Yoga is a spiritual practice that supports a balanced lifestyle and overall well-being. In addition to a strong asana, pranayama, and meditation practice, what you eat greatly impacts your mental clarity and sense of inner peace. The word ‘diet’ can seem intimidating and restrictive but a yoga diet is a unique, individual, and mindful approach to eating, designed to create balance within the body and mind.
Yoga, meaning union or to yoke in Sanskrit, is a deeply rooted spiritual practice that has been around for thousands of years. Although there is no strict diet outlined to go alongside a yoga practice, there are principles and philosophies in place that lead to holistic nourishment. When determining a yoga diet, consider that there may be ideas or practices derived from different yoga paths. There isn’t one single approach to a yogic diet, they can all be used together to support overall health.
Continue reading for a breakdown of some key concepts in creating healthy eating habits that align with a nourishing yoga diet that works for your body and is in harmony with your yoga practice.
Looking at Ayurveda
As a yoga practitioner, the meals you eat should be light and filled with nutrients, nourishing your body while leaving you energized and ready to move. This works to promote health and overall well-being. Ayurveda is a great resource when it comes to finding a yoga diet that works for your body.
In Ayurveda, it is believed everyone has a constitution or dosha. These are the biological factors, or energies, that must be taken into account when assessing the body. Depending on your dosha (pictured below- Vata, Pitta, Kapha), you may thrive as a vegetarian or vegan or you may need meat. What is best for you might not be what is best for your peers or your friend.
In Ayurveda, there are three gunas (Tamas, Raja and Sattva). Gunas are qualities, or strands, that weave the universe together and are present within all individuals. In yoga, there is a goal of finding clarity and overall mental and physical peace.
Sattvic foods are a staple in a yogic diet, they are pure, clean, and ethical foods. It encourages eating seasonal foods and buying foods locally. This ensures that the food you’re getting isn’t traveling far to get to your table, it’s most likely grown locally. Local, seasonal food is often much fresher and filled with more nutrients since they were likely picked when ripe.
A sattvic diet is also filled with mostly unprocessed foods that are easy for the body to digest, such as, fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, ghee, and nuts. Although, a diet of strictly sattvic foods doesn’t work for everyone.
Some individuals will need more tamasic foods, like meat, onions, fermented foods, and garlic. Others may need more rajasic foods, like hot peppers and coffee. If your dosha does suggest you might benefit from eating foods like these, they should be consumed in moderation.
Ahimsa & The 8 Limbs of Yoga
Many yoga practitioners also lean into yoga philosophy and turn to vegetarianism or veganism. Within Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, there are 8-limbs of yoga. Within the eight limbs, there are five Yamas, one of which is Ahimsa, the practice of non-violence or non-harm. This yoga philosophy reminds individuals that to live a balanced, peaceful life, you cannot cause harm to other living beings.
Some believe that when you consume meat, you take on the suffering the animal endured which disrupts inner peace and regulation of emotions. However, the way this philosophy is applied in your own life depends on personal ethics.
Sri Swami Satchidananda reminds us that, “Just because the killing is done by somebody else, somewhere else, does not mean the karma, the responsibility, is not yours. If you are eating the meat they provide, you are contributing to their actions and you share their karma… Food should be an offering of love”.
Not only is there an ethical reason to try vegetarian diet or veganism, but there are also a wide range of health benefits. Plant-based diets have been reported to help lower cholesterol, lower the risk of heart disease and, lower the risk of colon cancer.
Evidence shows that “following a plant-based diet appears to be beneficial to human health by promoting the development of more diverse and stable microbial systems”.
Sometimes, the switch from an omnivore diet to veganism can be quite hard, and there are ways to go vegan that aren’t necessarily nourishing to the body. Starting slow and learning to build meals that are filled with fruits, veggies, grains, legumes and nuts allow you to feel satisfied after eating.
If veganism or a vegetarian diet are appealing to you, it is important to look at the packaging for vegan products because many plant based meats and other products contain ingredients that can actually be harmful to the body and overall gut health. There are numerous additives found in vegan substitute products which can cause disruptions to your digestion.
Following the principles of Ahimsa, by practicing a vegan or vegetarian diet, should be done to benefit your overall health. Ahimsa also applies to the self, so eating foods that are vegan but create discomfort within the body or don’t sit well in your body, are not in line with the philosophy of non-harm towards others and yourself.
In Bhakti yoga practice, all food is considered an offering to God, while in Raja yoga, it is important to be mindful of the food you are consuming and taking the time to be grateful for the nourishment it provides. With this mindset, it is important in yogic tradition to consider the source of food. For example, in India, cows are viewed as sacred animals and there is a saying that goes, “We can tell how people treat the Earth by how they treat their cows”. Our modern farming practices are designed to yield the greatest amount of product with the lowest possible production cost. This has led to some unfavorable farming practices that question the moral integrity of consuming animal products. In India, cows feed their calf first and then, only their leftover milk can be taken and used for human consumption. Although dairy products are not vegan it does align with a vegetarian diet. In Iyengar yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar suggests that it is okay to consume a glass of milk or cocoa before a yoga session. Since cows are treated with gratitude and respect, milk is believed to have healing properties.
