Most people in the western world would only be aware of the physical side of yoga – the asanas (postures) and flows that are taught in yoga studios and on youtube. But the physical side of yoga is one of the most modern aspects of the ancient system, which consists of an in-depth philosophical structure based on a healthy mind, body and spirit, through healthy, clean and ethical living.
Yoga is one of six ‘branches’ of Indian philosophy, which include Nyaya (logic), Vaisesika (analysis of the origin), Samkhya (recognizing creation), Mimamsa (rituals of the Vedic tradition), Yoga (unity), and Vedanta (the path of knowledge). The word ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit term yuj, which means to unite or harmonize. By that definition, yoga could describe any method a human being uses to become united with ‘true reality’. It is intended to unite breath to movement, individuals with ‘the divine’, female and male energies, and, the yogic unity people would be most familiar with – the mind, body and spirit. But, before we get too heavy into the philosophical side of yoga, let’s look at where yoga diets stand.
Yoga diets are built around this philosophy, and the principles of eating like a yogi are part of an overall healthy lifestyle. The pillars of yoga philosophy come in the form of five yamas (components), which are the first of the eight ‘limbs’ of yoga, which were developed to help people reach an ultimate goal – a state of focused concentration. The five yamas include ahimsa, which means ‘non-harming’, satya, which means speaking the truth, asteya, which is non-covetousness, brahmacharya, or moving towards truth in love, and aparigraha, which means only taking what is necessary and not being greedy.
Ahimsa is one of the most important yamas to apply to a yoga diet. It means non-harming or not to injure and can also be interpreted as compassion. It is a Sanskrit word that creates the foundation of the vegan or vegetarian stereotype – non-harming, therefore, not harming animals. However, there are some exceptions to the rule…
Traditional Yoga Diets
A yoga diet is built around eating to nourish the body and having a healthy relationship with food. It stems from the idea that food is the creator of prana (life force), which sustains the physical body and mind. The reason most yogis are vegetarian is because it simplifies the development of sattva, which is the concept of ahimsa. Sattva involves peace and connection with all sentient beings and therefore does not condone the killing of animals for meat.
Traditional yoga diets consist of food grown naturally and harmoniously with nature. Therefore, in-season organic produce is most desirable to strict yogis. But it actually goes further than that. Yogis believe food should be prepared and eaten with love, gratitude and positive intention, in order to increase and sustain prana.
People following a traditional yoga diet would typically eat in-season fruits and vegetable, natural whole grains, like oats and rice, beans, plant-based oils like olive, sunflower and sesame, tofu, nuts and seeds, raw sugar, pure maple syrup, herbal teas, lemon water, spices, including cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cumin and fennel, and herbs, including mint and basil. They would generally avoid meat and fish, processed and artificial food, animal fats, canned foods, white flour, refined sugar and genetically-engineered foods.
Adaptations And Misconceptions
Now that we’ve outlined a traditional yogic diet, we’re going to completely flip it on its head! Well, not quite, but there certainly are misconceptions and acceptable adaptations within the yogi way of life. This is where it can get a little complicated and where omnivores can still call themselves ‘yogis’. Contrary to popular belief, yoga does not prohibit the consumption of meat. The concept of mental and physical balance for conscious living and a commitment to ahimsa would seem as though vegetarianism is the only way forward. However, ahimsa is not as simple as that, and the concept of non-harming extends to the individual person as well. So, for example, a person whose health deteriorates from a vegetarian diet is harming themselves, which means they are not following the principle of ahimsa.
The misconception was perhaps caused in part by the first generation of yoga teachers in the US, who studied under teachers such as Swami Satchidananda and B.K.S. Iyengar, who were Indian and Brahmin, making them culturally vegetarian. This, combined with a misinterpretation of ahimsa, led to an idea within the yoga community in the western world that you could only be a yogi if you were vegetarian.
So, How Do I Follow A Yoga Diet?
Traditional sattvic foods, including vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and ghee (clarified butter) are thought to nourish and improve health. In contrast, tamasic and rajasic foods, including onions, meat, garlic, coffee, chili and salt, are thought to cause dullness or hyperactivity. However, yoga diets should not necessarily be sattvic only. The healthiest diet for each individual yogi depends on their own constitution and current state. That can differ greatly from one yogi to the next yogi, as well as changing during different stages of your life and depending on the season, which also means the climate you live in plays a part in what you should eat. Not as simple as you thought, is it?
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