Updated: Feb 17
A 2018 study on vegetarian and omnivorous yoga practitioners showed that a total of 1.7 million US yoga practitioners have used a vegetarian diet in the last 12 months compared to 2.7 million non-yoga practitioners. And that vegetarian yoga practitioners tend to see yoga and meditation as a lifestyle rather than just a form of exercise or therapy.
It is therefore quite common that as you start to get a bit more serious about your yoga practice that you begin to become more interested in how to eat like a yogi.
Have you ever wondered about how your yoga and meditation practice might inform the choices that you make about your diet and nutrition? What benefits are there in applying some of the skills you learn in yoga and meditation to mindful eating? And what does traditional hatha yoga literature have to say about yoga and diet?
Food and diet are sensitive topics for many of us and our choices are often deeply rooted in our culture, upbringing, ideology, and lifestyle. But making mindful choices about when, what, and how to eat and drink can support us both in our yoga practice and to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle.
Yoga, Meditation, and Diet: The Benefits of Mindful Eating
When you practice yoga you start to focus on bringing more awareness towards the way your body feels. While in meditation you start to also notice your feelings, thoughts, and emotions.
One of the main benefits of doing a physical yoga practice is that you create a stronger connection with your body. This makes it possible for you to notice more subtle sensations in your body. This might start with you noticing how your body feels during your yoga practice and then progress to you becoming more aware of how you feel throughout the day.
When I first started practicing yoga I remember becoming more aware of how much tension I had in my neck and shoulders. First I observed these sensations of tightness during my yoga practice when doing shoulder openers and backbends.
Then as I continued to practice yoga regularly I started noticing this same tension during the day while sitting behind my desk working. This encouraged me to start checking my posture often throughout my workday and exploring how my neck, shoulders, and back felt as I made slight adjustments to my posture.
This also started happening in my meditation practice.
I remember feeling frustrated and a bit astonished that it was impossible to do a mindfulness meditation technique without getting distracted several times every minute! I kept noticing that my mind was getting caught up in different thoughts and feelings. And until this moment I had been completely unaware of how often this was happening!
Have you had a similar experience?
This familiarity and awareness of our body and accompanying thoughts can also pass to other areas of your life. Meaning that you are much more likely to notice how your body and mind feels from eating specific foods.
Just like you start to notice tightness in your shoulders outside of your yoga practice, you might also start to become more aware of sensations in your body before, during, and after eating. Beginning to observe how your body feels and what associated thoughts and feelings you have about your diet.
The Benefits of Mindful Eating
This noticing and observing of how your body and mind feels after eating certain foods is interesting to observe as you progress in your yoga practice.
You might, for example, start to become more aware that when you eat a specific food it makes you physically feel more energized or drained. Or that you have strong thoughts and ideas around eating specific foods.
“Eating mindfully means that you are using all of your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make. This helps to increase gratitude for food, which can improve the overall eating experience.” — Harvard T.H. Chan, School of Public Health
Of course it is and should be a personal choice when it comes to choosing which foods you want to eat regularly and which you want to have occasionally or completely avoid.
Different foods will affect people in different ways.
What might feel—physically and/or emotionally—good for one person to eat might make someone else feel uncomfortable. Through observation and experience you can find out for yourself, which foods make you feel good and which make you feel less good.
Meditation for Mindful Eating
One mindfulness meditation technique that I really like for mindful eating is the mindful eating raisin exercise. This is a technique that is used in the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course from Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Most of the time our minds are on autopilot when we eat. This means that we’re not fully aware of what we’re tasting, smelling, thinking, and feeling while we’re eating.
The raisin mindful eating exercise is designed to help us be more aware in the present moment of our thoughts and feelings while eating.
The benefits of mindful eating practices is that they allow us to be more conscious and aware of what we’re eating and our associated thoughts and feelings while eating. Helping us to enjoy our food more and use this time to be more present.
You can try out the mindful eating meditation by getting a raisin or something similar that is small and that you will enjoy like a square of chocolate and following the below steps:
Start by looking at your raisin. Imagine as if you’ve never seen the raisin before. See if you can notice the colors and patterns of the raisin.
