Thought to have originated 5,000 years ago in India, yoga is a discipline with physical, mental and spiritual components. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit yuj, which means to yoke, join or bring together. Today, the practice brings together more than 36 million people in the United States alone. People cite common reasons for practicing, including flexibility, overall fitness and health, stress reduction and spiritual development. While there are many styles and lineages of yoga — some ancient, some new — hatha yoga (physical postures with attention to the breath) is the most popular form in America.
Yoga Philosophy and Diet
Innumerable writings have explored yoga, but one text stands out as a classic guidebook of sorts: The Yoga Sutras is a compilation of 196 statements, said to be recorded by the sage Patanjali about 2,000 years ago. It outlines fundamental principles of yoga, including standards for self-conduct and ethics.
When most people hear “yoga,” they think of the physical practice. But in fact, The Yoga Sutras contains only one verse about physical poses. Most teaching is devoted to understanding the mind and living a harmonious life.
Ahimsa or non-harming, is a concept discussed in The Yoga Sutras and throughout the literature on yoga philosophy. Realistically, it is impossible to go through life and never harm another creature, whether directly or indirectly. However, yoga texts teach that humans do have the ability and responsibility to minimize the suffering of other sentient beings.
Dietary choices are a way to uphold that responsibility. Often touted as the most yogic diets, vegetarianism and veganism avoid killing or harming animals for food. Some lines are not as clearly drawn, though. How any food is sourced — plant-based or not — matters. When all ramifications of food production are considered, perhaps no meal is entirely free of consequences.
It’s also important to remember that ahimsa means taking care of oneself — not harming one’s own body, mind or spirit. The yoga described in The Yoga Sutras is non-dualistic. There is no dictate to worship Krishna, Jesus or Mohammed. Patanjali doesn’t say a yogi must meditate on one correct object or speak one correct language. Similarly, there is no one correct way to eat. Certain principles delineate what a healthful and compassionate diet is and, within these guidelines, each individual has flexibility to craft a unique diet for him- or herself.
How Yoga Helps
A growing body of evidence suggests what many yogis have intuited: Yoga has physical and mental health benefits. Cultivating mindfulness on the mat can lead to mindfulness in other areas of life, including eating. Mindful eating is a key component in weight management and may lead people to more positive relationships with food. Studies have shown yoga can reduce stress and anxiety, enhance mood and overall well-being, aid in weight maintenance and potentially decrease the risks and symptoms of chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. Researchers also are exploring whether the practice can improve outcomes in people with cancer, arthritis and depression.
Furthermore, yoga practitioners are significantly more likely than non-practitioners to engage in other forms of exercise, such as weight lifting, running and cycling. Eighty-six percent of practitioners report a strong sense of mental clarity, 73 percent report feeling physically strong and 79 percent report giving back to their communities — all significantly higher rates than those of non-practitioners.
As with any exercise program, consult a physician before beginning a physical yoga practice. Since there are many styles of yoga from which to choose, find one that suits your lifestyle, body and personal preferences. Seek yoga teachers who encourage you to explore your own work, ask questions and choose modifications if a pose or technique doesn’t work for you. And remember, yoga is a lifestyle — not just a class.