These are important considerations in the practice of yoga. Yoga is defined as those practices that lead to anushasanam, which means the governing of one’s subtle nature.
The goal of yoga is described as chitta vritti nirodha, the quieting of the mind-field.
Yoga practitioners advocate the use of the sattvic diet to support these subtle goals.
A beginning practice in both ayurveda and yoga is to simply observe the effect of each food choice we make and, from our experience and awareness, begin to make small changes. As we progress in this practice we can recognize three broad categories called the gunas. Some foods leave us feeling tired and sluggish. This is called the tamasic effect. Other foods leave us feeling agitated or over-stimulated--the rajasic effect. The third category belongs to foods that leave us feeling calm, alert and refreshed. This is the sattvic effect and the basis of the sattvic diet.
If we persist in this practice, we will arrive at our personal version of the sattvic diet. The Bhagavad Gita describes the sattvic diet as “promoting life, virtue, strength, health, happiness and satisfaction.” Sattvic foods are “savory, smooth, firm and pleasant to the stomach.” By contrast, the Gita describes the rajasic diet as “excessively pungent, sour, salty, hot, harsh, astringent and burnt,” leading to “pain, misery and sickness.” The tamasic foods are described as “stale, tasteless, smelly, left-over, rotten and foul” (BG 17:8-10).
The true test of our foods comes when we meditate. All meditators know that there are two main problems. One is falling asleep--the tamasic effect. The other is an over-active mind--the rajasic effect. If we want to be able to quiet the mind and maintain our alertness to explore our subtle nature, we need to follow the sattvic diet. “When sattva predominates, the light of wisdom shines through every gate of the body” (BG 14: 11).
The Traditional Sattvic Diet
Although it has been suggested that one can arrive at the sattvic diet through trial and error, it can be most helpful to consider the general characteristics of the sattvic diet, which traditionally is described as pure foods that are rich in prana. Organic foods are therefore recommended for both their purity and vitality. The food should be fresh and freshly prepared. Leftovers are decidedly tamasic. There are some exceptions, but most people understand that if you make a beautiful meal one day and feel great from it, that is no guarantee that you’ll get the same effect or pleasure the next day.
Sattvic foods are light in nature, easy to digest, mildly cooling, refreshing and not disturbing to the mind. They are best prepared with love and awareness. On this last point, please note that just as our food affects our mind, our thoughts and emotions also affect our food. You can consume high-quality food, but if it is prepared or eaten in anger, it will have a disturbing effect. On the other hand, you can sometimes take less than pure food and bless it to overcome its impurities. The idea ultimately is to absorb that which is nourishing and eliminate that which is not--and to keep our thoughts positive, especially when eating or preparing food.
Pure, sattvic food needs to be chewed carefully and eaten in modest portions. Overeating is definitely tamasic. The food should be enjoyed for its inherent taste and quality, rather than the spices and seasonings that are added. Too much salt and spice has a rajasic effect, which fuels desire and leads to over-satiation, the loss of taste and the loss of pleasure. “When rajas predominates, a person runs about pursuing selfish and greedy ends, driven by restlessness and desire” (BG 14:12). A refined sense of taste leads to increased pleasure.
Fresh Organic Fruits: Most fruits, including apples, apricots, bananas, berries, dates, grapes, melons, lemons, mangoes, oranges, peaches and plums, are considered especially sattvic. Sometimes yogis go on fruit fasts, where they avoid all foods except fruit and fruit juices, when doing a special sadhana (advanced practice) or have undertaken a vow. Fruit is also considered symbolic of generosity and spirituality and is often exchanged as an offering or a gift. Three dried fruits known as triphala are used to keep the digestive system operating optimally.
Fresh Organic Dairy: Dairy is considered controversial these days, but the yoga tradition insists on the value of a wholesome food freely given by the symbol of motherhood, the cow. We need to use the highest quality organic fresh dairy to benefit from its sattvic qualities. Milk, butter, clarified butter (ghee), fresh home-made cheese (paneer), whey and fresh yogurt (especially lassi) are all recommended. They benefit from careful preparation, and the extra effort to learn the recipes is well worthwhile. For example, milk can be diluted and warmed with mild spices (i.e. fresh ginger, cinnamon and cardamom) and served with raw honey to overcome any mucus-forming tendencies. Traditionally, if a yogi is doing advanced practices, the dairy provides needed lubrication, grounding and nourishment. In fact, dairy along with fruit have been described as the epitome of the sattvic or yogic diet.
