What is a yogic diet?
Nothing affects your prana (life force) more than food; food is prana. While you may be spiritually evolving with an exquisite yoga practice, it remains limited if what you eat is out of harmony. Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga, the science of self-knowledge, is the oldest natural healing system there is. Ayurveda seeks to restore balance in your life first and foremost through your food.
Prayer of love
Yoga warns not to obsess about diet, as the attachment distracts from the goal of liberation. Yogic eating involves consuming seasonal, local and organic foods free from harm, pesticides, chemicals, additives, preservatives and packaging. Eating denatured, pre-packaged and instant or fast foods strikes a discord with your spiritual self, disconnecting you from nature. As much as possible, eat food prepared with love by someone who loves you. These love vibrations enter you through the food.
Before eating, give prasad: an offering to the universal consciousness, set out on a separate plate, with a prayer. Then, evenly divide the food onto plates of all those partaking in the meal. Feed animals and plants in your care before feeding yourself and, wherever possible, share sacred dishes of food with those in need. Food offered with reverence for the receiver brings humility to you and is a thankful act to the universe for your life.
Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga, is the oldest natural healing system there is. Ayurveda seeks to restore balance in your life first and foremost through your food.
In your prayer over the food, take a moment to observe and ingest the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the food before tasting. Slow your breath and prepare your body with calm awareness. If possible, eat in silence and in a clean environment, free of distractions. If eating in company, honour the silence between the conversations to practise mindfulness with each bite. Savour the taste, texture, colours and aromas, allowing the senses to be fed throughout the meal. Peaceful eating enhances the nutritional availability of the food you eat; you literally absorb more nutrients from the meal. Where possible, eat with your clean hand (traditionally the right-hand fingertips) to enliven the sense of touch. If your food is too hot to touch, Ayurveda says it is too hot to eat. After eating, take a gentle stroll in nature to aid digestion.
Most spiritual seekers are vegetarian, and all yoga traditions advise avoiding meat for the path of ahimsa, or non-harm. In yoga, it is believed that, when you eat meat, you are ingesting the pain and trauma of the animal at the time of death. You can still eat meat and practise yoga, but the path of ahimsa needs to be considered wisely in your choices of what and how you eat.
Ayurveda provides for meat-eating preferences, with guidelines for how to lighten this heavy food. In the Sutra Sthana, the ancient Ayurvedic text, Charaka guides to give meat juice to those who are “wasted, convalescing, emaciated, deficient in semen or desirous of strength and complexion”. Ayurvedic physician and expert Dr Robert Svoboda (drsvoboda.com) explains that, in this ancient text, Charaka also says, if you do eat meat, choose only the animal that is “slain while roaming in its natural habitat”, and avoid meat of the emaciated, very fat, very old or very young animals.
Pioneer Ayurvedic physician Dr Vasant Lad (ayurveda.com) advises that fruit juice should not be taken at meal times; rather, taking small sips of water while eating is “nectar that aids digestion”. Ayurveda also promotes the avoidance of drinking large quantities of water after a meal, as it hampers digestion by diluting the digestive juices. Climate affects the amount of water the body requires. Ice-cold water is poison to the system and too much water can result in fluid retention and additional body weight.
Enkindling agni: the sacred fire within
Agni is the biological fire that governs metabolism, digestion and elimination. Agni “cooks” the food internally. For good health, your agni needs to be strong. When agni is weakened by improper eating, your ability to digest food becomes impaired and ama, or toxic waste, results. Accumulated ama is the cause of all disease.
Dr Lad explains that taste depends on your agni. Use spices to cleanse the body and enkindle agni. Spices promote digestion, especially of ama, which is made up of food you previously ingested.
