Yoga for eating
Do you ever wonder about the food you eat and how it impacts on your yoga practice, inner harmony and overall wellbeing? Eating is central to living, so learning from the yogic traditions about dietary choices and lifestyle is one way of embracing yoga more fully, helping to elevate peace within you on many levels.
Conscious eating and ahimsa foods
Conscious eating is the yoga of bringing awareness to your food choices and eating practices. Rushed, mindless eating malnourishes the senses and starves the soul of nurturance. Conscious eating is about fully enjoying and experiencing every mouthful. Your body takes in all the colours, flavours, aromas and textures of the food, providing satiation on all levels.
Conscious eating includes awareness of the journey the ingredients have travelled and choosing ahimsa, or non-harmful, foods. Ahimsa foods are those that have come to no harm, or caused harm, in the growing, harvesting, preparing and cooking processes. Ahimsa foods are organically grown and pure (without pesticides and herbicides), and use no additives or refinement in their production.
In the spirit of ahimsa, all yoga traditions advocate a vegetarian lifestyle. Many yogis believe that if you eat meat, you ingest the pain and trauma of the animal at its time of death. However, in The Yoga of Eating: Transcending Diets and Dogma to Nourish the Natural Self, Charles Eisenstein advises to eat according to your lifestyle and bodily needs. He warns that if you adopt a monastic diet but not a monastic lifestyle, you will hunger for more substantial nourishment.
Eisenstein moves away from yogic traditions of eating only pure foods and suggests eating anything you desire but with full awareness and enjoyment. Then, over time, what you desire will start to change as you begin to truly listen to your body and eat accordingly.
Consuming ahimsa food with gratitude and love is incredibly beneficial for the soul, calming for the mind and healing for the body, as it is rich in prana, or life force. In the yogic tradition, ahimsa food is blessed before eating, making it sacred before it becomes a part of you.
Food preparation and eating
Loving intention in food preparation is absorbed by those receiving the meal. It is therefore important to purify your thoughts before starting. If you are upset, don’t aggressively chop away at the carrots; stop until you can come to it with calmness and love. Preparing food in an appreciative state and enjoying an aesthetically pleasing presentation, such as displaying a rainbow of foods in their vibrant, natural colours on the plate, also enhances the prana of the food.
When eating, sit in a clean, calm environment. Take a moment to relax your stomach and notice your breath. If you are shallow breathing, slow your thoughts by focusing on the prana you are about to receive. Observe the Beauty of the food and express gratitude for the bounty on offer. Work with your senses, breathing in the aromas and noting the textures you are about to experience. Note your breath again without judgment. Perform a simple meditative prayer or blessing before eating.
Give Prasad, the sacred offering of food to the divine, then share this food onto all plates. Prasad is considered the most important element in sacred eating. In her new book, Food Yoga, Priya Vrata explains that food infused with love or prasadam (mercy) when eaten in a spirit of gratitude and love “can not only purify consciousness but literally wipe the karmic slate clean of many lifetimes”.
As you slowly begin to eat with awareness, savour each bite: its texture, taste, sensations, smell and feel. Eat in silence if possible, focusing on the meal and stilling the mind. If family and social life make this difficult, find moments of silence during the meal.
It may initially be difficult to eat with this level of awareness and appreciation all the time. Be gentle on yourself and do what you can to make each meal a little more sacred. You can add a positive affirmation to your day, such as, “I joyfully eat and receive nurturance from the food that is right for me, in gratitude and with love and respect”, and eventually all eating will naturally become a sacred act.
In yoga and Ayurveda, food is categorised by the three gunas, or qualities of the mind: sattva, rajas and tamas. You can alter your mind state through your food choices.
Sattvic foods are pure, closest to nature and ideal, bringing clarity and perception. They include alkaline-rich fruits and vegetables, sprouts, pulses, nuts, seeds (eg quinoa), grains (eg corn, wheat, rice), natural sweeteners (eg honey, maple syrup and apple juice concentrate), herbs and herbal teas. Traditionally, sattvic foods include ahimsa dairy products, however the undesirable treatment of and processing involved in modern dairy practices mean these are to be avoided.
