Food and the yogic connection

Have you ever had days when you just couldn’t get out of bed? That feeling like you weight ten tons and do not want to move at all? I have felt like that for one third of my existence up to now. But it wasn’t until recently that began associating the feeling of lethargy and fatigue with my food intake. Yes, you read it right. What we eat, is who we are! It took me a long time to understand this fact even though my father tried instilling better eating habits in us from when we were young. But, I’ll come back to that in a bit.

The Modern Food Lifestyle

Most of us are barely aware of what goes into our bodies these days. And I am not just talking about food as the end product. I am talking about understanding the source of all ingredients that go into making the final meal. Generations before ours had to work hard for their meals. They tilled the land, sowed the seeds, harvested crop, milled and de-husked grains before they could use it in their meals. The same went for meats, fruits and vegetables. There was a lot of honest hard work that went into putting food on the table (not that we don’t work hard today). But with exponential growth in technology and the world becoming a smaller place, we can get our hands on just about anything we dream of today. This means several things in terms of our final meal but I am mentioning the top few that make a huge difference:

  • We are eating more processed food
  • We have stopped valuing local produce
  • We are consuming genetically modified products
  • We are eating nonseasonal items

Yoga and food consumption

So why is there such a hullabaloo about eating ready meals, exotic fruits or foreign vegetables? Let us understand it from a yogic perspective. The yoga shastras are very clear on what foods should be consumed to keep the body and mind healthy. Foods are classified based on their nature or gunas into sattvic, rajasic and tamasic foods. Here I have attempted to explain these terms without going into microscopic details:

Sattvic foods- Food that is freshly prepared, lightly seasoned and has the right proportions of vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Is known to be sattvic food. Ayurveda further suggests that all the 6 tastes i.e. sweet/ madhura, salt/ lavana, sour/ amla, pungent/ katu, bitter/ tikta, and astringent/ Kashaya, should be balanced well in a sattvic diet. Foods like whole wheat, rice, local millet, corn, beans, locally grown vegetables, milk, clarified butter/ghee, and seasonal fruits are all considered sattvic foods.

Rajasic foods- Excess of flavoring in any food is considered rajasic. Foods that over-stimulate brain activity are also classified as rajasic foods.  So any food that you are tempted to eat due to addition of taste enhances would fall into this category too. These tend to upset the delicate balance of doshas (vatta, pitta, and kapha) in our body. Examples of rajasic foods are tomato, coffee, bottled juices, chocolates, onion, garlic, and sugar.

Tamasic foods- Foods that are over-processed, take time to digest, and stale food fall into the category of tamasic foods. Food prepared while in an angry mood or while distracted are also considered tamasic. Ayurveda and yoga advice that food should be prepared consciously to allow it to assimilate properly in the body. Alcohol, pickles, fried foods, highly fermented foods, and foods with high quantities of preservatives are considered tamasic for the body.

The mind-body-emotion connect

Yoga shastra speaks about the human body being made up of 5 layers or sheaths. These layers are the annamaya kosha, pranamaya kosha, manomaya kosha, vignyanamaya kosha, and anandamaya kosha. Translated loosely, it means, food body, aural body, emotional body, intellectual body, and bliss body. Of these, the food body or sheath consisting of our physical body is made up of the five elements, mainly earth, water, fire, air and space. All forms of food that enter our body are a combination of these elements too.

Now good quality food nourishes the annamaya kosha because the five elements work well with each other and assimilate very organically. The impact of organic assimilation transcends the annamaya kosha and is reflected in the breath, mental state and our intellectual capabilities. The converse is true as well here. Genetically modified foods, non-local produce and over-processed food do not have the purity of the five elements and can disrupt the absorption and digestion of food, leading to several other problems in the body. This spirals through to affect our prana/ aura, emotions and intellect.

Sattvic foods are supposed to keep the mind alert, keep emotions in control and provide rest to the body. Rajasic foods allow for emotional freewheeling, stress and dullness to creep into the mind and body. Tamasic foods on the other hand, lead to us feeling physically fatigued, emotionally drained and intellectually under capable most of the time. 

Balancing our food intake to maintain good health

In conclusion I want to say that in moderation, even rajasic and tamasic foods bring in passion, stability and grounding. It isn’t that we should completely begin avoiding all of the easy options that technology has gifted to us. What we need to do, however, is to strike a balance to make sure that our daily meals are made with fresh and easily available ingredients that are locally sourced. We could try avoiding nonseasonal fruits and vegetables, genetically enhanced produce, and internationally sourced ingredients. Finally, coming back to what my father tried real hard to teach us- savor your food, chew well, eat small portions, avoid snacking (especially processed foods), and always eat on time.

Published by Nitya Neelakantan

Yoga teacher, writer, dog mom!

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