This weekend Sean will be hosting a workshop on the nature of food on Sunday, April 19th. Usually he sends this article after the session but to give some foresight into what will be covered here it is now!
The Yoga of Eating
Cultivating a diet that sustains and nourishes your body, lifestyle, and yoga practice.
During the Yoga of Eating workshop/discussion, we discussed the highly debatable and controversial subjects of our diet and the nature of food. Topics covered included the change in food in the last 150 years, eating mindfully, physical and mental experience, ahimsa, digestion, food preparation, and spices to enhance digestion.
As our physiology changes through our yoga practice so to does our awareness of how foods impact our wellbeing and digestion. We begin to feel the effect of foods we eat. As any yoga practice should be developed to meet the needs of an individual, so too should our diet be formed to meet our own personal needs.
Hopefully after the workshop, you had a better understanding of how to take time to appreciate and feel the foods you eat – so your relationship with food can become more nourishing, satisfying and health-giving. The Yoga of Eating encourages lightness and clarity leaving the mind free, clear, and happy.
Sean prepared a vegetable curry that included germinated chick peas and rice, lots of nutritious veggies, prepared in , garlic, spices and lots of love. We experienced the smell of food, the taste, texture and experience of eating slowly.
The Evolution and Nature of Food:
Over the last 100-150 years there has been a dramatic shift in the nature of food. The nutritional constitution of food has been reduced to nothing more than calories. Farm-fresh whole foods have been manufactured into replicas and there is a serious increase in previously uncommon diseases such as cancer and heart disease. This leaves the question what transformation has taken place?
150 years ago there were no freezers or fridges, so food storage was done by methods like fermentation, pickling, curing, canning, or cellar storage. Food did not last so it had to be consumed when harvested or it would go bad. This brought a need for local supply, seasonal/regional availability, and community around the food we consumed. Milk was delivered daily and the source of our food was a given. There was a more intimate relationship with the food provided to nourish our bodies.
Bring on changing times: the industrial revolution and the mass production of food (processed foods). With post-war and depression, women were increasinglyjoining the workforce, so there was less and less time for gardening and preparing meals but a new opportunity for convenient, quick and cheap grocery option like T.V. dinners or McDonalds. Consumerism begins to drive down not only the costs of foods, but also the quality, and suppliers start to find ways to increase production but cut down costs. The production of foods leaves a disconnect between the origin of food and how it arrives on our plate. Also as food production ramped up, the quality of food decreased while the quantity increased.
With this revolution of supply, demand for cheaper foods comes the introduction of food preservation. Pasteurized milk, large sodium contents, and chemical additives are some of the things developed to increase shelf life for giant super markets and big box stores to hoard food supply. Food science becomes an actual thing. The splicing of fruits and vegetables to get larger yields, sweeter fruits that lack fiber (think seedless grapes or bananas which originally contained seeds). The sugar intake from over-consumption of these modified fruits can shine light on the increasing problem of obesity and diabetes. Even the seed itself has been modified GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to grow longer and resist pests but struggles to be anywhere near a natural substance. GMOs have been introduced with little research on the effects they have on our body and environment. This awful reality has lead to depleted earth and soil, as well as farmers struggling with these new strains of seed. Worst case is the farm owner suicide epidemic in India in which modified seeds were introduced with a cost inflammation of nearly 500%. Even the meat industry has shifted from a system where farm animals actually assisted the ecology of the surrounding environment and agriculture to a disgusting, polluting, and unwholesome method of raising meat strictly for consumption.
As technology increases so to does the impact of machinery on our foods. Now our foods come stuffed in a cardboard box, wrapped in plastic, possibly frozen with a shelf life of 1 year yet somehow ready to consume after 5 mins in the microwave. Food is flown halfway around the world and sold cheaper than crops growing 20 kms from our home. The evolution of food has slowly drifted away from its natural state. All food is processed in some way (i.e. harvesting/cooking) but the more we allow ourselves to consume these quick and processed foods, the more our lives also become quick and processed. Choosing to source food from a known and trusted source, preparing meals personally, and sharing with good company will bring far better nourishment. Luckily there is a shift in the consciousness with the organic food movement and the increase of growing food ourselves. The choice falls in our hands to know the origin of the foods that nourish us. This remembrance of where our food comes from shows the abundance the universe provides.
