Eating like a yogini (2): Foods according to the Indian dharmic texts

By: Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra

This post is second in the series of Eating like a yogini. To read (1), click here.

Food for a healthy body and calm mind: almonds, not overly roasted or salted

The diet logic according to the Indian religious (dharmic) texts:

The first question that comes to any conditioned mind is: why should I follow dietary guidelines in a religious text, dictated by some ancient man or woman thousands of years ago, which may or may not be relevant in today’s world?

I agree.

Why should you? I didn’t either.

For me, there were three reasons:

1. Social conditioning by the legacy of foreign invasions and British colonialism in India: the 200-odd years of British rule in India has systematically eradicated the sense of pride associated with the Indian heritage. The western scholarship studied and presented (still does) the Indian customs and practices as being pre-modern and inferior to that of West, creating a sense of shame in the Indian population.

2. My ego: My own mind refusing to accept benefits of a vegetarian diet, as with my inflated ego, I thought I knew better.

3. Religion vs. Science: As I said in the first post, we are conditioned to believe that anything associated with religion takes us away from logic. Even though, I was consciously on the path of Jnana Yoga (yoga of knowledge), I wasn’t applying it in my practical life as I kept associating the knowledge from the Indian religious texts with “religion”. I was failing to follow the essence as I saw the message in the framework of religion vs. science. Till I recognized that the western concept of religion doesn’t translate the same way in the East.

There is no equivalent word for religion in the Indian languages. The Indian word loosely used for religion is ‘Dharma’ but it is not an equivalent of the word ‘religion’. In the real sense, the Indian religious texts are dharmic and not religious. Confusing? It is a very layered concept and a topic for an upcoming post, so for now, back to food and dharmic (religious) texts.

That is why Yoga philosophy has to be applied wholly – from knowledge to mind’s practical application, to food, to physical exercise to meditation to devotion – to have a holistic benefit. The Indian seers and rishis knew and documented the effects of food on human body and mind. In the traditional Indian context, food is not divided into vegetarian, non-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, ovo-lacto-vegetarian or vegan. It is classified into three categories based on the three gunas (characteristics/properties):

  1. Sattvic foods: foods, which are pure, fresh, light, easy to digest, and are bliss to the body and mind. Like some grains, legumes, certain fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts, milk and some milk products. Sattvic diet is considered the best for a healthy, light body and a calm mind – preferred by yogis.
  2. Rajasic foods: foods that stimulate the body and mind, and incite passion and aggression. Like strong spices, salt, certain grains, sour cream, coffee, tea and deep-fried foods.
  3. Tamsic foods: foods that are heavy, rotten and make the body and mind dull, inert. Like alcohol and all kinds of animal flesh. Leftovers are tamsic too!

Sattvic food: split moong daal, easy to digest, is a rich source of protein.

While there is a general consensus on the kinds of foods that fit into the sattvic group, yogis and Ayurvedic practitioners may move food around in the last two groups. What I gave is the basic criteria of classification. Also, keep in mind, these categories are not based on good or bad scale, but on natural characteristics of foods.

Sattvic spice: jeera (cumin seeds)

So basically, Indian dharmic texts don’t dictate people what to eat, but give a scientific examination and classification of food, and its direct effect on human body and mind. It finally made sense to my rational mind as to why flesh foods and alcohol are forbidden, because they dull the body and mind (tamsic). To me, that was very rational. What science is only beginning to prove now, Indian rishis and seers knew thousands of years ago!

I am not rejecting the holy aspect of being a vegetarian (sattvic), I completely embrace it. Any food that keeps the body light, and calms the mind, is holy in essence. And that is exactly how the Indian dharmic texts explain.

Traditionally, a lot of Indians follow a vegetarian diet thinking they are following the dharmic texts, but many fail to recognize that certain plant-foods and lentils have been categorized as tamsic, equivalent to eating meat or any flesh food! So, if you think you are a vegetarian but eat certain plants, lentils and specific milk products in the rajasic and tamsic categories, you are basically eating foods that have the same effect as a non-vegetarian diet.

That is why to call a Yogi diet (sattvic diet) a vegetarian diet is a misnomer.

Another aspect to understand is: certain rajasic and tamsic foods have high healing properties, like onions and garlic. Too pungent, they are considered tamsic, as they interfere with dhyana yoga (meditation) but at the same time, they are used in Ayurvedic treatments and classified as healing foods. On the other hand, flesh foods and eggs are tamsic, but they are classified as “unnatural” foods. So while it is okay to take the healing foods in the tamsic category, based on need, it is not okay to take unnatural foods in the tamsic category. Yes, so many layers! Yoga and Ayurveda are extensive sciences, and people spend years reading, studying, practicing and mastering the rationale behind it, so it’ll be a stretch if I claim I can cover all aspects in a single blog post. I am just trying to introduce you to the overall basic concept.

