A diet that is wholly conducive to the practice of yoga and spiritual progress is called a yogic diet. Diet has an intimate connection with the mind. Mind is formed out of the subtlest portion of food. The Chhandogya Upanishad states: By the purity of food one becomes purified in his inner nature; by the purification of his inner nature he verily gets memory of the Self; and by the attainment of the memory of the Self, all ties and attachments are severed.
Food, according to yoga, is of three kinds: sattwic, rajasic and tamasic. Milk, barley, wheat, cereals, butter, cheese, tomatoes, honey, dates, fruits, almonds and sugar-candy are all sattwic foodstuffs. They render the mind pure and calm. Fish, eggs, meat, salt, chillies and asafoetida are rajasic foodstuffs. They excite passion. Beef, wine, garlic, onions and tobacco are tamasic foodstuffs. They fill the mind with anger, darkness and inertia. Lord Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (17:810):
Aayuh sattwabalaarogya-sukha preetivi vardhanaah;
Rasyaah snigdhaah sthiraa hridyaa-aahaaraah saattwikapriyaah.
Foods which increase life, purity, strength, health, joy and cheerfulness, which are oleaginous and savoury, substantial and agreeable, are dear to sattwic people.
Katvamlalavanaatyushna teekshna rooksha vidaahinah;
Aahaaraa raajasasyeshtaa duhkhashokaamayapradaah.
The foods that are bitter, sour, saline, excessively hot, dry, pungent and burning are liked by the rajasic and are productive of pain, grief and disease.
Yaatayaamam gatarasam pooti paryushitam cha yat;
Uchchhishtamapi chaamedhyam bhojanam taamasapriyam.
That which is stale, tasteless, putrid, rotten and impure refuse, is the food liked by the tamasic.
A beginner on the spiritual path should be careful in choosing foodstuff of sattwic nature. Food exercises a vast influence over the mind. This is evident in everyday life. It is very difficult to control the mind after a heavy, sumptuous, indigestible, rich meal. Alcohol also causes great excitement of the mind.
Different foods produce different effects on different compartments of the brain. For purposes of meditation, the food should be light, nutritious and sattwic. However, you should not make sudden changes in anything, particularly so in matters pertaining to food and drink. Let the change be slow and gradual. The system should accommodate it without any trouble. Also remember that a yogic student who spends his time wholly in pure meditation needs very little food, but a yogi who ascends the platform for vigorous, active work requires abundant, nutritious food.
A vegetarian diet has been acclaimed to be most conducive to spiritual and psychic advancement. Fasting is not recommended for practitioners of yoga as it produces weakness. However, occasional, mild fasts are highly beneficial. They will overhaul the system thoroughly, give rest to the stomach and the intestines, and eliminate uric acid. The timing of meals is also important. In the Shiva Samhita it is said: Yoga should not be practised immediately after a meal, nor when one is very hungry. Before beginning the practice, some milk and butter should be taken. Yogic students may take one full meal at eleven in the morning, a cup of warm milk in the morning and half a litre of milk and some fruits at night with much advantage. The night meal should be very light. If the stomach is overloaded, sleep will supervene and as too much sleep is injurious to yogic practices, one cannot make any real headway in the path of yoga. Take a half-stomachful of pleasant, wholesome and sweet food; fill a quarter of the stomach with water and allow the remaining quarter to be free for expansion of gas. Offer up the act to the Lord. This is mitahara, moderate diet.
Gluttons and epicureans cannot dream of getting success in yoga. Only one who takes a moderate diet can become a yogi, not others. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (6:1617):
Naatyashnatastu yogosti nachaikaantamanashnatah;
Na chaati swapnasheelasya jaagrato naiva chaarjuna.
Verily yoga is not possible for him who eats too much, nor for him who does not eat at all; nor for him who sleeps too much, nor for him who is (always) awake, O Arjuna!
Yuktaahaaravihaarasya yuktacheshtasya karmasu;
Yuktaswapnaavabodhasya yogo bhavati duhkhahaa.
Yoga becomes the destroyer of pain for him who is always moderate in eating and recreation (such as walking, etc.), who is moderate in exertion in actions, who is moderate in sleep and wakefulness.
