If you had complete freedom to live your life differently, would you? What would you do, in terms of food and consciousness? Can we live as ethically as we aspire? As deeply, strongly, and truly as we hope? Sri Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras gives powerful tools for transforming our lives and how we nourish ourselves on everyday levels. If we look at the eight limbs of yoga, and apply even just one limb to how we are working with food now, interesting answers can arise. The first limb is yama, abstaining from specific actions so as to help all sentient beings, not excluding yourself. If we cut ourselves off from the flow of life, this is not yama. Yama is making choices that support our highest nature and its expression, win-win choices that help us and the planet.
Many of us reading this article come from two vast and powerful nations, India and the United States. While we live physically far apart from one another, both nations are part of the same planet. Both nations’ peoples are facing radically changing conditions at this time, in terms of consciousness, food supply, and how we care for ourselves and our planet. Here in the southwestern United States where I have lived for the past 36 years, food insecurity is high, especially among children and elders. Many people no longer have jobs, or homes. Those of us, who do, reach out to our loved ones and strangers, attempting to share what we do have as much as we can. Sometimes the changes happening in our lives are simply overwhelming. The grief, the losses, the small joys: how can they be held in one heart?
It is at times like these that I am grateful for the wisdom of India, the choices offered by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the healing strength of Ayurveda. When I look at how to apply the concept of yama in my own life, I must think both locally and globally. What are the five specific yamas? Ahimsa, to do no harm. Satya, to be truthful without doing harm. Asteya, to not steal. Brahmacharya, to expend energy wisely in choices that lead to awakening. Aparigraha, to not covet, to let go of greed.
At their highest (and easiest) expression, these yamas spring from a place of non-attachment, vairagya. In those moments we spontaneously choose healing foods that help us, and we are delighted to share them with others, as much as we can. There are other times when how we nourish ourselves brings us into less clear, more uncomfortable and difficult zones. When I buy five pounds of organic split mung dal from India at my local food co-op, am I supporting farmers far away? Or am I taking food away from people who need it kept in their locale? When I buy that vibrant bunch of leafy greens at the local farmer’s market, is the farmer I’m purchasing it from making enough to be able to pay his or her expenses? Here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, our farmer’s market is a bustling, colorful place, filled with many happy people, going about their shopping. Yet, as someone who has friends among the farmers, and as a teacher who takes my students to see these same farmers in their fields to learn, I know how hard these women and men work. And how little they receive for their years of experience, their months of focus. Can they continue at this pace in a fair way, given the ways food production is structured now?
So when looking at food choices, I consider it important that they arise from healthy viveka, discernment. Part of this discernment is around how the cultivation of specific foods affects our planet. And part of it relates to how particular substances will affect our specific body and its individual needs. Are we more Vata, Pitta or Kapha in our constitutional nature? Do we need to be sure to eat regularly, especially at lunch time, (the light airy Vatas and fiery Pittas among us, for sure)? Yet the earthy Kaphas also need this steady nourishment, perhaps just eating two meals per day, one in the late morning, the other before sunset. This steady nourishment helps ground us and calm our minds.
What of those who do not have access to steady nourishment, like the children and elders in my state? The six million people in the U.S. aged 60 and over who struggle with hunger? And how many people more in India? Part of nourishing ourselves may be also nourishing our conscience, our innate appreciation of our inter connectedness. Who can we help nourish today, as well as ourselves?
Many of us here in the United States no longer cook. In a recent visit to New York City, I joined the lines of literally hundreds of people streaming past the food buffet stations at a large natural grocery chain, at dinnertime. Each of us was choosing the best we could, in the ten seconds or less we had. Remember to breathe! Stay alert: it’s your turn to advance to the next open cashier…
In these moments, I return to Patanjali and my own knowledge of what works for me. If I act on my desire and eat this food, what will be my experience? And what will be the subtle impressions (samskara) and thoughts (vritti) I work with afterward? Here consciousness can truly be a friend, as we seek to cut through old eating patterns that no longer serve us. I make jokes to my students about staying awake between kama and karma (desire and action, respectively), yet it is true. If we can stay awake in the face of a strong desire (kama) and choose to act wisely (karma), the resulting experience can be a healing one for oneself, and sometimes for others as well.
