Satsang on Food and Diet

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

I have read that one should not eat stale food or food which is not freshly prepared. Nowadays, many people keep most of their food in refrigerators and deep freezers. Is this practice advisable?

All over the world people do not know what they should eat. Most of them depend upon advertisements and they are ignorantly being misled. However, people are gradually waking up to the situation and they have become aware that the tinned and preserved foodstuffs are dangerous for health. These foods are proving to be the carriers of the greatest diseases that mankind has ever suffered. The western countries, including America, have the largest number of deaths due to cancer and coronary diseases. According to medical statistics, 80% of Europeans suffer from rheumatism, and a large number of people suffer from psychological and mental diseases. This is mainly due to the fact that the food we are taught to eat is commercially good but lacking in nutrients.

Not for yoga, but for good health and a sharp mind, it is necessary to have freshly prepared food. It is a matter of common sense that all vegetables undergo a state of chemical transformation, a process of decomposition. Some vegetables also develop fungus. Even if you keep vegetables in air conditioned rooms or freezers, they will definitely develop fungus because they are out of touch with the root, the earth and the heat. Tinned foods contain additives and a lot of preservatives which, according to scientists, are one of the most significant causes of cancer and tumour. Man cannot conceive the dangers that will result if he continues to eat foods grown with artificial fertilisers and preserved with dangerous chemicals.

What do you think are the best foods for the digestion and health of the body?

For the practice of yoga and keeping the mind in a tranquil state, the optimum diet does not necessarily follow the modern dietary system. When the great yogis and saints of the past such as St. Francis, St. Xavier, Ramana Maharshi, Aurobindo, etc. were practising yoga, they fixed their diet in such a way that the food did not stimulate the 'monster' in the mind.

We have made certain observations and have found that most people who follow modern dietetics are very active mentally and emotionally. Therefore, when the question of diet is considered, it is necessary for the aspirant to decide what is more important, peace of mind or physical strength. Shall we eat to live or live to eat?

In spite of all the ideas on diet, I have found that people are not keeping good health anywhere.. We stuff our bodies, but our knowledge of diet is based on propaganda which is always dependent on a commercial purpose. It is important for everyone to know that the simplest diet is the best. Therefore, the yoga practitioner should simplify his diet. He should not be too fussy about it because when we practise yoga we alter the inner chemistry and all the digestive enzymes and nutritional properties are renewed.

Another important point to remember is that the food of one region and climate becomes poison in another. In the arctic climate we have another system of diet altogether because the body reacts differently there than in the semi arctic and temperate climates. Therefore, the diet goes along with climatic conditions, and nature itself produces the right things according to this order. For example, you have mangoes in India but not in Norway and Sweden.

I have been considering this question of diet for at least thirty years. I have practised yogic diet on myself and on many others. I have read about practically every system of diet including macrobiotics and have come to one conclusion. The food that burdens the body least, that keeps the temperature right, that allows elimination without difficulty, and that does not stimulate the rajasic tendency, is the best food for the yogi and any sort of yoga practitioner.

For optimum digestion and health, a sattvic diet is best. A sattvic diet is not just simple or vegetarian food. Sattvic foods have a kind of vitality which increases peace, bliss, lightness, clarity, intelligence and illumination. Rice, wheat, vegetables and fruit are sattvic. Anything which makes you physically strong, increases your dynamism and excites the sexual hormones, is rajasic. Milk, meat, onions and garlic are rajasic.

The best food for a yogi is khichari. It is so light you don't know you are eating it; the stomach never knows it is there, and when it leaves the stomach you never know it has gone. That is the definition of the best diet. The worst diet has the opposite effect: when you are eating it you know it; when it is in the stomach you feel it, and eliminating it is a job. Khichari is easy to prepare, it is the cheapest food, and it is available from the north to the south pole.

What is it? A combination of rice, lentils, vegetables and other enzyme producing constituents all cooked together.

How important is diet to a yoga practitioner?