The yogic diet is fresh, simple, light, bland, wholesome, easily digestible and nutritious. Milk, fruits, almonds, butter, sugar-candy, green gram, Bengal gram soaked in water overnight, bread, etc. are all very helpful in meditation. Thed (a kind of root available in abundance in the Himalayan regions) is very sattwic. Tea and sugar should be used in moderation. It is better if you can give them up entirely. Dried ginger powder can be mixed with milk and taken frequently. Indian yogis like this very much. Another health-giving stuff is myrobalan (cherry plum) of the yellow variety which can be chewed now and then. In the Vagbhata it is represented as even superior to a nourishing mother. It preserves semen and stops all nocturnal emissions. Potato, boiled without salt or baked on fire, is also an excellent food for practitioners.
Milk is an ideal food for aspirants. It is a perfect food by itself. A fruit diet also exercises a marvellous influence on the constitution. This is a natural diet. Fruits are tremendous energy producers. Fruits and milk help concentration and meditation. Barley, wheat, milk, ghee and honey promote longevity and increase power and stamina. Fruit juice and sugar-candy dissolved in water are very good drinks. Butter mixed with sugar-candy and almonds soaked in water overnight will cool the system.
All articles that are putrid, stale, decomposed, unclean, twice cooked or kept overnight, should be abandoned. Yoga Tattwa Upanishad states:
The proficient in yoga should abandon the food detrimental to the practice of yoga. He should give up salt, mustard, sour things, hot, pungent or bitter articles, asafoetida, women, emaciation of the body by fasts, etc. During the early stages of practice, food of milk and ghee is ordained; also food consisting of wheat, green pulse and red rice is said to favour the progress. Then he will be able to retain his breath as long as he likes. By thus retaining the breath, kevala kumbhaka (cessation of breath without inhalation and exhalation) is attained. When kevala kumbhaka is attained by one and thus inhalation and exhalation are dispensed with, there is nothing unattainable in the three worlds to him.
Aspirants should avoid all narcotics, coffee, tea, alcohol and smoke that stimulate the senses. Manu, Jesus and Buddha exhorted people to refrain from using liquors, intoxicants and drugs, as these are toxic in their effects. No spiritual progress is possible without abandoning them.
It has been found that meat augments animal passion and decreases intellectual capacity. While it is true that meat-eating people are physically active and strong, the same cannot be said of their spiritual attainments. Meat is not at all necessary for the keeping up of perfect health, rigour and vitality. On the contrary, it is highly harmful to health. It brings in its train a host of ailments such as tape-worm, albuminuria and other diseases of the kidneys. Besides, killing of animals for food is not advised. Ahimsa (non-injury) is the first virtue that a spiritual aspirant should try to possess. You should have reverence for life. Lord Jesus says: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Mahavira also said: Regard every living being as yourself and harm no one.
Meat-eating and alcoholism are closely allied. The craving for liquor dies a natural death when meats are withdrawn. Controlling the sexual instinct becomes very difficult in the case of meat eaters. Mark how the meat-eating tiger and the cow or elephant living on green grass are poles apart. Meat has a direct influence on the brain. Vegetarians keep up sound health till old age. Even in the West doctors in hospitals put patients on a regimen of vegetable diet to help them convalesce quickly.
Pythagoras seems to bewail when he says: Beware, O mortals, of defiling your bodies with sinful food. There are cereals, there are fruits bending their branches down by their weight, and luxurious grapes on the vines. There are sweet vegetables and herbs which the fire can render palatable and mellow. Nor are you denied milk, nor honey or aroma of the thyme flower. The bountiful earth offers you an abundance of pure food and provides for meals obtainable without slaughter and bloodshed.
In your zeal to follow a yogic regimen, however, do not make much fuss about your diet. You need not advertise to everyone that you are able to live on a particular form of diet. The observance of such rules is for your own advancement on the spiritual path and you will not be spiritually benefited by publicizing your practices.
Live a natural and simple life. Take simple food that is wholly agreeable to your system. You should have your own menu to suit your constitution. You are yourself the best judge to select a sattwic diet that will aid your sadhana. You should not have the least craving for any particular diet. Simple, natural, non-stimulating, tissue building, energy producing, non-alcoholic food and drink will keep the mind calm and pure, and will help the student of yoga in his practices and in the attainment of the goal of life.