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The Role of Diet in Yoga Therapy

Teach your students to bring yogic awareness to what they eat and how it affects their health and well-being.

By Timothy McCall, M.D.

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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The production of organic food is not non-violent --to imply that is rather ridiculous. Some organic pesticides kill beneficial insects (rotenone for example) while killing the target pests as well. The cultivation of food is a violent process --the production of grain, tilling the earth, cultivating vegetables --it's all violent to some degree. To think that being a vegetarian somehow gets you off the hook, so-to-speak, is naive. In order for something to live, another thing must die. Any herbalist will tell you (and i don't think a vegetarian would disagree) that plants have consciousness --so why is it okay to take the life of a plant and the insects that are most-certainly present, or the worms in the soil that are killed when tilling? Somehow this is more morally-palatable than taking the life of an animal --even if it is taken with reverence? In the system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, meat is considered healing for certain constitutions, and a strict vegetarian diet is patently inappropriate for some. The choice to be a vegetarian is a very personal one, and the typical approach of western medicine, making sweeping statements that supposedly apply to everyone, (as if we were all cut out of the same fabric!) is absurd and reductionist. And to suggest that because one teaches yoga, that he or she should be telling their students what/how to eat?! Really, it's irresponsible at best, and harmful at worst. People take what their teachers say seriously --and teachers need to be very careful what they say --for we're ultimately responsible for our words --and they need to be chosen carefully --if you want to be a vegetarian --great. But don't assume, or try to assert that it might be an appropriate diet for everyone --or that it might be in some way morally superior. Ouch.

Great article!
I'm a yoga teacher in my 60's and yes I do not have to take any medication.
People who come to my classes are at a fitness club want a quick improvement, but longterm it's how we treat ourselves each day that creates chage.

Nina Priebe

Great article, I want the book!

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