Just take a quick peek inside the kitchen of Ayurvedic educator and yoga teacher Scott Blossom's Berkeley, California, home. In the pantry you'll find ghee and sunflower seed butter, plus dozens of herbs, spices, and teas. In the 'fridge, bundles of kale, carrots, and beets. On the counters, jars of homemade jams, organic raw honey, and a warm loaf of sprouted spelt bread. On the stovetop a pot of dahl (Indian lentil soup) simmers.
All of these foods reflect Blossom's quest to meet his nutritional needs while honoring his yogic values. He spent 20 years experimenting with veganism, vegetarianism, and other dietary styles, while studying Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, before figuring out the right diet for himself and his family. In 1998 he settled on an Ayurvedic diet in which his daily food choices reflect the needs of his individual constitution, what's going on in his life, and the season of the year.
"Eating is perhaps the single most important act for one's yoga practice," Blossom says, "because nourishment of the body's tissues forms a foundation for nourishment of the mind and emotions." One way to think about this is to imagine devoting your days to practice while feeding yourself nothing but sugar and caffeine. What effect would that have? It's easy to see that a balanced, calm mind is much easier to come by if you commit yourself to nourishing your body properly, just as you commit yourself to asana, Pranayama, and meditation. But what exactly does it mean to nourish yourself properly? Just how do you eat like a yogi?
The Diet of Patanjali
Admittedly, extending your yoga practice to the dinner table is not an easy task, mostly because the classic yogic texts such as Patanjali's Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita don't list any specific foods for following a "yogic diet." And even if they did, it's highly unlikely that the foods prescribed in India thousands of years ago would be appropriate today for each and every one of us.
But while there is no prescribed menu for yogis, there is a yogic diet, says Gary Kraftsow, the founder of the American Viniyoga Institute. "These are ingredients that enhance clarity and lightness, keeping the body light and nourished and the mind clear," he explains. In other words, a diet that offers your body a great basis for practice—or encourages the same effects as practice—makes for a great yogic diet.
In the Ayurvedic tradition, foods that are considered sattvic include most vegetables, ghee (clarified butter), fruits, legumes, and whole grains. In contrast, tamasic foods (such as onions, meat, and garlic) and rajasic foods (such as coffee, hot peppers, and salt) can increase dullness or hyperactivity, respectively. But maintaining a diet that keeps your body light and your mind clear doesn't necessarily mean eating only sattvic foods. What is best for you and what in the end will best support your yoga practice is informed by your constitution (known in the Ayurvedic tradition as vikriti) and your current state (prakriti), Kraftsow says. "Both need to be considered," he adds.
In this way of thinking about nourishment, what you need as an individual may be very different from what someone else needs. And what you need at this moment in your life may be very different from what you needed five years ago or will need five years from now. Perhaps the ancient sages were relying on wisdom when they chose not to lay down a yogic diet for all to follow. Just as you learn to listen to your body on the mat, so you must listen to your body at the table.
Beyond the basic needs of the body, many modern yoga practitioners suggest that a yogic diet should take into account the values and philosophical teachings of yoga. Many people name ahimsa, the yogic precept of nonharming, as an influence on their dietary choices—although how they put that principle into action varies. Just as different styles of yoga teach different versions of the same poses, and different teachers offer different, even contradictory, interpretations of the Yoga Sutra, so do yogis consider a wide range of possibilities in exploring a yogic diet. But while personal interpretations may vary, there is a consensus that exploring a yogic diet is important. "For yogis, food choices reflect personal ethics," says Blossom. "They are inextricable from our spiritual development."
Or, as Jivamukti Yoga cofounder David Life says, "Not everyone can do Headstand, but everybody eats. Because of this, what you eat has more impact and matters more than whether you can stand on your head."
With this in mind, we asked several well-known teachers and self-described foodies how they arrived at their current food choices. Because different yogic values resonate with people in a variety of ways, everyone had their own ideas about what constitutes a yogic diet. But what these yogis can all agree on is that their yogic principles have strongly influenced how they feed themselves.
