Yogic Diet, Fasting & “Spiritual Nutrition”

yoga dietWe began our journey here at the “Living Yoga Blog” with a look at the key principles of Yoga and an overview of each of the major branches.  We then followed with a closer look at the primary techniques, which we’ll continue this week with a look at the Yogic teachings on the psychological and spiritual role of diet and the related practice of fasting.

Of course, if you were to list spiritual practices, chances are you’d think of quite a few before diet, yet religious traditions across the globe speak of the link between food and spirituality.  In the following, we’ll take a look at the Yogis understanding of the link between diet and personal growth, the basic teachings of Yoga in the area of food choices, the idea of “spiritual fasting,” and some practical tips on how you can use these teachings to deepen your own spiritual work.

Is “Spiritual Nutrition” a Contradiction? 

To begin, spirituality and diet are hardly the unusual pairing we might think. In fact, given all the aspects of life food impacts, you could suggest there are few areas that even come close to providing so many opportunities to explore the connection between lifestyle and beliefs as diets.  First, of course, food is survival – we know food provides us with a sense of security while concerns of availability trigger equally strong feelings of vulnerability, and that both of these exists inside us on a very real, biological level.  Obviously, we’re fortunate to live in a society where starvation is seldom a concern, yet it’s important to note that “wiring” is still unchanged in us, which means every time we experience hunger or even uncertainty about our next meal, a very deeply-seated psychological mechanism is still being triggered.  Further, it’s worth noting all the conflicting nutritional information we’re surrounded by can in fact trigger the same exact response as we struggle to determine what is truly “healthy” for us.

Beyond sustenance and security, food also does far more.  Of course, our diet deeply influences our energy, which can be seen ultimately to have ideological and spiritual ramifications – that is, our food directly influences our capacity to live our beliefs, such as serving others or being productive members of our families and communities.  We also know cognitive function is powerfully influenced by diet, with certain foods allowing clearer thinking while others do the opposite.  And we’ve all experienced how food can affect our moods, making us more cheerful or agitated.  Again, each of these directly impact our ability to live our values, as it’s hard to stay aware of our principles when our minds are cloudy or feel compassion when distracted by discomfort.

Along with all these concrete ways food impacts us, there are subtler but equally I important psychological aspects to diet.  For example, food is connection – to nature, to the people who provide it, and to those with whom we share.  And perhaps most important of all, food is pleasure and even entertainment – in fact neurologists have discovered a unique neurotransmitter our brains only release when we consume food with others.  When we put all these together, again you could suggest there is no area of our lives that combines so many powerful physical and symbolic components.  As a result, it’s understandable why traditions around the world include food as part of their ritual and ideology.

This in turn becomes even more powerful when we consider the time we devote to food.  Think of an average day and ask how many hours you spend eating.  Now add the time you spend deciding on food, shopping, preparing, cleaning, and even just talking about favorite or different dishes.  Now multiply all of that by the physical and emotional factors listed above.  Looked at this way, it becomes clear diet provides an exceptional opportunity for self-study.  Imagine if every time we ate or thought of food, we took a moment to think about our greater goals and ask whether our choices and mindset were supporting them – clearly, we’d have an incredibly powerful tool for reinforcing our ideals, multiple times a day, seven days a week.  This is exactly what the Yogis realized and why they gave “spiritual nutrition” the deep consideration they did.  Let’s now take a look at the fundamentals of what they observed about our food choice.

The Basics of Yogic Diet

The Yogic view on diet begins with the metaphysical or energetic concept known as “the three gunas.”  In looking at the world of matter, the Yogis observed three basic types of energy – rajas, tamas, and sattvas – which can be seen in all objects, experiences, and even thoughts.  Rajas is fiery energy or agitation, which in its most negative form manifests as anger.  Tamas is inertia, and in its most negative form manifests as laziness.  Sattvas, finally, is lightness, peacefulness, and harmony.  Again, the Yogis believed all three can be seen in every aspect of the material world, including out bodies, our thoughts, and our feelings, and food of course is no exception.  Some foods, such as meat, spicy foods, and caffeine, are seen to be stimulating or rajasic.  Others, such as fatty, fermented, and overcooked foods, are seen as sedating or tamasic.  And some, such as raw or lightly-cooked fruits and vegetables, grains, and legumes, are seen as healthfully nourishing or sattvic.

Sattvic Foods

Raw fruits & vegetables

Lightly cooked vegetables, legumes & whole grains

Raw milk

Rajasic Foods 

Meat

Spices

Garlic

Refined sugar

Stimulants (coffee, tea, etc)

Tamasic Foods 

Fermented foods

Fried foods

Onions

Fish

Eggs

Reheated foods

Alcohol

Frozen Foods

Fatty Foods

As you can see, the Yogis witnessed the importance not only of food selection but also preparation.  Further, they observed the way we eat and our mindset are equally significant –  that is, even the most healthful food can have a negative impact if consumed in a state of agitation or depression.  This latter point is especially important – many of us pay great attention to our diet, but are far less aware of our mental state when we eat.  The Yogis found that eating calmly, mindfully, and in silence greatly enhanced the quality of nutrition as well as the mental state fostered by that meal.

