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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.

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.

Dr. Timothy McCall is a board-certified internist, Yoga Journal's Medical Editor, and the author of the forthcoming book Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing (Bantam Dell, summer 2007). He can be found on the Web at www.DrMcCall.com.

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Reader Comments

Karenmb

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.

fab.yogini@gmail.com

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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