Most of us have tried a yoga class before and probably enjoyed it. They can be very relaxing and some provide a challenging workout too. But what we don’t think about as we’re trying to get our heels to the floor in downward facing dog is what does yoga actually tell us about our actions, behaviour and diet.

In the West we focus on the asana part of yoga, the bit that makes us sweat. And we’ve even come up with some novel ways of enticing more and more people to try asana, with trends like goat yoga, beer yoga, acro yoga and hot yoga. Asana is the practice of different postures or poses, and it forms one the 8 foundations of yoga:

  1. Yama – Restraints on behaviour
  2. Niyama – Spiritual observances
  3. Asana – Practice of specific postures
  4. Pranayama – Breathing techniques to increase energy
  5. Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses and focusing the mind on the higher levels of consciousness
  6. Dharana – Concentration
  7. Dyhana – Meditation
  8. Samadhi – Complete absorption

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Defined by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras, the bible of yoga, these 8 principles form the basis of yoga. Where yoga is defined as the union of body, mind and soul. By practising these 8 limbs of yoga one can reach spiritual enlightenment and in this way yoga is the journey and yoga (union of mind, body and spirit) is also the end.

The other founding text of yoga is the Bhagavad Gita. Regarded as one of the great masterpieces of Sanskrit poetry it was written in the third or fourth century BCE as part of the epic text the Mahabharata. The text discusses the nature of the soul, the purpose of life, and how yoga is the attitude underpinning these and an approach available to us all. The text was popularised in the West by Gandhi:

“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day.”

So what do these ancient yogic texts tell us about our diet and lifestyle choices?

Heart shaped hands
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Ahimsa

This means non-violence in thoughts, actions and words. This is the first of the 5 Yamas:

  1. Ahimsa – Non violence
  2. Satya – Truthfulness
  3. Asteya – Not stealing and not taking what is freely given, including the opposition of exploitation, social injustice and oppression
  4. Brahmacarya – Continence to overcome desires
  5. Aparigraha – Non coveting to let go of everything we do not need

The Yamas are the great, mighty, universal vows, unconditioned by place, time and class. So to truly practice yoga one must adopt ahimsa.

In it’s most literal sense ahimsa forbids any harm or wrong doing to any living being and as such many interpret this to mean all yogis should be vegan. In adopting ahimsa we should be compassionate to all sentient beings and as such purchasing food and products which have killed or harmed animals would not be in accordance with ahimsa. However, the text does not explicitly say to practice and reach yoga you can not eat meat, dairy or eggs.

Rice field
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Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic Food

Sympathy for all beings and non-violence is echoed in the Bhagavid Gita which also tells us it that there are 3 types of food:  Sattvic or pure food, rajasic or stimulating food and tamasic or impure, rotten food. Chapter 17, states:

“Men who are pure like food which is pure: which gives heath, mental power, strength and long life, which has taste, is soothing and nourishing, and which makes glad the heart of man. 

Men of Rajas like food of Rajas: acid and sharp, and salty and dry, and which brings heaviness and sickness and pain.

Men of darkness eat food which is stale and tasteless, which is rotten and left overnight, impure, unfit for holy offerings.”

Fruits, vegetables and grains are considered pure foods which nourish the body and bring purity and calmness to the mind. Spices, meat, eggs, fish and alcohol stimulate (raja) the mind and are believed to cause circulatory disorders such as high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries. Aged meat could be considered tamasic as it is decaying. By allowing meat to putrefy or ‘ripen’ it softens the natural stiffness which occurs when muscle coagulates after death. As such we should be consuming sattva foods which lighten our minds whilst allowing us to perform ahimsa. Where this is not adopted we must accept the consequences, through cause and effect – karma.

Stones
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Karma

Most simply cause and effect. You press a light switch and the light comes on, you tell someone you love them and they experience joy and happiness. Cause and effect permeates nature and our psychology yet as Westerners we still have trouble accepting the fullest expression of karma – reincarnation. In reading these ancient texts and understanding that there is a universal energy which underlies and connects us all, it becomes easier to consider that this energy could be present in future and past existences. But forget reincarnation for a minute.

Simply recognising the cause and effect principle of karma we have to accept that pain, suffering and death caused by our actions could have severe consequences? The killing of animals for a momentary taste pleasure, or the use of a product that has caused the suffering of many animals it was tested on, or drinking milk which has resulted in male calves being killed and female calves crying as they’re torn at birth from their mothers only to be impregnated and used for milk themselves. Is this good karma? Or even worse, what if I reincarnate as one of these poor animals?

Whether you believe in karma or not, ahimsa, or any of the principles of yoga it does make you question the purpose of life and the nature of soul. In doing so we have to questions our ethics and treatment of other sentient beings we share this planet with.

Something else for you to think about next time you roll out your yoga mat!