Eating should be a sacred and divine practice. When did we start to disconnect from the act of eating? Not only do we distract ourselves during meals with T.V. and cell phones, but also we become unconcerned with the actual physical effects and nourishment of our body. In his book Food as Medicine, Todd Caldecott states,. “Food is something much more powerful than mere nourishment – it forms the essence of your very being. It becomes who you are. You are food.”
Our physiology changes with the practice of asana (stretching) and pranayama (breathing) so we become more in tune with our body. All the physical systems of the body become more efficient, absorbing nutrients and healing at a much faster pace. This connection, awareness, and efficiency of body allow us to feel the effects of the food we ingest as well as absorb and assimilate provided nutrients. Continuing to eat a western diet avoiding the results of our food choices can possibly cause harm to our body, as our newfound efficiency will actually absorb more toxins. “It is the wholesome use of food that promotes the health of a person, and that which is unwholesome is the cause of disease” (Food as Medicine). Knowing our food and the experience of our food is the core work of the yoga of eating.
Eating should be a pleasurable experience. Human nature is to seek out pleasure. At a primal level all beings and animals generally avoid pain and suffering (especially in digestion). Somehow the human race is one of the unhealthiest species on the planet. Why is it we allow ourselves food that might not serve us? Why take on a diet that makes us suffer, sacrificing our enjoyment with the idea that it will bring a healthier future? The body can help to decipher what foods are good for you without having to study encyclopedias on nutrition and health food. Taking time to really enjoy the taste, smell, digestion, and wellbeing that food brings is necessary to conclude what foods are good and wholesome to us. We must feel the effect of diet on the body and make choices not based on reason (right or wrong) but listen to that very intrinsic knowledge on a very animal and primal level.
This practice can help to shine light on the confusion surrounding what diet to follow. A lot of time can be spent trying different diets, listening to what the experts say, or the latest trends in health foods. The problem is the experts are constantly changing their minds and most diets are contradictory or leave us working hard (and not enjoying) to achieve some super healthy state. This leads to a lot of confusion and a struggle to conform to a strict dietary regimen that may work for some, but brings suffering to others. Its not to say that the diets out there aren’t good but the ancient systems like TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Ayurveda place a very high importance on the fact that every person has a very unique and different constitution as well as dietary need that is in a constant fluctuation. So when deciding on food choices an inward authority should override an external suggestion. Finding happiness and pleasure in life should be the goal. There are more important things in life that eating perfectly.
Physical and Mental Experience:
In many Asian cultures a common greeting is“how is your digestion?” How come in North America the subject of digestion and excretion has become so private, impersonal and avoided? One of the easiest ways to understand how your diet is affecting your body physically is to attune to and be aware of how your body processes food from intake to excretion. To really listen how you feel during the whole digestive process from start to finish. B.K.S. Iyengar states, “Success in Asana begins with the first movement to come into the posture until the final movement to exit the posture.” If we can bring this teaching into our Asana practice, why not use it for our eating habits? Freeing ourselves from external distractions while eating can also reveal what foods we truly enjoy and receive therapeutic results from ingesting. So eating quietly with full awareness allows us to learn more than a lackluster involvement in eating while focusing on TV, cell phones, or computers.
The mental involvement of eating is very significant. Food addictions, stress, repressed emotions, habit, and societal influence all have a huge impact on our food choices. We eat to be skinny, we eat to fit in, and we eat to enjoy but also we can eat to avoid things or distract ourselves from some deep craving or lack in our life. Caffeine, alcohol, sugar, chocolate, and ice cream all are very enjoyable (and addictive foods) but usually don’t sustain or nurture us. Instead, they leave us with a sensation of emptiness. We often only enjoy the taste or ecstasy of eating then continuing on with our busy or stressful day never accepting the suffering that our choice may render on our body. We desire sugar for the lack of sweetness in our life, or MSG for lack of zest in life, or we overeat with a general unrest and dislike for our job, or life in general. Often pausing to consider the nature of our desire will shine light on if it is a true authentic craving of the body or just the mind trying to escape some emotion or sensation that is unpleasant. Like a devoted meditation practice investigating our thoughts, we can study our food choices to understand what brings true happiness.
