As a student of yoga, you’ve probably come to realize that you really are what you eat. In yoga, we have what we call the five bodies, or koshas. The koshas consist of one physical layer known as the food body, or annamaya kosha, and four energy bodies that lay beneath. The one we’re all most familiar with, the physical body, or annamaya kosha, consists of all the food that we put into it. The ancient "Taittiriya Upanishad" backs this up in its teachings: “Human beings are built from a material body built from the food they eat. Those who care for this body are nourished by the universe itself.”
The more yoga you do and the more you meditate, the more sensitive you become to just how true that statement really is. You learn which foods and liquids nourish your soul, leaving you uplifted and balanced, and which drag you down or stimulate you. In yoga, we’re looking for a state of balance, which is different for everyone as is dictated by each individual’s dosha, or constitution. (Read more in The 3 Doshas of Ayurveda.)
According to ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, every human being has elements of each of the three doshas – vata, kapha and pitta – to varying degrees. Therefore, what we eat and how we practice yoga is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. However, there are certain guidelines we can all follow to support our asana practice.
When to Eat
In ayurveda, we have what we call the dinacharya, or daily routine. This routine is meant to connect us to the rhythms of nature by eating three meals at certain times of the day. Basically, you want to avoid eating willy-nilly because your body-mind will feel unsettled, confused and unable to digest or sleep properly. This daily routine helps to balance all the doshas – no matter which constitution dominates. Breakfast should be eaten between 7 and 8 a.m., which differs just slightly depending upon your dominant dosha. Lunch is eaten between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., again depending upon your dominant dosha; and dinner between 6 and 8 p.m. The key here is to provide plenty of time between meals for your digestion to work optimally, while also leaving plenty of time between eating and going to bed at night. You also want to avoid eating a big meal before your physical asana practice, as asana should be done on a relatively empty stomach.
What to Eat
The foods we eat need to be nourishing, not just nutritionally speaking, but also soulfully speaking. The foods we eat enhance or take a toll on our prana, or life force energy. We naturally want to eat foods that give us life and vitality – so that our prana flows freely and fluidly. It might also be said that what we choose to eat is a reflection of where we’re at on the path of yoga, or evolving consciousness.
Ideally, we choose to eat foods that are pure, fresh and organic. Many of us prefer a vegetarian diet because we choose to eat in a sattvic (peaceful) way, while also practicing ahimsa (non-harming, or non-violence). If we eat a vegetarian diet we’re not killing other beings and we’re not weighing our annamaya kosha down with the flesh of other animals. (Learn why A Plant-Based Diet Makes Better Yogis.)
Therefore, our diet should focus upon organic fruits and vegetables – eating a rainbow of colorful produce is a good idea. Our protein should come from nuts, nut butters, seeds, beans and legumes. The yogic diet has at the heart of it a cleansing and detoxifying dish called kichari, which consists of yellow mung dal, basmati rice, ghee, vegetables and various spices. This is a good dish to eat when you’re really serious about your asana practice.
Healthy fats like ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and sesame oil are also good, as are whole grains like rice, oats and quinoa. When it comes to sugar, honey, molasses and maple syrup are best, while sweet spices like cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, ginger, cumin, turmeric and mint are also highly regarded. Be sure to avoid processed foods that hold little to no prana and all GMO foods need to stay out of your kitchen. You’ll also want to steer clear of canned foods when possible, fried foods, microwaved foods, and white flours and sugars. (Read more in Why Yogis Love Turmeric.)
The yogi drinks clean water enhanced with lemons and limes, and avoids intoxicants like spirits and tobacco. Herbal teas are also smiled upon.
How to Eat
In general, we eat lighter meals during warmer months and heavier meals during colder ones. We chew our food well, which helps support healthy digestion. We also eat while sitting down, in a peaceful environment, rather than on the go or under stressful conditions. This, too, aids the digestive process and good digestion is the foundation of good health – according to ayurveda. Foods should be prepared with love and eaten with gratitude. Every one of us – no matter what dosha defines us – can support our asana practice by following these dietary guidelines.