In which I drift off topic into Related Subjects
Before the American Yoga Boom, I could ground any cocktail party chatter to a halt by announcing that I taught yoga. Suspecting that I belonged to some Hindu cult, or that perhaps I wasn’t quite “all there,” most people would discretely fade back or suddenly move off to refresh their drinks.
Those who stood it out usually either made jokes about “yogurt” or asked one of two questions: Are you a Buddhist? Are you a vegetarian? I will deal with the first, potentially deeper question in another essay; for now I’d like to tackle head-on the issue of what yogis should/could/would and in fact do eat. Because even if you don’t care much about yoga, everyone cares about food. We spend most of our lives running toward food, and the rest running away from it. We devote hours and days and dollars planning, shopping for, preparing (or sitting in restaurants while others are preparing), and eating food. We spend more hours and days and dollars working out, playing sports, dancing and surfing and hoola-hooping, experimenting with the latest exercise equipment and fitness fads, and of course, dieting to work off what we have eaten. All because, it seems, most of us are deeply confused about what and how to eat.
Hence our relief when the yoga tradition prescribes a certain diet. No more confusion! No more decisions! No more guilt! By following the rules, we can be spiritual and “yogic” and deny and deprive ourselves all at once. Since America remains in one prolonged, fitful recovery from our Puritan heritage, we gravitate toward austerity—at least in our intentions.
Of course, by the modern standards of food and dietary mania, the “traditional” yogic diet is downright indulgent. Okay, no meat allowed, but whole milk and ghee (clarified butter) are high on the list. Remember the sacred cow: lore has it that India’s reverence for this mammal ensured that they were well cared for and well fed and thus produced pure milk. Carbs abound, from the ubitiquous rice and naan and chapattis and poorna to the hearty, sometimes leaden dahls (lentil soup-stews). Sugar and sweet things are also fine (although if you’ve ever been to India you know that the subcontinent has its own curiously unappetizing spin on pastries and desserts!). Vegetables abound, though in the vein of Indian cooking that has migrated to the West, most vegetables are stewed beyond recognition, most likely heating the nutrients right out of. Grease/oil/ghee whatever pools on the top and clings to whatever dishes are used to serve and eat it. Surprisingly, given the bite of most Indian cuisine, the yogic diet dispenses with spices, garlic, and onions; bland is in.
I call this diet “traditional” because it is the only one I can find in the yogic texts. That said, it appears fairly late, in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika [TK date]. The HYP is the how-to manual of yogic techniques, with instruction on breath, bandhas, kriyas, asanas, and yes, lifestyle. The chosen foods reflect Ayurvedic medicine, the India “Science of Life,” which dates much farther back in history, to sometime before the birth of Christ. According to Ayurveda, foods (and everything else) are either rajasic (stimulating, pungent, spicy), tamasic (dulling, dead, inert—think leftovers, canned and processed foods, but also dead flesh (meat)), or sattvic (luminous, tranquil, balanced, harmonious). This lacto-vegetarian diet also appears to reflect Hinduism’s ban on meat-eating, still practiced by many especially in southern India.
You can still find this kind of cooking at old-style ashrams around the U.S. and at first-generation healthfood stores such as the one run by Integral Yoga Institute in New York. You might have already sampled this diet if you were around in the late sixties and seventies, the peace ‘n love generation, which took many of its cues from the Beatles, who took at least some of their cues from a certain Indian yogi. Alongside Be Here Now, Joy of Sex, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and The Whole Earth Catalogue came The Moosewood Cookbook and The Tessajara Bread Book.This diet made its way into my older sister’s head, my family’s kitchen and my belly via the slightly post-sixties pall hanging over our leafy Washington suburb. There we were, straining homemade yogurt through a sieve and pushing the steak aside with disdain. I veged my way through high school and college, weaving my slightly purer-than-thou aspirations seamlessly into the broadbased food phobia I had scrupulously cultivated through years of sporadic anorexia.