Ahimsa (Non – Harming):
As stated in sutra 2:35 of Patangali’s yoga sutras “ahimsa pratishthayam tat vaira-tyagah.” As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in non-injury (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility. Non-harming (or as I prefer simply loving) should be practiced towards our selves, others, and the environment around us. Being aware of our own choices and the reciprocating results is very important. Continuing to buy vegetables or grains grown by earth-pillaging industrial agriculture actually supports that reality and harms the earth.
Often a vegetarian diet is advised for a practitioner of yoga but what if this actually harmed our wellbeing. Would it not be against the practice of Ahimsa? Ana Forest elaborates quite nicely in the following piece.
Ana Forrest, the founder of Forrest Yoga, also began her exploration of the yogic diet by focusing on ahimsa. "I was very attracted to vegetarianism and the philosophy of nonviolence for years, but the diet made me sick," she says. "I'm allergic to grains. I gain weight, my brain shuts down, and my bowels stop working. And my yoga practice does not improve." So with her body screaming for a different regimen, Forrest chose an omnivorous diet, one that consists mostly of meat, especially game, and vegetables. But, she says, this doesn't mean she can't practice ahimsa. "Since I do eat animals," she says, "I honor the elk, buffalo, or moose by not wasting its life force or mine. I use that force to heal myself and others, and to teach, inspire, and help people evolve. My ethics about what to eat came down to my personal truth. Eating in a way that impairs your health and thinking is immoral. And the truth is that an omnivorous diet physiologically works for me." 
Clearly listening to our own internal voice is the final word on our choices. We also must be careful with identifying our selves with our diet with a “holier than thou” mentality that we are better than others (and their food choices). Every individual has different needs and freedom of choice. Charles Eisenstein states in Yoga of Eating, “Judge-mentality of self and others is a primal form of violence”.
The easiest way of living your diet in harmony with the teachings of Ahimsa is to love yourself, others, and the environment and truly give gratitude to all the abundance the universe provides.
With all of the abundance the universe provides we are also provided an endless array of options when choosing how to prepare our food. As the list is large, covering everything would be out of the scope of this seminar. But I will briefly touch on a few very important points.
Since the beginning of time, humans have cooked their foods. “Fire was the precursor to the exponential rise of technology from the Neolithic onward; its use is the hallmark of civilization. It is possible that we are adapted to eating cooked food; it may be written into our very biology.” (Yoga of Eating, pg 124) Cooking foods not only makes for easier digestion and unlocks available nutrients, but also nourishes a state of being that is domestic and civilized. In both Ayurveda and TCM there is an agreement about the digestive fire within (Agni) that can be dampened by too much wet or raw foods. So warming, cooked foods help to maintain this internal fire that assimilates and breaks down the food we eat.
Soaking (or germination) is the process by which a seed is transformed from dormancy into its active growing form. Soaking nuts, seeds, and grains triggers and releases enzymes that break down the anti-nutritional factors of the grain/seed as well as some starches stored with the seed making for easier digestion and assimilation of nutrients. “This explosion in growth during the first few days of germination not only liberates vital nutrients for the seedling but also dramatically enhances bioavailability of these nutrients.” (Food as Medicine, pg 116)
Germination as stated in Food as Medicine by Todd Caldecott:
Germination is very simple and takes nothing more than the seeds, water, a big jar, some cheesecloth and an elastic band. Make a point to use whole grains and legumes to ensure the integrity of the protein rich layer just underneath the seed coat, which contains the fragile enzymes required for germination. Place the seeds in the jar and cover with water for 8-12 hours. Use a cheesecloth and elastic band to cover the opening and drain the seeds. Rinse well in cool water and drain again to prevent fermentation. Put the seeds aside for another few hours and rinse and drain the seeds a few times a day making sure they don’t dry out, but aren’t sitting in water.
For most grains and legume dishes geminate the seed/grain/legume just until the radical appears, or about 48 hours, in order to preserve the calorie content and starches. For vegetable sprouts keep them growing for another couple days until tiny leaves appear. Wow the food is actually alive and growing!
