Krishna loved butter and curd, Milarepa managed on nettle soup, but if one wishes to invite a yogi to dinner, exactly what does one give him to eat? Although yogis are not mentioned in books of etiquette, the prospective hostess would find a guide in the ancient yogic text, the Gherand Samhita:
"A yogi may eat rice, bread (or chapati) of barley or wheat, with kidney beans, moong beans, urad, channa (gram or chickpeas) and other kinds of legumes."
Gheranda goes on to list the various fruits and vegetables which may be enjoyed by a yogi according to the season. Among other things he includes fresh, green leafy vegetables, patola (cucumber), brinjal (eggplant), karela, jackfruit, figs and various nuts and berries. The roots and inner stem of banana trees may be prepared as vegetables, while the banana itself may be eaten green, as a vegetable, or ripe, as a fruit.
A similar, but more liberal, menu is to be found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:
"Wheat, rice, barley, good corns, milk, ghee, sugar candy, honey, dried ginger, vegetables, moong beans and pure water are very beneficial to those who practice yoga."
As to what should be avoided, Gheranda tells us:
"In the beginning of yoga practice, one should discard bitter, acid, salty, pungent, roasted things; curd, buttermilk, heavy vegetables, palm nuts and overripe jackfruit... a yogin should avoid hard (not easily digestible) food, sinful, putrid, very hot and very stale food, as well as that which is very cooling or very much exciting."
The Shiva Samhita and other texts agree:
"A yogi should renounce the following - acids, all astringents, pungent substances, mustard, salty and bitter things...
Shiva Samhita v.3:33
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the only source that specifically discards flesh foods, but the other texts do so by implication. The Gherand Samhita rejects food that is "hard (to digest), sinful, putrid". The breakdown of meat and fish within the body is chemically classified as a process of putrefaction, and these foodstuffs may be regarded as hard to digest on several counts. Their digestion makes heavier demands on the body, for it requires the generation of putrefactive bacteria that differ from those naturally present in the intestines, which are concerned with fermentation. It takes longer, and requires greater amounts of acids and enzymes which, nevertheless, must often be supplemented by such stimulants as alcohol. The body must also work harder to eliminate toxins produced during the digestion of flesh food, not to mention the additional chemicals and additives that are found in the meat itself. If 'sin' is defined as that which is harmful to oneself or others, then meat could be seen as a 'sinful' food in terms of the gross misuse of the earth's resources that is involved in raising livestock solely for consumption at table.
For most yogic aspirants, however, the lawfulness of meat-eating is not the issue. Killed food is avoided not because it is 'sinful', but because it is simply not necessary nor, in general, is it healthful to make a regular habit of eating flesh foods. Moreover, meat is sensually stimulating, and to the aspirant trying to minimise the distractions of the senses, this is not an advantage. In the panchatattva, tantra ritualises the occasional use of meat and fish to break through any puritanism in this respect and to heighten sensual pleasure into spiritual ecstasy. However, unrestrained use of any of the ritual elements is prohibited. Manu, the first lawgiver, declared that there is no sin or fault in eating flesh, drinking wine or in sexual enjoyment, but that it is a very great achievement "if one can retire from these three things". (Manusmriti 5:58)
The point is also made that food restrictions apply particularly "in the beginning". The early years of yoga practice are a time of rapid change, due to alterations in lifestyle as well as the practices themselves, and with increasing sensitivity there often comes an increased vulnerability. Until things settle down, all disturbing influences should be screened out, even the subtle effects of different foods. The new aspirant also has to overcome lifetime patterns of ignorance, lethargy and sluggishness (tamas) and regulation of diet is a practical way to deal with this. It is often said that control in respect to food also leads to control of the other senses, especially sexuality. If we avoid disturbing sexual harmony with exciting food and drink, then we find that sexual desire is naturally more moderate and more easily turned to spiritual endeavour. It is for this reason that the Darshanopanishad (1:6) and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1:17) both mention control in eating as one of the observances (yamas) essential for yoga students.
The yogic diet is called yukta ahara (balanced diet) or mitahara (controlled diet) and the key to yogic eating, as to yoga life in general, is moderation.
"The yogi should take milk and nourishing, fresh foods. They should benefit the senses and stimulate the functions."
Hatha Yoga Pradipika v.1:63
"Easily digested, agreeable and cooling foods that nourish the elements of the body, a yogin may eat according to his desire. Fresh, pure, tasty preparations with ghee and a balanced diet should be eaten by a yogi. This is called mitahara."
