Yoga and Food

As you know, the word Yoga is usually translated to mean union; union of the body, mind, and spirit. It is the union of all aspects of our existence. When this union is absent, the resulting division/disharmony reflects in several areas of our lives, including our relationship with food.

Most of the ailments and unhealthy habits around food can be traced to a root cause which is disharmony, or lack of union between different instruments of the body and mind. For example, consider the conflict between the sense of taste and the body intelligence. Whereas the body requests nutritious food for its nourishment, the tongue demands delicious food for its titillation. Unfortunately for most of us, delicious food and nutritious food are two entirely different things that rarely mix!!

Another way the disharmony is made manifest is when our awareness is elsewhere while consuming food; we are neither sensitive to the body intelligence nor the tongue. Perhaps while dining we are also watching TV. Or gossiping. Eating becomes a mechanical process. Our awareness is not united with the body and we do not sense the body’s response to what is ingested.

The good news is that with intention and awareness, we can cultivate healthy habits that promote the alignment of our body’s intelligence, our sense of taste and our awareness. This is not an arduous process at all; it does not demand mighty determination. Here are three simple things we can do to introduce healthy eating habits, based on the principles of Yoga.

Three things we can do for healthy food habits:

1. Regular practice of Yoga (or any form of exercise)

2. Being mindful while consuming food

3. Consuming food from a space of harmony

1. Regular practice of Yoga (or any form of exercise):

We greatly benefit our relationship to food by introducing practices such as yoga in daily life. This helps in two important ways. First, it unites all the instruments of the body with the body’s intelligence. Second, it allows the organs of the body to function in their peak form.

Let’s look at the first benefit- Yoga helps unite the instruments of the body – including the instruments of perception – with the body’s intelligence. Specifically, it unites the sense of taste to be in alignment with the body’s intelligence. So whatever that is good for the body (nutritious) is also enjoyed by the tongue (delicious).

For many, nutritious food is not something that one finds particularly delicious. Conversely, one of the cause for our addiction to junk food is because we find it delicious, although it does not nourish the body. This is an example of what Maharishi Patanjali terms “angamejayatva” (in Yoga Sutra I.31), which means lack of coordination in the body, a lack of “victory” over the instruments of the body (in this example, the tongue). Patanjali says that angamejayatva is one of five indicators of the presence of obstacle that prevents the experience of harmony. (We’ll look at the other four indicators in another blog post!)

One way in which we can attend to this conflict between the tongue and the body intelligence is by invoking strong will and discipline. By resisting the temptation to indulge the craving of the tongue. Yet, a more sustainable approach that does not punish the tongue is to align the sense of taste with the body’s intelligence. That way, we allow the sense of taste to perform its intended function – namely, to guide us towards food that is beneficial to the system.

As we saw before, one of the benefits of Asanas (yoga postures) is to resolve the divisions/ conflicts between the different parts of our existence. Specifically, practice of Asanas brings the sense of taste to serve the greater good of the body. Attachments to junk food subsides, and the taste is naturally drawn towards that which is nutritious. As a Yoga teacher, I have seen this happen numerous times in those who introduce the practice of Yoga in their lives!

The wisdom discussed here can be succinctly expressed in the following equations:

Lack of harmony between tongue and body : delicious ≠ nutritions ≠ sumptuous

Presence of harmony between the two: delicious = nutritious = sumptuous

Practice of Yoga also has a second valuable benefit in the context of food: it brings the instruments of the body to function at their peak form. Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras that when we sharpen the senses (Vishayavati) and become keenly aware of the sensations, we can remove the obstacles towards harmony (Sutra I.35). In the context of food, all aspects of digestion, starting from the functioning of the tongue to the entire digestive process is made healthy.

2. Being mindful while consuming food:

Often, we are multi-tasking while consuming food. Like watching TV, gossiping, etc. When we do this, we are blissfully ignoring valuable guidance that comes forth from the cellular community of the body. Unfortunately, the bliss is ephemeral; we soon find ourselves having to deal with the consequences of consuming food that do not benefit the body! When we are aware of how the body is responding to the intake of food, we listen to it and take appropriate actions to honor the indication. For example, if we truly listen to the body’s guidance, we would never over eat!

A wonderful way to strengthen awareness and promote mindful living is by regular practice of Meditation. In fact, meditation is an integral part of the practice of Yoga; it forms the 7th limb of the 8 limbed yoga at taught by Patanjali. In Meditation, we allow the turbulence and restlessness (vrittis) to settle down, and transform the same energies towards the rising of awareness. (More on Meditation in a future post).

3. Consume food when the body and mind are in harmony:

It is wise not to consume food in a hurry, or when we are angry, or in the grip of any intense negative emotion. A famous maxim of Ayurveda says that Satvic (nutritious) food consumed when the mind is rajasic (restless) is treated as rajasic food when processed by the body. Likewise, Satvic food consumed when the mind is tamasic (dull, lazy) is treated as tamasic food when processed by the body. Therefore, it is recommended that we consume food when the body and mind are in harmony.

The wonderful thing about the 3 recommendations is that they can be applied to any activity, not just our relationship to food. So let’s restate the recommendations in more general terms:

1. Regular practice of Yoga (or any exercise for body/mind wellness) helps to tune the body, mind and soul in harmony so that our habits / tendencies are in alignment with our higher good. Just like how the sense of taste falls (rather, raise ) in harmony with the body’s intelligence, every aspect of our existence start to align with the body’s (and soul’s) intelligence. I find this incredible, because one solution lays foundation to solve almost all problems! Rather than dissecting different areas of our life and fixing them one by one, we attend to the one root cause of all of them! (Note: I should mention that “yoga practice” refers to any thing that takes us to a place of deeper harmony with our Self).

2. Being mindful of what we are doing: check the inner guidance to sense whether our actions are spreading harmony to oneself and others around us. By being more aware, we steer clear of actions that may have unintended negative consequences. When we elevate our awareness (perhaps through regular practice of meditation), we allow the benefits to percolate to all areas of our lives.

3. Offering actions/words only when we are in a state of harmony: we usually regret actions that are sponsored by negative states of being such as anger, frustration or laziness. Not only that; by being in a space of harmony, we leverage the power that comes with it; our actions are many times more powerful when they are inspired from harmony.