Rajasic foods overstimulate the body and mind. They include onion, garlic, radishes, coffee, tea and stimulants, refined white sugar, soft drinks, pungent spices and highly seasoned food. Sattvic foods prepared in a rushed manner and eaten mindlessly also becomes rajasic.
Tamasic foods are inert and make a person dull and lazy, filling the mind with negativity and anger. They include meat, eggs, fish, over- or under-ripe fruits and alcohol, as well as foods that are stale, unclean, barbecued or include preservatives.
When moving towards a yogic diet of sattvic foods, listen to your body’s needs. Living in the world means that sometimes you may need to balance sattvic with small amounts of rajasic or even tamasic foods according to your lifestyle and emotional needs. If you eat with mindfulness, you will become accustomed to what your body is telling you. This takes time and doesn’t happen automatically. You can’t crave kale unless you have experienced eating kale, so make the changes slowly and with love, detoxing gradually. Don’t force your body or mind beyond its limits.
Learning about your Ayurvedic personal constitution, or dosha, allows you to eat accordingly. Keeping your dosha balanced means eating remains peaceful by staying away from foods that upset your constitution and mindfully using those ingredients that bring calm and peace to your personality. Most people are a combination of doshas with one dominant dosha tendency.
Vata personalities are energetic, creative, lean and enthusiastic and usually have dry skin and cold hands and feet. When unbalanced, weakness, restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, arthritis and constipation may be present. Vata types need to avoid chilled foods and eat more fats, oils, rice and wheat, sweet and heavy fruits such as bananas and avocados, and fewer dry or light fruits such as apples and pears. Vegetables are best cooked for vata.
Pittas are fiery, intense personalities with a sharp intelligence and of medium size and weight. When unbalanced they can be short-tempered and argumentative, and suffer from heartburn, skin rashes, excessive body heat and indigestion. Pitta types need cooling, sweet and stabilising foods such as cucumbers, melons, avocados and oranges, sweet fruit and vegetables including many green, leafy vegetables, and a reduction in tomatoes, capsicum, carrot and onions. Cooling oils such as coconut and olive oils and soothing spices are beneficial in balancing pittas.
Kaphas are calm, thoughtful and loving, slow to move, patient and loyal. They have strong builds and large eyes. When unbalanced, they tend to become overweight and sleepy, and suffer asthma, diabetes or depression. Kapha types need lighter fruits such as apples and apricots and need to reduce heavier fruits such as bananas, avocados and coconuts. All vegetables are beneficial but reducing sweet potatoes, tomatoes and zucchini is necessary. Sweets should be avoided, especially cold foods and milk products. Limit nuts and seed intake and use pungent spices such as pepper, cayenne and mustard seeds.
According to Priya Vrata in Food Yoga, chronic dehydration is the cause of most disease and ailments. She asserts that most people don’t drink nearly enough water for their bodily requirements and often think they are hungry when they are thirsty. Vrata suggests that in the morning you drink one litre of water over 10–20 minutes then don’t eat for one hour afterwards. Approximately one litre of water for every 30kg of bodyweight, sipped throughout the day, is required for proper hydration.
Enjoy what you eat
Whether you choose to eat pure sattvic, ahimsa foods that balance your dosha combination or adopt Eisenstein’s philosophy of first eating whatever you enjoy but doing so mindfully and allowing changes to occur over time, you can receive love and express gratitude through conscious eating. Make your choices in line with your lifestyle and life journey, allowing gentle changes in both. Give prasad and bless the food. Enjoy every bite of every meal and let it take you closer to your own divinity and the universal self of which we are all a part.
Om shanti, shanti, shanti (peace, peace, peace).
Combining conscious eating with yoga asanas, pranayama and meditation is a powerful way to still the mind. The asanas in this sequence stimulate the abdominal organs, improve digestion and alleviate stress. Practise with self-acceptance, love and joy in your heart. Work within your abilities and don’t force the pose or breath. You do not need to complete the full pose to gain the benefits of the practice.
Note: Please practise yoga on an empty stomach, when you are not hungry.
