The Benefits of Eating Like a Yogi
While yoga has undergone many transformation and adaptations since it originated around 3,000 BCE, at its core, yoga is a is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice designed to still the mind — creating unity within mind, body, and spirit.
“Yoga, in its true meaning, is the science which provides the ways and means to attain the samadhi, i.e. merging of atma with paramatma,” says Vishwas Mandlik, founder of Yoga Vidya Gurukul in Nashik, and recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for his contribution to the discipline of yoga. Samadhi is the highest state of mental concentration that people can achieve while still bound to the body and unites them with the highest reality. This is interpreted as the atma (soul) merging with the paramatma (divine soul or God).
Yogic nutrition helps enhance the physical and mental attitude of the practitioner for progressing on the path of yoga,” Mandlik explains.
What Is Yogic Food?
The lifestyles followed by the traditional yoga practitioners are derived from yogic texts like Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. These sutras or statements written in Sanskrit are the guidelines that also highlight the different nutritional options for one practicing yoga. “The directives in the sutras are based on the quality of food. It is about consuming food that is good for your body. A yogic meal is by default a sattvic meal. This food consists of freshly cooked food. It includes fresh fruit, vegetables, cooked whole grains, milk, legumes, nuts, and seeds,” says Nikhila B Hiremath, Ph.D., professor at the department of Swasthavritta and Yoga at Sri Sri College of Ayurvedic Science and Research in Bengaluru, India.
The best explanation about the quality of food is given in the Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krishna in the 17th chapter, where he explains the quality of sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic food, says Mandlik, who has researched the nuances of Patanjali and hatha yoga, readings from Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads for over 55 years.
He is referring to the following yoga classifications: sattvic (pure), rajasic (stimulating), and tamasic (dull or inert).
Sattvic food is always freshly cooked. The food must include vegetables, protein, and micronutrients for daily physical and mental activities. This light and energizing meal is said to give clarity. “This nutritional guideline tells you to eat food that has ‘good fat’ content, food that is ‘sweet’ but not having [processed] sugars, or only fruits, cereals and lentils that are not bitter or spicy,” says Hiremath.
Rajasic food consists of stimulants like coffee, and includes oil- and spice-riched foods. “Rajasic food items are bitter, too sour, salty, hot, pungent, or dry and can cause distress, misery, and diseases. This type of food is to be avoided by the yoga practitioners,” says Mandlik.
Tamasic foods are the “worst,” according to Mandlik. Tamasic food is considered energy-zapping and detrimental to mental wellbeing. This includes alcohol or food that is old, stale, not cooked properly, frozen, or processed. Any excessive proportion of meat consumption is also considered to be tamasic. Mandlik says, “This food is tasteless, bad smelling. This type of food results in diseases of the body and mind.” Hiremath concurs with the idea that [a] tamasic meal can be harmful, “We are what we eat, and if we eat day-old food, food that is too processed, or food that is not prepped with the right mindset. A part of this affects the mind. It will disturb the mind. If your mind is settled, you will be able to meditate better.”
According to this philosophy, the sattvic meal is the best. Low on stimulants and meat, this food is similar to the healthy nutritional programs prescribed by nutritionists and doctors for an overall healthy lifestyle. It emphasizes micronutrient-rich foods, meals that are not processed, and not high in sugar, salt, and cholesterol content. Studies show that the concept of good nutrition highlighted in present-day science is similar to that mentioned in yogic texts.
Energy Flow in Food
The yogic lifestyle in essence, follows the sattvic nutritional guideline that thrives on pure energy. In his book “Spiritual Enquiry,” published in 1963, Swami Balananda, states, “The food we take has inherent qualities of the people who prepare the food as well. They are known as purity, activity, and inertia or satva, rajas, and tamas. Hence, if food is prepared by sattvic thoughts, the individual taking in the food will imbibe the sattvic qualities.” Such is the impact of the prana that flows through food.
“It is important the food you consume helps you have a stable mindset rather than provoke you. Food has many aspects; it is about a meal’s journey till it comes to our plate. Most of this is not in our control. The way we cook, the emotions while cooking, affect the qualities imbibed by the food, these are not just chemical or physical attributes. In ancient texts, there is even a mention of the type of vessels one can use,” says Hiremath.
Guidelines for Yogic Nutrition
For the layman who practices yoga and meditation, there is no strict food restriction, says Hiremath. “Your digestive fire comes into play. There is a saying among yogis, ‘eat as [little] as possible, eat as good as possible.’ For [a] yogi (who does the daily spiritual practice of sadhana), they would typically eat just one or two meals a day. For anyone else, it is solely about what your body requires,” she says. Yogic texts like Gherandra samhitha and Hatha pradipika have served as guidelines containing various food articles for higher practices of yoga.
Mandlik cites a Sanskrit reference from the Sutras about the quantity of food to be taken for good health: “One should fill half your stomach with solid food, one fourth with liquid food, and one fourth should be empty to allow the proper churning of food in the stomach for better digestion.”
Benefits of Yogic Food
Yoga can be practiced safely by anyone at least 8 years old. “It depends on the person’s capability and strength. You have to consider your age, lifestyle, your digestive fire, and 2-3 meals a day is considered the norm among most practitioners,” adds Hiremath. “Meditation is about bringing a discipline in mind and body. For example, if you are doing the balancing postures, you need to keep your mind calm. If you are distracted because of what you ate (bloated, etc.) it will just be like doing any other exercise, rather than a process to gain mental stability.”
The need to keep your body in a state of calm involves focusing on the timings and quality of food. A yogic meal is not standardized, it needs to be personalized for an individual considering their schedules, body types, and strengths. Hiremath says, “Yoga has many branches, many options, and it is the same when it comes to food. It’s about what suits an individual. There is a science at work, which has been mentioned in ancient texts, but it needs to be updated with the time we are living in, like a metric system we need to match it to our current lifestyles, to benefit from them.”
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