Food can lift you up or bring you down. A bowl of fresh, steamy organic veggies and brown rice will give you the sensation of clarity and vitality, while a freshly microwaved frozen lasagna will leave you feeling dull and lethargic. These foods impact not only the physical body, but the mind as well.
Yogis, who strive to drastically affect both body and mind, can enhance their yoga practice with the right diet. Food was traditionally a major consideration in yoga. Even ancient yogic texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika spelled out yogic diet do’s and don’ts, explaining precisely which foods are suitable and which should be altogether avoided.
Yogis don’t assess food in terms of calorie count, fat content, or vitamin and mineral percentages. These scientific measurements can be useful in understanding proper diet, but they don’t take into account the subtle affect food has on the mind. Yogis look at food in terms of prana and the three gunas, or qualities of nature: sattva, rajas, and tamas.
Prana is the vital life force that exists within every life form; the cosmic energy that animates mind and body. Yogis love prana (hence the practice of pranayama) and the more, the better. Prana comes from the breath, water, sunlight, and food. Yogis choose foods with the most amount of prana, like freshly picked, sun-ripened fruits, because they hold all of the energy of the sun within. When consumed, they endow the body with this energy, giving vitality and longevity.
When fruit is processed and stored in a can for months on end, it lacks prana. Science might prove its nutritional contents are upheld, but the prana has been lost. Canned fruit doesn’t impart the same positive energy on the body as its fresh counterpart.
The yogic diet looks at all foods in terms of prana, which is closely related to another concept: the three gunas. Sattva, rajas, and tamas are the three subtle qualities of nature that govern all matter, life, and mind. They determine both our mental and spiritual state.
Sattva is the quality of purity, awareness, and peace, and yogis strive for a sattvic diet. Sattvic foods are the most elevating and nourishing to the body and mind. They promote calmness, purity, clarity, energy, and vitality.
Some dairy products like ghee (clarified butter), milk, and fresh yogurt are also sattvic, but only if the animals were treated kindly and humanely.
Rajas is the quality of activity and change. Rajasic foods stimulate the mind and make it restless. In the yogic diet, these foods should be used in moderation.
Some schools of thought also put eggs into this category. In The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, the yogi Swami Vishnu-devananda wrote, “Serious students who practice Yoga are advised not to use the following while they are practicing Yoga: acids, pungent substances, salts, mustards, (and) bitter foods.” These rajasic foods overstimulate the mind and make yogic practices like meditation a major challenge.
Tamas is the quality of inertia and darkness. Tamasic foods make the mind dull, lazy and tired, and they generally contain very little prana. The yogic diet advises against them.
Meat and fish are sometimes put into this category, while others consider them rajasic. Either way, neither are part of the yogic diet. Yogis strive to develop love and compassion for all life forms, and eating meat directly conflicts with the yogic principal of ahimsa (non-violence).
The traditional yogic diet is pretty stringent, advocating the occasional fast, lots of raw foods, and complete elimination of meat. But unless your digestive fire and constitution are strong enough, these extremes could do you more harm than good, and actually go against the yogic principle of ahimsa!
As you incorporate the principles of a yogic diet into your life, be sensitive to the way food affects your body and mind. That’s truly the most sattvic route. Aim for foods that are full of prana: organic, fresh, unprocessed, and essentially straight from the earth. Eliminate tamasic foods as much as possible by choosing fresh foods over anything processed or putrid, which will bring your yoga practice down. Minimize those that are rajasic, which are generally stimulants in some form: coffee, alcohol, spicy food, and white sugar.
As you progress in yoga, you’ll probably find your desire for rajasic and tamasic foods will naturally lessen. Instead, you’ll crave those foods that uplift you—a sign of becoming a more sattvic person.