Nuts, Seeds and Oils: Fresh nuts and seeds that haven’t been overly roasted and salted are good additions to the sattvic diet in small portions. Good choices are almonds (especially when peeled and soaked in water overnight), coconut, pine nuts, walnuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds. Oils should be of highest quality and cold-pressed. Good choices are olive oil, sesame oil and flax oil.
Organic Vegetables: Most mild organic vegetables are considered sattvic, including beets, carrots, celery, cucumbers, green leafy veggies, sweet potatoes and squash. Pungent veggies like hot peppers, garlic and onion are excluded, as are gas-forming veggies such as mushrooms and potatoes. They are considered rajasic and tamasic respectively. Sometimes the shortcomings of these foods can be overcome by careful preparation. An excellent practice is to drink freshly made vegetable juices for their prana, live enzymes and easy absorption.
Whole Grains: Whole grains provide excellent nourishment when well cooked. Consider organic rice, whole wheat, spelt, oatmeal and barley. Sometimes the grains are lightly roasted before cooking to remove some of their heavy quality. Yeasted breads are not recommended unless toasted. Wheat and other grains can be sprouted before cooking as well. Favorite preparations are kicharee (basmati rice cooked with split mung beans, ghee and mild spices), kheer (rice cooked with milk and sweetened), chapathis (non-leavened whole wheat flat bread), porridge (sometimes made very watery and cooked with herbs) and “Bible” bread (sprouted grain bread). Sometimes yogis will fast from grains during special practices.
Sweeteners: Yogis use raw honey (especially in combination with dairy) and raw sugar (not refined).
Spices: Sattvic spices are the mild spices including basil, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, fresh ginger and turmeric. Rajasic spices like black pepper, red pepper and garlic are normally excluded, but are sometimes used in small amounts to keep the channels open (rajas is used to counter tamas). But beware. Taking rajasic spices with tamasic food does not equal sattwa. A teacher once said you are more likely to fall asleep and have restless dreams!
Supplemental Protein:Yogis are advised not to indulge in flesh foods. It is said that the fear and anger of the animal being killed is transferred to the person eating the flesh. Fresh meat is considered rajasic, and old meat is considered tamasic. Another approach is to avoid the flesh of mammals, especially if one is using dairy products. How can one eat the flesh of one’s (symbolic) mother? This approach allows for some high-quality fish, poultry or eggs. Even then it is recommended to abstain from flesh foods a minimum of three days a week with at least two prolonged periods of abstention from all animal foods every year. Purists rely on dairy for supplemental protein as it is given freely and is considered non-harming.
One problem of the vegetarian diet is that it can become too cooling. For this reason, yogis of the Tibetan plateau sometimes include meat for warmth. One can also learn to promote bodily warmth through yoga practices centered on the navel region. An ayurvedic approach is to include warming and strengthening herbs in the diet like ashwagandha, astragalus or ginseng. Special combinations include masalas (based on cumin seed, coriander seed and turmeric root), hingashtak, draksha and chyavanprash. There are also mineral and ash preparations used called bhasmas. One that is favored in the Himalayas to keep the body warm in cold weather is a preparation of deer antler called sring bhasma.
Sattvic Herbs: Other herbs are used to directly support sattva in the mind and in meditation. These include ashwagandha, bacopa, calamus, gotu kola, gingko, jatamansi, purnarnava, shatavari, saffron, shankhapushpi, tulsi and rose.
Do remember that the above suggestions are just a starting point. Undoubtedly there are many other foods that will qualify. And some of the traditional suggestions may not be suitable for everyone. So put them to the test until you are full of “the sattvic essence.” In the words of the Charak Samhita, one of the classic textbooks of ayurveda, “The persons having the sattvic essence are endowed with memory, devotion, are grateful, learned, pure, courageous, skillful, resolute, free from anxiety, having well-directed and serious intellect and activities and are engaged in virtuous acts” (CS III-8:110).
And then, when your mind has become sattvic and peaceful like a clear pool of pure water, you may bypass the gunas altogether. Such souls, the Gita tells us, “are unmoved by the harmony of sattva, the activity of rajas, or the delusion of tamas. They feel no aversion when these forces are active, nor do they crave for them when these forces subside. They remain impartial, undisturbed by the action of the gunas. Knowing that it is the gunas which act, they abide within themselves and do not vacillate. Established within themselves, they are equal in pleasure and pain, praise and blame, kindness and unkindness. Clay, a rock and gold are the same to them. Alike in honor and dishonor, alike to friend and foe, they have given up every selfish pursuit. Such are those who have gone beyond the gunas” (BG 14: 22-25).