Creating a “Spiritually-Balanced” Diet: Four Valuable Guidelines from the Yoga Tradition

We all know that balanced nutrition is crucial for our health, but we often don’t realize that both what and how we eat can have an equally-important impact on our emotional and spiritual well-being.  In today’s article here at “The Living Yoga Blog” we’ll explore four simple but powerful principles from one of the central texts of the Yoga tradition, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, that can help you find an approach to eating that is as healthy for your spirit as it is for your body….

Power in Simplicity

Obviously, creating a healthy diet can be a complex matter — we all have different bodies, different tastes, and different lifestyles.  That much said, there are certain basic principles of nutrition that apply to all of us and from which we can benefit, regardless of our nature or circumstance, and the same goes for the spiritual side of our food choices.

As Mentioned above, one of the primary works of Yoga is The Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Svatmarama.  In it, Svatmarama outlines the basic principles and practices behind Yoga, including asana, pranayama, and even lifestyle, in which diet plays a significant part.

In discussing the food-choices that the Yogis found to be most helpful for spiritual development, Svatmarama covers some specific recommendations (for example, favoring sweet and juicy foods) as well as certain choices that should be minimized or avoided (such as sour foods, pungent foods, garlic, and others).  Perhaps more importantly, he also offers four basic principles that can be incredibly powerful, regardless of our background or disposition.

Guideline #1: Our Food Choices Should Be “Nourishing to Our Bodies”

The first guideline offered by Svatmarama might seem to go without saying, and yet the fact that he includes it is a valuable reminder of how easy it has always been to forget this aspect of eating.  Food can provide so much pleasure and entertainment, and generally holds so much emotional weight for all of us, that staying in touch with the importance of good nourishment can be difficult.  For this reason, Svatmarama encourages his readers to start with this primary idea: what we eat should first and foremost by good fuel for our bodies.

Guideline #2: Our Food Choices Should Be “Pleasing to the Palate”

Svatmarama’s second suggestion might also seem obvious, and yet it is especially important when we consider the audience he is addressing — that is, dedicated followers of the spiritual path.  Most of us assume that pleasure is somehow antithetical to the spiritual life, and yet here Svatmarama is suggesting exactly the opposite: the our diet not only can but should be pleasurable, even as spiritual seekers.

This is an area in which Yoga clearly differs from many spiritual traditions.  For the Yogis, there is a reason eating is pleasurable: in their view, we are meant to enjoy taking care of and nourishing our bodies.  The key, however, is balancing this element with our first principle — we are meant to take pleasure in food, we simply want to choose foods that are not only pleasant but also nourishing rather than letting our palate lead us to choices which are actually harmful to our health.  For the Yogis, we not only don’t need to “deny” ourselves pleasures but would in fact be making an error in assuming we need to do so, we just want to find the choices that are both enjoyable and healthy.

Guideline #3: Our Food Choices Should Be “Pleasing to Siva” … That Is, In Harmony With Our Deeper Beliefs

The third guideline offered by Svatmarama might require a little background to fully understand.

Like all Yogis, Svatmarama believed that the true nature of God is far beyond human labels, but that said, that it is perfectly okay to have our own concept of God — ways of thinking about and connecting with the Divine — as long as we remember that our approach is one small piece of the whole and just one of many valid ways of thinking.  For Svatmarama, the form of the Divine that resonated for him and his devotees was Siva, so when he says that our food choices should be “pleasing to Siva,” what he really means is that our food selection should be in harmony with our greater spiritual beliefs.

Of course, for us that might have nothing to do with Siva or even God — our notion of the Divine might be more of a universal or cosmic nature, rather than thinking of a specific deity — but we can still apply and benefit from the same ideal.  In simplest terms, Svatmarama is reminding his followers to ask themselves: “Are my dietary choices in harmony with my deeper values?” — if we believe, for example, in the value of the environment, are our food choices “eco-friendly” or do they conflict with that; if we believe in compassion, are we eating moderately or are we over-indulging when we could be sharing that excess with others?  By asking ourselves this question with each meal, we gain a powerful opportunity to both reflect on and strengthen our true principles.

Guideline #4: Our Food Choices Should Leave the Stomach 1/4 Empty

The last guideline offered by Svatmarama is another simple but powerful one, and that is that we should always stop eating when well-short of being full.  There are actually several reasons for this guideline, from both a physical and a spiritual stand-point.

From a physical perspective, we know that our stomachs actually digest far more effectively when they are only partially full, and that when we over-eat we actually compromise our bodies’ ability to completely assimilate all the nutrients.  We also know that we can breathe more fully, move more comfortably, and even think more clearly when our bodies are not “stuffed” with food.

Equally important, we know that, when we do eat to that point of feeling over-full, it is usually not because of our hunger but rather because of our desire for more pleasure, eating well past the point when our hunger signals subside simply because the food tastes good.  Learning to stop before we reach this point not only improves our health but also greatly improves our mindfulness.

Moreover, increasing our awareness of this balance when it comes to food can help us make a similar shift in other areas of our lives where our search for pleasure might lead us to over-indulge.  Just as the most-nourishing meal can have a negative impact when consumed in excess, we know the same is true with rest, recreation, or even “healthy escapes.”  Improving our awareness of when we have reached that “healthy point” at each meal can over time build our ability to do the same with television, media, casual conversation, or any other area where we might have a tendency to ignore the signals of our bodies or our minds.

Putting the Guidelines Into Practice

As mentioned above, along with these general guidelines, Svatmarama also makes some specific recommendations in terms of foods he has found to be both nourishing and pleasant, while also supporting the equanimity of mind he considers central to Yoga (that is, in harmony with Guideline #3).  He also speaks of certain foods that, from his experience, might be nourishing to our bodies but tend to be disruptive to our thoughts or emotions. (If you’d like to learn more, you might revisit our earlier article, here: “Yogic Diet, Fasting & Spiritual Nutrition”)

This serves as a good reminder that, as we all have unique tastes, temperaments, and needs, we should take the time to find the food choices that work for us.  But, regardless of personal tastes or ideals, these four guidelines can offer a powerful tool we can use each time we start to plan a meal.  By asking ourselves…

  1. “Am I choosing foods that, to the best of my knowledge and ability, are nourishing to my body?”
  2. “Am I choosing foods that are both healthy and enjoyable for me?”
  3. “Are my choices in harmony with my deeper values?”
  4. “Am I eating moderately?”

… we can turn each meal into an opportunity to not support and strengthen our spiritual values, nourishing our spirit at the same time that we are nourishing our bodies and hearts.

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