Essential Principles of a Yogic Diet

OM annapurnayai namaha; OM sadapurnayai namaha
O Mother, you love to feed your children with the healthy, nourishing food that flows constantly from your abundance.

When I decided to start a blog about spiritual lifestyle, I knew that one of the topics I wanted to focus on was that of diet and nutrition. The truth is, our food choices have a tremendous effect on our physical and mental health, the quality of our subtle energy, our meditation practice, our karmic balance, the economy of the nation and the world, and the ecological health of Mother Earth. By becoming more mindful and aware of our food choices, we can help to address many issues facing humanity today. There’s lots to talk about, and I’m excited to start exploring the many aspects of food, but I want to take a moment to briefly outline my thoughts on what are the essential elements of a yogic diet.

I should start by saying that for me, “yogic diet” refers to a diet that supports one’s spiritual practice. This practice could involve meditation, Hatha Yoga, mantra japa, various devotional activities, or selfless service. The practice is not important, but the desire to come closer to God and eventually merge in God or achieve some kind of spiritual realization is key. Yoga is a Sanskrit word derived from the root “yuj,” which means to join, to yoke together, or to merge. So Yoga involves “yoking” ourselves to some kind of discipline or practice in order to achieve our spiritual goals and merge in divine consciousness.

It’s not possible to specify any one yogic diet that will apply to every seeker in every situation. Instead, I would like to discuss some principles that can inform our food choices. My opinions on diet are guided by my spiritual teacher, Amma, by Ayurvedic teachings, by scientific research, and by my own experiences. For me specifically, yogic diet includes fresh, healthy, organic vegetarian food that is close to its natural form, that provides all necessary nutrients, that is “sattwic,” and that is prepared in a spiritually pure atmosphere. I try to buy foods that create a minimum of suffering and that have minimal impact on the Earth’s ecological health.

Try to Eat Fresh, Whole Organic Foods

It’s becoming clearer day by day that humans are meant to eat fresh, whole foods that have not had a chance to go rancid and that haven’t had the life processed out of them. We evolved for millions of years eating foods fresh from the ground, tree, bush or lake. Foods were not stored or processed. When foods are in their fresh, natural state, their subtle energy is intact, and we receive and absorb that energy when we eat whole foods. Once a food is picked or stored, its subtle energy begins to leak away and energetically the food becomes quite dull and lifeless. It has much less vitality to give to us. In addition, foods begin to lose their nutritional value as soon as they’re picked or processed. Turning whole wheat berries into white processed flour robs the wheat of its fiber, bran oils and B vitamins. To receive maximum nutrients and life energy, we need to choose whole foods like fruits, vegetables, brown rice, quinoa, organic dairy products (raw if possible), whole grain breads, and so on. Of course, organic foods are most important for what they leave out–pesticides in fruits and vegetables and hormones and antibiotics in dairy products.

When we meditate or pursue other spiritual practices, we are trying to build up a “bank account” of subtle energy. The more spiritual energy we have, the better the progress we make. We have more energy available to purify negative energy, more energy to climb the ladder of consciousness, and more power in our words, our prayers, and our actions. Every time we consume lifeless, dead food, it’s like spending from our energy account. To preserve and build our energy, food must be full of vitality. This will give us the real energy that we need to achieve our spiritual goals.

Obtain Needed Vitamins and Minerals from Food

As I mentioned, humans evolved eating a variety of foods, and our bodies developed in reliance on the availability of certain nutrients. If we fail to eat an appropriate variety of nutrient-rich foods, our bodies will inevitably suffer from a lack of vital nutrients. We simply can’t survive and thrive on a diet that doesn’t provide adequate nutrition. In some cases, nutritional deficiencies will become obvious very quickly, like when a child develops rickets due to lack of vitamin D or calcium. In other cases, deficiencies may lead to longstanding “minor” issues that sap us of true energy and joyous vitality. For example, we may suffer with a lifelong low level of depression due to a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, something that is very common in America.

When it comes to the spiritual path, excellent nutrition becomes very important. In order to make the best use of one’s time in life, it’s necessary to cultivate good health and avoid dietary pitfalls that can lead to diabetes, heart disease, fatigue, high blood pressure, and unnecessary or untimely death. Not only that, many nutrients have profound effects on mental health and day-to-day mood levels. For example, magnesium is very important for maintaining relaxed muscles and nerves and a calm state of mind, yet many Americans are deficient in magnesium, which can be found in leafy greens and certain nuts and seeds. Or as I mentioned earlier, omega-3 fats can actually relieve depression in many cases. By supplying your body and brain with the necessary nutrients, you can help ensure a long life full of physical health and mental peace, two very important factors for a powerful meditation practice.

