Ashtanga Yoga and diet: what should yogis eat
What is the right diet for yogis according to the ancient texts and how strict we have to follow it
In the mind of most people yoga practice is often associated with a vegetarian diet. Some teachers go as far as systematically preaching for it. There is for sure a solid foundation to this, both for ethical and health/wellness reasons. Like most of the times though, things are rarely black or white. It is a complex subject and eventually it is all about freedom of choice.
Let’s see one by one the reasons why vegetarianism is more suitable for a yogi.
According to Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, also known as the eightfold path, a yogi is not just someone who practices asana. In fact asana is just one of the eight limbs. Instead, Patanjali presents one by one the eight pillars of a yogic life. Those pillars encompass a much wider spectrum of activities than just asana practice. How one interacts with others in society, what imprint they leave on the earth, in other words how they live their life off the mat is of outmost importance.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Ahimsa (non-violence) is the first and foremost of the five Yamas (ethical principles for life in society). By following a diet that contains animal products and especially the flesh of animals that have been killed for this reason, it could be argued that the principle of Ahimsa is violated. Still, there is nothing in the Yoga Sutras that explicitly prohibits eating meat, nor are there any prescriptions as to what a yogi should eat.
Those are found much later, in the text of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. In Chapter 1, Verse 59 there is a list of prohibited foods for the yoga practitioner, among them fish and flesh foods.
In Verse 62 of the same Chapter we find a more concrete suggestion of yogic menu: “Wheat, rice, barley, good corns, milk, ghee, jaggery, honey, dried ginger, vegetables, moong beans and pure water are very beneficial to those who practice yoga.”
The Gherand Samhita rejects food that is “hard to digest, sinful, putrid”. Meat could be considered as a “sinful” food in terms of the environmental impact involved in raising livestock for food consumption.
Overeating is another habit that should be avoided by yogis. “The yogi should fill two parts of the stomach with food and the third part with water, leaving the fourth part free for air to aid digestion.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika v 1:58
Excessive fasting is discouraged also, since it depletes the body from its vital forces. “Yoga is not possible for him who eats too much, nor for him who does not eat at all”. Bhagavad Gita 6:16
Moderation and non attachment to food, either in the form of over indulgence or starvation, a key component to a yogic lifestyle, is established here.
According to Ayurveda, the holistic medicine system of ancient India, sattvic food should be preferred, especially by the yogi. Sattva is one of the three primary Gunas. The Gunas are the qualities of energy, that create the essential aspects of all nature, energy, matter and consciousness.
The Three Gunas are Tamas (darkness and chaos), Rajas (activity and passion) and Sattva (harmony and balance). Through yoga practice, we attempt to increase the quality of Sattva in our lives, which in turn permeates the lives of others, resulting in an increase of Sattva in the universe.
The foods that are prescribed for this are fresh, light and easily digestible, fresh vegetables and fruits, legumes, mild spices, nuts and whole grains. Meat, fish, as well as any processed food fall under the category of Tamas. Tamasic food makes the body heavy, lethargic and dull.
We have established now what an ideal yogic diet would be and for which reasons, ethical, environmental and health related.
Does this then mean that only people who fit perfectly this norm should practice? Do we only open the doors of our Shala to students fully committed to this lifestyle? Does yoga only work if we follow this diet religiously?
In my experience, no one becomes vegetarian and follows such a diet just because their teacher or the ancient texts told them to. And if they do, frustration awaits around the corner.
Like many other aspects of yoga practice, the appropriate diet cannot really be taught or forced on the practitioner. It needs to be felt.
The right diet is not therefore a prerequisite to practice. Rather, practice over a long period of time will most likely empower students to make more conscious choices about food, ethics, health and their own impact on the earth. Just like the other Yamas and Niyamas, Ahimsa is not just an empty theory to follow blindly but something that is learnt over the years, on and off the mat.
We don’t come to yoga because we are accomplished in all of these principles. We become yogis and hopefully better human beings through practice.
I remember an incident, many years ago that made me turn away from a specific yoga style and teacher. On the first class of a weekend workshop and while he was guiding the class the teacher gave us a lecture on how veganism is a one way street if we practice yoga. His almost hostility towards those who are not vegan made me not want to practice with him ever again. Note that I had already stopped eating meat back then and was almost fully vegetarian. Still, this attack to the freedom of choice, masked behind the veil of the holy yogi was repulsive to me.
But the subject is even more complex than that. Obsession over vegetarianism, food intake and the effect it has on the body can have the exactly opposite result than the one we are seeking. We practice yoga to stop over identifying with our body. By obsessing and over monitoring our food choices we become more and more attached to it. The yogic approach is the one that keeps the body healthy enough so it doesn’t create problems that disturb our inner peace. Ideally we should eat and then forget about it.
Eating disorders stemming from false assumptions and chasing unrealistic ideals are a big problem in our society. Yoga practice should not lead to those but shield us against them. Sadly, there are quite a lot of Ashtanga practitioners who become extremely obsessed with staying lean and light for the sake of their practice. I have met people who fast for days on end or just drink juices while practicing advanced asana. This is far from what the ancient texts and any reasonable teacher would prescribe. It is irresponsible and dangerous. Unless we aspire to become renunciates, this kind of behaviour not only is unnecessary but can also create serious health issues.
Students: come to practice no matter how you are, no matter what you eat. Inform yourself, talk to a teacher that you trust and do your practice. Let it change you. Do not force anything but be open to change and growth. Challenge yourself without punishing yourself.
Teachers: students do not come to yoga to be preached upon. Giving them a lecture on day one about how worthless they are if they are not vegan will most probably make them flee and rightfully so. Always remember your own path, how long it took you to be who you are today and let your students reinvent themselves and their relationship with practice and food at their own pace. Be there for them but do not make choices in their place.
You can also read my article about how Ashtanga practice helped me fight my eating disorder and negative body image here: