Today we hear about so many different approaches to diet. How can we cut through the confusion and answer the simple question, “What should I eat?”
For those seeking God, Paramhansa Yogananda offered this valuable guidance: “Material foods impress the mind with certain good or bad qualities, and people’s thoughts, actions, and health generally are determined by the foods they eat.” We need to choose, as he put it, “those material foods which emit and lodge spiritual vibrations in man’s mind and brain.” If we eat food with the right energy, it will affect our consciousness favorably.
The three gunas
Yogananda counseled that, “One’s diet should be confined to foods which are easily converted into energy…..” This means pure, natural foods that promote good health and optimum vitality. Even fresh foods, however, have varying effects on our consciousness. The yoga teachings recommend following a diet that promotes harmony rather than stimulation, one that keeps the nervous system calm and peaceful, and fills the body with energy, vitality and strength.
Yoga teaches that all creation, including food, is composed of three subtle qualities (gunas): elevating, activating, and darkening. In Sanskrit, these qualities are called sattwic, rajasic and tamasic. When we eat or surround ourselves with one of these qualities, our consciousness is drawn in that direction.
Sattwa guna is the positive quality, drawing us toward goodness, truth, purity and spirituality. Foods that are natural, calming, or cleansing are sattwic, as are foods that increase life, vitality, purity, strength, health, and joy.
These include raw fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, as well as water, air and sunlight. They foster within us such qualities as expansiveness, intelligence, creativity, love, sympathy, calmness, patience, devotion and truthfulness.
Rajo guna is the neutral quality—i.e., not necessarily either “good” or “bad.” It is, however, activating, creating constant activity and motion. Foods that are cooked, spiced, stimulating or gourmet tend to be rajasic, as does food that is excessively hot, bitter, sour, or salty.
Naturally rajasic foods include lamb, poultry, fish, whole grains, lightly cooked vegetables and fruits, onions, garlic, eggs, coffee, tobacco, refined sugar, soft drinks, fats, and oils. They lead us toward such “movement-oriented” qualities as ambition, curiosity, restlessness, impulsiveness, over-seriousness, or being demonstrative.
Tamo guna is the negative quality, drawing us toward darkness or evil, untruth, inertia, ignorance. Foods that are overcooked, spoiled or unwholesome are tamasic.
Tamasic foods include alcoholic beverages, moldy cheese, deep fried food, dried meats, very hot spicy foods, and foods that are over processed, chemicalized, canned or fermented. Tamasic foods lead us toward dullness, laziness, anger, negativity, covetousness, deceit, lust, and body-consciousness.
The ideal diet
Paramhansa Yogananda recommended a diet that includes foods with both rajasic and sattwic vibrations. He pointed out that we need to balance our need to fulfill worldly duties (rajas) with the need to keep the breath calm for meditation (sattwa). Therefore his recommended diet included whole grains (cooked), vegetables and fruits (raw and lightly cooked), low fat yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, butter, nuts and seeds.
Keep in mind, however, that other factors can contribute positively to your diet. Even though each food has its own innate vibrations according to gunas, we can infuse it with sattwic vibrations through the way we cook it and eat it.
Spiritualize your cooking
For starters, create a sattwic cooking environment: view your kitchen as a sacred place. Keep it as clean and orderly as you would a temple. Have a little “kitchen altar” with a photo of your loved ones for whom you are cooking as well as a photo of the guru. Candles and flowers are also helpful.
Pray and meditate before you cook, so you’ll cook with a centered, positive attitude and loving heart. Practice gratitude, appreciation and thankfulness as you cook; it will create a more loving and sacred space. Use cooking as a self-offering and service to yourself and others. Actively bring God into your cooking; practice japa (repetition of the name of God), mantra, chanting or positive affirmation to keep you calm, centered and uplifted.
Spiritualize your eating environment
When the food is ready, relax for a few moments before eating. Then bless the food—not as a mere ritual, but with conscious appreciation and gratitude. At The Expanding Light Retreat, we sing a beautiful food blessing composed by Swami Kriyananda: “Receive Lord in Thy light the food we eat for it is Thine. Infuse it with Thy love, Thy energy, Thy life divine.”
Try to make your eating environment pleasant and sattwic. It’s best to eat in silence, so you can concentrate on the food without distractions. If you listen to music, use soft, calming music. Treat your food with love and respect, chewing the food well; this will help you better assimilate its physical nutrients. Concentrate also on drawing its subtle qualities, so you can better ingest harmonious, sattwic vibrations.
Remember, food is not just a bunch of nutrients; it is part of God. Yogananda taught, “Think of God before you eat body-nourishing food; then think of Him while you are eating it. Then, when you have finished eating, think of God.” Once you learn to eat right foods and think right thoughts “your body and mind, purified by this energy, will take on the beauty of the Spirit.”
[Quotations taken from Super Advanced Course No. 1 lessons 5 & 12 (1930) by Paramhansa Yogananda.]