I’ve been practicing Mysore style Ashtanga yoga daily for the last 3 and a half years. As a dedicated practitioner I’ve attended numerous workshops, read countless articles and talked about yoga with fellow Ashtangis until the cows came home!
I count through my practice in Sanskrit every day and can recite the Sanskrit names of all the asanas in primary and some of second series. I know the opening and closing prayers off by heart and have even chanted the yoga sutras a couple of times. But I’m ashamed to say I haven’t really studied much in the way of philosophy.
The other day in the shala, I heard my teacher talking to a beginner about the eight limbs of Ashtanga and the five yamas and I suddenly realised I don’t know what they are! What a bad Ashtangi I am! I raced home that evening after work, grabbed my copy of Yoga Mala (the seminal teachings of our guru Sri K Pattabhi Jois) and feverishly read and re-repeated the eight limbs, the yamas and the niyamas, vowing I’d never forget them again.
And then a strange thing happened. I began to read the yamas in a way I’d never done before. And I began to understand them. I think up until now yoga philosophy for me has mostly been this intangible, distant subject from some forgotten age which I never thought I could relate to. But, as it turns out, the five yamas – a set of principles by which yogis should live their lives – is actually very relevant to all of us, right now. Not only that, I believe they can be applied to many different situations and aspects of life. And I could instantly see how similar they are to my own set of principles for healthy eating:
The first yama is to do with non-violence. Or more specifically not causing harm to anyone, including animals, in any form, at any time, for any reason – in word, thought or deed.
In relation to diet, I guess the most obvious link here is vegetarianism. But it also has to do with not harming oneself, i.e. not overeating, not starving yourself, not consuming processed or nutritionally devoid foods and not eating foods that don’t agree with you.
Satya means truth, so we should always tell the truth in thought, word and deed. However, the truth must be pleasant to others so an unpleasant truth should not be told.
I connect this yama with really listening to your body and being truthful with yourself about what your body needs. Are you being honest with yourself about your relationship with food? When do you turn to food for comfort and why?
This yama says we should not steal and extends to not being envious of others, not cheating others with sweet words and avoiding gaining selfish ends under the guise of truthfulness.
I think you could apply this to not comparing yourself to others in terms of body weight, size and diet. Our bodies are all very different and need differing amounts of foodstuffs to sustain them. We should focus on our own body, tuning in to what feels right for us, rather than ‘stealing’ someone else’s idea of normal, or pretending to be something we’re not.
Brahmacharya is to do with moderation and abstinence, traditionally sexual abstinence including abstaining from masturbation, sexual thoughts and fantasies. In Yoga Mala, Jois states that the following must be avoided as much as possible in order to achieve brahmacharya: “mixing with vulgar people; going to crowded areas for recreation; reading vulgar books which disturb the mind; going to theatres and restaurants; and conversing secretly with strangers of the opposite sex”.
I’m not sure how realistic it is to avoid restaurants or crowded areas, especially if you’re a 21st century Western urbanite! But this definitely fits with eating everything in moderation and not binge eating or overindulging, particularly in alcohol, drugs or unhealthy foods.
Something really powerful and worth considering in relation to brahmacharya is the idea of fasting, which Gandhi was known for. Renouncing the pleasures and even benefits of food for set periods of time can be a very powerful spiritual tool.
The final yama has to do with non-attachment but specifically says that the food we eat should be pure, untainted and not acquired by unjust means. Moreover, we should only take as much food as we need and not desire things which are superfluous to the physical body.
The obvious connection here is that we should eat food that is as pure as possible: fresh, locally sourced and in its most natural form. We should also stop eating when we’re full, which relates back to listening to our body and eating in moderation. As for not desiring superfluous foods, I’d love to meet a person who never has an urge for a piece of chocolate, a slice of cake or a bowl of chips – for they have truly achieved samadhi!