Thursday, February 16, 2012

Distilling the confusion: Ayurvedic and Yogic diets

This is part 2 of a 7 part series on Ayurveda and Yoga. 
To see the other parts first, click here

A recent Yoga Journal article commented “Eating is perhaps the single most important act for one's yoga practice” (article here). Among yogis, it’s an accepted fact that diet greatly affects ones practice, either for good or ill. (Anyone ever try going to an early Sunday class after a late night out on the town?). But the recent focus of these journals on Ayurvedic diets is misdirected.

Yoga and Ayurveda are often referred to as the Sister Systems – they both come from the Vedic philosophy of the ancient Hindus. But they’re not twins. There are actually many conflicting dietary recommendations between the two philosophies. These conflicts are explained by the fact that Ayervedic diets and Yogic diet are designed with different purposes. 

Ayurveda is an ancient medical system designed to treat diseases caused by imbalances of the doshas.
The purpose of yoga, meanwhile, is “the control of thought-waves in the mind.” (Sutras of Patanjali)
It’s a case of recuperation vs. increased focus. Like taking physical therapy after a car wreck vs. training for a marathon. 

A classic confusion between Ayurvedic and Yogic diets includes the case of vegetarianism. Everyone knows that the diet condoned by the ancient yogis is strictly vegetarian. Although modern yogis may quibble over whether the practice of non-violence really requires vegetarianism, all the old texts on yoga, without exception, prohibit eating meat. A common misconception is that, like yoga, Ayurvedic diets are vegetarian. Actually, classic Ayurveda includes meat as part of the daily diet and even prescribes meat for different ailments. This divergence in diet is the result of differing perspectives on the energetic qualities in food.

Yoga and Ayurveda both describe the material world as being composed of three different energies; Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Sattva is often described as purity, wisdom and light, Rajas as passion, activity, and change, and Tamas as darkness, ignorance, staleness, and inertia. Foods have these characteristics as well, and when consumed can influence the balance of the doshas in a person’s body. For example, a person who overeats on Tamasic foods will experience an imbalance in Kapha dosha.

Yoga recommends only Sattvic food- that food which instills purity of mind and body. A yogic diet is therefore nearly synonymous with a sattvic diet, and the terms are often used interchangeably. All fruits, most vegetables, legumes, grains, honey and some dairy products are sattvic.

Foods containing the other energies – Tamas and Rajas – are prohibited for yoga. Tamasic foods are oils, fatty foods, fried foods, pre-prepared or packaged foods, and processed foods like flour and sugar. Tamasic food creates lethargy, fatigue, and mental dullness – none of which is helpful to an intense physical practice. Rajasic foods include onions, garlic, salt, and hot spices; all of which are thought to stimulate the appetite and cause an erratic mind (remember, we want to still the thought-waves). 

In Ayurveda, everyone, regardless of their dosha, is advised to consume a diet high in Sattvic foods. However, Ayurveda uses the other energetic properties as medicine to change a person’s dosha. If a person has an imbalance of vatta, for example, they will be told to eat a diet heavy in oils and ghee (tamasic foods), to create a grounding or slowing of their otherwise anxious nature. 

The ancient yogic texts recommend a diet high in low-fiber carbohydrates, simply prepared, without oil or salt.  In this way the Yogic diet has a lot more in common with the philosophy of Natural Hygiene, in which the lifestyle factors causing the problem are simply identified and removed. Foods that may cause digestive woes are also excluded, such as mushrooms, some beans, and cruciferous and other high-fiber vegetables. No one wants to practice with gas, or next to someone with gas. 

Remember that Ayurveda is designed acknowledging that not everyone will be a yogi or choose to search for enlightenment. In the system of castes, Ayurveda is a set of principles and medicinal cures for the common laboring man. Such a diet may not be appropriate for a dedicated spiritual practice. Hopefully future Yoga Journal articles will feature diets appropriate for yoga, instead of instilling more confusion.

Click here for Part 4: Ghee



  1. In my experience, I think what you are referring to as Yogic diet, I've been taught to be called a Vedic diet.

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