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The Yogic diet

Man is essentially what he eats, is an adage that is popular in modern times. Āyurveda, an ancient science, attests to this fact. According to this science, man’s eating habits play an integral role in his mental make-up as well as his physical well-being. The basic tenet of Āyurveda states that health (svāsthya) is a state of equilibrium of three planes – the physical (and physiological,) the mental, and the spiritual. An aberration (doṣa) in any one of the planes results in ailments. The equilibrium is said to be maintained by the three pillars of healthy eating, sound sleep, and regulated sex.

Āyurvedic texts elaborate in detail, the concept of healthy eating. The most interesting arguments on food revolve around the psychological effects of food on man. Āyurveda states that certain foods result in a contented state of mind, certain foods are excitatory, while certain other foods result in lethargy. In accordance with the psychological responses a particular food engenders, that food is categorized as sātvik (calming,) rājasic (excitatory,) or tāmasic (causing lethargy.)
A diet is chosen keeping in mind the constitution (prakṛti) of the person in question, as well as the tasks he/she intends to fulfill. If for instance, a person intends a yogic life, he/she must adhere to a sātvik diet, a diet that is comprised of foods that have a calming effect. This diet may include vegetables, fruits, tubers, nuts and honey, while eschewing extremely bitter, pungent or sour foods. Svātmārāma allocates a separate chapter to yogic diet in his work, Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā. He states,

मिताहारं विना यस्तु योगारम्भं तु कारयेत्।
नानारोगो भवेत्तस्य किञ्चिद्योगो न सिध्यति॥

mitāhāraṃ vinā yastu yogārambhaṃ tu kārayet।
nānārogo bhavettasya kiñcidyogo na sidhyati॥

[haṭhayogapradīpikā, 5.16]

One who practices Yoga without adhering to a regulated diet invites hordes of ailments and never attains the fruit of Yoga.

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Who is a Yogī?

Since ages, this land has seen many Yogīs who have been great spiritual masters and who have lit the light of wisdom in mankind through their extraordinary contributions. This land has always treated those Yogīs as the embodiments of the Supreme and followed their footsteps. But with the passage of time, the inclination towards spirituality has declined in the people due to many reasons. Nowadays the term ‘Yogī’ is as familiar as the term ‘Yoga’, and when heard, it stimulates a kind of mystical perspective in our minds with multiple conclusions.

Who is a Yogī? What are his qualities? What is his lifestyle? And how  can one become a Yogi? Our ancient scriptures are the sources where we find the answers to all these queries.

In the Bhagavad Gītā, Lord Kṛṣṇa says:

अनाश्रितः कर्मफलं कार्यं कर्म करोति यः।
स संन्यासी च योगी च न निरग्निर्न चाक्रियः॥

anāśritaḥ karmaphalaṁ kāryṁ karma karate yaḥ।
sa saṁnyāsī ca yogī ca na nirgnirna cākriyaḥ॥

[Bhagavad Gītā, 6: 1]

One who performs his prescribed duties by renouncing the fruits of his actions is both a Saṁnyāsī and a Yogī, but not someone who has merely given up performing sacrifices or other prescribed duties.

People in general have a misconception about a Yogī or a Saṁnyāsī, that he is someone who does not shoulder any responsibilities and who renounces all activities. But here, Lord Kṛṣṇa upholds the true practice of Dharma. He says that no one should ever discard his prescribed duties. Everyone should execute his duties with utmost devotion. Among the doers of duties, a true Yogī is one who discharges his duties for the duty’s sake and is in no way attached to the fruits of his actions. The Lord further asserts that the practice of Yoga is not different from Saṁnyāsa, as no one becomes a Yogī without renouncing Saṅkalpa (selfish desires). In his Yoga Sūtras, Maharṣi Patañjali describes the means to attain Yoga, which are Abhyāsa (practice) and Vairāgya (renunciation).

Lord Kṛṣṇa describes the Yogī who has attained the peaks of Yoga as:

यदा हि नेन्द्रियार्थेषु न कर्मस्वनुषज्जते।
सर्वसङ्कल्पसंन्यासी योगारूढस्तदोच्यते॥

yadā hi nendriyārtheṣu na karmasvanuṣajjate।
sarvasaṅkalpasaṃnyāsī yogārūḍhastadocyate॥

[Bhagavad Gītā, 6: 4]

When one is free from attachments to the sense objects as well as the actions, and has renounced all selfish desires, he is said to have ascended the peaks of Yoga.

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What is Dhyāna?

Dhyāna has in today’s world come to mean meditation. In fact, dhyāna is a highly esoteric yogic practice, not apparent to most. Sage Patañjali enlists dhyāna as one of the eight limbs of asṭāṅga yoga. It is only after practicing and perfecting the limbs of yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhāra and dhāraṇa, can a yogī establishes himself in the practice of dhyāna. Perfection in dhyāna in turn, results in the stilling of the mind, a state referred to as samādhi.

