Are we what we eat?

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Yogic Diet

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We have heard the common saying, “You are what you eat.” This is an exploration into this much-believed axiom, to examine if this is really the whole truth.

It seems that especially in the American culture, every week is marked by a new fad “diet”. Instantly, the author of such a best-seller achieves his/her coveted fifteen minutes of fame, and “everybody” gets on the bandwagon. That is, until the next cool “diet” makes its way up the fame ladder to gain its fifteen minutes. And on it goes. Some of us make this new diet our life’s goal, become entirely immersed in it and spend every waking and conscious moment of the day thinking about the next meal and the “right” thing to consume (or do) within the guidelines of this plan.

We become attracted to such diets in the first place because of the promises afforded by them – each is marketed to be the magic bullet that will make us thinner, healthier, more attractive, younger, kinder, and all in all, the person we desperately want to be. And therein lies the secret of why most of them do not work for long.

We choose lifestyles that fit closely into our belief systems. What we eat is central to such a lifestyle, particularly in cultures where every life event revolves around food – we celebrate with food, mourn with food, comfort as well as punish ourselves with food. We grow up not only eating a certain way, but also thinking and feeling in the way that is congruent with our eating habits. As our life experiences change, our beliefs change and along with them, our lifestyles also change. If in tune with popular culture, we are told what we must think and believe, and therefore, those messages become rocks we cling on to. In order to “fit in” to newly acquired beliefs, we consciously and subconsciously change our lifestyles, forcing ourselves to think and act in certain ways, and change our diets and habits to be in line with such clinging.

However, nothing acquired from “out there” ever lasts. Even if it does, it causes a huge chasm within us, with escalating inner conflict that sooner or later backfires. The much-revered diet/lifestyle fails to live up to its magic-bullet expectations; we remain the same weight, not much more vibrant, not much younger, smarter or kinder; in other words, we are not the person we desperately wanted to be. This is the common predicament of humans, not just with respect to lifestyles and eating habits, but with regard to all of the desperate wanting for wealth, fame, success, glory and power that defines us and arising quite simply from a sense of lack within one’s own self. Thus, when the “failure” of a once-promised lifestyle/diet is realized, the next diet and its associated beliefs becomes very alluring. Akin to changing clothes, we discard one set of beliefs and value judgments and put on another, remaining trapped in this cycle of trying to remedy the sense of lack that cannot be remedied in this way. All in all, we eat and live in chaotic ways that reflect the lack of inner peace and inability to listen to what the body really needs.

Through the practice of getting in touch with our core, a miraculous transformation takes place. As we learn to become quiet within, taking the focus from “out there” to “in here”, we begin to see the falseness of all that we think, feel and believe. We begin to wear these “clothes” loosely and gradually, our innate ability to listen deeply to our bodies wakes up. We realize that the body is supremely intelligent on its own – the mind’s incessant chatter and narrative had blocked us from getting in touch with it. As we surrender our overpowering need to be this or that (wealthy, famous, successful, thin, healthy, kind..), we begin to access this intelligence, and learn to listen to the body. It begins to tell us what it needs, gently propelling us to choose foods, habits and lifestyles to enhance this greater well-being, that can never be had from outside in. Non-serving habits and addictions begin to fall away on their own, and the vibrance  we so desperately sought becomes a reality. There is no need to force kindness or nonviolence or think in predefined ways – our innate goodness shines through in our actions much more than in our words. Finally, we can let go of any popular culture and all best-selling “diets”.

There is no diet as sublime as this, because it is an ever-fresh embodiment of our inner growth and alive in the possibilities of the unfolding Now. There is no further need to be enslaved by any “diet” and its restrictions. We move from being defined by being what we eat to eating in line with what we are – joyous, blissful, full and sacred Life itself.


Eating for Yoga and for Health, Part I – General Principles

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Heart Health, Yogic Diet

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As a cardiologist, I spend enormous amounts of time counseling patients about lifestyle changes. This is because cardiovascular disease as well as most other chronic illnesses are the result of lifestyle. Surgeries and procedures help tremendously in acute settings; however, studies have shown again and again that there is no substitute for lifestyle changes (and medications) in preventing illness as well as events such as heart attacks, strokes and repeated procedures.