When she was 21 years old, Sianna Sherman became a vegan as part of her practice of ahimsa. For seven years she followed an animal-free diet, including two years on a macrobiotic diet, which consisted largely of whole grains, fresh and sea vegetables, nuts, beans, and fermented foods. Sherman spent several more years experimenting with a raw food diet for its promise of increased vitality and prana (life force); at another time she followed Ayurvedic dietary principles.
Somewhere down the line, though, Sherman, who spends much of the year on the road, discovered that she needed a different kind of fuel to support her body as she devoted herself to teaching others. She found that to keep her energy up, she needed to step away from strict diets and simply listen to her intuition.
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That intuition, Sherman says, has her eating a lot of grains, vegetables, some fish, and milk. She now mainly eats organic, local, seasonal whole foods. "I try to eat close to my food sources so that the gap from earth to kitchen table is bridged with greater gratitude and awareness," she says. "My choices are not only about serving myself but also serving the earth and the world in an authentic way."
Ana Forrest, the founder of Forrest Yoga, also began her exploration of the yogic diet by focusing on ahimsa. "I was very attracted to vegetarianism and the philosophy of nonviolence for years, but the diet made me sick," she says. "I'm allergic to grains. I gain weight, my brain shuts down, and my bowels stop working. And my yoga practice does not improve."
So with her body screaming for a different regimen, Forrest chose an omnivorous diet, one that consists mostly of meat, especially game, and vegetables. But, she says, this doesn't mean she can't practice ahimsa. "Since I do eat animals," she says, "I honor the elk, buffalo, or moose by not wasting its life force or mine. I use that force to heal myself and others, and to teach, inspire, and help people evolve. My ethics about what to eat came down to my personal truth. Eating in a way that impairs your health and thinking is immoral. And the truth is that an omnivorous diet physiologically works for me."
As an Ayurvedic practitioner, Blossom views the occasional red meat as medicine for his specific constitution. He still follows a largely vegetarian diet, though: "That's what nourishes me in the most balanced way," he says. And when he does eat meat, he sources it with great care, choosing only organically and humanely produced meats.
Not surprisingly, the interpretation of ahimsa is widely debated within the yoga community. Life, for example, has been committed to an animal-free diet for decades. He became a vegetarian in the 1970s; since 1987 he has been a vegan. "One's suffering is another's suffering," says Life, who actively encourages yogis to see veganism as the only dietary choice that truly honors ahimsa. "In the Yoga Sutra, it doesn't say be nonharming to yourself or people who look like you. It just says do no harm."
Clearly, with such varied perspectives on what feeds the body and spirit, developing a diet that reflects your ethics and honors your physical needs can be challenging. In the end most yogis would agree that part of the practice is to develop awareness about what you eat. It's worth spending time educating yourself not just about the possible diets you could follow but also about the origins and properties of the food you buy. And it's essential to listen to yourself so that you'll know what kinds of foods might serve you best in each moment. But, as you explore the parameters of your own yogic diet, allow for some flexibility. "Remember, yoga is about freedom, including freedom from your own strong beliefs and ideas," Kraftsow says. "So don't get caught in them."
For example, Blossom recalls that once, while traveling to a yoga event, the only food he could find was fried artichokes with ranch dressing. "Instead of wrinkling our noses," he says, "we prayed over it. And it was deeply nourishing."
To begin forming your yogic diet, think about which teachings best resonate with you and how you might put those teachings into action. If ahimsa is a focal point in your value system, explore how your food choices can cause the least possible harm to yourself, other beings, and the planet. If you are attracted to the principles of bhakti yoga, you may want to make every morsel an offering—silently give thanks to the food as you prepare it and offer it as nourishment for the Divine in everything before you eat it. Or if you're focusing on compassion for others, you may want to emphasize sharing fresh, home-cooked meals with friends in need. "When you get all these factors in alignment with your personal value system," Blossom says, "that is the yogic diet."