Next notice the texture of the raisin and how it feels in your hand. Try to bring curiosity to how the raisin feels and see what you observe.
You can then start to smell the raisin. Noticing what you can smell and if this brings up and thoughts or feelings.
From here you can start to mindfully eat the raisin. Perhaps noticing how it feels in your mouth as you start to chew it and how it tastes.
Do you here any subtle sounds as you chew your raisin? And are there other thoughts or feelings that come to mind?
Then finally when you’re ready you can finish mindfully eating your raisin and observe how you feel afterwards.
By practicing this mindfulness practice it can be interesting to observe how something that we might think of as very ordinary can in fact be quite special. It can also help us be more mindful of our food and meals.
The beauty of this practice is that it can also help you be a bit more mindful of what you eat. You can imagine it would be a bit too much to eat every mouthful in the day mindfully. But you could try applying this technique to one meal or snack that you eat during the day.
What to Eat and Drink Before and After Yoga
A common question I hear from new yoga students is what to eat and drink before and after practicing yoga.
You want to try and avoid eating a big meal right before doing a physical yoga practice. If you’re practicing yoga first think in the morning you could experiment with doing yoga on an empty stomach.
This might not work for everyone and so if you tend to have low blood sugar or energy levels, you can choose to have a small snack about 30 minutes to one hour before doing yoga. Bananas, dates and nuts make good, nutritious snacks. But again feel free to experiment with what works for you.
If you’re doing yoga later in the day see if you can wait at least two hours after eating a large meal. After your yoga practice is then a great time to eat a bigger meal.
Staying hydrated is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. This is especially important when you’re doing a more dynamic and active form of yoga where you are likely to sweat and loose more water.
Water and herbal tea are the best things to drink to stay hydrated.
Many yoga teachers will recommend for you to drink water before and after doing yoga, rather than in the middle of your yoga practice. This will stop you getting distracted during yoga, and make sure that your belly doesn’t feel too full of fluid when twisting and folding the body.
However, if you find that you’re really thirsty when doing your yoga practice and want to drink during your practice don’t let the above advice stop you tuning in and listening to what your body needs.
Yoga, Meditation and Coffee
Coffee is best avoided immediately before practicing yoga. The caffeine that many of us enjoy to help us feel alert, can make it more difficult to cultivate a calm mind. And in fact the caffeine in coffee could contribute to making your mind more agitated.
This is especially the case during meditation, breathing exercises and slower yoga practices, where the body is more still and the focus is on calming the mind. People tend to feel the peak effects from caffeine about 30 to 60 minutes after consumption, so see if you can avoid drinking coffee one or two hours before doing yoga and meditation.
If you’re interested to see the effects for yourself experiment with having coffee right before practice one day and no coffee before practice the next day to see what the differences are.
How to Eat Like a Yogi (According to Ancient Yogic Texts)
You don’t need to follow a specific diet in order to practice yoga or meditation. And yet at the same time many yoga practitioners choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet.
A 2020 study of yoga teachers in the UK showed that 29.6 % of yoga teachers in the UK follow a plant based diet and that 73.9 % desire to follow a vegan diet.
Why is this? And what suggestions do the ancient yogic texts provide on diet for a yogi?
Before diving into the ancient yogic literature it’s worth remembering that what is suggested here isn’t the only way that you should eat as a yoga practitioner. There are many reasons as to why these recommendations won’t be suitable for everyone.
However, I do think it’s interesting to know what these old traditions suggest to understand some of the cultural impacts it is had on many yoga traditions that still exist today.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika—translated from Sanskrit to Light on Hatha Yoga—is estimated to have been written in India in the 15th century.
Even today—700 years later—it is one of the most referenced old texts about the hatha yoga tradition. The book contains a series of suggestions of how yogis should live their life and what they should avoid from their diet.
It’s worth mentioning that often in these yogic texts when the word “yoga” is mentioned it is often referring to a “comfortable seat for meditation” which was considered the goal of practicing yoga. This is quite different to our approach today where we refer to yoga as a physical yoga practice of yoga poses and separate from seated meditation.
