Practice Yoga? Here Are the Foods to Eat and Foods to Avoid

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“Food makes thinking possible. Therefore, the right food is of paramount importance. You must eat when you are in a cheerful mood. Do not overload the stomach,” said Swami Sivananda, a Hindu spiritual teacher and an advocate for yoga and Vedanta.

I have been enjoying yoga for about two and a half years now, and with the practice I have developed a vegetarian lifestyle for spiritual, mental, and physical reasons. But not every person who practices yoga (also called a yogi) is a vegetarian, while some traditional yoga practitioners also follow a strict yogic diet. A proper diet is part of the five yogic principles, the other four being proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, and positive thinking and meditation.

A yogic diet is a pure vegetarian diet and is full of natural foods, promoting optimal health and vitality. What is the difference between a yogic diet and a regular vegetarian diet? There are certain plant-based foods that yogis won’t eat based on the three qualities or gunas, which are sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic. The gunas are guidelines that help you change your diet toward a positive direction.

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Yogi-Approved: Sattvic Foods

Sattvic foods are based on the yogic diet and are healthy foods that increase life, health, purity, strength, joy, and cheerfulness. The sattvic foods can also be described as foods that add vitality, energy, and vigor, while creating equanimity and a calm state of mind with peaceful tendencies. The sattvic foods align deeply with the other yogic principles, as they promote a peaceful mental attitude and they help encourage your meditation practice.

Sattvic foods follow the traditional vegetarian mainstays, including whole grains, protein foods, fruits, vegetables, herbs, natural sweeteners, and dairy products.

  • Whole Grains: The sattvic yogic diet includes whole grains such as barley, whole wheat, brown rice, oat, millet, steel cut oats, and quinoa. These foods give the body the necessary carbohydrates it needs.
  • Protein Foods: A healthy vegetarian diet consists of a good mixture of amino acids, including legumes, nuts, and seeds.
  • Fruits: Fresh and dried fruits, and pure fruit juices are included in the sattvic yogic diet. They provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, while keeping the blood pure with alkaline matter.
  • Vegetables: The sattvic yogic diet would include root vegetables, leafy vegetables, and seeded vegetables such as cucumbers or squash. They are usually eaten raw or lightly steamed.
  • Herbs: The sattvic yogic lifestyle includes herbal teas and herbs for seasoning.
  • Natural Sweeteners: The sattvic yogic diet will include an array of natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup, honey, molasses, apple juice concentrate, and raw sugar. They will not consume white or processed sugar.
  • Dairy Products: Dairy products are part of the sattvic yogic diet, including milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt. Because the modern dairy industry abuses animals, the sattvic yogic practice suggests vegan alternatives such as nut or rice milks, cashew cheese, or using coconut oil as butter.

Yogi Disapproved: Tamasic Foods

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Foods that are tamasic will make you feel inert, dull, and lazy, depriving you of your purpose and motivation. The tamasic diet can lead to depression, and the individual is often angry, dark, and they think impure thoughts. When you give up tamasic foods, you begin a positive and life-changing journey.

Tamasic foods and substances include vinegar, mushrooms, meat, fish, eggs, all intoxicants, alcoholic beverages, marijuana, opium, and also foods that are rotten, stale, decomposed, and unclean. The yogic diet also disregards tamasic foods that are fermented, burned, fried, deep-fried, barbecued, and reheated many times, as well as foods that contain preservatives, and overripe and unripe fruits.

Western society teaches us that some of these principles are acceptable, and even healthy in some cases. Fermentation is a natural probiotic known to benefit the digestive system; however, the yogic diet argues that fermented foods retard digestion.

Yogi Disapproved: Rajasic Foods

Rajasic foods will have the tendency to overstimulate the body and mind with physical and mental stress, contributing to the destruction of happiness. You should also avoid foods that are excessively sour, bitter, salty, pungent, dry, and hot. Consumption of rajasic foods often cause pain, grief, and disease in a person’s life. Rajasic foods promote anger, greed, selfishness, violence, egoism, and accentuate lust. These are barriers that create separateness from others and you cannot realize your higher self (or the Divine).

Here are three rajasic foods that are usually considered healthy but you won’t find yogis eating them if they are practicing sattvic yogic eating habits because they affect your mind-body connection.

1. Garlic

Why would people who practice yoga consider garlic as one of the rajasic unhealthy foods? Rajasic foods can overstimulate the mind; however, many cultures have been praising garlic for years. The garlic plant (allium sativum) is over 5,000 years old and is native to central Asia. Garlic contains a powerful sulfur compound, allicin, which is helpful for antibacterial and antiviral reasons. The downside of garlic is its irritation effect on the gastrointestinal tract, leading to digestion and stomach problems.

2. Onions

Maybe there is a deeper reason onions bring tears to your eyes when you cut them? The side effects of onions are their tendency to trigger headaches, besides eye irritation. Overcooking onions are known to decrease their nutrients by 50%.

Onions benefit people with their sulfur-containing phytonutrients, including allyl propyl sulfoxides. They are responsible for irritating your eyes, but they also can help maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Onions also contain chromium, a rare mineral to find in food (romaine lettuce and tomatoes are other good sources).

3. Spicy Foods

Spicy foods are widely eaten in western culture, and some people think “the hotter the better” when it comes to spicy foods. Some studies actually link spicy foods such as hot sauce or jalapeño to weight loss, claiming they increase your metabolism. Other studies show spicy food can decrease risk of heart attack and stroke, slow the spread of cancers, and lower blood pressure. However, spicy foods such as hot cayenne peppers are known to increase inflammation and cause skin irritation with some people. Over consumption of spicy foods can also lead to stomach and intestinal issues.

Other rajasic foods include radishes, coffee, tea, tobacco, highly processed convenience foods, refined sugar, soft drinks, processed mustards, pungent spices, and highly seasoned foods.

People who practice yoga in body and mind try to eat foods that raise your optimal health, and although some traditional yogic recommendations might be controversial, you may find these yogic diet guidelines may work for you.

Sources:
Mateljan, G., The World’s Healthiest Foods: Essential Guide for the healthiest way of eating (Seattle: George Mateljan Foundation, 2007), 258, 268, 272, 746.
The Yoga Cookbook: Vegetarian Food For Body and Mind (London: Gaia Books Limited, 1999), 9-13.
“Garlic,” WebMD web site; http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-300-GARLIC.aspx?activeIngredientId=300&activeIngredientName=GARLIC, last accessed January 17, 2014.
Everett, J., “5 Hidden Health Benefits of Spicy Foods,” Self.com web site, Sept. 24, 2013; http://www.self.com/blogs/flash/2010/09/5-healthy-benefits-of-eating-s.html.
Stefanoc, S., “The Negative Effects Of Spicy Food,” AskMen.com web site; http://ca.askmen.com/sports/foodcourt_60/74_eating_well.html, last accessed January 17, 2014.
Roth, S., “Can eating Extremely Spicy Food Be Harmful to Your Health?” SFGate web site; http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/can-eating-extremely-spicy-food-harmful-health-2660.html.