Yoga and diet

Mercado/ Market

Food Confusion

Eating is a privilege not available to all the people in the world. It is promising to know that more people are working to bring awareness to these issues. Many of us are fortunate enough to be able to choose what we eat. However, in recent years, deciding what to eat seems to have become a complex task. Partly, the complexity may indicate that there are more food choices and also a grwoing interest in issues related to food, eating and health. For instance, there are excellent blogs devoted to issues related to choosing our food like What to Eat, The Ethicurean and Eat Local Challenge, as well as increasing numbers of books dealing with food and nutrition, such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, What to Eat, as well as numerous others. And that does not include the growing list of books related to food allergies or the ever changing offering of diet books. When there is so much information, making informed choices can be a daunting task.

A simple question

What to eat? is a very simple question with growingly diverse and complicated answers. Perhaps, the complexity of the answers increases when we consider the multiple levels of relationships between food and the world around us. In other words, when we pause to consider the relationships between us, our food and the world around us we start to understand that those relationships are multilayered and often far from simple. As we learn more about food we find that there are significant issues related to the safety of the food we eat, its origin, and what it consists of. The immediate connection between food and health, however, continues to draw our attention. For instance, the fact that food allergies have increased 400% in the last two decades should make us think about the food we eat. Moreover, according to the World Health Organization a combination of changes at the global, social and personal levels influences diet in ways that result in increased chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, stroke and some forms of cancer (some of these diseases are also known as “Western Diseases” because of their connection to the typical diet in industrialized countries in the Western hemisphere). Although some academics have recently suggested that the effects of the epidemic of obesity are exaggerated, the trends in the U.S. indicate significant changes worth considering. According to the World Health Organization “obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally.” Besides, specific eating habits and food industry practices have significant ecological impacts that also need to be considered.

Michael Pollan’s most recent book, In Defense of Food (based on his article Unhappy Meals), provides a simple answer to the question what to eat to maximize our health: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants“. Pollan’s clarification of his simple answer –which makes up his book, indicates that eating for optimal health has become complicated partly due to the deep web of connections between the food industry, marketing and the food politics of our times. Pollan’s proposes a set of rules of thumb that help readers clarify what is considered food, what food to eat and also how to eat it. As the author acknowledges, the existence of his book is a testament to our confusion about eating.

Yogic Diet

Figuring out what to eat for optimal health is not a new concern. From the perspective of Yoga, the oldest classical surviving text on Hatha Yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th century CE) indicates in chapter 1, verses 59 through 65, the foods that Yogis should avoid, the foods that are beneficial and the appropriate amount of food to eat. When looking at some of the numerous online resources about Yoga, it does not seem that any of these resources refer back to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika regarding food and diet. This is understandable, partly because of differences due to time and geographic location, and partly because there are certain practices advocated by the ancient treatise (although not necessarily the ones related to food) that seem rather extreme and perhaps inappropriate. In general, contemporary resources note that the Yogic diet is a vegetarian diet. However, when you read a definition of vegetarianism a number of labels emerges: ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, veganism, fruitarianism, raw veganism. Moreover, the food section of the Yoga Journal includes articles about vegetarianism, veganism, raw food, and also advise on being a caring carnivore.

Labels and Questions

Instead of clarifying the issue, looking at Yoga sources for clues about food and eating may compound the confusion in answering the simple question “what to eat?.” It seems to me that everywhere we look we find different labels that determine (with varying levels of flexibility) what we can, should and cannot eat.

I feel that Yoga is about bringing clarity into our lives. Indeed, our Yoga practice aims to optimize the flow of our physical, mental and emotional energy so that we can participate fully and consciously in the interconnectedness of life. Indeed, our Yoga practice does not consist of a predetermined set of rules that we need to follow mechanically. On the contrary, Yoga practice requires us to pay attention, be mindful and make intelligent decisions that are based on our vibrant connection with life. It follows that the yogic approach to eating should take into account our individual circumstances and needs while facilitating the optimal flow of energy and enabling our full participation in life. Nevertheless, in case of doubt, I would suggest using two questions to confirm our food choices:

  • Does the food I am about to eat optimize the flow of my physical, mental and emotional energy?
  • Does the food I am about to eat help me participate fully and consciously in the interconnectedness of life?

If the answer to both questions is a clear and unequivocal YES!, it is quite likely that the food we are about to eat is exactly what we need and thus will be delicious, nourishing and life affirming.



