You Are What You Eat

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I recently journaled about the Gunas, a part of Ayurvedic wisdom that perpetually intersects with our lives, and how by using these principals and understanding how the gunas work, we can use each of them as a tool to help us deliver our dharma to the world. As all elements of nature are subject to the Gunas, controlling the inputs and ensuring that the balance is sattvic is a great place to start when shifting your balance from rajas and tamas to sattvic.

Of all our daily activities, the one we do most regularly that can have the greatest impact is what we eat. If you have gotten a sense of what the key indicators of the gunas are, then you’ll get the idea of how this translates on the plate. Sattvic eating has a strong emphasis on fresh, local, seasonal food, with a preference for vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, berries and seeds. It recommends food be taken as fuel, rather than as pleasure and rewards, and in moderate quantities. Raw or lightly cooked is preferred, so that the energy and sattva is maintained. Foods that have sattvic qualities are as a rule light, grown in the sun and close to nature. But even vegetables have their rajasic and tamasic qualities. Potatoes and root vegetables that develop in the dark are seen to have more tamasic qualities, as are mushrooms (no explanation needed). Chili, pepper, coffee, sugar, alcohol and many spices are rajasic and over stimulating to the system, so to be used in moderation to get the balance right.

A little side note here on onions and in fact the whole allium family including garlic. This family of foods have long tentacles, especially in processed food where onion and garlic powder find their way into so many things. I'm noticing more and more people develop FODMAP style food intolerances that render them unable to eat onions, garlic, shallots, leeks or even chives, which inadvertantly pushes them into a more sattvic style of eating, In a sattvic diet, all of the allum family are a no go, eschewed by yogis, Buddhists and monks and nuns of all flavours. But why are they the enemy of spiritual practice? There are various takes on the reasons, but the central theme is that these foods have highly medicinal properties, including being very stimulating. As you wouldn’t take antibiotics every day, the allium family is brought in in Ayurveda (which is remember where the gunas come from) as a medical intervention.

Ayurvedic expert Dr Robert Svoboda says that in a yogic context, garlic and onions are both rajasic and tamasic and should be avoided by yogis because they root the consciousness more firmly in the body. And of course there is the delicate nature of overstimulation of the nervous system leading the bramacharyas amongst us to be distracted by their aphrodisiac qualities. One would imagine these are neutralised by the impacts on the breath, but apparently they are still on the bramacharya blacklist.

Foods that are overly processed, fermented and stored for months, canned or bottled or generally a long way from their natural state are tamasic and seen to be heavy and dead as a source of nutrition. You get the picture. There is no good news here for those with diets high on sugar, salt and celebrating meals served in buckets. It is of course all a balance, but no matter which way you cut it, eating is a primal part of our makeup, and as we continue to industrialise and manipulate our food sources, our bodies are breaking under the unnatural inputs.

When we are stuck in a culture where we think we are the body, the impacts of a society with a tamasic and rajasic overdrive are written on our bodies. It is no accident that traditional yogic diets were highly sattvic in nature, and sparse in quantity. Food is, and was, considered fuel to sustain the body just enough to get to the path of enlightenment – and yogis just aren’t that into it.

Trillions of dollars are spent across developed economies producing solutions to the health issues, both proactive and reactive, created by excessive, unbalanced eating. Millions of people are deeply suffering emotionally and physically with food addictions that consume their lives. It is hard to logically understand how we all got here, when the answer is simply eat less, eat close to nature, eat for purpose not pleasure.

The advice from Buddha, Krishna and Patanjali is similarly straightforward in the pursuit of happiness and enlightenment: but the execution of proven wisdom escapes us. This isn’t a book on sattvic diet and nutrition, topics that could fill the remainder of these pages. However, as mentioned, diet is a superfast shortcut to really beginning to make seismic shifts in your way of being, thinking and subsequently acting. Breaking the attachments to food and substituting food and eating practices that mirror the transitions you are trying to make in your life, are a strong reminder every time you open your mouth of the discipline you are trying to instill.

A diet heavy in rajasic and tamasic food has consequences for physical and mental health. Rajas and Tamas are the factors that cause disease. Rajas and Tamas tend to work together. Rajas brings about the over expression of energy, which eventually leads exhaustion, in which Tamas prevails. For example, too much spicy food, meat, alcohol, and sexual indulgence, are initially rajasic or stimulating. These eventually lead to such tamasic conditions as fatigue and collapse of energy. On a psychological level too much rajas, leads to tamas or mental dullness and depression.

We tend to try and eat or medicate our way out of these states with more food and more booze and more drugs and end up in a non-virtuous cycle which only ends up harming ourselves. Of course we need a little raja to get us moving, and some tamas to slow us down and lull us to sleep. But to have sattva predominant in our nature is the key to health, creativity and spirituality. It is the destination and the journey and is highly recommended as part of a holistic adoption of the behaviours and mindset that is going to embed the level of change needed to revision your life and propel you into your true nature of self.

Polly McGee