Yoga - We are What We Eat
by Shameem Akthar
Yoga prescribes precise rules for the intake of food and water to help a sadhak progress along the slippery path of spiritual growth.
Why do yogis have a spare body? Non-practitioners believe, wrongly, that it has to do with the abject self-denial that yoga wrings from its sadhaks. Nothing can be further from truth. Yoga disapproves of extreme self-denial as much as it condemns over-indulgence. This wise median is directed at the most basic of human instincts, such as food.
The philosophy of yoga embraces a healthy attitude to food as part of the spiritual paraphernalia. This is best explained by an eloquent verse from the Bhagavad Gita, recited before meals:
Brahmaiva tena gantavyam
Though its essence is lost in translation, it is Lord Krishna's reminder that the divine is in everything. In the fire, yagna, the offering itself, there is Brahman. Since this prayer is used before eating, it is interpreted loosely as a reminder to watch what you eat, since it is an offering to the divine. You are what you eat.
It is almost as if our ancients had deep understanding of the neurological impact of certain foods. Seekers were advised against stimulating foods (rajasic like chilli, onion, garlic) which could rock you off the path by provoking anger, lust, irritation, and other extreme emotional reactions. And tamasic or sedating foods, like mushroom, meat, which could lull you off the path. But seekers were also advised against pride in such abnegation. What was the point in proudly claiming you do not eat meat if there is violence in your daily exchanges, expressed as anger or irritation? What is the point in being snooty about not including garlic in your meals if you secretly lust after your neighbor's wife?
But since yoga uses the gross to touch base with the subtle, it does get into the nitty-gritty of diet to help you transgress your animal instincts. Here is Shivasamhita's precise advice: "The yogi should positively renounce food that is sour, acrid, hot (spicy), saline, bitter, pungent or fried in oil, as well as things like fasting." The last item may surprise many since it is generally believed that fasting is compatible with the mental discipline required of this particular path. Most people who fast tend to deny themselves for a specific period. Then, when this period passes, pat themselves on the back by over-indulging, thus subverting the original purpose!
Continues the Shivasamhita, "The wise yogi should take his meals when the air enters the sun (when the breath is flowing in pingala nadi). The wise yogi should not practice breathing exercises either immediately after meals or on an empty stomach. Before starting the practice some milk product may be taken. These restrictions may be relaxed once the exercises are fully mastered. But such relaxation should be gradual."
You can see the gentle wisdom behind such advice. Unfortunately, yoga is seen as extremely disciplinarian. But in truth discipline in yoga is a source of joy and not an imposition. This may seem to be contradictory, but in effect the discipline enhances the quality of your life.
For instance, yogis are advised to follow the system of mitahara where food is concerned, filling the stomach only partially, leaving space for air and water. Sparseness of diet, it is routinely established by researchers, actually keeps the brain alert and adds years to your life. It also takes a substantial load off the overworked digestive tract and fuels the body's metabolism. It is not how much you eat, but how well your body is able to utilize your food that actually translates into health. Yogic diet tips are aimed at the latter. So you are like a fuel-efficient car, running superbly on very little.
Yoga is a science of reaching the divine, of making your life sublime. Like all sciences, it is very precise. Which is why its food rules are specific. In fact, there are rules as to how to follow a fast, the days when it is most conducive (intriguingly, modern science now proves that parasites proliferate with a waxing moon. Most religious fasts are linked to the lunar calendar to rid one's body of these stubborn pests), and how to break a fast (not with heavy fibers, but gentle carbohydrates like moong dal and boiled rice).
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and dairy products are seen as sattvic or pure. Even after its powerful stomach-cleansing rituals like shankhaprakshalana, yoga advises against fibrous food and suggests the softer, pureed rice-lentil mix called khichdi. It is equally precise about consumption of water. Yoga advises against consuming water during practice of yogic asanas (unlike in the gyms where people keep guzzling water continuously) since certain powerful poses can push up the stomach acids. It advises against water during meals since this dilutes the enzymatic action of the digestive juices completely, thus ruining digestion. There is a tendency to act as if these guidelines are irrelevant. But remember, there is deep scientific wisdom in yoga, confirmed daily by research around the world. To tamper with it is to subvert its purpose of keeping you healthy. And wise.
Sadguru Swami Sivananda is unequivocal about food's impact in his marvelous book Mind: Its Mysteries and Control. "Mind is manufactured out of the food that we take. Subtlest part of food reaches upward to the heart and thence entering the arteries... and thereby bringing into existence the aggregate of organs of speech and being changed into the form of the mind, it increases the mind." He quotes from Chandogya Upanishad: "The food that we eat is transformed in three different ways; the gross or the heaviest part of it becomes the excrement; that of medium density is transformed into flesh and the finest part goes to form the mind."
Here is a marvelous way to stoke the metabolic fire. Sit in a meditative pose, back erect, eyes shut. Place palms on thighs. Inhale deeply. Exhale forcefully, caving stomach in simultaneously. Hold the breath, push the head down to lock the throat (jalandhara bandha). Hold the contraction as long as possible. Remember to keep shoulders relaxed. Release the bandha or lock with control, inhaling slowly.
This is an advanced practice. Breath retention is contraindicated for those with high blood pressure and heart problems. This must also be avoided by those with severe digestive disorders like ulcers. Its benefits are many. It boosts metabolism and de-stresses powerfully. It is therapeutic in diabetes and mild digestive problems like constipation.