Article – Food myths in yoga practice – December 2013

FOOD FOR THOUGHT –eating burger

By Valerie Faneco. 

In the era of fad diets and the relentless pursuit of weight loss, there is perhaps a risk that we may consider the “yogic diet” as another trend. But the yoga system is several thousand years old so there must be good reasons why it has endured the test of time. In this regard it is a good idea to consult the âgamâ-s (classical texts) to reflect on the views of the original teachers.

Anna is food

According to the Hathayogapradîpikâ and other classical texts of Hatha Yoga, food is not only what nourishes our physical body. In a broader sense it is also the company of people around us, certain activities, and even travelling: significantly, a few such aspects are mentioned in verse 61 in the first chapter of the Hathayogapradîpikâ, amongst other verses defining appropriate and inappropriate food.

But let us just consider food as what we absorb into our body. Yoga texts tell us that it becomes prâna (life force) inside us. As the Taittiriya Upanishad says in the third chapter (bhrguvalli III.2.2), annaddhyeva khalvimani bhûtani jâyante: “indeed all beings are created from food”. Food is anna-maya, the first dimension in the pañca-maya system. It is what gives form to the body as a “gross” physical entity, and indeed the awareness of who we are begins at a “gross” level.

Hatha Yoga is often defined as a system of yoga postures and physical exercises. But this is not a complete definition. The Hathayogapradîpikâ (composed in Sanskrit verses or slokas around the 15th century AD by Svâtmârâma) describes Hatha Yoga as a complete system in four parts: âsana (postures), prânâyâma (the control of the life force through a number of breathing techniques), mudrâs (special positions in which “seals” or energetic locks are practiced), and, last but not least, meditation on nâda, the internal sound.

Ancient wisdom for modern times

In the first chapter of the Hathayogapradîpikâ Svâtmârâma answers three questions.

What should a yogi eat? What should he refrain from eating?

How should he consume food?

But before we start to examine what he says about the yogic diet, we should remember to read this in the context of 15th century India. According to TKV Desikachar the Hathayogapradîpikâ is not a detailed “manual” describing how to do the techniques, but a “checklist” for experienced yogi-s living under the same roof as their master. In this traditional setting the teacher would have supervised students closely to see how the techniques affected them, which would have enabled him to make adjustments whenever necessary.

There are several clues pointing to this. Throughout the Hathayogapradîpikâ, Svâtmârâma repeatedly says: “It must be done under the supervision of the guru”, or: “This is subject to the teachings of the guru”. Everyone would not be given the same practice, and in all situations it was what the teacher said that prevailed over the general principles instructed.

Furthermore, in the Hathayogapradîpikâ some of the techniques are described briefly or incompletely: “Do this on the left side” (but no mention of doing it on the right…). It is not very clear why, but we can assume that the students for whom these teachings were intended had already practiced yoga for a certain amount of time and needed no further clarification. The notion of time was also different in those days. What we call “a long time” today may be perceived as one year for someone, a few weeks for another. In Vedic culture, a long period of time was several years, or a complete stage in someone’s life… The experience accumulated by these yogi-s in the practice of yoga was significant.

How to eat

Verse 57 (in chapter 1) mentions a yogi who is also a mitâhârî, which means “one who eats a moderate diet that is adequate for him”. What he eats is suitable for him (hita), and moderate in quantity (mita). TKV Desikachar comments that hita and mita may not mean the same thing for each person. Food that is appropriate for one may not suit another, based on each person’s constitution, health condition, the season, and many other things. Likewise the quantity of food that one should consume varies depending on the occupation, energy level, metabolism, etc. These two principles are essential in the ayurvedic approach to health and healing, which works hand in hand with yoga.

In the next sloka (I.58), mitâhâra is defined as food that is “smooth, pleasant (susnigdha), sweet (madhura), and leaving one quarter of the stomach empty to please Shiva.”

Taking pleasure in the food we eat is important! Susnigdha refers to food that is at once pleasant and smooth. To make this relevant we should understand that eating is an experience that must be enjoyed, and that we should certainly not shun food that is sweet. Svâtmârâma insists on this in verse 63 (sumadhuram bhojanam: “very sweet foods”), and in verse 62 he specifically recommends the consumption of honey (madhûni) and crystallised sugar (khanda). Perhaps this is because in yoga and ayurveda the sweet taste is connected with kapha energy, which is associated with the quality of holding. We can surmise that for those engaged on a path of yoga an adequate amount of this holding energy was necessary in order to take in and assimilate the practices given to them.

Of course we should be very careful not to interpret these verses literally, otherwise there is a risk that all yoga practitioners would become diabetic! In ancient times sugar came from natural sources; it was not refined and added to many types of food as it is today. Furthermore, Svâtmârâma says in verse 63 that food should be consumed to nourish the dhâtu-s (the seven bodily constituents) and that it should be suitable and appropriate (yogyam).

Coming back to sloka 58, another interesting point is the fact that we should leave “one quarter of the stomach empty”. This makes sense: if we fill ourselves up there is no space left for prâna (energy or life force) to circulate and facilitate the digestive process. Besides, the feeling of “fullness” is not very conducive to the mental clarity that we cultivate in yoga practice, or at least the sustained effort that we try to apply in that direction. Much energy is used by the digestive process and diverted from higher pursuits.