Vajrasana: Thunderbolt sequence
Sit on your heels, feet and knees together, hands resting on legs. Close your eyes and observe your breath. Take your abdomen back towards your spine, lift up your spine and relax your shoulders down. Open your eyes and on inhalation rise your buttocks off your heels as you bring your arms up alongside your ears. Complete the movement as you complete the breath. Bring your shoulders down. Allow your breath to initiate the movement; on the next exhalation come into child’s pose, resting your hands alongside your body, head on the floor, working your buttocks back towards your heels. On the next inhalation, come into second position, rising off your buttocks, arms up. On the next exhalation, sit back on your heels. Repeat this sequence three to six times, paying attention to the natural breath guiding the movement and relaxing the mind.
Note: Sitting in vajrasana for 10 minutes after a meal will aid digestion.
Adho mukha svanasana: Downward-facing dog
Come into all-fours position, hands slightly forward of your shoulders. On exhalation lift your buttocks into the air, knees off the floor, engaging your upper thighs. Draw your abdomen and ribs back towards your spine, turn your heels out. Ensure your fingers are evenly spread on the mat, third finger facing forward. Breathe and rotate your shoulders outwards as you lift your buttocks towards the sky. Hold the pose for 3–5 slow, steady breaths.
Stand and spread your feet one leg length apart. Turn your right foot out to the right at 90 degrees and left foot in towards the right. On the exhale, energise your legs, lift your kneecaps, pull your abdomen back and pivot from your hips to stretch out over the right side, resting your right hand on your right leg. Raise your left arm above your left shoulder, turn your head and torso up towards the sky. Breathe, hold the pose for 3–5 breaths. Gently release and repeat on the other side.
Ardha matsyendrasana: Half lord of the fishes
Sit and bend your right leg in. Take your left leg up and over your right, foot on the floor, knee up. Inhale, right arm up, and exhale to bring your outer right elbow to press against the outer edge of your left leg. Raise your forearm and bring your fingers together. Your left arm is supporting behind your back, pushing into the floor. Breathe in, on the next exhalation lift your spine and pivot from your hips, turn to the left. Soften your gaze and breathe. With each inhalation, lift your spine and, on exhalation, pivot from your hips further, following the twist with your gaze. Slowly release back to the centre and change legs for the other side.
Note: This stimulates the liver, kidneys and digestive fire in the belly.
Parivrtta janu sirsasana: Revolved head to knee
Sit with legs apart, bend your left leg in towards your groin. Inhale, lift your torso. On the exhale, lean to the right, pressing your right shoulder against your right leg if possible. Turn your torso towards the sky and look up as you bring your left arm up and over towards your right foot, holding your foot if possible. Hold the pose and breathe, gently twisting your torso with each breath. Release and repeat on other side.
Setu bandha: Bridge
Lie on the floor, bend your knees and place your feet on floor in line with the sitting bones. Exhale and slowly raise your buttocks up high, keeping your thighs and inner feet parallel. If possible, hold onto your ankles. Lengthen your tailbone towards the backs of your knees. Hold the pose for a minute, focusing on slowing the breath. Slowly release on exhalation, rolling your spine down to the floor from your neck, upper back, mid back then sacrum.
Note: Do not practise this pose if you are pregnant or menstruating.
Sarvangasana: Shoulder stand
Lie on your back, on exhalation push into your back with your hands and lift your legs and chest up. Straighten your legs and adjust your hands further up your back for support. Lift out of your spine as you turn your legs slightly in towards each other. Allow your shoulders to open by rolling them out in the posture and bring your elbows directly in line with your shoulders. A yoga belt around your elbows can help prevent elbows splaying out. Breathe in the pose, relaxing your neck. Slowly release from the pose into downward-facing dog to release the neck, turning your head one way then the other.
If you do not have experience with this pose, you can perform a half shoulder stand with your feet resting on a wall, or lie down with your legs resting together up a wall as an inversion instead.
Note: Placing a three-fold blanket under your shoulders (but not neck) will protect your neck. Do not practise this pose if you are pregnant or menstruating, or have high blood pressure.
When you have completed the sequence, lie down in savasana, the full relaxation position, observing your natural breath and stilling the mind. You can place a rolled blanket under your knees and a folded blanket under your head for extra support. Soften the abdomen. Completely release.
Kylie Terraluna is a writer and yoga teacher on the path of vedic wisdom. She travels Australia, teaching WellBeing’s yoga workshops on love and happiness. Join her for a beautiful weekend of transformation. For more information, visit kylieterraluna.com.au.
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