Maharṣi Patañjali defines Dhyāna thus –

तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम् । 

tatra pratyayaikatānatā dhyānam । 

[Patañjali Yoga Sūtra, 2.3]

There, a continuous single-stream of cognition is called meditation.

Meditation is the stream of cognition (pratyaya) focused on the object of contemplation (dhyeya.) The stream of cognition must be incessant, steady, and unmoved by interruptions. Such a practice of dhyāna, states Maharṣi, leads the practitioner to samādhi (absorption) and enables yoga (union.)

The Agni Purāṇa explains dhyāna as follows,

ध्येयावस्थितचित्तस्य प्रदेशे यत्र कुत्रचित् ।
ध्यानमेतत्समुद्दिष्टं प्रत्ययस्यैकभावना॥

dhyeyāvasthitacittasya pradeśe yatra kutracit ।
dhyānametatsamuddiṣṭaṃ pratyayasyaikabhāvanā॥

[Agni Purāṇa, 374.4]

Meditation is defined as contemplation, where the mind is firmly and incessantly fixed on the object of contemplation.

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Why Prāṇāyāma?

Modern Science establishes Prāṇāyāma as one of the leading mechanisms to a hoard of health benefits. Prāṇāyāma is known to lower blood glucose levels and serum cholesterol levels, regulate systolic and diastolic blood pressures, enhance blood circulation and sleep, and combat depression. By regulating the breathing process, Prāṇāyāma relaxes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, thereby resulting is a lowered stress response. By balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, Prāṇāyāma results in better mental and physical health.

प्राणायामात् खेचरत्त्वं प्राणायामादरोगता।
प्राणायामात्तथाशक्तिः प्राणायामान्मनोन्मनी।
आनन्दो जायते चित्ते प्राणायामी सुखी भवेत् ॥

prāṇāyāmāt khecarattvaṃ prāṇāyāmādarogatā।
prāṇāyāmāttathāśaktiḥ prāṇāyāmānmanonmanī।
ānando jāyate citte prāṇāyāmī sukhī bhavet ॥

[Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā, 5.57]

By practicing Prāṇāyāma, one can attain power of levitation, salubrious living, Śakti (divine energy,) and stillness of mind. An inexplicable joy is experienced, and the practitioner remains ever happy.

Prāṇāyāma practices have been scientifically proven to enhance cardiorespiratory responses. Prāṇāyāma is helpful, also in detoxifying the body. The most significant contribution of Prāṇāyāma to a better lifestyle, is the mental calm it engenders. By regulating the HPA axis and its response to stress, a deeper sense of calm is experienced; a mental stillness that allows man to better function in society and to better identify himself with a higher force.

प्राणायामेन युक्तेन सर्वरोगक्षयो भवेत्।
अयुक्ताभ्यासयोगेन सर्वरोगसमुद्गमः॥

prāṇāyāmena yuktena sarvarogakṣayo bhavet।
ayuktābhyāsayogena sarvarogasamudgamaḥ॥

[haṭhayogapradīpikā, 2.16]

When practiced properly, Prāṇāyāma helps in combating diseases, and when (Haṭha) Yoga is practiced in the absence of Prāṇāyāma, the practice paves the path to ailments.

By lowering the heart-rate and regularizing systolic-diastolic blood pressures, Prāṇāyāma is believed to enhance life expectancy.

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Maharṣi Patañjali

Maharishi Patañjali is believed to be an incarnation of Ananta or Ādiśeṣa, the divine serpent upon whom Lord Viṣṇu reclines. Accordingly, he is depicted in a half-serpent and half-human form. His mother is believed to have been a great Yoginī named Goṇikā. It is believed she once prayed to Sūrya (Sun God) to bestow upon her a son and a disciple. It is believed that Patañjali fell (पत्) right into her cupped palms (अञ्जलिः) and therefore came to be known as Patañjali. According to the Tamil Siddha tradition, Patañjali is one of the 18 Siddhars, and according to Tirumūlar’s Tirumandiram, Patañjali is one of the eight disciples to have studied Yogam directly from Nandi-deva. Although the traditional narratives vary with regards to the Maharṣi’s origin and life, there is little dispute regarding His stupendous accomplishments as a Yogī.