“Eating to please Shiva” implies that we should not be greedy or hurried when consuming food. We may let eating become an action that we perform as an offering to the Divine. It does not necessarily mean that Shiva has to be uppermost in our mind while we eat, as this may not be useful or relevant in our culture. It could mean that a moment of reflection is taken before eating, a transition from the previous activity to focus on the present moment and avoid rushing.

On the subject of fasting (upavasa), Svâtmârâma clearly says that it is to be avoided (verse I.61). This brings to mind a famous line by T Krishnamacharya, the legendary yogi and father of TKV Desikachar. He used to say that “one should eat three times a day and fast between meals”. This is an interesting point to reflect upon in a time when some people go to extremes with fasting techniques and detox diets. If one eats regularly, consumes an appropriate diet in moderate quantity and with the correct attitude, there is generally no need to fast. Should a disease or problem occur, the type of food and quantity may be adjusted to suit that condition. So food is indeed a tool for healing.

What to eat (and not to eat)

It is clearly stated by Svâtmârâma that “the flesh of goats and other animals” (âjâ-adi-mâmsa) as well as fish (matsya), are not appropriate for someone practising yoga (verse I.59). Other items to avoid include certain combinations of vegetables (sakauktakam, verse I.60), as well as onion, garlic, sesame, certain types of oil and berries, a few types of vegetables, “intoxicating drinks” (madya, to be understood as alcohol), and some preparations such as “sour gruel” (sauvîra).

Why is that so? The likelihood is that yogi-s simply became aware through experience and careful observation that some foods made one bloated and sluggish, produced excessive mala-s (toxins) and could even bring diseases due to the lack of hygiene. In ancient India there was no way to preserve meat and fish so yogi-s sought to avoid them for hygienic reasons, aside from the fact that it takes longer for the digestive tract to process them.

Another type of food to ban (verse 60) is “food that has been heated (usnîkrtam) and is heated again (punar)”. This was also very sensible advice in ancient times for the same obvious hygienic reasons, but also because reheated food was regarded as “dead” since its essence and qualities are no longer there, and thus no nourishment can be obtained from it. It is still sensible to avoid it today, despite the convenience of fridges and microwave ovens.

According to yoga a specific energy called apâna-vâyu is located in the lower abdominal region; the function of elimination is there. This area is very important because it is also where the mala-s or toxins accumulate in a physical sense but in subtle ways as well. Some emotional and psychological problems are connected with the region of apâna and with blockages there. A sense of heaviness in this part of the body often goes hand in hand with heaviness in other domains so it is very important for yogi-s to maintain proper circulation of energy (prâna) there in order to avoid diseases. This is the reason why many foods that bring heaviness in this area are best left out of the yogic diet. And food that is light, nourishing and easily digested promotes lightness in the apâna area.

Does it work for me?

Much of Svâtmârâma’s advice is extremely sensible but a close look at it shows that not everything is clear or to be interpreted literally. Throughout my studies in the yoga tradition of T Krishnamacharya I have always learnt that it is not right to regard vegetarianism as part of the package of yoga practice, or as a pre-requisite to practising yoga. It may even be harmful to some students for reasons to do with constitution, age, climate and many other personal circumstances. Having said that, it may also be a good choice for certain students.

But what seems to matter at least as much as what we eat is the way we eat. Taking food may be regarded as a part of our daily yoga practice just like every other action we perform in our life. Eating with haste or mechanically is not recommended. Mindfulness in this domain is as important as mindfulness in all our actions, speeches, attitudes and relationships with others. We modern day yogi-s are “part time yogi-s”; we live hurried lives, have jobs and responsibilities, unlike the “full time yogi-s” in Svâtmârâma’s time. How many yoga practitioners rush back from a lunchtime class to eat a sandwich at their desk before running to a meeting? How can we eat the “yogic way” if we do not live a “yogic life”? TKV Desikachar once said that one could not advance on a path of yoga without paying attention to diet. While it is interesting to read Svâtmârâma and to reflect on what he says about food, it is also important for each of us to examine what we need to do in a way that suits our lifestyle.

The way we eat and the food we choose have to do with a combination of many samskâra-s and vâsana-s (habits and deeply ingrained patterns). They have a profound influence on our personal taste and psycho-emotional associations. For some people the relation to food is complicated while for others it is simple. I believe that there can be no standard “yogic diet” that could suit every yoga student, just like there can be no standard yoga practice that fits everyone. In addition to that, it cannot be right to shift abruptly from one diet to another, as it may cause a shock to the body and the mind. Our inherent nature is such that it is important to allow it to express itself in the choices we make, including the food we eat.

But this requires some degree of connection with our inner self, and that is another subject.

Valerie Faneco

Valerie (Being in Yoga, Singapore) is a senior yoga teacher and teacher trainer certified in the tradition of Yogacarya T Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar. She has been studying and teaching the Yogasûtra and principles of yoga philosophy for many years; in 2012 she translated a commentary of the Yogasûtra into English, published in India. Her mentor and direct teacher is Frans Moors.