As I write this piece I am having to rely heavily on autocorrect because my hands are shaking. My very helpful husband put the coffee on this morning and it was accidentally double strength, and I usually drink decaf. So, my mind is going faster than my fingers can type and I feel as though there is a jumping castle in my mind, thoughts bouncing around and careening off of each other. It’s very uncomfortable, but it’s also a great experiment because it reminds me (again) of the consciousness altering effects of food. And of course it reminds me why I stick to decaf.
When studying diet and nutrition through the lens of Yoga, foods can be categorized by the Gunas, the three humours or qualities that combine in varying amounts to form all matter, all thought, and all movement in our world. The Gunas are Tamas, Rajas, and Sattva.
The world is the play of the Gunas; the universal energies of light, motion and mass. They take form as the elements and the senses. The purpose of the world is to provide us with experience and thus lead us to liberation. The Gunas operate on various levels, gross, subtle, causal, and unmanifest.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 2: 18-19
The qualities of the Gunas are:
Tamas: “lifeless darkness” includes qualities of groundedness, inertia, dullness.
Rajas: “restless life” includes qualities of motion, dynamism, passion, change.
Sattva: “peaceful light” includes qualities of illumination, purity, and lightness.
When we look at our diet and the effects of foods on us, we can see the play of the Gunas in the way that we feel after we have eaten certain foods; as we have brought more of the dominant Guna into our body, mind, and energy field. Foods high in Tamas cause us to feel more heavy, grounded, or lethargic. Rajasic foods cause us to feel stimulated, hot, and restless. Sattvic foods cause us to feel light and pure.
So, how do we see the Gunas in food? What foods would be high in each Guna? Examples include:
· Foods that grow in the dark or under the earth like mushrooms, eggplant and potatoes.
· Foods that are pickled or preserved like olives, smoked meats and chutney
· Foods that are old or mouldy like blue cheese, old leftovers
· Foods that are hot and spicy like hot chillies, ginger, garlic
· Foods that are stimulating like caffeine
· Foods that are high in sugar like pastries, breads, candy
· Foods that are grown in the sun like apples, oranges, lettuce
· Foods that are cleansing like lemons and citrus
· Foods that are fresh, organic, tended with kindness
It can be an interesting exercise to journal after your meals, drinks and snacks, and become present and mindful of how you feel after eating each type of food. After eating Tamasic foods do you feel heavy and tired, or is your mind a bit slow or dull? After eating Rajasic foods do you feel hot and restless; a rush of energy that quickly fades? What do you feel like when you eat Sattvic foods? What happens when you eat just a little of each kind of food? Keeping a food journal helps you to understand what foods best support your body, your mind, and your lifestyle, and can help you to stock your pantry, prepare, and eat your meals as another form of meditation, mindfulness, and yoga practice.
Now, before we get inspired to chuck out everything in the pantry that might be Rajasic or Tamasic and commit to only Sattvic foods, keep in mind that although it can be a wonderful foundation for a healthy diet, Sattvic eating doesn’t mean that you never again eat a root vegetable or pungent spice. For each of us there is a balance of these foods which changes seasonally, and relative to what is happening in our life cycles. Sattva has its own drawbacks in that striving for perfection of purity in our diet can cause excessive lightness, disconnection from our earthly bodies, and a kind of ‘spiritual superiority’ that can create its own kind of disharmony.
So, if it’s not all Sattva all the time, what is the right balance? In many schools of thought on yogic eating, even those systems called “Sattvic Diets”, it is recommended that your meals be made up of mostly Sattvic foods, with the use of Rajasic and Tamasic foods as spices, flavourings, condiments or little extras. It could be that during winter a little more Rajas in your diet will warm you and keep you feeling energized in the darker months. Perhaps during times of travel or excessive stress adding a little more Tamas into your diet will help to ground you and keep you connected to the earth.
Before you start creating an idea of what you ‘should’ be eating, it’s a good idea to know what works for you. There is no one way of eating that is right for everyone. So, the best guidance for those who wish to build and maintain a healthy and balanced diet is to start a food journal – and through awareness of the Gunas perhaps you can find out which foods are helping you to feel balanced, and which foods are perhaps best left for special occasions, or when your body needs a little extra ingredient for grounding, energizing, or purifying.
I hope you find this piece helpful. Now, I’m off for a walk to work off some of this caffeine.