Fermentation is a great technique for food preservation/storage to help keep some of the yummy garden fresh items readily available for consumption at a later date. Unlike the heat of cooking used to break down coarse fibers that trap nutrients, fermentation make use of micro-organisms to break down cellulose and anti-nutrient factors to enhance assimilation (digestion). One key feature of fermentation is the presence of lactic acid bacteria (LAB). These different strains of bacteria are found in the environment around us, in our kitchen and our bodies. The added benefit of eating live-culture foods is they help replenish the gut ecology, which plays a key role in regulating immune function and metabolism (Food as Medicine, pg 126). Here is a small list of live-culture food examples: sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, cheese, sourdough bread, beer, rice wine, tamari, miso, pickled beans, fish sauce, pepperoni.
Not only do spices make food delicious, they have many different qualities that can be used to balance our bodies that constantly have different needs. Spices help the body assimilate food by increasing Agni (the digestive fire) while helping to rid the body of waste or ama (toxins) leaving the body and mind free and clear. Here is a list of some of the most healing herbs you can use in your cooking to bring better digestion and nourishment to your body.
Fennel: That lovely slightly ‘licorice tasting’ seed eaten as a digestive at the end of a meal in India, is a sweet and cooling spice that works to balance all the doshas. Part of the three spice blend along with cumin and coriander, which aids in digestion, assimilation, and clears stagnation, works well on it’s own to promote menstruation, increase the flow of milk in nursing moms, alleviate abdominal cramping and for cooling and calming the nerves. This makes fennel especially therapeutic spice for fiery Pitta.
Cardamom: A fragrant spice, used in most chai recipes, cardamom is one of the mildest but most effective digestive stimulants. Removes excess Kapha from the stomach and lungs, and combined with fennel, it acts a soothing digestive for nervous stomach disorders in children. Cardamom stimulates the heart and mind and offers clarity and joy.
Cinnamon: Pungent and sweet, this aromatic bark of tree is an effective spice for strengthening and enhancing the flow of circulation. Particularly good for Kapha and Vata, as it is heating and acts to strengthen the heart and promote agni or digestive fire. It is a widely-used home remedy for colds and flu, and aids in the absorption of other medicines.
Coriander: Whether it’s the green leafy fresh cilantro or the grounding earthy coriander seed, this is a food to always have on hand. The cilantro leaf acts as a cooling balm to Pitta or a bitter refreshment to Kapha and the seeds are humbly gracious to all doshas. Famous in Ayurveda as one of the three spices (along with fennel and cumin) used to balance and reset the body and mind, coriander is used for digestive disorders and to help in the assimilation of other herbs. Works on the digestive, respiratory and urinary systems, valuable for Pitta skin ailments and digestive issues where other pungent digestive spices are usually contraindicated.
Ginger: A must have in every kitchen apothecary, the fresh rhizome brings flavor, pungency and sweetness to food and is used widely as a digestive. Also an excellent remedy for respiratory conditions of Kapha and Vata, ginger is an invigorating spice and is known as ‘the universal medicine’ for its versatility and healing properties. Also used for arthritic conditions to clear stagnation in the joints and stimulating blood flow. Can also be used as a poultice for areas of pain. Excellent as a tea for colds and coughs. Increases agni (digestive fire).
Lemongrass: Subtle and refreshing, cooling, pungent and bitter, this fragrant herb is also known as Malabar grass. Relieves digestive ailments and acts as a coolant to the body. Causes perspiration and increased elimination through the skin, ridding the body of impurities and clearing stagnation.
Cumin: Cumin is an aromatic, astringent herb that benefits the digestive system, help flush toxins out of the body and acts as a stimulant to the sexual organs. Cumin is rarely used in Western herbal medicine, having been superseded by caraway which has similar properties. It is still widely used in India, however, where it is said to promote the assimilation of other herbs and improve liver function.
A general tonic to the whole digestive system, it is used in the treatment of flatulence and bloating, reducing intestinal gas and relaxing the gut as a whole. It is also used in the treatment of insomnia, colds and fevers and to improve milk production in nursing mothers. Furthermore it has powerful antioxidant and anti-cancerous properties. It is a heating spice that is light, oily, and smooth. It promotes digestion while relieving diarrhea. It stimulates pitta as it decreases vata and kapha.
