“Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food.” – Hypocrates
Ayurvedic vs. Yogic Diet
The base difference between the suggested ayurvedic and yogic diets is that Ayurveda is aiming to restore the body to a state of health and balance, while yogic diets are aimed at facilitating higher practices of yoga assuming a base level of health has already been reached.
Without right food no other healing method can be effective
I will talk a little about the yogic diet, but mostly about the ayurvedic diet as I see it as ‘pre-yoga’. Until a base level of physical health is reached with the help of diet and exercise, it doesn’t make sense to me (and can often do more harm than good) for people to pursue the strict yogic diet.
According to ayurveda almost all disease comes from an inability to digest, this includes mental as well as physical digestion. The reasons for not being able to physically digest something, is that you lack ‘digestive fire’ (Agni) in which case even the healthiest foods can come into the body as a poison because your body is unable to absorb anything good from them. Or because what you are putting into your body is un-digestible (extremely large quantities, heavily processed foods etc)
Both Yoga and Ayurveda give importance to a vegetarian diet, as meat brings heaviness in the body and the mind. It has a dark energy and although possible to reach state of health eating meat it’s as though you are placing obstacles in your own way. Ayurveda allows some meat if you are in a state of health but never if you have any disease (dis-ease) of any sort. There is often an argument about protein that comes up at this point, which is a very bizarre concept as any time there has been any experiment trying to produce a diet with insufficient protein they have failed. Vegetable protein all though gram for gram may be less, is often easier for the body to absorb and the body is quite capable of connecting short chain proteins together to create the long ones it needs. If you choose to keep eating meat there are different paths to reach the enlightened state but this is diet as described in Yoga.
You are what you eat may be an over simplification but is does contain elements of truth. According to Ayurveda foods also have the qualities of the three gunas (previous chapter), a healthy person should aim to be eating about 70% Sattvic foods (mostly fresh fruits and vegetables) about 25% Rajasic foods (anything stimulating hot spices, caffeine, sugars) and around 5% Tamasic food (meat, alcohol, frozen food, processed food) which are hard for the body to digest and have little or no pranic quality.
The reason for including this 5% is becoming too strict with diet is considered another form of disease that does not promote healthy relationship with food. Extreme restriction and regulations can create fear and neurosis, the aim is to keep the majority of food you eat to be nutritious and promote healthy digestion, but allow yourself in social situations or special occasions to partake as these actions will nourish parts of the minds and relationship connections rather than the food.
If however we talk about the diet of a yogi, they don’t need the stimulation of the rajas (caffeine, sugar etc) to get up and go, and they would completely avoid the dark heavy tamasic food (meat, alcohol etc). The higher yogic practices are conducive only with a predominantly sattvic diet (fresh leafy greens etc*). Usually based around raw food, you must have a very strong digestion to be able to break down food in its uncooked state. Usually the quantity of food suggested is also less (what you could hold in cupped hands for a day) This is not practical for everyone, and not even advisable to most as it will increase the airy flittering nature (chitta vritti from the yoga sutras of Patanjali) of the brain.
*Sattva Rajas and Tamas are the three gunas explained by ayurveda, food is split into categories based on how it reacts with the body. This is simplified but there is lots more information on this if you are interested
Quantities of Food
Both yoga and ayurveda agree that overeating is not conducive with health or higher practices, but what counts as over eating? Imagine the size of the stomach (make a ball shape with your hands) ideally you would half fill this volume with food, quarter with water, and quarter with space to allow room for digestion. (Imagine stuffing your mouth so it is completely full it becomes very difficult to chew and almost impossible to swallow). Your stomach has the same situation, although it is stretchy so it is possible to over eat try to keep the quantities small and eat more regularly if you are still hungry.
Raw Food vs. Cooked Food
Ayurveda generally does not recommend raw food diets for long term health maintenance, only for short term detoxification. This is because raw foods are harder to digest, and do not contain as much bulk nutrition as cooked food (although some of the nutritional value can be cooked away what is there is usually easier to digest, it is not suggested to boil foods for hours on end, but lightly steaming helps the body to process them).
Ayurveda recommends personalised diets to balance your Dosha based on a combination of whole grains, beans, root vegetables, dairy, nuts, seeds and raw food items. (What could be called a balanced vegetarian diet.)
Yogic diets however seem to be based on predominantly raw food. Traditional yogic diet (phala mula) fruits and roots though it may include a few grains and dairy products as well.
Retreating into nature, and living on wild food as part of a spiritual practice of connecting with the forces of nature.
Raw foods increase air and ether which is good for meditation and higher spiritual practice. Cooked foods increase earth and water elements in the body and are good for grounding and stabilising. Foods rich in prana (raw fresh particularly green vegetables), help to clear the nadi channels.
Those of us who are only part time yogis, are unlikely to have mental and physical digestive fire strong enough to cope long term, with a purely raw diet, but most people can benefit from periodic detoxification.
Being Present And Using Your Senses
Although eating is a social event in many cultures, try (at least occasionally) cooking and eating in silence. Focus completely on the sensations, the smells and the colours and presentation, the sound of boiling or breaking or chewing, and the taste. Really feel each and every one of those things and try to eat without thinking of anything other than the process and enjoyment of eating.
You can also bring touch into the game. It is very common in India to see people eating with their hands, this has a few advantages, it prevents you from burning your tongue as you feel the temperature of the food before if goes into your mouth, but most importantly it engages your sense of touch in the process which is often something we forget about.