“HOW TO PRACTICE YOGA 12. The yogi should practice hatha yoga in a small room, situated in a solitary place….where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.” — Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swami Muktibodhananda
One of the benefits of having food abundantly available is that it allows the yogi to spend the majority of their time practicing yoga. In the 15th century yogi’s wouldn’t just do yoga for an hour after work but would instead dedicate their lives to practicing yoga and meditation.
Any time that you can save purchasing and making food is time you can use instead to practice yoga and meditation.
Even in a modern context, if you have easy access to food it will give you more opportunities to do yoga. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have someone cooking for you every day. But could instead mean cooking meals in advance and storing them in a fridge or freezer so that on busy days you have time to do yoga and eat well.
“FALIURE IN YOGA 15. Yoga is destroyed by the following six causes:- Overeating, exertion, talkativeness, adhering to rules i.e., cold bath in the morning, eating at night, or eating fruits only, company of men, and unsteadiness.” — Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swami Muktibodhananda
This idea to avoid over eating is quite interesting. Especially when compared to the first suggestion about food being plentiful. You can of course have plentiful access to food without overeating!
There are quite a few references throughout the Hatha Yoga Pradipika where it mentions this idea of not overeating and “in which ¾ of hunger is satisfied with food”.
In general, I think this is good advice to not overeat when practicing yoga. After all, we won’t find it easy to do our physical yoga practice or feel alert for meditation if we’re feeling heavy and sluggish from overeating.
Having said that, we also don’t want to always be hungry. So its useful for you to notice if you have a tendency to undereat and not use the excuse of practicing yoga to skip meals.
It’s also interesting that Swami Muktibodhananda suggests that adhering to rules like eating at night or only fruits will result in failure in yoga. Again this generally makes sense to help aid our sleep and digestion. But no need to make a hard rule about it if you want to have a late night snack.
“FOOD AND BEHAVIOR OF A YOGI 61. Bitter, sour, saltish, green vegetables, fermented, oily, mixed with til seed, rape seed, intoxicating liquors, fish, meat, curds, chhaasa pulses, plums, oilcake, asafoetida, garlic, onion, etc. should not be eaten.” —Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swami Muktibodhananda
This list of foods to avoid isn’t something I would follow or encourage others to try out. Based on our 21st century knowledge of nutrition we know that it is good to have a varied diet with many different vegetables and fermented foods. While some of the of the other foods mentioned like those that are oily or salty are known to not be healthy in large quantities.
In any case, given that Swami Muktibodhananda also suggests in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that, “Fire, women, travelling, etc. should be avoided.” I wouldn’t suggest that you start making drastic changes to your lifestyle based on these recommendations.
But it does perhaps give some insight as to where some yoga traditions have chosen to avoid foods like meat, fish, garlic, and onion.
Vegetarian and Vegan Yogis
As well as meat and fish being mentioned on the above list of foods to avoid, many yoga practitioners have interpreted that eating animal products is against one of the ethical principles for yogis described as “Ahimsa” or non-violence.
Some modern day yoga practitioners believe that this principle of “Ahimsa” or non-violence is something that not only applies to your individual actions but also bringing no harm to all beings.
The proportion of UK yoga teachers following a plant-based diet is 25-fold higher than the general UK population. The far higher proportions in the UK yoga teaching community of both vegetarians and those following a plant-based diet, relative to the wider population, are likely based on yogic teachings such as the principle of ahimsa, meaning non-harm to all beings.
It’s also worth noting that India has the largest concentration of vegetarians in the world, with 40% of the population not eating meat or fish. And so with the origins of yoga coming from India this may be another reason as to why there are more vegetarian and vegan yoga practitioners.
At the end of the day you don’t need to change your diet to deepen your yoga practice.
However, you might find that from practicing yoga regularly you become more mindful about what and how you eat. You might become more aware about what your food habits are, and how you feel after eating different foods. This can help you naturally tune into what your body needs and to start eat more wholesome foods in moderation.
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