The Role of Diet in Yoga Therapy
Although many people don't realize it, diet is an integral part of yoga. Much of the yogic prescription for food comes straight from the yamas and niyimas, yoga's "do's and don'ts" as articulated in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra.
It is well established in Western science that a poor diet can contribute to the development of a wide variety of diseases, including Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and some cancers. Modifying the diet can, in turn, improve health, reduce the need for medications, and in some cases reverse all signs of disease. In addition, yoga would suggest that a good diet can improve your mood, energy level, and overall well-being, and even help make the world a better place.
Ahimsa and Diet
The first yama, and the foundation of all of yoga practice, is ahimsa, nonharming. You don't want to be eating food that harms you or others. Out of concern for the welfare of animals, many—though not all—yogis choose to be vegetarians. The health benefits of vegetarianism have been demonstrated in numerous scientific studies. Vegetarians are less likely to develop all the health conditions mentioned above, and they tend to weigh less than carnivores. If your students choose to eat meat or dairy products, try to get them to bring awareness to how the animals are treated. The laws of karma would suggest that factory farming, which is both inhumane and environmentally irresponsible, is good neither for animals nor for the people who eat them.
For similar reasons, yoga would suggest that we choose organic food whenever possible. Organic food tends to taste better and to be higher in vitamin content. And while scientists can debate how harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are to human health, yoga's holistic perspective would suggest that anything strong enough to kill pests, weeds, and fungi is undoubtedly not going to be healthy for us. While testing is lacking for many chemicals—and virtually nothing is known about the cumulative effects of the stew of chemicals that all of us are exposed to—recent evidence links pesticide exposure to both male infertility and Parkinson's disease. Beyond this, we know that these chemicals harm the health of farm workers, damage ecosystems, and contaminate local groundwater. So, again, a karmic perspective would suggest that we avoid these chemicals and the agricultural businesses that support their rampant use.
Yoga and Ayurveda on Food
Yoga and Ayurveda categorize everything in the universe as being made up of three different properties, or gunas: rajas, tamas, and sattva. Rajas is the property of motion, and rajasic foods tend to be stimulating, even agitating. Onions, garlic, red pepper, and coffee are a few examples. Tamas is the property of inertia. Tamasic foods tend to be heavy, stale or low in nutritional value, and can induce lethargy. From a yogic perspective, they lack prana, or vital energy. Fast food, junk food, and something that's been sitting in the fridge for a week are all considered tamasic. Sattva is balance, and sattvic foods are fresh, pure, and high in vitamins. Think of fresh fruit or a plate of steamed, organic greens.
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