The Role of Diet in Yoga Therapy
Diet is the centerpiece of yoga's sister science, Ayurveda. India's traditional system of medicine characterizes foods based on their taste and makes dietary recommendations based on how foods with different tastes affect people of different constitutions. For example, people with fiery pitta constitutions might be advised to refrain from overly spicy foods in favor of foods with bitter, astringent, and sweet tastes. Hyperactive vatas, Ayurveda suggests, benefit from eating warm, nutritious meals on a regular schedule, emphasizing sweet, salty, and sour tastes. Kaphas, with their tendency toward inertia, may be told to cut back on sweets and high-fat foods, opting instead for spicy, bitter, or astringent foods. Ayurveda's analysis of diet is intricate and subtle, and I suggest that anyone who is interested read more on this subject or consult an Ayurvedic practitioner.
Using Yogic Awareness to Guide Food Choices
Finding the right foods is in part a matter of trial and error. Yoga encourages people to develop their internal awareness (a regular yoga practice is a great way to do this) and study themselves to figure out which foods work best for them. A particular food might taste good, for example, but if you feel lethargic afterward, you can't sleep well, or your meditation is more distracted than usual, it may be that this food isn't agreeing with you. Encouraging your students to keep a food diary, in which they write down what they eat and how they feel later, is a great way for them to study themselves. Self-study, or svadhyaya, is, of course, one of the niyamas, or yogic observances.
If you suspect that a student's health or well-being is being adversely affected by a particular food or group of foods, a yogic approach would be to eliminate the food or foods from the diet for a week or two and see if that makes any difference. Then reintroduce the suspect food (one at a time if it's more than one food), and again ask the student to tune into how they feel. If symptoms lessen or disappear only to recur on reintroduction of a food item, that's strong evidence that it may be problematic. When your students make this kind of discovery for themselves, they may be much more motivated to avoid the problematic foods than if the advice comes from someone else, such as a doctor.
Taking It Home
The essence of the spiritual path is the willingness to undergo short-term discomfort in order to advance longer-term objectives, both personal and societal. You go to your yoga mat even on a day when you'd rather lie on the couch, or you give up a Saturday afternoon to volunteer at a local food bank. This is tapas, another niyama. Dietary tapas is the willingness to sacrifice short-term pleasure, for example, saying no to something tasty that you know is not good for you.
None of this is to say that you shouldn't eat with pleasure. Food is one of life's joys, and yoga teaches that it, like you, is a manifestation of the divine. If your students have a pattern of sullying their temples of the divine with food that is less than divine—especially food that in fact may be undermining their health—try to get them to analyze why they eat this way. Encourage them to enjoy their food but to eat slowly, mindfully, in moderation, and with gratitude. The more awareness they bring to the process, the better dietary choices they are likely to make, and the better it will be for them—and for the rest of us.
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