What is a Yoga Diet?

Meditating woman
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As both a yoga teacher and nutritionist, I’m often asked what the best diet for yoga is. While I don’t believe there is a definitive, “one-and-only-one” yogic diet (in the same way there is no “one-and-only-one” diet for diabetes or for weight reduction), I do turn to the ancient text — the Yoga Sutras — to offer some definition as well as food for thought.

The Yoga Sutras are 196 aphorisms, recorded by the sage Patanjali more than 2,000 years ago, that outline the practice of Ashtanga (“eight-limbed”) yoga. The Sanskrit word sutra means “thread.” Indeed, the verses provide a common thread, or backbone, to organize the philosophy and teachings of this type of yoga, and may be built upon and woven into again and again.

When most people hear “yoga,” they think of exercises performed to stretch and strengthen the body. In fact, the Yoga Sutras contain only one verse about asana, or physical poses. And of the eight “arms” in Ashtanga yoga, only one has to do with physical poses.  Most of the teaching and philosophy is devoted to understanding the mind and living a harmonious life.

While yoga philosophy may be applied to nutrition in myriad ways, I’d like to address just the first part of the first arm in Ashtanga yoga: ahimsa, or “non-harming.”

It is impossible to go through life and never harm another living entity, whether by our direct or indirect actions or our words. However, I would argue we have not only the ability to minimize the suffering we cause other sentient beings, but also the responsibility to do so.  Our dietary choices are a critical way we can uphold that responsibility.

Vegetarianism and veganism are often touted as “the most yogic diets” in that they eschew killing or harming animals for food. Another way to look at ahimsa is the active promotion and protection of life. When a person does not eat animals — whether furred, finned or feathered — she protects the lives of sentient beings. But that definition can become blurred when we consider how animals used for food are treated, raised or killed. In ayurveda, dairy foods are often considered sattvic or pure, clean and good. Traditionally, cows were sacred beings in Hinduism, and if they freely gave their milk, this was considered an honor and gift. The same cannot be said of cows in most of today’s factory farms. These animals may be kept in a forced state of lactation, and in confined and unsanitary conditions. The resultant dairy foods may be tainted with added hormones and antibiotics. Not only are these cows harmed, but the milk they produce is no longer so pure, natural and good.

Some individuals are comfortable consuming eggs only if they are from hens raised in safe, clean conditions, and that are allowed to roam freely and fed a healthy diet. Other people would argue all eggs take advantage of sentient beings to serve our own desires. How about a small dairy farm in New York state in which goats and sheep are kept for cheese-making, but treated gently through their lives?

Or consider soy cheese. While it sounds like an animal-friendly protein, conventional soybean agriculture may contribute to deforestation and the destruction of indigenous species in South America.

What about eating fish that lived freely in the wild – but are caught using methods like trawling or gill-netting that destroy not only animals, but, in turn, ecosystems? Is this preferable to consuming fish raised in “farms”?

Animals aside, what about food that is produced with the use child labor (such as some cocoa) or by people in unsafe or abusive work conditions (such as meat from some slaughterhouses)?

Perhaps no meal is entirely benign of consequences. The problem arises when the distinction between what causes harm versus what fosters people’s and animals’ natural lives is determined more by our taste buds, convenience or economic concerns than a true regard for ahimsa.

It’s important to remember that ahimsa also means taking care of one’s self – not harming our own bodies or spirits. A friend of mine recently received chemotherapy that caused his body to reject most food. To help protect his life, I suggested he temporarily liberalize his diet so that he had more options for nourishment and recovery.

The word yoga means “to bring together or unite.” The yoga described in the Yoga Sutras is non-dualistic. There’s no dictate to worship Krishna, Jesus or Mohammed. Patanjali does not say a yogi must meditate on one correct object, or speak one correct language. Similarly, there’s no one correct way to eat. Certain principles delineate what a healthful and compassionate diet is. Within these guidelines, we have flexibility to craft a perfect diet for ourselves. As long as we consciously think about ahimsa and do our best to reduce suffering for all, we are on the right path.

Cara Anselmo on Twitter
Cara Anselmo
Cara Anselmo, MS, RDN, is a nutritionist and certified yoga instructor in New York City. Follow Cara on Twitter.