The emphasis in yoga regarding diet is that the student should eat as naturally as possible. A sensible and balanced nutritional program frees the individual from worry about food. Yoga not only deals with this freedom, but also with the freedom from desire of food which causes sickness. Every individual, like every animal, knows what is good food and what is not. However, it is only man who takes liberties with food that disagrees with his health, because he has the science of healing with him. When this science fails, as it happens frequently, the normal stressful situations get compounded as a result of low body efficiency or ill health.
The yogic way helps to develop the intuition for dietary diagnosis in a spontaneous manner, without becoming fanatical or fussy but choosing sensible food through the attitude of detachment.
In "Stress: how to handle it" in the International Yoga Guide, it is said that, "Prana is harmonized, replenished and enhanced in various ways, one of the most powerful being that of maintaining a pure and nourishing diet. On the basis of thousands of years of experience, yogis are emphatic on the point that non-vegetarian foods cause increasing tension in the body and mind. Rather, pure foods, such as fruits, milk and milk products, nuts, cereals, vegetables, and others are more harmonious to the body and mind. An occasional fast is also beneficial, or a fruit diet or a raw food diet. These have proven very helpful in relaxing the body and recharging it with fresh pranic energy."
According to yoga, food can be either sattwic, rajasic or tamasic The effect of these foods on our body and mind is similar to the manifestation of the particular guna in our nature. It is well known that each of these three gunas is present in us, but in different proportions and that the nature of our personality is determined by the predominant guna. In the same way we can plan our diet, which can either be predominantly sattwic (with a lesser proportion of rajasic and tamasic food components) or predominantly rajasic (with a lesser proportion of sattwic and rajasic food components) or predominantly tamasic.
Most vegetarian food can be sattwic but the vegetarian food people eat nowadays is made non-sattwic as they are fried or prepared in a combination of rich spices. To retain the sattwic quality of vegetarian food, it needs to be prepared in simple ways: boiling, steaming, baking or eating raw (those vegetables which can be eaten raw). A simple vegetarian menu with smaller portions of rajasic and tamasic food (such as meat, fish, etc.) should bring in the benefits of a sattwic diet, which is easy to digest and completely assimilated through proper metabolic conversion.
A person under stress is normally rushed for time or tends to eat fast. His eating habits and timings become haphazard. As the stressful situation builds up tension within, his eating schedule gradually gets into a disarray, till it is completely thrown out of gear.
Therefore, eating under stress can create several complications, adding further to the burden of stress the body-mind complex is already bracing against. A lackadaisical attitude to eating may starve the body of essential nutrition. Killing hunger with coffee, tea, cigarettes or other substitutes is not a solution to the problem, but may actually contribute to it. Or, one may also develop a habit to overeat in the night to make up for the lack of proper food during the day, putting a heavy strain on the digestive system. Regularity in food timings is very important. Much digestive stress is caused by irregular timings and wrong timings. The optimum time for the main meal of the day is between 11 a.m. and 1p.m. After that, the digestive power wanes. In the evening, the digestive power is low as the system is tired and ready for a rest.
It is also important to eat the same quantity of food regularly, because the stomach gets used to secreting a certain amount of enzymes at a particular time. If the right items in the right quantity are provided at the right timing, then the digestive process goes on well, as nature intended it to be. It does not become stressed, overworked or breakdown.
Most of the eating habits we were told to develop as children, contribute to good health. Eating slowly, masticating the food well and obeying the stomach rather than the eye or the taste buds, are as valid when we are grown up as when we were young. Moderation in diet makes sense in the yogic way, which says: fill the stomach half full with food, one quarter full with water, and leave a quarter of the stomach empty for all the gases that are produced during digestion.
There are different ideas about drinking water with food. Some advise to drink water after finishing eating, not in between. Others are of the opinion that it is best not to drink water for one hour before or one hour after meals. The reason being, that drinking water with or immediately after food, 'dilutes' the digestive juices. Therefore, a given quantity of food that is mixed with water, would need a larger amount of digestive juices for digestion than if it were unmixed or undiluted with water. Once you make a habit of drinking water one hour before or after eating, you find that the heavy-in-the-stomach feeling after eating totally disappears. With it, the after-food lethargy also disappears.
In the ashram, food is looked upon as prasad. So, whether there is enough to eat or less, whether it Is tasty or not, food is eaten with the same bhavana (feeling) as a prasad from the guru. In our homes, we can develop a healthy respect for food if, once in a while, we pause and think; The rice I'm eating, how has it reached my plate? How many different paths did it have to travel, how many hands did it have to pass, before reaching me to satisfy my hunger? That dal, or vegetable or those shiny red apples, how many man-hours were required to grow them and make them available to me. Such introspection or line of thought helps to develop a healthy, balanced attitude towards food.
While eating, try to follow the 'processes' the food undergoes till it reaches the stomach. When you are chewing, visualize how the taste buds convey the different tastes, via the taste ducts, to the brain. How, even before the food is served, your nose has already conveyed the aroma of the food, and how your mouth begins to salivate at the mere hint of the aroma. Visualize the chewing process, the mixing of the chewed food with your saliva, the smooth movement down the throat after your tongue expertly pushes parts of the mouthful inside. With a little knowledge of physiology you can make a wonderful 'odyssey' down the stomach. It is only when we take such diverse perspectives in life that we are able to be aware of the richness of life around us. We become aware that eating is not mere polishing off of the plate, or that cooking mere adding salt and spices. We also realize that stress is partly due to our own inability to look at the world through a broader perspective.