Yoga On and Off the Table: You are How You Eat

Headlines, Yoga as Life — By on December 12, 2010 9:48 PM


Yoga, essentially a way to mental harmony, clarity, and liberation, keeps, at the same time, a vigilant eye on physical health.  Mind being a dependent part and parcel of this body, this rather makes sense. The strong concentration that leads to yogic insight is a mental power that, as anyone who has done an intense meditation retreat knows, requires great physical stamina to develop.  For asana practice and for deep meditation, and in order to have the physical power needed to serve others, maximizing our physical potential is important.

Healthy living has much to do about the food we eat.  A yoga lifestyle, through greater awareness of our body and its needs, guides us to a balanced and nutritious diet, not only through the physical demands of yoga, but also through the core yoga values of aparigraha, non-accumulation or renunciation, tapasya, or austerity, and santosha, contentedness.

It’s not my intention here to go into a discourse about food ideology, be it ayurvedic or vegetarian or macrobiotic or any other such diet formula, each with its own wisdom.  A real, penetrating, mind and body changing yoga practice suffuses our lifestyle as a whole, even without adopting any particular food doctrine.  The core yoga values of Yama and Niyama permeate our lives and, with some effort and encouraging, spread to our eating, sleeping, interacting, communicating and thinking habits.

Aparigraha is the value of non-accumulation, renouncing the unnecessary, each according to his lifestyle.  Taking this on its stronger renunciate meaning is a personal choice, one that I chose for many years, and defined by the limits of a small, hand-sewn bag in which I carried my belongings.  Even utter simplicity, however, need not be too serious. The limits defined by my small over-the-shoulder bag were brazenly broken by a mandolin that hung defiantly in a small case over my other shoulder.

The larger and more expansive our lifestyle, the more crucial it is to honestly appraise our consumption according to its scale of necessity and pleasure. 

The ideas of non-accumulation and renunciation encompass our table and refrigerator as well, guiding first of all by necessity of nutrition, and secondly by a sense of pleasure heightened by less rather than more.  Less food means less over-eating.  Local foods means less transport, fruit rather than juice means less processing. 

Tapasya, usually translated as austerity, means developing concentration and purity of mind by taking on a mental or physical practice.  A specific tapasya may be assigned by a teacher or senior practitioner with the goal of advancing the disciple’s practice or atoning a negative action, or, it may be chosen by the yogi himself to strengthen or develop the mind.  A typical tapasya is fasting, the renouncing of food strengthening one’s will power and purifying the mind, and in this case body as well.

While yoga lifestyle does not necessitate fasting, it should manifest a growing control of one’s mind over one’s stomach.  Eating, to most of us here, is less an action for survival, than an indulgence in our taste desires.  While sense appreciation is a wonderful part of yoga, craving and attachment are not.  Yoga means having a power of mind greater than that of our desires and attachments.  In the practical sense, this manifests in an ability to willingly control what we eat, for example, not eating to capacity, having sparse evening meals, not eating after sunset, or observing fasting periods. 

Santosha is contentedness.  There is little to be added to the word ‘contentedness.’   To be contented.  Notice there is no preposition, no object.  It is simply a feeling, based on our emotion, and in that, it is completely and totally dependent only on ourselves. 

Contentedness is usually connected with an object or a situation that is assumed to be its cause.  The essence of yoga is to realize that contentedness is not a factor of the situation, environment or object external to us, but is purely a self-responsibility.  Responsibility being a key word, the yogi is himself responsible for his contentedness at all moments, no matter what the situation or environment may be.  As accommodating people as we may be, there are of course situations, be it physical discomfort or pain or disturbing experiences, where this will remain a great challenge.  There was reason enough that Buddha called the power to be contented – the transforming of the unpleasant, that which disturbs us, into the pleasant, and the pleasant, that which we desire, into the unpleasant – as the highest psychic power.

Back to the table – mine is a small round folding wooden table, about one foot high off the ground, where i eat by myself, work on my computer, and entertain friends; in short, the focal hearth of my little abode. 

