We Are What We... Digest! Yogic or Ayurvedic Diet?
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Though this may sound somewhat facetious, the type of food we eat says a lot about the type of person we are deep within. Leaving aside questions of ethical responsibility for now, whether or not we carefully look at what we eat, how it is produced and cooked, how it is that we eat it, and its effects on our minds, bodies and surroundings has a lot to say about our level of awareness and, ultimately, about our overall state of consciousness.
Indeed, for many of us, food (and more generally eating) is one of our main modes of interaction with our environments. All of our food products come from the natural world one way or another. Both Yoga and Ayurveda have a lot to say in regards to how we must tend to this relationship with the natural world and how we must look after and support an exchange that we often take for granted in detriment of our healths, other living creatures, and our environments.
Indeed, while we in the West normally say 'we are what we eat,' in Ayurveda and in Yoga, the saying sings a slightly different tune: 'we are what we digest' and with good reason. It is through the process of digestion that 'what we eat' becomes a part of us. It is not enough to eat something, because foods regularly go out of our systems without being properly processed. We must digest what we choose to bite into, and there are several methods for that!
The Ayurvedic and Yogic Diets
Though it may come as something of a surprise, an Ayurvedic Diet and a Yogic Diet are not one and the same thing. Many students of Yoga assume that, Ayurveda being the medicine of the yogis, all 'good old yogis' must have followed an Ayurvedic diet back in the day. Nothing could be farther from this. Though both of these modes of eating follow similar precepts to some extent, the purpose each of these diets pursues, as well as the methods they espouse, are actually quite different.
It all revolves around what both Ayurveda and Yoga set out to achieve. The key to Ayurveda, for example, is balance ––what Ayurveda calls Sattwa in Sanskrit. Thus, that an Ayurvedic diet's prime preoccupation be that of restoring balance back into our bodies, minds and, ultimately, our lives. We eat certain food products and follow certain lifestyle recommendations in order to realign ourselves with nature and, by so doing, with our inherent nature.
Contrarily, the key to Yoga is transcendence ––we want to learn to go beyond the body and beyond the mind to realize that we are much more than just this body and its thoughts in this lifetime. Hence, the emphasis on awakening Kundalini, the sacred inner fire of transformation. Surely, with such divergent goals or orientations, the bulk of what comprises a yogic diet and an Ayurvedic one is also very different.
The Yogic Diet
The truth is that, when the main focus of one's existence is attaining spiritual transcendence, excessive focus on the body or in nurturing, balancing, and grounding the body becomes in part irrelevant. It is for this matter that, though yogis have followed sattvic diets in general, they have favoured for the most part dietary habits meant to enhance prana, Agni, and udana vayu ––meaning, energy, the digestive fire, and beyond-the-mind expansion.
Because of this, diets rich in raw foods (products rich in prana or where raw food forms the bulk of what one eats) and in foods that activate the digestive fire (ginger, cayenne, cinnamon, basil) so that one may better digest those raw nutrients have been the name of the game for real yogis. We must remember that, for many centuries, hard-core yogis lived lives of near-ascetic retirement, contemplation, and even isolation in natural spaces where only raw nutrients would be readily available. Hence, the amount of cooked foods normally ingested by good old yogis was lower than our average. This is also because, when trying to go beyond the mind, enhancing the Vata qualities without bringing this dosha out of balance was of the utmost importance.
This is actually one of the reasons why many preparatory Ayurvedic diets include such things as raw dieting, juice fasts, or water fasting. These are all well-known yogic diet methods that can be applied to untrained 'normal individuals' for short periods of time without great risks to either our constitution or our health. But only yogis well-trained in the manipulation of energy and in its sublimation can really stick to such diets for good.
A typical yogic diet would thus include eating things like fruits and raw vegetables of all types, except for garlic and onions; whole grains and nuts when unsalted; plant-based oils of high quality; some dairy products when one can guarantee that the animals they come from have been treated by the principle of ahimsa or non-harm; or sweet spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, cumin, coriander. Similarly, it would avoid all meats and other animal products such as fish, processed foods of all types, artificial flavour enhancers and sweeteners, canned foods, overly spicy foods, and of course alcohol, tobacco, and other stimulants such as coffee.
The Ayurvedic Diet
When the goal one pursues is that of attaining optimal physical and mental health and an overall state of balance, then, an Ayurvedic Diet is preferred. Though both Ayurveda and Yoga espouse vegetarianism, Ayurveda still favours cooking our products over eating them raw, namely because of the aforementioned effects of raw products over our digestive fire. Indeed, not every individual ––not all doshic constitutions–– are equipped to handle a diet rich in raw products; for raw products have a tendency to create excessive vata or an excess of the air element and, thus, to bring some of our doshas out of balance. We want to build physical strength and resilience to guard off disease and prepare our minds and bodies for actual Yoga.
Hence, Ayurveda resorts to various diagnostic methods and lifestyle recommendations depending on whether we are types where stagnation and inertia prevails, where dynamism and excessive output of energy is predominant, or where too much flakiness and airiness is at play. That taken into account, then, its recommendations may or may not include small percetages of raw products taken at specific times of the day but, in the main, creating something of a counter energy within us and enhancing a sense of peace and love for everything are is the main idea. We want Kapha types to become more energetic and dynamic; Pitta types to become more loving and calm; and Vata types more grounded and relaxed.
Ayurveda, then, carefully observes a well thought-out taste plan ––the so-called 'six tastes of Ayurveda'–– whereby foods are divided into their inherently sweet, pungent, sour, salty, bitter or astringent qualities. Each of these flavours has the ability to enliven specific doshic types and at the same time bring other doshas out of balance, and will therefore form the basis of the dietary recommendations for each specific dosha. Hence, Kapha predominant people should avoid sweet and salty foods, for example; or Pitta predominant people should avoid sour and pungent foods; and Vata predominant types must control how much bitter and astringent elements they consume.
If you want to find out more on what (not) to eat for your specific Ayurvedic imbalance, then head out to our selected posts on each of the doshas as tagged above.