Indeed, despite a completely unanticipated plunge back into meat-eating in my late twenties, memorable mainly for a near fetish for countless cold roast-beef sandwiches eaten with as much gusto and compulsion as everything else I do, the vegie thing took with me and hung on throughout changes in careers, homes, and significant others. It carried me into my return to yoga in my early thirties, and lasted until I found something even more pure, more rigorous, more . . . “spiritual”—the vegan diet. Vegetarianism without dairy, without eggs. I have yet to mine the historical roots of this one, which as far as I can tell is a purely American, or at least Western, phenomenon. India and the Hindu diaspora do dairy, Asian cultures skip dairy but do fish, chicken, and meat, and the rest of the world appears to be happily carnivorous, money and resources permitting.
But I came upon vegan at my yoga studio. It was hard to miss, as the studio owners were militant vegans, notorious for showing documentaries on slaughterhouses at national yoga conferences. Ernest, obedient soul that I am, I jumped on the vegan caravan and pulled the net of Permitted Foods yet a little tighter. Out went eggs. Out went yoghurt, out went café crème, my morning ritual of inky black Latino coffee and steamed milk. In came tofu, soy milk, tempeh, seitan; peas, beans, and legumes. In came more carbs—rolls, wraps, tortillas, and muffins, Power Bars and dried fruits—as my protein deprived body craved fast energy.
Vegan is great if
- You never travel. If you venture far from home on this one, you are doomed to go hungry at parties, on airplanes, in restaurants. You can survive on weird, unappetizing soy by-products that come in vacuum-sealed plastic packages. You can search fruitlessly for energy bars that don’t contain whey protein. You can it lots of nuts and chips.
- Your exercise or yoga routine is mild to moderate. I did fine until I upped my practice to six days a week of Mysore-style Ashtanga, at which point I found my energy flagging halfway through the day and never quite picking back up.
- You have the kind of metabolism that can process lots of dense foods like lentils, peas and beans. Which brings me to the whole point of this essay:
ONE MAN’S PLEASURE, ANOTHER MAN’S POISON
What nourishes one of us, physically as well as spiritually, may be toxic to another. By the time the raw-food fad came along, I was simply done with treating my body like a chemistry experiment. I had by then been graced with the guidance of a wise and seasoned doctor who prescribed a “modified macrobiotic” diet for me that clicked. So as I watched friends earnestly sprouting and wheatgrassing, kitchens turned into greenhouses (okay, I know this because for one brief week I fell under the spell and tried to grow wheatgrass in my kitchen. This experiment, alas, went the way of the “odorless” indoor composter that exuded a nasty garbage-dump perfume.). I watched yogis piously paring open avocados at lunch meetings. I traipsed over to the “amazing” raw food restaurant in the East Village for one truly forgettable meal. I held friends’ hands when they admitted defeat under the sheer labor-intensiveness of it all. I also observed with bemusement how my fellow food phobics, be they anorexic or bulimic or just bio-dysmorphic, lost or gained wait on the new regime.
I was also done by the time the current craze for cleanses (read: fasting) came along. If my doctor had not flashed a red light, I too would have paid $350 for 7 or 8 or 10 days of starvation punctuated by ghoulish green drinks, milky brown concoctions, handfuls of raw almonds. I missed the chance to develop splitting headaches, psychotic breaks, and the starvation “high” that visits us when we shun food for long periods of time. I leave that research to the rest of you, in sincere hopes that you find your path without undue suffering.
Since then we have also witnessed the birth of organic foods and of the “Slow Food” movement, of Alice Waters and seasonal and local. These folks actually draw from a broader, often meat-based menu, and so diverge from the yoga tradition in another direction.
So, what does this all have to do with yoga? To me it gets back to the big topic, a thread running through most of these essays, which has to do with our relationship to tradition. The Latin verb tradio literally means “to carry over.” I believe that we are meant to carry over whatever is of value and of relevance to us from what has come before. Which is neither everything nor nothing. Nor is it the same for everyone. I’m a huge fan of learning the history, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I’m also big on keeping up with what others are doing and saying. I hope always to be a student of diet as much as of anything else, to keep an open mind and filter it all through my experience. But to slavishly do something because it’s prescribed in a thousand-year-old text from another culture, or because everyone at your studio or in your Facebook/Twitter group is doing it, breaks the commitment we make when we begin yoga: to thine own Self be true!