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Friday, March 4, 2011

The Five Points of Yoga: Diet

Today, our fourth point is proper diet.  According to yogic belief, the optimal diet is the vegetarian diet.  I know to many meat eaters, this idea sound extreme!  It sounded extreme to me when I studied at an ashram this past October: I had been eating meat for 24-years and now they wanted me to give it up!? Impossible. Well, not completely impossible. It has been five months since I have touched ANY meat! Now, I will admit, I fall more into the pescetarian category, because I do still eat fish (I haven't been able to part ways with sushi yet.) But, I'm only five months into this new lifestyle, so I feel that's a good start in the right direction.

Enough of personal anecdotes and on to why you may want to consider switching to the vegetarian lifestyle. According to one of my teachers, Swami Sitramananda, the body needs food for two main purposes: for energy and for repairing tissue. To harvest energy and repair tissue, your diet should consist of four things: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals. A lot of meat eaters are under the impression that gaining enough protein from a vegetarian diet can be difficult, but did you know that vegetable tissue contains a higher proportion of ALL these elements than animal tissue? I was surprised as well. Soy beans (as well as soy bean products i.e. tofu), nuts, beans, and milk contain large amounts of protein.  Rice, wheat, oats, and most other grains are sources of carbohydrates. To obtain the healthy levels of fat we need, dive into those protein sources as well as oils, such as olive oil.  Last, minerals can easily be found in vegetables and fruit.

Even though the yogic diet recommends you avoid meat and fish, it does not eliminate all animal products. It actually encourages one to drink healthy amounts of milk and use products such as honey as a substitute for sugar. However, it does suggest that one avoid stimulants and depressants such as: caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs of all kind, overly spicy foods, onions, garlic, eggs, overcooked food, old food, frozen food, canned food, sodas, and processed food. Whew... That was a long list, and I wouldn't expect anyone to quit cold turkey overnight (I am guilty of ingesting a number of items on this list.)

So why incorporate some of these ideas into your diet? First, there is the idea of non-violence. I could go into a whole long and drawn out argument of why the meat industry is terrible, but I won't step up on my soapbox just yet. However, I will say that the meat industry is filled with corruption and cruelty toward animals. Also, the meat is more often than not contaminated with hormones, chemicals, and even fecal matter that you are ingesting.  If you are interested in more information on where your food comes from, I would highly recommend the documentary, Food Inc.  Still not willing to give up meat? Then buy organic, free range foods. With these foods, you are guaranteed that your food is free of hormones, chemicals, and unnecessary cruelty.

Another reason yogis follow the vegetarian diet is it greatly improves one's asana practice and actually helps joints to become more flexible.  Also, with heart disease, obesity, arthritis, diabetes, and other chronic conditions on the rise, the vegetarian diet seems the best way to prevent and remedy these diseases.

Converting to the vegetarian lifestyle and even eliminate things off of that "impossibly" long list can be a very challenging thing... That's why it should be a gradual change.  Slowly incorporate fresher options into your diet.  If you're not willing to give up meat, maybe set aside one night a week where you enjoy a vegetarian meal (Trying new things can be fun!)  But most importantly, educate yourself on where your food comes from. You just may be surprised. Om Namah Sivaya!  

**Information learned from The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta. For more information on diet, please visit this link or check out Swami Sitaramananda's book Essentials of Yoga Practice and Philosophy.
***Please note that I am not a medical professional. Please discuss any dietary changes with your doctor.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Five Points of Yoga: Relaxation

The next phase of our five point yoga series is relaxation.  Relaxation is absolutely vital to the human body.  How many of us have absolutely ran our bodies down? I know during college, my bodies was continuously in a state of disrepair because I was always pushing it beyond its limits.  Sleeping and eating always came secondary to the many tasks I needed to fulfill... I think it goes without saying that I was always exhausted and became ill very easily.

Yoga breaks relaxation down to three levels: physical, mental, and spiritual.  All three levels must be satisfied in order to fully recharge our bodies.  On the flip side of relaxation, there are also three types of stress, and you probably have guessed them: physical, mental, and spiritual.  In order to relax properly, we must do our best to rid our bodies of stress.

So what causes these stressors that make relaxation difficult? Physical stress comes from too little physical movement and too much repetitive movement (How many work at a desk for 7+ hours a day doing the same task over and over?)  Poor posture can also contribute stress to the body.  Another cause of physical stress is eating a poor diet.  I know far too many people who cling to the idea of convenient instead of exploring more healthy eating options that are just as easy to prepare as a box dinner.  We can eliminate physical stress on the body by correcting our posture and becoming more physically fit (Asana practice is the ideal "workout" for both.)  Also, incorporating fresh foods into our diet instead of relying on preservative infested meals is a quick way to feel a difference in your body.

Mental stress is a result of hectic lifestyles.  Having too much on your plate is enough to make the mind go crazy.  But when you add distractions, low prana, and negative emotions to the mix, relaxing the mind is practically impossible.  One thing that you can do for you mental state is focus on proper breathing.  As stated in my last post, proper breathing brings more oxygen into the body, thus creating more energy or prana.  But the most important step to mental relaxation is focusing on positive thoughts!  Negative thinking drains the body of precious prana, and let's face it, who wants to be around a Negative Nancy?  Instead of thinking, "Oh there's no way I'll be getting that job," think, "I have just as good of chance as anyone else." I know, I know, it's hard to break a habit such as the way we think, but being conscious of those thoughts is the first step.

Lastly, spiritual stress comes from those philosophical questions in life. "Where did I come from?" and, "What is my purpose?" are just a couple examples of these daunting mysteries. Spiritual relaxation is much harder to obtain because it means detaching one's self from the physical body and mind.  Instead of seeing yourself as your body and as your mind, you would only see these things as a vehicles that carry you through life.  You would see the soul (in yogic terms, atman) as the actual self.  Now, this is a highly advanced state of relaxation.  It is very difficult to detach oneself from the believe that they are their appearance, profession, and state of mind.  However, attaining this state is the only way to observe complete relaxation.

I bet many of you are thinking, "Wow, it takes A LOT of work to become relaxed."  No one is expected to pick up these habits in just one day.  It takes years of practice to fully incorporate these ideas into your lifestyle.  It is my hope that this post will inspire you to step back and make an assessment of your life. Maybe there are one or two habits you could possibly tweak in order to incorporate more relaxation into your life.  Om Namah Sivaya!

**Information learned from The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta. For more information on proper relaxation, please visit this link.