Sattwic Foods Lead to Spiritual Purity, Peace of Mind, and Physical Well-Being

In yogic philosophy, an important concept is that of the three “gunas,” or qualities. It is held that everything in the universe is a mixture of the three qualities: tamas, rajas, and sattwa. These gunas apply to foods as well, which contain the gunas in varying proportions. Without going into too much detail, tamas has the nature of darkness, heaviness, laziness, negativity; rajas refers to intense activity, agitation, strong excitation; and sattwa refers to peace, lightness, positivity. The sattwic foods are the most desirable for yogis and meditators, as they are easily digested, nourishing, tasty without being too stimulating, spiritually pure, and free from karmic effects.

In general, tamasic foods are things like leftovers, aged foods, foods that are old, stale, or heavily processed, and meat. Rajasic foods would be things like garlic and onions and overly spiced, salty or fried foods. Sattwic foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, soaked or sprouted grains, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and certain organic dairy products. The trigunic classification of foods can get complicated, and often depends on circumstances. Some foods may be sattwic in moderation, but tamasic in excess, for example. But the basic idea is that yogis and meditators should seek a diet that is primarily sattwic, with occasional rajasic or even tamasic bits thrown in on occasion, depending on circumstances.

Mix Love in Your Food

I always remember my guru, Sri Karunamayi, talking about her saintly mother and how she used to enjoy cooking food for people. Amma would say that “When Ammamma cooked, she mixed love in the food as she stirred the pot, and this made her food very pure.” According to yogis, the energy of food is heavily influenced by the consciousness of the one who cooks it. If the cook is very kind and loving and maintains a morally pure lifestyle, her food will be pure and sattwic, and will provide spiritual upliftment to those who eat it. On the other hand, if a cook is always angry, hateful, or lives a very negative lifestyle, her food will become tainted with her negative energy, and those who eat it will be dragged down somewhat by that negative energy. For this reason, yogis should take care to eat food that is cooked by positive, loving people in a spiritually pure atmosphere. There are lots of things one can do to maintain a pure atmosphere, from avoiding arguments in the kitchen to chanting mantras over one’s food, and I will discuss these in later posts.

Choose a Diet that Supports the Principle of Ahimsa, or Nonviolence

Out of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga, the first is “yama,” which refers to moral behavior. And the first yama given is “ahimsa,” or nonviolence. So the very first principle of Yoga is that we must avoid doing harm to any creature. In my opinion, yogic diet must take into account a consideration of the harm that our diet might cause to humans, animals, plants, and the ecological health of the entire planet. Rather than get into an involved philosophical discussion about nonviolence, I simply want to say that yogis have decided that animal flesh should never be eaten, because the animal must be killed for us to eat meat, and killing for food is simply not congruent with the pursuit of spirituality. It does get more complicated than this, though, because yogis who consume dairy products need to think about the well-being of the cows. Modern dairy farms often cause a great deal of suffering to cows, and so I feel it is important for meditators and yogis to purchase only from organic farms that treat their cows humanely.

When it comes to meat, we have already seen how meat is considered tamasic, and therefore unsuitable energetically for yogis. It is also obtained through killing, which makes it karmically unsuitable. By giving money to people who kill creatures for a living, we are supporting that killing, even if we do not perform the actual killing ourselves. Thus, we create a karma of benefiting from violence, which is not ideal for spiritual seekers.

One further very important issue when it comes to meat concerns how the meat industry affects the environment. It is becoming very clear that modern factory farming practices cause land wastage, consumption of vast quantities of water, grains, and fossil fuels, pollution of natural waterways, and the destruction of countless acres of irreplaceable rainforest. All of these factors taken together produce a terrible toll on the health of the environment. In fact, according to a recent Time article, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization recently estimated that livestock farming worldwide results in 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In comparison, all of the world’s cars, planes, trains and boats produce 13% of emissions. Thus, the livestock industry is worse for global warming than all the gas-guzzling SUV’s in America. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climage Change, has urged everyone to “Give up meat for one day [per week] at least initially, and decrease it from there.”

Putting It All Together

I’ve noticed that people sometimes get overwhelmed by all the political, social, and health issues involved in choosing a diet, to the point that they may give up caring. I understand this feeling in the face of so much information and so many seemingly conflicting scientific findings. My approach has always been to find the common thread and look for general principles that simplify matters and allow me to fulfill multiple goals at once. There is a way to improve health, heighten spiritual consciousness, reduce karma, reduce water pollution, reduce animal suffering, reduce rainforest destruction, AND reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. We can accomplish all these things by purchasing mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains and beans in their natural, whole, organic forms. If possible, buying locally will certainly help. In this way, I fulfill my goals of eating a healthy diet that is pure and sattwic and that avoids causing suffering to living beings and Mother Earth.

Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu
May all the precious beings in all the beautiful realms be happy

Source: Written by Eleathea (Ekta); Reprinted from her blog about ancient wisdom and modern perspectives.

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