What we think about the actions we’ve taken also impacts upon our eating patterns powerfully. For example, if we make a mistake, then niggle at ourselves relentlessly, we may simply give up and consume that food or substance even more. Whereas in the face of difficulty or error, if we can hold ourselves with love and awareness, this is the beginning of nirodaha, letting go, ceasing the struggle with the restless contents of our minds. Coming to some kind of healing with how we nourish ourselves now.
To understand how to do this, it is useful to enlist the help of the three qualities of mind, the mahagunas of sattva, rajas and tamas. To bring these quickly forward for yourself, you can try this simple exercise. Place your hands in Anjali mudra, prayer position in the center of your chest, smile and bow to the highest in yourself and everyone else. This is sattva, clear, neutral, loving. Now put these same hands in front of you, make fists, and shoot your arms into the air, while hollering, “YES!” This is rajas, passionate, opinionated, assertive. Now bring your hands back down, palms together, resting on one shoulder. Rest your cheek on your hands, close your eyes, and sigh, “AH.” This is tamas, at best knowing when to come to rest, at its worst, asleep at the wheel. How can these three support us in a wise approach to food?
When drawing on sattva as a resource, we let ourselves move into our calmest, strongest, most loving state, and enjoy the present moment. “How interesting!” is the basic stance. As we bless the nourishing meal in front of us, we’re grateful that it’s there and pray that every other being everywhere can also be so nourished, including the little kids and the old people half way across the globe and next door.
Opinionated rajas is a different sort of mental resource. It can help us cut through outmoded habits, when operating at its highest function. About to stay up past midnight, passing up that perfect Kaphic moment to go to bed at 10 pm? Rajas charges in with, “Forget it! I need to be well-rested tomorrow!”, and strong arms the old habit out the door for the night. (At its not so best, rajas will arise to criticize our food choices and the food and lifestyle choices of those around us. In these moments, it may be wise to head back toward nirodaha, letting go skillfully, in a sattvic mind frame.)
At its most useful, sluggish tamas reminds us that we need to stop and rest. Healing in the guise of couch potato is tamas’ forte. If we ignore our own need to rest, we may compensate later on with heavy tamasic food, deadening to the mind. Under another circumstance, this same tamasic food might simply feel comfortably sedative in its action. It depends upon our choices and conditions. At worst, a tamasic quality of mind can lure us into apathy and hopelessness, thinking, “What’s the use? I’ve done it this way so long…” Even though change is actually possible, as we can be aware, if our mind is looking at the same condition from a sattvic or rajasic perspective instead of a tamasic one.
Is the cup (or so) of coffee enlivening and sociable? Or will it cause our energy to slump later in the day as our Vata goes haywire? Only we can decide for ourselves. To notice that we have choices, and decide what they are, is the gift.
In the U.S. right now, there is a crash course in impermanence going on. One moment we may be eating like royalty, and in the next, checking out the contents of the dumpster (literally and figuratively). If you’re not sure from where your next meal is coming, how can you pass up the goodie being offered to you now? Many of us live in this mind state, even if we aren’t dumpster diving. If we don’t give ourselves regular meals at steady times, including a nourishing mid-day meal, our minds become like starving dogs. When faced with food, any food, at the end of a day short on time set aside for physical nurturance, we’ll eat anything. Kama rushes to karma, and we reap our own results.
To embrace the choices we have, builds power, strength, nurturance, and integrity. If we are recovering from painful circumstances, self care is often the hardest and yet most effective step to make. Start simply. We can choose one small healthy practice that we will stick with for the next month. Or, conversely, we can identify one unhealthy pattern that is sinking us that we feel ready to let go of, for a similar period of time. If we’re choosing to give up something, it’s important to put something satisfying in its place. I know one woman who, as a result of her healthy choices, shed excess pounds. For every pound lost, she placed dollars in a jar. At the successful end of her odyssey, she gave the money to a local charity, perhaps a food bank. This was her way of working with the five yamas. Sometimes we discover that the patterns of nourishment that we are really missing are not even edible ones. That is, perhaps we yearn for more silence. Or a heart felt hug from a friend. Or the satisfaction of knowing we are useful, in some deep way.
As we relax into knowing the truth of who we are, the choices we need to make around our lives and food become more evident. More freedom and generosity is possible. It may be a different sort of freedom and sharing than we first imagined.