You can enkindle agni in the following ways:
- Drink tea made of cumin, coriander and fennel
- Drink tea made of ginger, black pepper, cayenne pepper and curry
- Drink tea made of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and clove
- Add a pinch of asafoetida (the gum extract of a tree) when cooking lentils
- Use cardamom, in small quantities, on vegetables or in a tea
- Try cayenne pepper on food, especially heavy foods like meat, lentils and cheese
- Use ghee (clarified butter) with your food
- Use turmeric in cooking
- Chew roasted cumin powder at bedtime
The pingala nadi
In yogic energetic anatomy, pingala nadi is the solar channel, and ida nadi is the lunar channel. Eating when pingala nadi is activated will increase the digestive fire. You can activate the pingala nadi yourself prior to eating by lying down on your left side for a few minutes, blocking the left nostril with the third finger or, as Dr Svoboda suggests, casually slinging your left arm behind your chair for a few minutes before the meal. Eating with the right hand also activates the pingala nadi for good digestion.
Ayurveda suggests to fill one-third of the stomach with food, one-third water and one-third air, and to eat the equivalent of no more than two handfuls of food in one sitting.
Eat for your dosha
Your dosha is your Ayurvedic body type. Most people are one dosha or a combination. Eating in accordance with what harmonises your doshas will keep your yogic aims in harmony and help accelerate your yoga practice towards peaceful living. When making changes to your diet, do so gently to give your body and mind time to adapt.
Vata people are unusually tall or short with thin frames and narrow shoulders and/or hips. When imbalanced, they can be highly strung and fatigue quickly. Vata types need a warming, grounding diet — including sweet, sour and salty foods — to maintain peace. Vata should avoid bitter, pungent and astringent substances in excess as these increase air, causing gas. Avoid chilled foods. Good food choices are sweet fruits, avocados, coconut, brown rice, red cabbage, bananas, grapes, cherries and oranges. Avoid too many dry foods that aggravate, such as apples, melons, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, ice-cream, beef, peas and green salad. Vegetables are best cooked. Vata do best eating soups and stews, and food combining is important for this delicate constitution. Examples of incorrect food combinations are eating meat, fish or sour fruits with milk. Vata needs to eat regular, small meals, three or four times a day, with snack gaps of two hours between meals.
Pittas are often medium build, with strong appetites and strong-willed, fiery personalities. Pittas should avoid sour, salty and pungent foods that aggravate bodily fire. Pittas need sweet, bitter and astringent foods such as cucumbers, melons, mangos, avocados and oranges, sweet fruits like pears and plums, vegetables including green, leafy vegies, sprouts, sunflower seeds, asparagus and mushrooms. Reduce fatty, salty, sour and spicy foods such as peanut butter, sour fruits, bananas, papayas, tomatoes and garlic. Coconut oil is cooling for pitta. Ayurveda suggests three meals a day, with four- to six-hour gaps.
Kaphas are usually heavier-set or stocky, with large eyes and damp/cool skin. They are slow to move and gain weight easily. Sweet, sour and salty tastes should be avoided as they increase bodily water. Choose pungent, bitter and astringent tastes instead. Kaphas need to eat light fruits such as apples and apricots, pomegranates, cranberries, basmati rice, sprouts and chicken. Reduce bananas, avocados, melons, coconut, dates, papayas, pineapples and dairy products, as well as sweet potatoes, tomatoes and zucchini. Sweet is the heaviest taste and needs to be avoided for kaphas, as well as cold foods and milk products, which are also heavy in Ayurveda. Limit nuts and seed intake and use pungent spices such as pepper, cayenne and mustard seeds. Kaphas take the longest to digest food so they only need to eat twice a day at most, allowing a six-hour gap between meals and avoiding snacking completely.
During the summer heat, when pitta is high, avoid hot, spicy or pungent foods for all body types. During the autumn winds and dry season, when vata is at its peak, avoid dry fruits, high-protein foods and vata-increasing foods for all body types. Winter is the kapha season, so we need to eat warming foods and avoid cold drinks, ice-cream, cheese and yoghurt.