Back to me: It was only when I intensified the other aspects of yoga – the asanas (hatha yoga) and dhyana that I started to feel the results of intuitional wisdom of the Yoga philosophy (I talk about intuitional wisdom in the first part of this series.)

I would feel lethargic after having foods that fell in the rajasic and tamsic categories and was naturally drawn to sattvic foods. Jnana yoga helped explain what was happening to my body.

So from jnana, to hatha, to dhyana and then to intuitional wisdom, the moment finally came in my life: I decided to go vegetarian. Wait! Not only vegetarian but decided to eat like a yogini: go on a sattvic diet. It was a huge challenge initially and I admit, apart from strictly eliminating the unnatural foods, like flesh and eggs (tamsic foods), it took me a whole year to achieve eating a somewhat sattvic diet. I still falter, with the strict exception of flesh and eggs, but I try every day. The real essence is not to go overboard with sattvic food choices but to be aware of food habits and choices.

So if you look at the Indian dharmic message on food with reservation, you can now lower your defences. If you are in denial (like I was), I encourage you to try it out for a month and see the results for yourself.

In the next posts of the series, “Eating like a yogini”, I will talk more about foods based on gunas (characteristics) and share how I eat like a yogini. Stay connected. Follow blog via email or Facebook and Twitter (see sidebar).

To book a Yoga workshop with me, please use the contact page.

Full disclaimer: Though I am a certified Yoga teacher, I am not a medical/herbal/Ayurvedic practitioner. The information given on foods is based purely on my own understanding of the Indian texts and my personal Yoga practice. Please understand Yoga is not a substitute for medical attention, examination, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult a physician prior to making any dietary changes, or beginning any activity program, including yoga. Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra, SandhuBhamra.com blog’s author and/or owner are not liable for any injury, physical or otherwise through any teachings given under the category Yoga through this blog site. Yoga should be started and practiced with a certified Yoga teacher or an established Yoga guru/master. Always listen to your body when attempting a Yoga pose; respect the limits of your body and mind.

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7 replies

  1. “we are conditioned to believe that anything associated with religion takes us away from logic”

    That is so true. Western culture looks on faith issues as non-intellectual, yet most people I know who take their faith seriously are very thoughtful and intellectual people too.

    Thanks for the explanation on food grouping as well. One society’s categorizing doesn’t necessarily fit another’s. On leftovers falling into the third category though, I have to say my spirits fell a bit. I love to eat leftovers, and find that some things, like a good veg chile, tastes so much better after it has marinated in it’s own seasonings in the fridge for a couple days!

    • Tim – thanks for your comments. Don’t fall into the trap of these categories on the basis of good or bad. I do say this in my post: “Also, keep in mind, these categories are not based on good or bad scale, but on natural characteristics of foods.” These categories explain what effect a certain food has on your body. And also, we need all three kinds to have a balance in our lives – that is why I didn’t close the post but will explain more in the upcoming ones (this is a series) There are different kinds of body types, state of mind that intersect the three gunas. Yoga and Ayurveda are not that simple the way they have been projected in the west. You need an expert to tell you what type of body type you have, and then depending on the state of your mind, they will suggest to increase or decrease foods from one category to achieve that balance. When I say that sattvic is the most pure – it is also directed towards people who are on a spiritual path and are seeking peace within – not to say others aren’t, but for serious yogis, sattvic is the best. And my series is being presented for someone who wants to eat like a yogini.
      Say for example, garlic is very beneficial, I do give it to my kids, but a yogi won’t consume it. But if the yogi were to have a minor stomach ailment, like diarrhea, garlic is recommended. Apart from unnatural foods, nothing is banned. And as far as leftovers are concerned, that is very subjective too. You will agree that a cooked dish doesn’t taste the same the next day. Marination is different – it isn’t suggested as bad, but only as having a different effect – an effect that might not “calm” the mind, it might calm the taste senses and give you a pleasurable feeling, but sattva is about calming the mind. In Yoga, food is considered nourishment, not a source of pleasure. I am speaking from that perspective.

  2. I am looking forward to the next post on this!

    I have been studying anti-inflammatory diet for a few years now. It seems that it lines up with Vedic science.

  3. Awesome article! Small question: Howcome leftovers are considered in the Tamsic category? Thanks!

    • Steph, tamas is an attribute.
      Leftovers have a specific energy and fresh cooked food have another level of energy. It isn’t about classifying them into good or bad categories, it is about their ‘gunas’. Since leftovers have been “left” out or in a fridge, they soon lose saatvic energy and change into tamsic. After a good night’s sleep, we wake up fresh in the morning, but by the end of the day, we are tired and want to sleep – energies change. That’s all. We do need tamas to live 🙂 Tamas isn’t evil. When the three gunas are in balance, we attain equilibrium and when we can transcend all three gunas, we attain the Absolute.

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