Some people think that a yogi must have a well balanced nutritious diet, and to these people I say, 'Why practise yoga at all?' Yoga gives you nourishment through prana shakti. If this is not true, then there is no need to practise yoga. Yoga conserves vitality and, more important, by concentration, it controls the natural secretion of the hormones from the pituitary body. When the hormones are controlled at their basic root, at the top in the pituitary, they don't come down. These hormones are then transformed into vitality or ojas.

In yogic physiology, the pituitary is associated with sahasrara, the highest chakra, and hormones are called retas. Normally, these hormones flow into the body and cause different kinds of reactions, destruction, catabolism, anabolism, metabolism, etc. By concentration, however, they can be controlled and kept from flowing downwards. In this way, they are then transformed into prana shakti, the power of vitality, which nourishes the body of a sadhaka. So the belief that a yogi has to take a special diet of fresh vegetables, raw fruits, etc. is not altogether true.

What is your opinion about fasting?

Fasting is usually done for the body, but if the mind is very turbulent then you can also resort to fasting. Buddha and others took to long fasts to purify the mind. When food is in the body it affects the mind, and when the body is not pure, the tranquility is disturbed. While fasting, the nervous, glandular, digestive and eliminatory systems are at rest. Therefore, you can concentrate or meditate with greater ease.

Fasting purifies the digestive system and gives rest to the coronary system. The heat conserved within the body during fasting helps to eliminate toxins and speed up the process of catabolism. If fasting is carried out correctly, it can influence the structure of kundalini at mooladhara chakra.

I personally believe fasting is good for everybody, but I don't suggest that people undergo long fasts unless they have the guidance of an expert. For those who want to follow the path of yoga and meditation, the best way to fast is to take food only once a day. When you eat only once in twenty four hours, you will conserve a lot of mental, physical and spiritual energy. You may find it a little difficult at first, but in a short time, you will be completely used to it.

Is it essential for a yoga practitioner to give up meat, alcohol and cigarettes?

You must remember one thing - yoga is part of tantra, and in the tantric system nothing is prohibited. This does not, however, mean that one should indulge in meat, wine and other things indiscriminately. You must always do according to the condition of your health. Instead of thinking whether you can take all these things, you should be considering whether they are good for your health, whether they are necessary for your physical growth, and do you really need them? Therefore, the practitioner of yoga must make a survey of his personal health and if he feels he needs meat, there is no reason why he should not take it. But if he finds that meat is detrimental to his health, increases the blood pressure, causes more toxins in the body, etc. then it is up to him to use his discrimination and give up meat.

Those who have a tendency towards high blood pressure, high cholesterol and excess uric acid in the system, must try to avoid a meat diet. Secondly, those who are suffering from nervous problems, nervous breakdown, depression or traumas, should also avoid meat completely in the interest of their health and not just because they are practising yoga. Thirdly, those who have a very bad liver and are not able to digest properly, should also avoid meat. When you are unable to digest your food properly, during your yoga practices you might have hallucinations and you will misunderstand them for spiritual experiences. When your stomach is bad, you will have a lot of dreams, sometimes horrible dreams. In the same way, a bad stomach influences the experiences of the psychic body.

Similarly, if you are taking intoxicants like marijuana, LSD or alcohol, they will definitely interfere with your psychic experiences. These things influence the nervous system and the brain. When you take intoxicants, your brain does not function at its normal level. When you are practising yoga, this will be a great barrier to the psychic experiences. In short, in order to allow your psychic body to function independently and in order to have true visions and not just hallucinations, it is important that you keep your brain normal, your nervous system strong, and your coronary system intact. Therefore, the practitioner of yoga and anyone who is concerned about their health, should think twice about taking meat or alcohol.

What are the spiritual dangers of eating meat?

Manu Smriti has it that there is no harm in eating meat, in drinking or in having sexual interactions, because these are the tendencies of every being. Nature has created them, but if sometimes you are able to leave them, this will give you speed in spiritual life. Meat eating does not kill spiritual potential, but correct vegetarianism will increase the spiritual experience. It is something like removing a heavy load from your car. Then you'll find it can travel at a greater speed.