Sep '08 Food

One Diet for All?
By Annie Gurton

Put a bunch of yogis and yoginis together, and two questions are sure to be heard: ‘How was your practice?’ and ‘What did you eat last night / are you going to eat today?’ often followed by new recommendations for tasty, beneficial snacks and meals. But the question is, beneficial for whom? It seems that all too often, yogis and yoginis can have some of the most dogmatic, uncompromising and intransigent viewpoints when it comes to food.

Take the promotion of milk-products and ghee, for example. In Mysore, no one will argue that milk-products and ghee are universally good for ashtanga practitioners. But, apart from those who have a lactose intolerance, many people find that milk-products exacerbate the production of mucus in the respiratory passages, make the body feel generally heavy, and can make joints inflexible. This can be particularly evident if you are living in a cold country.

Coffee is another "holy cow" in Mysore. For many practitioners, the day has to start with a gulp of strong coffee (and it has to be said that the coffee in Mysore is among the most tasty in the world). However for some, like myself, even minimal exposure to any caffeine, in coffee, tea or chocolate, leads to at least 24-hours of hyperactivity, insomnia and eventual brain fog. I have to avoid caffeine like the plague, if I want to sleep at all. Not so for others, who can drink a large cup before going to bed, and still sleep like logs.

Whether or not to choose to eat meat is another bone of contention. It's part of ahimsa, they say, not to kill other living creatures in order to eat. Well, it’s okay if you are young and healthy and can survive on vegetables, pulses and nuts and still keep up a strong daily practice, but for some, like myself, a 60-year-old woman, I feel like I need to eat meat every now and then. Admitting to this makes me feel like a social pariah among come circles. It's as though I have committed the cardinal sin of yoga. I draw comfort from the fact that the Dalai Lama also eats the occasional steak, because, like me, his body requires it. Surely ahimsa starts at home?

Around the world, there are variations on what constitutes an "ideal" diet. In some Arctic societies where fresh food is hard to find, mealtimes are almost unrelentingly centred on meat. In some Far Eastern countries, milk-products are taboo. Other places are almost exclusively vegetarian, or organic and fresh because there are no supermarkets and the people are poor. (And what an irony that is, that in these situations, it is those with access to less who eat healthier.)

Fortunately, as humans are omnivores, we are able to survive on almost any kind of diet provided it is as varied as possible. Students of Ayerveda will know that every body is different, and has different requirements. Some people are violently allergic to some foods, but actually most of us have some mild intolerances, so mild we may barely be consciously aware of them, and some nutritional requirements, which we only discover how to meet through trial and error. Personally, I find that sunflower seeds are a great mood adjuster. My friend, Roma, likes strawberries, but I can really take them or leave them. Peas, now, I would almost die for, along with spinach.

It seems to me that yoga translates in one's nutrition as balance. As we all have unique constitutions from the environments in which we live, to medical conditions, to age, body type, physical exercise level, etc., our food consumption will also vary. Yes, on a philosophical level, one might argue that some food choices may be "better" than others, however, if we aren't nutritionally sound because of unhealthy diet modifications, we won't even have enough energy to argue our philosophies in the first place.

Now, were we talking about how your practice went this morning?

Annie Gurton is a Psychological Therapist who lives in Goa between October and April. Contact her on Facebook.

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