Regulation of food is therefore the foundation of all other regulations.2
The yogic diet is one that takes into consideration each man's own needs as well as those of all other beings. For many yoga practitioners, this means a vegetarian diet. The practice of yoga aims to make the body a fit vehicle for universal energy, or prana, to flow through. This means that the body is much more than a machine to be nourished and maintained. It is a sacred gift. Indeed, many practitioners of yoga believe in the system of reincarnation, according to which, beings do not simply disappear upon death. Rather, the essence of each being is reincarnated in another life force—whether it is human, animal, or some other form. To be reborn as a human rather than as another object or form of being is a great gift. The gift of being human offers each man the opportunity to attain liberation through the use of his body, and just as important, his mind—the aspect of man's nature that separates him from all other beings. Therefore, men have a sacred trust to respect their bodies, as well as their minds, and so make their bodies the most fit vehicles possible to achieve enlightenment.
It is difficult indeed for a man whose body does not function well to undertake the practice of yoga. He lacks the energy to do the physical asanas or the presence and clarity of mind to engage in meditation. He lives life in a proverbial fog. The yogic approach to diet is designed to help men's bodies function as optimally as possible.
Many yogis are vegetarians because they believe that a vegetarian diet is the most healthful and energizing, and is respectful of the environment. A diet that contains meat is a much less efficient and economical diet. In order to feed the animals that we eat, many more acres full of plants are consumed than if we were to consume plants ourselves. Nearly everyone today is aware of the alarming rate at which rich natural resources such as the South American rain forests are being depleted. What many people do not know, though, is that these lands are being cleared in order to provide grazing ground for cattle and other livestock that are exported throughout the world.3 Yogis also encourage a vegetarian diet out of respect for our fellow brethren in the animal kingdom. According to yoga philosophy, all of nature is interrelated. Through reincarnation, the animals that are alive today are just as sacred as human life. Therefore, to kill animals in order to consume them when we can survive on plants is an unnecessary harm. It violates the first of the yamas (or moral observances) that form the first rung of raja yoga, which is ahimsa (non-violence).
In addition to its recommendation of a vegetarian diet, yoga principles advise us to seek out certain foods and avoid others. In this respect, yoga is closely allied with the science of ayurveda, which is becoming increasingly popular in the West. Literally meaning "the science of life" in Sanskrit, ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of healing based on the teachings codified in the sacred Vedic literature of India. The Vedas ("knowledges") are the oldest recorded scriptures in India and contain much of the earliest knowledge that we have about yoga. Ayurveda uses a combination of diet, nutrition, herbs, aromatic essences, massage, crystals, visualization, and meditation, among other healing measures, to maintain and restore balance. Ayurveda, which is the oldest system of healthcare in continuous use to the present day, developed parallel to, and in tandem with, yoga. Thus, many of the principles that form the core of ayurvedic science are essential to yoga as well.
According to the wisdom that is imparted in the Vedas, the interplay of three primordial qualities of energy created everything that exists in the universe. These qualities of energy are called gunas ("strands" or "qualities"). The three gunas are sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva ("purity" or "virtue") represents the quality of purity. Rajas ("excited" or "active") represents the quality of dynamism that can be overstimulating because it assaults the system and can cause stress. Tamas ("darkness" or "heaviness") represents the quality of lethargy and inertia.
All foods can be grouped into three categories based on the quality of these three energies. Sattvic foods are pure foods. They are to be sought out because they can help one to achieve purity of body and mind. Sattvic foods include fruits, grains, and whole vegetables. Rajasic foods are foods that overstimulate and are to be avoided. Rajasic foods include such items as strong spices, coffee, and alcohol. Tamasic foods are foods that create lethargy and torpor, and they are to be avoided, also. Examples of tamasic foods include meat, fish, and stale and overcooked foods.4
In addition to following a vegetarian diet that includes sattvic foods and eschews those that are rajasic and tamasic, many adherents of yoga routinely practice ritual fasts. These fasts provide an opportunity to allow the body to eliminate toxins. Fasts can also provide a rest for the organs of digestion and other key systems in the body. Fasts are considered especially auspicious during certain days of each month, known as ekdasi days. Ekdasi days are 11 days after the full and new moons.5
Complete fasting is something that you should perform under appropriate guidance. However, many people find great benefit in undergoing limited fasts—for instance, eating only fruits for a day, or drinking juices and eating a light salad. Of course, anyone with any particular health concerns should consult a physician before undertaking the practice of fasting.
The yogic approach to diet is one that can promote health and harmony in body, mind, and spirit. To those unaccustomed to a vegetarian diet, it may seem austere. If you are interested in incorporating a yogic diet into your life, be gentle with yourself. Introduce it moderately into your life, and try not to be too hard on yourself if you cannot maintain it strictly. As with yoga, selecting the diet that is right for you can be an individual practice, and one that unfolds gradually over time.
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