As a yogini, my focus remains on changing the inner substance of being that then manifests in the outer in terms of lifestyle changes, disease, health and wellness. No amount of counseling works in many of my patients, whether it is about quitting smoking, changing their diet or exercising more. It is not that they do not understand the benefits of such changes; often, they know more about the damaging effects of their habits than those that do not struggle with them. Yet, there is inner resistance to change in the form of excuses, mental or intellectual reasoning to keep up their nonserving patterns, or the emotional seduction of the habit that is extremely difficult to overcome by sheer will alone. Some make changes driven by will and succeed for short periods of time, only to fall back into the comfort zone of the ingrained habits. Yet, some seem to suddenly wake up one day for no particular reason and find they have undergone an internal shift. Within a very short period of time thereafter, the specific change they have been struggling with seems to occur all on its own. They quit smoking once and for all, take up exercising, lose and maintain a lower weight, change their diet for good, and report feeling great overall. Such miraculous transformations are delightful to observe and share in and are the true rewards of my vocation. These observations have proven to me time and again that all meaningful changes must necessarily come from within.

Interestingly, dietary suggestions of yoga are similar to those for prevention and management of chronic illness as well. In yoga, every aspect of life is included in the practice. This involves how we talk and think, interact with others, express our emotions, go about our daily business, eat, sleep, maintain intimate and other relationships, etc – no aspect of life (seen or unseen by others) is excluded. Thus, when it comes to food, the emphasis is not only on what we eat but how we treat and prepare the food and its overall significance in a yogi’s life. While food has become the tool for celebration and grief alike, this is not so for a yogi. As with all other aspects, food is another vehicle through which the yogi finds the calm, inner stillness behind the veils of thought, personality, emotions and conditioning. Thus, the preparation and consumption of food is aimed for this higher purpose only. Living this way and aligned with this small still voice, lifestyle choices arise automatically to support health and well-being. The need for external guidelines falls away when the wisdom of the still center is listened and surrendered to.

A word of caution is necessary here. Many spiritual aspirants will assert that because inner wisdom trumps in choices, they need no external guidelines or “rules”. To the guideline of vegetarianism for example, some may vehemently quote the example that the Buddha ate meat. Yes, this may be true. But the point here is this – if one is already a Buddha, there is nothing more to discuss. Until we get there however, guidelines are helpful. At various stages of yoga sadhana, we may become highly sensitive to various foods where they affect the ability to dive deep within. At a very advanced stage of sadhana, the yogi becomes one with the entire cosmos. What he/she eats is not seen to be different or other than himself/herself. At this stage, he/she has the ability to consume anything and remain unaffected. The penchant to fool ourselves that we are already there is merely the demonstration of the mind’s power over us to prevent us from making a meaningful change and that of our slavery to the mind’s pull.  It must be emphasized that (with very few and rare exceptions), it takes months/years of dedicated practice to arrive at the still center and to be directed by this higher wisdom. Thus, the first obstacle in sadhana is the belief we are more advanced than we actually are.

The guidelines for eating like a yogi encompass different aspects of our beings. The body is said to be made up of the gross body, the subtle body and the causal body. The gross or physical body is made up of flesh and bones, the sense organs (eyes, nose, ears, skin and tongue) and the organs of action (movement, grasping, speech, elimination and reproduction). The physical body grows or shrinks in size and shape and decays and disintegrates in the form of disease and death. The physical body is dependent upon food for sustenance. The subtle body is made up of energy or prana, mind and intellect. It is where the sense organs and organs of action are registered – it is here that the external world is brought “in” through the sense organs (in the form of seeing, smelling, hearing, touch and taste) and reaction or response is sent “out” through the organs of action. These registrations occur through the complex play of the mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), past learned impressions/memory/habit patterns (chitta) and ego (ahamkara, or sense of a distinct “I”). The causal body consists of the root or the causal ignorance that in turn gives rise the subtle and physical bodies. Ignorance of what? Ignorance of one’s true nature. It is that which leads us to believe we are separate entities because our bodies, upbringing, culture and other influences seem different. It is that which gives rise to “me” versus “not me”. These three bodies can be imagined to form three “sheaths” or veils that cloud or cover our knowing of our true nature as Atman, soul or spirit. The aim of yoga is to part these veils so there is direct seeing that this separate self is indeed an illusion.

All lifestyle choices work on all three sheaths – the physical, subtle and causal. There is no action, thought or choice that does not permeate through all three, creating the cascade of what is to come in the form of physical disease or vibrant health (gross), mental happiness, peace or distress (subtle) and further tightening of the grip of separateness or its opposite, liberation (causal). This is why yogis eat and live in specific ways.

What does eating like a yogi entail? We will see in the next post.