The Importance of Mindful Eating
In a yogic diet, it isn’t only what you eat but how you eat. Mindful eating is an essential practice to uphold. Whether that be avoiding outside distractions, chewing slowly or savoring each bite, it is vital to be present with your meal. This allows you to stay in tune with how much food your body needs. The University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom found that, “Multitasking can prompt you to eat more [whereas] slowing down and savoring your food can help control your intake”. This study also found that when individuals remove outside distractions while they eat, they are more likely to notice the colors, textures and smells of foods.
Chewing your meals slowly also aids in digestion, which supports a yogic practice. Digestion starts in the mouth, and when you take the time to fully chew each bite, your stomach has a much easier time with digestion and processing the food. This creates a greater connection between you and your meal. It allows space for greater appreciation of your food and all that goes into creating the meal that is on your plate. From the farmers who grew it, the people who transported the food, there are so many people to be thankful for.
Regular Meal Times for Improved Digestion
When following a yogic diet, it is also beneficial to create regular meal times for your body. Whether you have an asana practice in the morning or at night, you don’t want your body to be distracted by hunger but you also don’t want to go into your asana practice after eating a full meal. If you have an early morning practice, eating a nourishing meal afterwards leaves you feeling satisfied and energized for the day.
In Ashtanga yoga, it is advised to do your practice on an empty stomach. If you have a later morning practice it is beneficial to eat something small that is easy for the body to digest, like fresh fruits or juice, 45 minutes before class, allowing the body to be completely present with the asanas. When there is food or water in your system, energy is taken away from the practice to aid in digestion.
Try to avoid drinking water 15 minutes prior to class and while on the mat. If you have an evening practice, it is suggested to practice before your meal and your dinner should consist of healthy proteins. B. K. S. Iyengar (pictured below) states that it is important to give at least 30 minutes after an asana or pranayama practice before eating so the body is able to re-acclimate.
Creating a regular eating schedule allows the body to have more stable energy throughout the duration of the day and it keeps your metabolism engaged. This helps prevent overeating, keeps blood sugar consistent which aids in continued digestion of foods. This supports a yogic diet. In yoga, it is believed there is a constant flow of energy, chi, or prana, through the body. When you overeat, your energy can be disrupted or get stuck.
By keeping meals light, it allows for the food to digest and energy to continue flowing through the body. In Ayurveda, your Pitta, or inner fire, is strongest in the afternoon. For this reason, lunch is the best time to eat the largest meal of the day. Your Pitta helps aid in digestion, sustaining energy throughout the duration of the day. Ayurvedic practices also suggest having a cooked dinner since it is easier for the body to digest. When you are not working to digest your food while asleep, your digestive system has adequate time to rest.
When you start to follow a yogic diet, remember the importance of listening to your body. As Dayna Macy said, “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”.
If you are following an Ayurvedic diet and plan to eat meat, buy locally, support local farms where the animals are treated humanely and are not raised in factory farms. Make conscious and informed food choices. If you are choosing to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s important to remember that just because certain foods are vegan, it does not mean that they are healthy or are supporting your overall health. You can be vegan without touching vegetables!
A yoga diet should be filled with fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, unprocessed foods that are free from preservatives and chemicals. Following a yoga diet is simply the act of tuning into what your body needs and providing your body with nourishing meals.
What do yogis eat?
Yogis eat meals that are both satiating and nourishing, free of chemicals and artificial sweeteners. A yogic diet includes eating organic foods and local produce like fresh fruit, fresh vegetables (including leafy greens), seasonal produce, whole grains (like brown rice, oats), legumes, seeds, nuts, and herbal teas.
What is a yoga diet?
A yoga diet follows yoga practices and philosophy and draws from different Ayurvedic tradition. A yoga diet creates lightness of being with an individual approach to eating, listening to your body and what your body needs. Following a yoga diet provides harmony and balance within and a healthy diet supports a strong yoga practice.
How often do yogis eat?
Yogis eat at regular intervals throughout the day, often having lunch as the largest meal of the day because that is when their pitta, or inner fire, is strongest. Depending on activity level, yogis typically eat three meals a day with light snacks in between meals if they get hungry.
Frawley, David. “Ayurvedic Dairy: The Raw Story on Milk, Yogurt, and More.” Home, Yoga International, 9 June 2015
“Health Benefits of a Vegan Diet.” Rush University System for Health
Howard E. LeWine, MD. “Distracted Eating May Add to Weight Gain.” Harvard Health, 29 Mar. 2013