Food, Misperception, and Yoga
Misperceptions occur as a basic fact of daily life. All perception that depends on the sense organs for information are misperceptions because our sense organs are not dependable. They bring in information, but only a small bandwidth of reality, that we then take to be the fullness of reality. But what we see through the eyes and hear through the ears (as well as the other operations of the organs) is not reality, but only a small sliver of it. Our human existence, is therefore, not defined by our outward perception of reality, but needs to be defined by something deeper: our inner realization of who we are in truth. The purpose of human existence according to Hinduism is liberation from the cycle of birth and death and the realization of our true nature as consciousness, and Yoga is one of the paths that says by practice, this type of liberation can be attained.
While it is true that we all seek happiness in life, the happiness many seek is only a fraction of the happiness that is available to us, because we seek temporary happiness in objects that do not bring lasting fulfillment. It is reality and self-knowledge that we truly seek; to be utterly fulfilled, content, and in harmony with the universe we are a part of. Bereft of the proper guidance, we relegate our happiness to the unending frustration of partial fulfillment. But, when we finally find the guidance we need from someone who has experienced deep inner harmony, or perhaps from grace or karma, we learn that the fulfillment of the highest happiness, an uncaused happiness, spontaneously arises when we know who we are. This is the ultimate teaching of the Upanishads. All other happiness are fleeting experiences that leave us feeling empty when the experience of happiness passes—leaves us wanting to repeat the experience that gave us temporary joy. When we chase after these experiences, it leads to sorrow, and a life of constant unfulfillment and lack.
How and why does this happen? One explanation is the theory of the gunas, or qualities of nature that make up all manifestation. These qualities are harmony (sattva), activity (rajas) and inertia (tamas). The gunas are the material substratum of all objects that are both seen and unseen, from a rock to an atom to our personalities. We have each of the gunas within us, but to different degrees. One will dominate more than another, determining our state of mind, body, perceptions, and actions. A tamasic state of mind is lethargic, covered by dullness and darkness. A rajasic state of mind is overactive, passionate, and scattered. A sattvic state of mind is pure, harmonious, and filled with light. The state of mind we are in will reflect into our bodies and behavior, so our body becomes a mirror of the mental state. A dull state of mind will lead to a couch-potato body, poor digestion, and an inability to be active or productive. A rajasic state of mind will lead to more hyperacid conditions in the digestion and body, stress from taking on too many things at once, and general over-excitement and mental rumination, making a person unable to sit still. A sattvic state of mind is meditative, compassionate, generous, insightful, and quiet. It makes the body healthy, and our behavior in harmony with dharma and nature. When are minds are rajasic and tamasic, our perceptions of happiness and reality are distorted, and we make poor food and behavior choices which lead to diseases.
The concept of food in Yoga is a keystone of a Yogic lifestyle. We cannot simply do asanas and think that we are doing Yoga. We must follow several steps to make sure we have a lifestyle of Yoga for true healing—if it’s just a past time, it reinforces the misconceptions of Yoga that still arise. If we want to move from a tamasic or rajasic state of body and mind to a sattvic state (and then towards transcending the gunas), then food can be an integral part of that journey. Foods are categorized in the following ways in the Yogic systems, as found in chapter 17 of the Bhagavad Gita:
Tamas: stale, tasteless, stinking, cooked the day before, impure. These include meat, old food, and alcohol. They leave one sluggish, inactive, heavy, and acidic.
Rajas: bitter, sour, saline, overly hot, foods that burn. These include coffee, tea, tobacco, chilies, peppers. They promote overactivity and mental instability.
Sattva: increase life, longevity, purity, strength, health, happiness, cheerfulness, and a good appetite. These foods are fresh, seasonal, agreeable to our digestion, and leave us bright minded.
It should be noted that an excess of these foods can promote the associated guna. A moderate amount of coffee, tea, or peppers, for example, will not necessarily make one mentally unstable! But an excessive amount of coffee can lead to sleep disturbances and in some cases a racing heartbeat. Generally speaking, the foods in the tamasic and rajasic categories are not easily digestible, and thus can lead more easily towards disease. If we want to move towards health and spirituality, adapting a sattvic diet is very important. When I first started changing my lifestyle in 1986 towards a Yogic lifestyle, the first thing I did was become a vegetarian. Back then this was a statement of spirituality. It was only later that I learned some yoga asanas. The adaptation of a pure diet prepared my body and mind for engaging in meditative practices. Thus, we see that misperceptions about Yoga are several-fold. They arise when our knowledge of Yoga is incomplete and focused on just asanas and perhaps a little pranayama. By seeking reliable sources of Yogic knowledge, we come to an understanding of how Yoga addresses all levels of our personality development, from the physical body to our inner being. All beings seek happiness, we just need to understand what the distinctions are between lasting happiness and ephemeral happiness. That distinction will become clearer when our faculty of perception is strengthened, and since our perceptive sense is modified by the food we eat and our state of digestive and physical health, proper food choices become an integral aspect of the Yogic journey. If your body is sluggish and heavy from fatty and oily foods, you won’t feel like meditating, and you will not want to do any asanas. So, we must eat food that makes us feel well positioned to not only meditate and move, but also that help us live a long, happy, fulfilled life.