*Note: This is a blog post I wrote a few months ago, reposted here.
There are a lot of controversies around what constitutes the “yogic” diet. Actually, there are a lot of controversies regarding what to eat in general. Period.
We have the hardcore, raw, vegan yogis who support animal rights and believe in the power of raw, plant foods.
We have the vegan yogis who also support animal rights, but consume some cooked plant-based foods.
Then there are the vegetarian yogis who might just consume eggs or milk, or both.
We also have the gluten-free or grain-free folks who may be vegetarian, vegan, raw/vegan, or none of these, but just avoid gluten or grains.
We have friends who follow the Ayurvedic diet religiously.
And let’s not forget our paleo friends who praise the health benefits of eating as our ancestors did before the age of agriculture.
Then, of course, there are yogis who also eat a little of everything, including chocolate, caffeine, sugar, simple carbohydrates, meat, dairy, eggs, and alcohol.
Over the past decades we’ve gone through major shifts in what constitutes as the “healthy” diet. In the early 1900s, Crisco was invented to replace lard. At that time, people was queasy about the idea of ingesting something that was made from the labs (we can definitely learn from them, huh?), but Proctor & Gamble made sure to hype up the benefits of having Crisco in the media, and antagonized lard. Since then, the popularity of hydrogenated vegetable oils climbed. The popularity of hydrogenated vegetables continued throughout the mid- to late- 1900s, a time in which margarine also became very popular. Then came the low-fat diets and the Atkins diet in the 1970s, Jenny Craig in the 1980s, Zone diet in the 1990s, all of which are still followed today, although vegan, gluten-free, and paleolithic diets are definitely taking the current spotlights.
As you can probably see now, the “right” diet is just like any other trends and fads that come and go. One minute butter was evil, and the next minute we have health experts defending the benefits of good-quality animal fats. It’s no wonder we are always confused. We don’t know what’s right for our own body anymore, but allow the society to determine what is “good food” and what is “bad food.” We’ve lost that connection with our bodies over time.
Years ago, I was myself a vegetarian, and even dabbled with vegan every now and then. I felt great for awhile, and felt proud of myself because I was doing the right thing as a yogi. I was following the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, of reducing pain and harm caused upon the animals for our own consumptions. I was more or less following what constitutes as the “yogi diet” (whole grains, dairy, ghee, legumes, some cooked fruits and vegetables), as you would read in yoga books written by sages and gurus. This particular diet supposedly keeps your body “clean and light” as they are more easily digested than animal meat.
Over the course of the years, however, through my self-study of Ayurveda, nutrition, and my most current adventure at the Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition, I learned that just as no two people have identical sets of fingerprints, even identical twins, no two people in this world could digest and assimilate the same food in the same way. As the Ayurvedic saying goes, “What is one person’s food is another person’s poison.” While one might take delight in a regular consumption of quinoa, another person might become sick from it (yes, even quinoa). Some people might thrive on a vegan diet, while others suffer and become weak from eating only plant-based foods and need to switch back to consuming animal products. I’ve met people who have all sorts of food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities, and they take food and eating as an experimentation deduce what building blocks they could use in which certain combinations that will give them health and longetivity. Just as all our DNA codes are slightly different, so are our personal food codes.
After three years of being a vegetarian, I switched to a pescatarian diet as my own yoga practice became stronger and I was starting to teach. The occasional fish and seafood gave me the additional strength I needed to both sustain my own asana practice as well as teach throughout the day. Here you might think I am selfish and greedy for encouraging the killing of sea creatures so that I can be stronger. But let's return to the core meaning of ahimsa for a second. Not only does it mean non-violence to others, it also implies non-violence to yourself. We live in a fine balance of harmony with the rest of the Universe. This food was provided to us by Mother Nature, and the least we can do to give back is to express gratitude and discourage further destructions of our planet. Take good care of yourself first, then you'll have the strength to complete your mission in this world and lifetime. (Just in case you are curious, the seafood I purchase are all wild-caught, locally-sourced, and line-caught.)
In summary, one should take diet trends with a grain of salt. We should not label what kind of eater we are nor follow a particular “diet” religiously (that said, I fully respect those who are eating certain ways due to religious or spiritual reasons). If we only eat what this certain diet dictates us to eat, how do we know whether or not we’re depriving ourselves of the most crucial food that our body exactly needs? What is most important is becoming aware of how certain foods make you feel. Do you feel alert, focused, energized after a meal of certain foods? Or sluggish, sleepy, and unfocused? Just like a physical yoga practice, eating incorporates both the mind and body. Make sure what you are eating does the body and the mind good. If it only makes your mind feel great but the body no good (for example, sugar can make a person feel great and happy for an hour, but later takes a toll on the body as the energy levels crashes), then perhaps that particular food isn’t well suited for your unique body type.
Don’t know where to start? How about starting with eating real food? The food that your grandma made, or the food you can easily make in your kitchen without having to purchase special chemicals from a science laboratory. Foods that are fresh, unprocessed, and whole. In truth, eating should be very innate, very simple, because your body already knows what it needs, and all we need to do is listen. But our modern environment has distracted us from listening to our body’s intelligence. Yoga helps us recover this intelligence, and also helps us recover our connections with food, where they came from, and feeling grateful for the food we have. Overtime, you will become more in tune with your body as you evolve with your yoga practice; there will be a deep awakening of your body’s innate intelligence.