Fenugreek (seed) is bitter and astringent. It is a dry, heating spice that helps to relieve fever and arthritis. Fenugreek seeds burn fat and help absorption. They lower blood glucose and are therefore helpful for diabetes 2. They are useful for dissolving fat within the liver. Fresh fenugreek leaves can be found at the farmer’s markets in late winter/early spring. They are nature’s super-food due to their beneficial effect on fat metabolism, bone health, blood sugar and also their cancer-fighting properties. Fenugreek is popularly used as tonic and as anti-coagulant when consumed in various preparations. It helps relieving digestive disorders, stimulates bowel movements due to its mucilaginous content, is used for hair problems like baldness or premature graying. It increases vata as well as pitta if too much is taken. It also decreases kapha.
Mustard seed: is a pungent, heating spice. It is oily, light, and sharp. It relieves muscular pain. Generally brown, mustard seeds are used quite a bit in Indian cooking. Brown mustard seeds are warming, and impart the pungent taste according to Ayurveda. They are balancing for Kapha and Vata, but increase Pitta dosha. In Ayurveda, brown mustard seeds are considered a digestive and good for alleviating stomach discomfort such as gas or cramps.
Turmeric: is bitter, pungent, and astringent. It is a heating spice thought to help in diabetes. It promotes good digestion. Curcumin the active component of turmeric is anti-inflammatory and is medically promising because inflammation and oxidative damage are contributors to many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis and various cancers. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s and certain cancers in India is among the world’s lowest. Turmeric blocks the growth skin cancer, and inhibits the spread of breast cancer into the lungs. Turmeric is a wonder spice and finds much use in medicine. It enhances the tissue sensitivity to hormones besides receptivity to many drugs. In India ground turmeric is mixed in hot milk to strengthen bones and heal injuries. Turmeric increases vata and pitta if too much is consumed, and relieves kapha.
Black Pepper: Pepper helps carry nutrition across the blood brain barrier. Since the brain is over 50% fat, it is nourished by high quality oils. Sautéeing fresh ground pepper in extra virgin olive oil or ghee is recommended for brain nourishment.
Pepper is very stimulating to the digestion, however, pepper is quite heating and potentially Pitta aggravating in nature and must be used sparingly. Black pepper helps correct digestive disorders and its vital component called piperine strengthens immunity and the functioning of the heart and kidneys.
Saffron: Known as an aphrodisiac spice saffron strengthens the whole body, has a particularly powerful effect on the reproductive organs and has been used to enhance fertility. It is a good spice for menopause and menstrual problems, since it is a revitalizer of blood, circulation, and the female reproductive system, as well as the metabolism in general. Saffron is one of the best anti-Pitta spices since it regulates spleen and liver. It helps with asthmatic and bronchial disorders, reduces inflammation, treats acne and skin conditions, and strengthens the heart.
Cloves: In Ayurveda, cloves are considered to enhance circulation, digestion and metabolism and help counter stomach disorders such as gas, bloating and nausea. The essential oil of clove is used as an ingredient in oral hygiene products to promote tooth health and freshen the breath. The clove contributes the pungent and astringent tastes. Cloves help pacify Vata and Kapha and increase Pitta.
Hing powder (Asafoetida): In Ayurveda, hing is used to aid digestion, cure colic, and stagnation in the GI tract. Hing burns ama. It is a primary herb for Vata. Hing reduces the growth of flora in the gut, especially candida, directly reducing gas. It destroys worms and has anti-viral properties.
Ajwain: According to ayurveda, ajwain is a powerful cleanser. It is helpful for stimulating the appetite and enhancing digestion. It is recommended to help alleviate gas and discomfort in the stomach. It is also helpful for the functioning of the respiratory system and the kidneys.
Developing a healthier and more conscious diet requires some simple steps and really is not that difficult. Pleasure is the main goal and ridding ourselves of discomfort is an outcome. As I said before there are more important things than eating perfectly and having supernatural health. Living a happily engaged life with community, family, and friends striving to help make a better planet is a far greater calling then being concerned with the effects of your diet. So live your life fully and let your diet be a reflection of the joy, happiness, and contentment you experience day-to-day.
By: Sean O'Leary