Another important aspect of the gunas is we often make the mistake of thinking combining rajas and tamas amounts to the same as sattvas – that is, we tell ourselves if we combine stimulating activities with sedating ones, we will somehow generate “balance” – and nowhere is this more common than diet, where for example we consume spicy foods which stimulate us with fatty foods or alcohol to “calm us back down.”  The Yogis observed this mistake has several powerful negative consequences.  To begin, since rajasic and tamasic foods are less-than-ideal fuel sources, we get very little energy from them.  Further, because the two are sending conflicting messages to body and mind, the inner effect is profoundly taxing and draining.  To get an idea of this, imagine having two bosses, one who is always praising you and one who is always criticizing – the end result might seem to balance, but the internal turmoil would be great, and our bodies and nervous systems are exactly the same.  By contrast, when we eat sattvic foods we not only provide much better nourishment but also help our minds remain more calm in clear, which in turn helps us make better choices in all areas of life, including diet….

There are other nuances to Yogic diet, but one last element that deserves emphasis is how food influence our world-view.  As you may have noticed, sattvic foods are generally simple and readily available, while rajasic and tamasic foods require greater effort both to obtain and prepare.  The Yogis realized when our food is easy to obtain, can be enjoyed with little adornment, and leaves us feeling good physically and mentally, we tend to feel nourished by and connected to our world.  On the other hand, if food takes struggle to obtain and expense to make pleasurable, we tend to feel “at odds” with nature – that life is hard and the world something we must “conquer” in order to survive, let alone enjoy.  In other words, the more we choose sattvic foods, the more we support not just our physical and emotional health but also our sense of connection with the world, in turn fostering our desire to support and care for it….

Fasting as a Spiritual Practice 

Of course, most of us know the Judeo-Christian tradition also included fasting, with Moses, Jesus, and other figures observing periods without food, but we tend to think of it as a somewhat “extreme” practice.  The Yogis by contrast believed fasting can be a useful tool for all of us and even in the simplest and “mildest” form can have profound benefits.  Again, given the amount of time we invest in food, they realized if every now and then we take a break from eating and invest that time in our growth – for example, time with family, serving our community, or simply reflecting on our lives – these brief periods can have great impact on our personal development.

Again, it’s worth noting this doesn’t have to be long – even just a day or a portion of a day can be powerful.   And if even that feels daunting, we can practice a “relative fast” – choosing a form of eating that’s simpler but still comfortable for us, like a day of just fruits and vegetables or just juice and broth, so we free up our time while still honoring our “comfort zone.”  Even at the ashram where I lived, on our weekly “fasting day” the kitchen was still open with juice, soup, and simple dishes being available throughout the day for those who felt it was a better fit for them at the moment.  We can also apply the idea to other areas of our lives where we realize we invest more time than might be ideal, such as television, the news, or social media.  Think of what you could accomplish if, once a week or month, you took a break from an activity that consumes a lot of your time and invest it in a “greater purpose,” however you might define that.  This is the idea behind both spiritual fasting and holy days in general – in both cases, we’re choosing to briefly put aside certain worldly things, not giving them up, of course, but simply taking a break to invest that energy in something more important to us that is often pressed out by daily routine.

Simple Steps for Putting Spiritual Nutrition Into Practice

So those are the basics of Yogic diet and fasting.  As you can see, the fundamentals are actually quite simple: the Yogis realized, by focusing on natural foods in their natural state, we can foster greater health and peace of mind, and by eating mindfully and in moderation we can further support that process.  Ultimately, eating this way not only can give us the best health possible but also the best mental focus and outlook for living our spiritual values.

To offer a closing reinforcement, below are five simple steps we can use each time we eat to take even greater advantage of the powerful link between food and our ideals:

1. Consider your greater goals – Of course, every meal is a wonderful and important chance to experience pleasure – something the Yogis felt shouldn’t be denied or missed out on in any way – but it’s also a chance to foster health and build our capacity to serve others.  Before each meal, take a moment to look at how you‘d like this meal to support your long-term goals while still provide pleasure and joy.

2. Think of connection – As you prepare your food or wait to receive it, use the time to think of the connection between you and the world that meal represents.  Think of the people who grew or prepared it, the plants or animals nourishing you, the people with whom you are sharing, and of course all those who support your work, making the meal possible.

3. Express gratitude – Before eating, take a moment to express, silently or out-loud, your appreciation of the nourishment and pleasure you are about to receive.  Even a moment of silent thanks can greatly enhance our mindfulness and enjoyment, in turn dramatically enhancing the physical and psychological nourishment we receive from each meal.

4. Actively enjoy – We all know what it’s like to finish a meal with little recollection of how it actually tasted.  As you eat, take as much time as you can to truly savor it.  Ideally, consider eating in silence, or at least try to allow at least a few moments of calm within the meal, really observing and appreciating the smells, tastes, textures, and social connections of your meal.

5. Observe & reflect – At the end, take at least a moment simply to reflect: how does the meal feel for you?  In retrospect, how were the choices you made?  Are there things you’d like to be more aware of or do differently next time?  This process of observing and reflecting will help reinforce good choices and allow us to be even more mindful and aware our next meal.

By taking just a few minutes to follow these five steps, you can use each and every meal as a chance to greatly enhance your health while taking full advantage of the many opportunities for growth inherent in our food.

In our next article, we’ll continue our exploration of the major tools with a look at textual study, starting with the primary work of the Yogic tradition, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  Until then, again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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