices. Ahimsa is a practice of non-violence, which can be interpreted as showing love and compassion for yourself and for others. If you make a mistake or find yourself off the path, hop right back on and get started once again.
Do you eat according to a yoga diet? Drop us a line via Twitter @OrganicAuthorit
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