Ayurvedic timing for meals
Rise during vata time, before 6am, to avoid feeling sluggish (6-9am is kapha time). It is best to eat breakfast between 7am and 8am, and kaphas should avoid breakfast altogether. Eat only when hungry and drink only when thirsty. Hunger signals an enkindled digestive fire and, by drinking, you douse it. Never overeat.
Your main meal is best eaten when pitta is at its highest, around 11am, as pitta is the seat of digestion. Ayurveda also advises to eat lightly in the evening, by 6pm if possible, and to go to bed before 10pm. Dr Lad suggests a glass of raw, warm milk with ginger taken at bedtime is nourishing to the body and calms the mind.
The gunas & living foods
In yoga and Ayurveda, the gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) are the qualities in nature that affect your mind. Yoga aims to move you towards a sattvic, pure diet that is light and alive. The more yoga you do with peace and right intention, the more you may find your diet naturally progresses this way.
Sattvic foods are closest to nature. While salads are sattvic, Ayurveda considers raw salads heavy and difficult to digest. Raw salad can aggravate the vata dosha. However, some raw vegan foods can be pre-digested, enabling easier digestion, for example through soaking and activating raw nuts, and massaging leafy greens in oil with your hands. In general, Ayurveda suggests cooking food and eating raw salads in small doses only, with the exception of the strong pitta constitution. Examples of sattvic foods are alkaline-rich fruits and vegetables, sprouts, pulses, nuts, seeds (eg quinoa), grains (eg corn, wheat, rice), natural sweeteners (eg maple syrup, apple juice concentrate), herbs and herbal teas.
As much as possible, eat food prepared with love by someone who loves you. These love vibrations enter you through the food.
Rajasic foods overstimulate and disturb peace for the yogi. Rajasic food includes 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 become rajasic. Ayurveda does not suggest removing all rajasic foods. Garlic, for instance, is used to enkindle agni and is warming in winter.
Tamasic foods can promote an imbalance in the constitution, leading to anger for imbalanced pitta, for instance, and inertia for imbalanced kapha. Tamasic foods include “dead” foods — foods that are overcooked, undercooked, burnt, bad tasting, unripe, overripe, putrefied, stale, unclean, barbecued or preserved. Meat, eggs and fish are also considered tamasic.
Food combining lessens the rajasic or tamasic qualities of some foods, such as adding cardamom to coffee to reduce its acidity. Cooking fish with coconut or fennel and/or serving it with lemon will lighten it, and can lessen a pitta aggravation.
Heavy foods (meat, milk and raw salads) should form at most one-third to one-half of a meal. Heavy foods or kapha-producing foods should not be eaten after sunset. Mung beans and rice are examples of light food.
Taking a break from eating allows the digestive system to rest, enkindling your agni. Dr Svoboda suggests a mono-diet (single food or beverage) for one day per fortnight, or once a week. Long fasts are considered unhealthy in Ayurveda, he explains, “because they encourage degeneration of the body’s tissues and loss of cohesion between body and mind”.
For vata, Dr Lad advises fasting for no more than three days, as any longer may increase fear, anxiety, nervousness and weakness. A fast of more than four days aggravates pitta, increasing the fire element, causing anger, hate and dizzy reactions. Kaphas, however, can do prolonged fasts. “They will feel a pleasant sensation of increased lightness, greater awareness and an opening of consciousness. Clarity and understanding will improve,” says Dr Lad.
If you choose to do a juice fast, drink about one litre to six cups of juice diluted with water. Try:
- Grape juice for vata
- Pomegranate juice for pitta
- Apple juice for kapha
According to Dr Svoboda, Ayurveda teaches that during a fast, certain herbs, such as ginger, black pepper, cayenne pepper and curry, which have medicinal value, may be used to help neutralise toxins in the system. If these herbs are taken in the form of tea, they will help enkindle agni and burn away toxins.
Always fast under medical guidance and, if you feel weak, discontinue. Fasting is recommended during fevers, cold, constipation or arthritic pain.
Dr Vasant Lad’s suggestions for healthy eating
- One teaspoon of grated fresh ginger with a pinch of salt is a good appetiser.
