I am currently teaching a six-week Beginner’s Course to a wonderful group of students that has inspired me. One of the first lifestyle changes that happens when you begin practicing hatha yoga is a change in your diet. I wanted to offer some basic guidance on food for my students.
There are a lot of opinions and dietary instructions out there when it comes to food within various yoga and spiritual communities. So much it could make your head spin and cause you to feel information overload. There are many extreme diets being taught and encouraged; diets I am not sure are right for everyone. There is a certain amount of pressure as one gets involved in a spiritual lifestyle to adapt to an ideal diet. Again, I am not sure how healthy that is either.
What we choose to eat has deep psychological implications. Food that we crave is connected to our emotional state and to our family, social, and cultural conditioning. This is a big project to tackle. To change the way you eat is to change deeper patterns of thought and habitual behaviors.
First of all, I do not believe there is one “right” way to eat. There is not one diet that is right for everyone. Everybody has different needs based on several biological and circumstantial factors. I have had several students that are experiencing health issues in their life that dictate their diet. People have different blood types, hormonal balances, constitutions, etc. I also feel that throughout one’s life, what one needs for sustenance and balance will change through time. I recommend instead of trying to force or fixate yourself to follow a specific diet to approach it in a way that is open to the moment and observation of the body’s reaction to the nutrients it is receiving. Like everything else, change is constant. Stay present to the changes occurring.
The first change that yoga brings is a deeper mindfulness and concern for what one puts inside their body. Yogis do not eat for the initial sensory experience. They look deeper into the way the food is nourishing the body, the ease of digestion, and the way it affects their energy levels and mind. This is a very different approach to food than most of America is taking. For example, greasy fast food might taste good in the first moment of eating it, but observe, how do you feel later ? Does it sustain your energy long-term ? Do you have a crash ? Does your skin break out ? Is your digestion smooth ?
The first fairly universal shift I would recommend for everyone is to try and avoid eating canned, boxed, or chemically-modified food. Try to remove impurities from your diet. Eat as much fresh food as you can. Organic, non-GMO is best if possible. The cleaner, the better. Try to avoid processed sugar. You would be surprised how much sugar is added to everything. Read labels! You do not necessarily have to change the dishes you like to make. Perhaps you can modify them a bit.
If you have a sweet tooth, try to limit yourself to one small, lovely desert after dinner. In small amounts, some things like dark chocolate can even have a positive effect on the body. Try to replace the sweet cravings with fruits which contain natural sugars. If you like fruit juice or ice cream, look for something that does not have sugar added. Use some discipline. We are on a sugar overload! Try to lay off sodas and drink more water.
If you are trying to lose weight, I recommend lowering your intake of wheat (yes, this means beer) and processed sugar from your diet. Wheat is another substance that is added to almost everything. There are more options for gluten free products on the market now, and prices are getting more reasonable. Rice, quinoa, and spaghetti squash make a nice alternative to the high doses of bread we are told we should be eating a day.
Get healthy! Getting healthy means eating foods that benefit the bodies process versus depleting it. Choose to eat foods that help heal instead of hinder. Food can be medicine.
This subject is too large for one blog. This is a start. There is so much detail one could go in concerning the mental aspects of food and the gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas). I will save it for another day. My intent was to give new students some basic direction. Eat for nutrition and health.
What happens in the deeper levels of food and spirituality is becoming aware of the connection to what you eat which has political, environmental, and ethical implications. This is the level where deep and heated debates can occur. I have observed judgment thrown around. Therefore, I want to avoid going too far into this discussion. Perhaps I will write a follow-up blog if it is requested.
For now, I want to give some basic guidance to newer students so they can clean up their diet and feel better. Your diet is a direct reflection of your connection to the physical and spiritual Earth. Your body is literally made up of Earth itself. It is also a reflection of the way you feel and treat yourself. Treat yourself kindly, with love. Feed yourself positive wholesome nourishment!
I recommend practicing yoga and allowing your diet to change naturally versus forcing too much too quick. Be the observer. Observe how different foods make you feel. See what works and what doesn’t. Experiment. You are the scientist! Try to make decisions about your diet that support your highest good, whatever that means for you at the moment. Don’t judge yourself or others harshly. Practice self acceptance. Take small steps to achieving your highest state of health and well-being.
If you are interested in Ayurveda, which is an ancient system of Indian health and healing and a sister science to yoga, I would suggest attending the workshop I am hosting this Spring with Christine Hoar. Ayurveda offers a unique viewpoint in diet which is individualized for each person. Christine is a trained Ayurvedic Lifestyle Consultant. She will be teaching a workshop in the Outer Banks on Ayurveda April 22-24. You can view the details of this event on my website: www.ashtangayogaobx.com.
Owner, Director, Teacher – Ashtanga Yoga Center, Outer Banks, NC