Yoga and Food

Mitahara, is the concept of respecting our food and diet for spiritual growth and is an integral component of healthy living.

Concepts around eating and diet are diverse in our Western world. It seems that everyday there are new ideas of what to eat and what not to eat. We have lost the ability to listen to our body’s needs and have further disconnected from the chance to intimately engage with our bodies’ natural rhythms and needs.

It is important to discover our own natural biorhythm and when our digestive fire is at its peak. Food is digested better at optimum times that are different for each person and can result in feeling light after a meal or sluggish and bloated. When food is not consumed at our optimal digestive time, we unknowingly create toxins in the system. Additionally, food may not be absorbed well during the next meal as our body is still working on digesting food previously consumed.

When our food is not absorbed correctly, we feel tired and we end up utilizing and wasting much more energy than necessary digesting our food. Alternatively, when we find our optimum diet rhythm and follow it with regularity, this will improve our digestive functioning and result in numerous physical improvements.

The type of food we eat obviously affects us in diverse ways, for example, with both our physical health and emotional attitudes. Digesting our food better helps us get the most from the nutrients in the food.

Know that a carnivore’s intestines are smoother for quicker elimination of meat waste, and a human’s intestines are pocketed and longer in length, to slow down digestion of a vegetarian diet. Meat protein especially can slow down the digestion in a distressing way in the small intestines causing fermentation, resulting in gas and/or bloating.

It helps to chew your food well and eat slowly providing enough time for digestion to start at the mouth. When we eat slowly, this also prevents us from fooling our bodies into wanting to eat more. Less food means better digestion and directly results in higher energy levels.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Verse 58 explains, “Mitahara is defined as (eating) agreeable and sweet food leaving one forth of the stomach free, and eaten as an offering to please Shiva”. Sweet food is referring to fresh pure and pleasant tasting food, not foods full of processed or refined sugar.

Disagreeable food refers to food that is toxic to most peoples’ systems generally or particular to an individual’s digestive sensitivities. It is important to discover and incorporate a personalized diet that supports energetic living.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika quote also refers to keeping the stomach “…one forth free”. The ratio to follow when eating is allow the stomach to be half filled with food, and one quarter filled with water, leaving one quarter for air. “Eaten as an offering to please Shiva” is suggesting that we eat to bring awareness to our food as an important source of nourishment to the body and also to raise consciousness of the spirit.

Too often food is eaten to escape or to dull our emotions. When we look at food with fresh eyes, we can see sustenance as a means to vitality or even as a medicine.

A quote from Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh sums up the important of eating the appropriate foods for the body with:

Heavy food leads to a Tamasic state and induces sleep only. There is a general misapprehension that a large quantity of food is necessary for health and strength. Much depends upon the power of assimilation and absorption. Generally, in the vast majority of cases, most of the food passes away undigested along with faeces… Almost all diseases are due to irregularity of meals, over eating and unwholesome food.”

The ancient Yogis understood the concept of food’s influence on our behavior long ago. Their early teachings explain about three basic states of being: Sattva, Raja and Tamas.

The Sattva state is one of Self, a place of connection to your being, balanced emotionally and spiritually. The Raja state is that of activity, passion and sometimes feeling unconnected and agitated. The third state is called Tamas. This is a more dense state, with mucous, heavy in the earth element, inert and base with human attachments to ego. We often move through these three states alternating or blending them throughout our lives.

Foods fall into the above mentioned categories as well: spiritually connecting, agitating, and heavy. When we eat for spirit, we eat Sattva foods like, fruits, nuts seeds, vegetables, whole grains, honey, pure water and milk (for some). Foods that are active or Rajasic are spicy foods, coffee, tea, chocolate, onions, garlic, meat and processed foods. Eating a heavy or Tamasic diet includes, alcohol, stale food and the practice of over-eating.

Sometimes for health, we need to add different foods from the three states to balance an over zealous condition. An example is if we are too open to emotions and to our environment, and can’t function, we may actually need more earthy Tamasic foods into our system to ground us. It’s important not to become habitual eaters but to look diagnostically at what we need at each different period of our life. In our Western lifestyle it is more common that we need to eat raw fresh foods, as opposed to the increase in people primarily consuming packaged, processed fast foods.

Yoga can be quite detoxifying through all the systems of elimination in the body. When there is a lot of cleansing and detoxifying needed in the body, it can leave you feeling fatigued and heavy. Eating food that won’t put strain on the body is best in the long run and knowing when to eat before yoga practice is equally important.

It is often said that it is best to have finished a light meal two to three hours before a practice and to wait twenty minutes to eat after a practice. We follow these rules because it is taxing on the digestive system to exert, invert, twist, back-bend or forward bend while trying to digest our food which may result in an upset stomach, belching or bloating.

A regular yoga practice, in conjunction, with following a healthy diet based on the principles of Sattva, Raja and Tamas will help you move towards improved health and a more grounded open way of moving through the world.