Gherand Samhita v.28 & 22
This is undeniably a sane approach to diet, both from the traditional viewpoint and that of modern nutritional science.
In yogic teachings, the greater evil is not taking of 'forbidden fruit' but overeating. Overeating makes excessive demands on the physical organs and disturbs the integrated rhythm of bodily processes. Too much food at once is unusable and toxifies the body, creating the conditions for disease. Both physical and pranic energy are sapped in the effort to counteract these effects, and the mind is dulled - often to the point of sleep. We do not need to spell out the ethical implications of overeating in a world where millions are undernourished.
Just how much one should eat is clearly laid down in several texts:
"The yogi should fill two parts of the stomach with food, and the third part with water, leaving the fourth part free for air to aid digestion."
Hatha Yoga Pradipika v.1:58
This advice is echoed in the Darshanopanishad (1:19), the Yoga Kundalini Upanishad (1:3) and the Gherand Samhita (v.21). Once again the key is moderation.
The vital forces are dissipated not only by too much eating but also by excessive denial. Gheranda (v. 30) is against eating only once a day and too much fasting, while it is said in the Bhagavad Gita:
"Yoga is not possible for him who eats too much, nor for him who does not eat at all..."
Both these extremes are symptomatic of strong identification with the body, both are preoccupied with sensation. The glutton wallows in the sensations of pleasure through satiation; the ascetic crests the wave of sensation that is the negative sensuality of habitual denial. Both confuse the self with the not-self. It is precisely this false identification that yoga sets out to remove.
Through yoga one relinquishes sensual indulgence in favour of heightened consciousness. Sensual attachment is 'sacrificed', so to speak, to enhance or 'glorify' consciousness. Thus in many texts we have the notion of meal as sacrifice (yajna) to god (supreme consciousness or higher self). In the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, those who eat just for the sake of eating are harshly condemned.
"Holy men who take food as the remains of sacrifice become free from all their sins; but the unholy who have feasts for themselves eat food that is in truth sin."
Here 'sin' is to be understood as the illusory misidentification with the physical body; food not consecrated by mindfulness only feeds delusion. The true significance of the sacrificial meal is made even more explicit in the Yoga Kundalini Upanishad and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:
"..The act of eating is dedicated to Shiva."
Shiva is consciousness itself, the archetypal image of the infinite consciousness that is within us all - the act of eating is dedicated to consciousness. Thus the simple, universal act of taking a meal brings a heightened awareness to even this most basic level of our existence. The focus of attention shifts from eating for pleasure to a conscious eating with pleasure, and from this self-control arises of its own accord - painlessly.
Yoga should not be a struggle - is not a struggle. Yoga is the intelligent, responsible harmonisation of life force - it is life itself. As we proceed in yoga we tend to the spontaneous and natural pleasures, and eating yogically is one of these.
There are more and more people today who think of themselves as 'spiritual seekers' and food has become part of their search. They are obsessed with what to eat, when, where, why. They are fascinated, bewitched, turning food into an esoteric cult that will make them truly 'spiritual' or bring them enlightenment. On the other hand, there are those who pervert a sense of guilt over their lack of real control into a self-righteous and rigid adherence to their chosen food regime.
The yogic approach subverts both these distortions by laying guidelines that enable us to eat and then forget about it. Life is more useful and enjoyable when we are in harmony with the body, so that it is undisturbed by disease, and we are free from constant preoccupation with its physical requirements. The yogic diet is one that sustains the body and gives maximum vitality, without any fuss.
For all that, yogic eating is not 'the one true way'. It is simply in accordance with our needs. It is natural and fitting. It is neither fitting nor natural to be constantly banging your head against a brick wall, which is what we are doing when we obstruct the natural flow of vitality and health through improper diet. However, you will not automatically become enlightened just because you stop banging your head. Just so, you will not attain instant awakening only by regulating your food habits. It is simply the proper thing to do.
Excessive concern with food, overeating, too much fasting, constant experimentation with fad diets and eating rituals - all these are different forms of attachment to food. They are distractions which prevent us from getting down to the real thing which is, after all, quite ordinary. We simply need to be sensible and moderate in our eating habits so that we are free to use and enjoy life in the pursuit of the ultimate sustenance, higher consciousness.