Yoga of eating: Taste

frutas y verduras/ fruits and veggies

As the title of this blog indicates, Yoga is being fully present. In other words, real Yoga is not about being a good contortionist but about living consciously, which can be interpreted as immersing ourselves fully in the flow of life. The flow of life is predicated on eating, because eating provides nutrients to our physical bodies. As a Yogi or Yogini, it is important that we are aware that having food to eat is a luxury not enjoyed by many people in the world.
Sadly, the number of people in the world who are hungry continues growing. And even in wealthy countries like the U.S. –where obesity is a serious epidemic– hunger still affects almost 12% of the population. In my opinion, as Yogis or Yoginis, it is our responsibility to help
however we can. And also, it is our responsibility to relate to food in a conscious, life-affirming manner.

A couple of years back, while attending a Yoga workshop, one of the presenters, Dr. Gurleen Grewal, talking about nutrition and food in Ayurveda, asked a simple question, when should we swallow the food we are chewing?

The faces of the people attending the workshop showed signs of puzzlement indicating that we might not have a clear and logical answer. We offered various answers but nobody produced the answer Dr. Grewal expected: we swallow our food when its taste is gone.
These words really resonated with me. I love eating and trying different types of food but I was not sure that I was ever mindful enough in my eating to keep chewing my food until it had lost its entire flavor. Over the next few days I set my intention to observe carefully my eating habits. I was shocked to notice my lack of attention to the act of eating, it just seemed that I was eating mechanically. For instance, quite often I filled up a fork and directed it towards my mouth when I was just starting to chew my food! In many cases it was clear that I was eating without immersing myself into the experience. I was disappointed to find out my lack of awareness in my eating because it made me feel like I was not really honoring the food I was privileged enough to have.
I decided to try to make the change from eating mechanically to eating consciously. The results were immediately favorable as many flavors I had not taken the time to savor before, started to emerge and become noticeable. Another immediate effect was realizing very easily when I had eaten enough. It was also clear that some foods that I ate were not that enjoyable or beneficial. In addition, it was clear that masticating more thoroughly seemed to have beneficial effects on my digestion. As I think about the numerous effects of this simple change in my way of eating, I find a parallel between my actions then and the practice of Yoga, we pause, observe attentively, notice what we are doing and its effects, then we act in a way that is life-affirming and not mechanical and finally we observe the effects of our actions. I have to say that it is not always easy or even possible to be attentive to what we do, but it does help us participate more actively in our own lives.

By taking the time to honor the food we eat, we can appreciate all the love, work, effort and resources involved in growing, harvesting and cooking our food. The tastes, aromas, textures and colors of the food we eat are the result of the intricate dance of life. When we eat consciously, besides enjoying the myriad tastes, aromas and textures, we are celebrating the deep link we have to the food sources and to the dance of life.

Over the past couple of years, I have talked to many relatives and friends about this “Yoga of eating”, eating mindfully, chewing our food until it looses its flavor. I have found that many people, including self-proclaimed food lovers, (unless they are part of the slow food movement ) are not mindful of how they eat. Making a simple and free-of-cost change to our pace of eating challenges our deep seated habits. As such, it requires our focused attention, and this is what Yoga is all about: integrating our actions and establishing a connection between ourselves and the world.

he “Yoga of eating” beckons us to establish a meaningful connection with our food. This, in my opinion, is a transformational step that can have profound impact on what we eat and how we eat it, with effects that range from the individual level (such as health and nutrition) to societal levels including the economy, the environment and public health. At the individual level, making this change can help us relax and enjoy our food more while opening our sensitivity to taste, showing us the foods that best agree with us, improving our digestion, helping us realize when to stop eating, and perhaps making us grateful for having food on our table.

There are numerous resources that can help in the process of thinking and learning more about our own relationship with food. For instance, you can learn about specific aspects of eating and chewing, in the classic treatise from the 19th century, The Physiology of Taste, written by Brillat Savarin, where numerous aspects of taste are explored in painstaking detail. You may find interesting to learn about The Great Masticator, Horace Fletcher ,
and his dogmatic approach to eating. Or, you might prefer the clarity of Fisher and Fisk’s work on mastication , or Dr. Kennedy’s clear explanations of common food myths. You might also enjoy reading on Ayurvedic tips for good digestion, or learning about the relationships between our food choices and social, political and economic practices, like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

Eating, like any Yoga practice, if done mindfully is a simple act that can be transformed by our conscious awareness.

I hope that you enjoy thoroughly the taste of your next meal.