When we take the values of yoga to our table, we practice essentially the same ideas.  Non-accumulation- eating moderately.  Over-eating should be avoided, by yogis and by all, as a staple of a healthy body.  Ayurveda decrees that one-fourth of the stomach should be left empty.  Japan has a similar saying.  This is definitely a rule that applies universally.  In the world, America is famous or rather infamous for its large portion servings. Japanese people I know come back from visits to America traumatized by receiving such large helpings that they are unable to finish,  that make them feel nauseous as well as feel guilty for wasting the uneaten food.  In Japan, eating, as anywhere, is a ritual, and I have learned much from participating in the local rituals.  With size-scale factored in, people eat about half the average American serving, and feel full earlier.  It is not that they are less hungry.  The actual way and concept of eating is different.  In America, we are taught to fill our stomach, and it is this full feeling we expect in order to feel ‘satiated.’  Watching people eat in Japan, I was repeatedly surprised to notice that the satiated feeling of ‘being full’ came at an earlier point, one that, from numerous active observations, I was quite sure was not yet a full stomach. 

A dinner scene: we were a few people gathered around a few small dishes.  A friend, a hefty guy twice my size, pronounced great hunger at the end of a physical work day.  He proceeded to nibble on various appetizer-size dishes shared by several of us around a table, and, still in the middle of my slow but voracious and far-from-satiated nibbling (chopsticks can only take one, perhaps two, tiny beans at a time), he leaned back and proclaimed being full.  I looked at him with disbelief.  Full?  We had eaten about the same amount (being more chopstick-adept, he may have snagged a few extra cubes of slippery tofu, a few more evasive beans, one more bite of fish, but I am not that bad myself), I hadn’t done heavy physical work, and, I was still ravenously hungry, or, so I thought.  Rather, it was that, I could have eaten more.   But when I let go of the idea that my stomach was supposed to ‘fill up,’ and let go of my desire to taste more food, and to consume more, I realized that I had, in fact, had enough. 

Being able to eat more, is not the same as being hungry.  In American culture, we learn to eat as much as we are capable, and ‘full’ means a full stomach.  Japanese eating culture has an earlier satiation level; the mind feels itself to have eaten enough at an earlier stage, and so the desire to keep eating stops earlier.  In general, Japanese people are far healthier than American people.  While diet is a great factor, the root of this difference in diet lies, I believe, in a mental satiation level that feels contented earlier, renouncing a full stomach.  Santosha, Aparigraha.  Even when desiring more, the small amounts typically shared between several people creates a practice of renouncing or limiting one’s cravings- Tapasya

I have come to savor this feeling of being satiated and content while light in stomach.  The point of having eaten enough is a light, not heavy, feeling.  A heavy stomach means having eaten too much. 

As our living space defines the limits of our possessions, the refrigerator, to a large degree, draws the limits of our food accumulation.  When I go to America, I am always amazed by the size of American refrigerators.  They are huge.  A huge refrigerator leads to buying in huge sizes, storing an immense amount of food in the refrigerator, and eating large amounts.  More buying, and more eating.  Much of it goes bad, and gets wasted.  Vegetables lose most of their nutrition in a few days. 

With aparigraha, we eat with the joy of less is more.  Regular habits of junk food, sodas, sugar cereals, ice cream and so on, show clearly why America looms high on the obesity list of the world.  With tapasya, we eat with the joy of choosing our food, rather than our food choosing us.  Giving in to cravings makes us feel weak-minded and out-of-control, which creates depression and more craving.  Succeeding in steadfast mental practice, of eating less and controlling the sense desires, puts us in control of ourselves, strengthening our mind and our determination for future goals.  With santosha, we learn contentedness for what we have, dissipating craving for what we don’t.  Choosing local foods, fresh over processed, nutrition over desire.  Most of the time.  Just to avoid mental attachment to healthy eating, and aversion to unhealthy foods, once-in-a-while ritual indulgence in unhealthy or desired foods, by choice, not by craving, is practiced to overcome craving.  At least in tantric yoga, that is.

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