Food, fitness, and conscious eating are hot topics these days. Compared with food options available five years ago, nowadays more cafe signs are advertising gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options. People are more aware of food sensitivities, and many are embracing the raw food revolution by increasing their raw food intake to enhance their health and well-being.
In the bhakti-yoga tradition, the yogi’s perspective explains how eating can affect us on a deeper, subtle level. The word yoga means to link or to connect— ultimately, to connect with the Supreme Consciousness. The asanas (physical postures) of the yoga system are meant to connect the body, mind, and soul to work together harmoniously.
Food yoga is also a part of this system. Thousands of people around the world practise yoga, but how many people make this connection and take food yoga into consideration when they roll out their yoga mat? What we eat has a direct effect on us, physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
There is no doubt that this wellness movement of conscious eating that is sweeping the globe is very much needed.
The number of diet-related health problems has sky-rocketed in recent years. Many people struggle to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. Heart disease and cancer are two of the biggest killers, and meat consumption plays a role in both. According to the Heart Foundation, every ninety minutes, a New Zealander dies from coronary heart disease. Many of these deaths are premature and preventable with diet and lifestyle changes.
North America, Australia, and New Zealand have the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the world. The World Cancer Research Fund reviewed fourteen cohort studies and forty-four case-control studies and found convincing evidence that processed meat is a cause of colorectal cancer.
Our food choices also affect us on a cellular level. Picture your body like a bank account. Every time you eat lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, which are full of vitamins, minerals, and photo-chemicals, you are depositing savings for your future. These natural foodstuffs enhance the functioning of this fantastic machine, the body. But meat-based foods are acidic, so they deplete the body’s stockpile of nutrients as it strains to digest them, thus draining your bank account. Literally, the food we eat today forms the building blocks of our cells tomorrow.
CHOOSING A PLANTBASED DIET
Another reason people often choose a plant-based diet is based on their compassion for animals. Just like humans, animals feel pain. Granted, they may not have the intelligence to send satellites into space, but they do have intelligence and emotions, and they are living, breathing, conscious beings, just like us. Sadly, in our society, animals are not given the love and respect they deserve. Factory farming is increasing exponentially—with battery farms and use of crates, and the dairy industry is no exception from cruelty because of its milk production methods.
Then, of course, environmental factors provide reason to avoid meat-eating. Raising farm animals for food creates greenhouse gas emissions, contributing more to climate change than all the world’s planes, trains and automobiles combined, as stated in a United Nations report in 2006. More recently, in April 2014, a European assessment report on nitrogen and food stressed that reducing or eliminating the consumption of meat will help enormously in minimising the impact of its production on the environment. By voting with our fork, we can contribute to a cleaner atmosphere.
In the yogic circles, a plant-powered diet prevails as it is considered crucial for spiritual practice.
The yogic texts explain that all living beings are spiritual by nature. This refers not just to us humans but includes animals as well–all with the right to live, hence many spiritual seekers switch to a plant-powered diet.
The primary yoga text, Bhagavad-gita, explains that what we eat affects not only our bodies but also our minds. Just as certain yoga postures (asanas) are designed to aid our cognitive function, eating particular foods also affects our mental clarity and focus.
We get direct perception of this when we eat healthy–we feel alive, energised, and focused. But when our diets aren’t so healthy and largely consist of processed or fast foods, after a while our body pays the price. We are left feeling lethargic, run-down, and lacking in clarity.
The Bhagavad-gita states that all foods can be classified according to their inherent quality and the way they affect our body and mind. Foods are catagorised into three different groups: sattvic, rajas and tamasa.
“Sattvic foods help increase the duration of life, purify, one’s existence and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction.” (Bg. 17.8)
These foods include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and ahimsa milk, or milk from protected cows, and not the heavily processed commercial stuff that can be filled with chemicals and antibiotics. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word, which means nonviolence. Spiritual practitioners interested in ahimsa may practise cow protection— a farming practice where the cows are lovingly looked after for the duration of their natural lives and never sent to the slaughterhouse.
Rajasic foods are “Foods that are too bitter, too sour, salty, hot, pungent, dry and burning. Such foods cause distress, misery and disease.” (Bg. 17.9)
This describes the effect of foods when their qualities are in excess. So it’s not that you should avoid salt or spice, only when they are in extreme. Have you ever experienced this when you made a meal with chili? The right amount of chili brings warmth and flavour to the meal and aids digestion. But if you add too much, you won’t appreciate the taste. It’ll just feel like your mouth is on fire, which is certainly a distressing situation!
Tamasic food is “tasteless, decomposed and putrid.” (Bg. 17.10)
Essentially this includes foods that are not fresh, such as meat, fish, and eggs. Tamasic foods tend to have a dulling effect on the mind and they make the body feel lethargic because a considerable amount of energy is used to digest them.
Have you ever noticed how your body reacts when you are really angry or sad? In that moment you can literally feel every fibre in your being changing. Similarly, the fear and suffering animals experience at their death is transferred to their meat, which is then ingested.
Negative thoughts, emotions, and too much stress have a damaging effect on the body and mind and tend to play out through the body by manifesting illnesses. People understand that food is energy for the body, but it’s also noteworthy that our thoughts are energy too. This concept also extends to food consumption. The consciousness of the cook affects the eater on a subtle level. Nothing compares to a home-cooked meal carefully prepared by loved ones as opposed to the takeouts from down the road prepared by the underpaid, overworked, slightly grumpy cook. Maybe you’ve had the experience of cooking when you are not in the best of moods— usually that’s the time when things won’t go right and the food ends up getting burnt!
In the bhakti-yoga tradition, a part of the practice is known as food yoga. Food has a powerful effect on people’s consciousness. Cooking becomes a form of meditation, and it is highly practical. We’ve all got to eat, so why not eat well?
Taking this concept of conscious cooking to another level is where the yoga of cooking comes in. The yoga of cooking is the process by which a person connects with the complete source of all energies, Krishna. When we understand that it is nature that gives us all the ingredients, we cook with the mood of love and devotion. As a gesture of gratitude, the meal is then offered back to the complete source of all energies, Krishna. In turn, this act spiritualises the food and transforms it into prasadam, the Sanskrit word for spiritual food. The yoga texts explain that prasadam is nourishing for the body, mind, and soul and that’s the secret to why the Krishna food cooked in the bhakti-yoga tradition tastes so good.