The Yogic Sattvic Diet
While Ayurveda and yoga share the same roots in the ancient Vedic literature, they do have distinctive differences in their approach. In Ayurveda, we are working to maintain a balance of the three doshas – vata, pitta and kapha – within our physical-emotional-mental body – in order to live a productive blissful life, of bhoga (life in the world). We’ve talked in previous columns about vata, pitta and kapha (Ayurveda’s three basic bio-energetic principles) – how they manifest in our lives, and how to maintain their healthy balance.
In our yoga practice, our attempt goes beyond this: our efforts are directed toward increasing sattva (the quality of purity) in our life, and eventually, to achieve apavarga (liberation or purity of mind). These directions are not necessarily contradictory; in fact, the yogi will need a balanced physical-emotional-mental body in order to achieve the liberated state of mind.
Babaji spoke often about bhoga and apavarga – experience and liberation. We are all born into the world of experience, of bhoga. And many people spend their entire human life caught in its tendrils. Others of us begin to sense the need for a way out of the tangle of experience, and discover that yoga can help us clear a path through the jungle of bhoga.
This month, we’ll take a gaze through the lens of yoga – at the three cosmic gunas – sattva, rajas, and tamas, the subtle, eternal principles that govern the workings of the entire universe. And then see how to promote the sattva principle in our yogic life.
Sattva is the force of truth, purity, equilibrium, wisdom, light, intelligence, balance and peace. Rajas is the force of passion, energy, activity, will, dispersion. Tamas is the force of stability, ignorance, resistance, dullness, inertia, cohesion. All three of these infinite forces are constantly at work to create and sustain the universe. Their constant state of interplay allows creation to continue unfolding throughout eternity.
In using Ayurveda to keep our life balanced, we work toward maintaining the balance of the doshas in our make-up at the time of birth. In this process, we are able to maintain optimum health and to engage with the outer world in a productive, balanced way.
We aim to create a daily regimen of food and drink, lifestyle habits, and exercise that will work to maintain the balance of the doshas in place at the time we are born. This natural balance will help support the basic tendency toward maintaining good health with which we are born. Depending on our dosha predominance, we each choose different foods, different herbs, different exercise patterns, different careers, different sleep patterns, that work to support a healthy balance for our unique nature-born constitution.
In the path of yoga, the path toward apavarga or liberation, our goal is to reduce the worldly forces of rajas and tamas, and to increase the force of sattva in our lives. We use the practices of asana, pranayama and meditation to turn our attention away from the pull of the world, to the inner world, and eventually learn to control of the thought generated by the mind. We expand our concern beyond our own self-interest. We learn to live a virtuous life through development of positive qualities such as patience, compassion, contentment, loving-kindness, and generosity.
Dietary Recommendations Contrasted
In its dietary recommendations, Ayurveda will sometimes recommend meat products, especially when there is a need to tonify a weakened condition. In our culture, many of our grandmothers would recommend ‘chicken soup’ during an illness; in the same way, Ayurveda will use animal products to bolster a patient who is in a weakened or debilitated condition.
In the path of yoga, we choose to avoid dietary elements that are stimulating, and meat is one of those. Yogis are more inclined to choose a strengthening combination of rice and beans to provide a good source of protein that avoids the heating, activating qualities of animal protein.
To support the development of sattva guna in our life, we may choose to focus more on a sattvic, yogic dietary pattern. A sattva-increasing diet will emphasize fresh, ripe, sweet fruits, well-cooked whole grains, green leafy vegetables, fresh organic dairy products that are not fermented (raw milk, butter and ghee), easily digestible beans (aduki and mung), fresh nuts and seeds (in small quantities), and honey or maple syrup as sweeteners. Spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, fennel and turmeric are suggested to increase the force of sattva in our being.
The yogic diet also includes abstaining from animal products (other than milk products). Meat, fish and eggs are heavy and more difficult to digest; eating animal products also violates the yogic teaching of ahimsa (non-violence). Mushrooms are another food that is considered tamasic from the yogic perspective; they grow deep underground, and generate a heavy, tamasic quality. Yes, some mushrooms can also be healing substances, but they are usually shunned in a sattvic diet. Strong pungents like garlic and onion can also be effective for healing, but are not taken as part of a sattvic yogic diet.
Remember that these recommendations come from a lengthy tradition of experience and practice. They will need to be discussed and perhaps modified in light of our experience in 21st century North America. For me a guiding principle has always been one of Babaji’s favorite mottos: “Life a virtuous life.” When I hold that suggestion in mind, I can usually stay in tune with the essence of a yogic lifestyle. Bon Appetit!
Pratibha Queen is a yoga instructor and Ayurvedic practitioner, who attends Salt Spring Center of Yoga retreats on a regular basis. Feel free to email with any questions that arise as you engage in health practices to support your yoga practice: pratibha.que[at]gmail[dot]com.
Indian spices image by Peddhapati.