Even if you don’t do yoga, you can benefit from a yogic diet, and by “diet” I mean “way to eat.”
“Anything we ingest affects the mind,” says Swami Jnaneswariananda, director of the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California. “Some foods make the mind restless, and others make the mind dull. In yoga we seek a state of sattva, where the mind is alert and calm.”
A traditional yoga diet features foods that promote calm alertness and avoids foods that wire us up or weigh us down. The diet of the yoga scriptures also is lacto-vegetarian, which promotes ahimsa (non-harm) to other creatures. That means no meat, fish, poultry or eggs.
“The practices of yoga are designed to increase our life force, prana, and to purify the mind and body to achieve a state of sattva,” says Jnaneswariananda, who has directed Sivananda centers in Canada and Italy and instructs Sivananda teacher-trainees worldwide on meditation, philosophy, diet, anatomy and physiology. “In this state, the yogi sees the world free from stress and negative emotions. Without the strong attachments and emotions, we are able to respond intelligently and peacefully to the events of our life rather than react with fear, anger or avoidance. Our daily activities should promote this sattva, including our diet.”
Sivananda yoga is one of the oldest yoga lineages, and it regards proper diet as a central pillar. “Of course, the yogic diet is most effective when our lifestyle also includes sattvic exercise (yoga postures), proper breathing, daily practice of deep relaxation, positive thinking and meditation,” Jnaneswariananda says.
Yoga diet go-to foods:
“These foods, when prepared in a simple and appetizing manner, are full of prana and are elevating to the mind without overstimulating it,” Jnaneswariananda says.
Yoga diet no-nos:
- Very spicy foods
- Deep-fried foods
- Fermented foods
- Highly processed foods
Tradition allowed for milk in the form of butter or ghee, yogurt and, sometimes, fresh cheese. “Many now eliminate milk, especially if the cows are not treated well and if fresh milk is not available, as it would have less prana and not be harmless,” she says.
How can you comfortably adopt a yoga diet plan if you’re a meat-eating, junk-food craving sort?
“Certainly do not clear out your cupboards of everything not ‘sattvic’,” Jnaneswariananda advises. “Changes in diet are best achieved gradually.”
Jnaneswariananda offers four tips to help you transition. “Many start by worrying about what to eat, especially non-vegetarians. I suggest starting with changing the way you eat,” she says. Employ the tactics below for a few meals each week, and “you will notice the difference very quickly,” she says.
1. Stay fresh
“Start with simple meals,” she says. “Sauté some diced tofu with fresh vegetables and herbs in a little oil, and serve with brown rice and a salad.”
2. Make meal time a pampering experience
Before you eat, take a few slow breaths to calm your mind and aid digestion. Consider saying a prayer, or just be grateful for the food that plants or animals yielded to nourish you.
“Make sure you give yourself at least 20 minutes to eat calmly—with no phones, tablets or computers!” she stresses.
Eat slowly, chew completely, and notice how the food tastes.
3. Avoid cold
Drink room-temperature water or warm herbal tea with your meals, avoiding cold or iced beverages.
Notice how what you eat affects your body and mind during your meal, after your meal and for the rest of the day. “You will know which foods are conducive to peace and which are not,” she says.
5. Use tried-and-true expert recipes
Want detailed guidance? The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers put out The Yoga Cookbook decades ago, and the tome still stands. “It is a great way to learn to cook following yogic guidelines,” Jnaneswariananda says. “It has simple recipes, sample menus and advice on adapting to the yogic diet.”
Mitra Malek is a former Yoga Journal senior editor and contributing editor. She first learned about the value of a yogic diet in 2005, when she trained in the Sivananda lineage under the tutelage of a second-generation disciple of Swami Sivananda.