- Drinking lasso (buttermilk) with a pinch of ginger or cumin powder helps digestion.
- A teaspoon of ghee with rice helps digestion.
- Excess intake of cold drinks reduces resistance and creates excess mucous.
- Store water in a copper vessel, or put copper pennies in water. This water is good for the liver and spleen.
- Taking a nap after lunch increases kapha and body weight.
- After sex, milk heated with raw cashews and raw sugar promotes strength and maintains sexual energy.
Source: Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing
Your yoga practice & eating
Eating lightly accentuates the peaceful discipline of yoga. It’s best to practise yoga on an empty stomach due to the squeezing and releasing action the poses have on your digestive system, and for the ability to be mentally clear and at peace when your stomach is empty. You will gain the most from your practice by doing this. If you absolutely must eat, consume an apple or cucumber or another whole, light fruit only. The exception to this rule is with the pose vajrasana, thunderbolt pose. This is the only pose that can be performed directly after eating and will aid digestion.
Thunderbolt pose (vajrasana)
Sit on your heels, feet and knees together, hands resting on legs. Mindfully observe your breath. Take your abdomen back towards your spine, lift up your spine and relax your shoulders down. Sit in vajrasana for 10 minutes or more after a meal, particularly when consuming heavier foods.
Eat, with love
Your food choices, its presentation and your intention when eating have a direct impact on your state of mind and ability to maintain equanimity. This directly affects your yoga practice and its ability to liberate you from attachments. Balance is required for harmony. Honour the earth for its bounty, prepare your meals with peace, make an offering to the divine and pour love into the food, allowing it to infuse your being with love. “Cook” the people together with love through sharing the meal. Enjoy the wonderful aromas of spices when cooking, mindfully savouring every sensation. Keep your food light, offer prasad, give thanks, feed others, balance your doshas and regularly rest your digestion for reverence and peace.
Allow your consciousness to embrace the simple, yet sacred act of yogic eating with love.
Eat well. Om prema (love).
Annam Brahma Raso Vishnu
Pakto Devo Mahesarah
Evam Jnatva Tu Yo Bhunkte
Anna Dosha Na Lipyate
The creative energy in the food is Brahma,
The nourishing energy in the body is Vishnu,
The transformation of food into pure consciousness is Shiva,
If you know this, then any impurities in the food you eat will never become part of you.
Recipes for a yogi
To help you nourish your body in a yogic way, four well-regarded yogis have kindly shared their favourite recipes. Enjoy!
Yogi tea recipe
Simon Borg-Olivier’s Raw Salad Bake
This salad has been my main meal (and the majority of my food) for the past 30 years. It’s different to most salads in that all the ingredients are chopped very finely, there is no salad dressing and the salad is mixed: “massaged” and warmed to body temperature with your clean hands. This method not only helps to predigest the salad and make the temperature more appropriate for your digestive enzymes, it makes it more tasty, easier to eat with a spoon, more filling and less likely to produce internal gas. The ingredients are ideally organic and can vary daily.
Kim Elliot’s Kitchari
Kitchari is basic to the Ayurvedic lifestyle. It is easy to digest, provides protein-rich complete and balanced nutrition, promotes strength and vitality, and nourishes all the tissues of the body. Kitchari is balancing for all three doshas and satisfies all six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent and bitter.
Gitam’s Garden’s Simple Vegetable Soup
I love the simplicity of this soup. With just a few different vegies we get a full range of colours, with ginger to light the digestive fire, turmeric for the heart and spices to provide minerals.
Katie Manitsas’ Coconut & Tomato Dhal
This dhal is the perfect winter warmer and a balanced meal for the whole family. Panch phoron is an Indian five-spice blend that typically includes fenugreek, fennel, black mustard seed, cumin seed and nigella seed. It’s this spice blend that really lends the delicious flavour to this recipe. You can find it in Indian supermarkets. I don’t usually add chilli to my dhal but a pinch or two is nice if you like yours hot.