Traditionally, three works are attributed to the genius of Patañjali – Yoga-sūtra, Mahābhāṣya and Caraka-pratisaṃskṛta. Yoga-sūtra, Patañjali’s most renowned work, is a compendium of aphorisms regarding Yoga-śāstra. Mahabhāṣya is the celebrated commentary to the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Paṇini, a extensive grammatical work, and the Caraka-pratisaṃskṛta is an extinct treatise on Āyurveda. This three-pronged contribution of Patañjali is the basis for the following popular Śloka of Śivarāma in his commentary to the Vāsavadattā, a classical work –

योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन।
योऽपाकरोत्तं प्रवरं मुनीनां पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि॥

yogena cittasya padena vācāṁ malaṁ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena|
yo’pākarot-taṁ pravaraṁ munīnāṁ patañjaliṁ prāñjalir-ānato’smi||

To Him, Patañjali, my reverential obeisance, who with Yoga-Śāstra (Yoga-sūtra) did away with the dross of the mind, with Pada-Śāstra (Mahabhāṣya) did away with the impurities of the tongue, and with Vaidya-Śāstra (Caraka-pratisaṃskṛta,) drove away the ailments of the body.

Several traditional texts owe their origin to inspiration/knowledge found in the Yoga-Sūtras of Patañjali. Yoga-vāsiṣṭha, Śiva-saṃhitā, Gheraṇḍa-saṃhitā, Haṭhayoga-pradīpikā, are a few such texts. The Yoga-sūtras seem to have spread far and wide, even in the ancient world. An Arabic translation of the Yoga-sūtras called ‘Kitāb Patañjal’ attributed to the Persian scholar Al-Birūnī is a notable one. The Indonesian text ‘Dharma-Patañjala’ composed in the island of Java is an extant treatise of great importance to the Indonesian-Hindu tradition to this day. Interest in the Yoga-sūtras has only increased with the passage of time. Today the Sūtras have become the subject of in-depth academic research at Universities across the globe. Cognitive scientists and prominent Physicists like Prof. Dr. David Bohm and Prof. Dr. Harold Dean Brown express their fascination with the work. The treatise is authoritative text on the nature of the mind and the traditional methodology employed in stilling the mind.

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Aṣṭāṅga Yoga — the eight limbs of Yoga

The path of Yoga propounded by Maharṣi Patañjali, is known as Asṭāṅga Yoga. As the name suggests, Asṭāṅga Yoga is comprised of eight limbs or aṣṭa aṅgāni. The goal of the path is Kaivalya (liberation) that results from the stilling of the mind (citta-vṛtti-nirodha) through a systematic process comprised of the eight limbs.

The eight limbs of Yoga


yama-niyama-āsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo’ṣṭāvaṅgāni (2.29)

The eight limbs are –

  1. Yama – Literally means abstention. Sage Patañjali enlists five yamas:
    • Ahiṁsā – abstention from injuring another
    • Satya – truthfulness (abstention from falsehood)
    • Asteya – abstention from thievery
    • Brahmacarya – celibacy (abstention from indulging in the senses)
    • Aparigraha – abstention from accepting anything from another

  2. Niyama – Literally means discipline. Sage Patañjali enlists five niyamas
    • Śauca – cleanliness
    • Santoṣa – contentment
    • Tapaḥ – penance
    • Svādhyāya – scriptural study
    • Īśvara-praṇidhāna – surrender to the Supreme.

  3. Āsana – Āsana is defined as a stationary posture that can be maintained for long, comfortably. The posture must be such that it does not distract the practitioner from his impending mental union with the infinite. It is this limb of Yoga that is popularly practiced worldwide today, and is referred to as Haṭha-yoga. The Yogī who has perfected Āsana is said to never be swayed by the pairs of the opposites such as heat-cold, pleasure-pain, likes-dislikes, and so on.
  4. Prāṇāyāma – ‘Prāna’ means breath and ‘āyāma’ means both restraining and extending. The practice of manipulating breath by extending the inhalation/exhalation (pūraka/recaka) or by retaining breath within/without (kumbhaka) is referred to as Prāṇāyāma. Sage Patañjali states that mastery of Prāṇāyāma removes the veil that obscures the light of wisdom in man, and enables him to establish his mind firmly on an object with sustained attention.
  5. Pratyāhāra – Pratyāhāra is the withdrawal of the senses of perception (jṅānendriyas) and senses of action (karmendriyas) from sensory objects, by turning the mind inward. Pratyāhāra, it is stated, results in mastery over the senses.
  6. Dhāraṇa – Dhāraṇā is the fastening of the mind to a single focal point. The focal point can either be internal or external. Internal focal points are enlisted as the cakra of the navel, the lotus of the heart, the crown of the head, light at the tip of the nose, or the tongue.
  7. Dhyāna – Dhyāna is the continuous stream of cognition of the chosen focal point, uninterrupted by wavering thoughts. This is the necessary precursor to Samādhi.
  8. Samādhi – Samādhi is the final state of the Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, where the aimed object alone shines forth.

The eight limbs are further classified into two, namely bāhyāṅgāni (external limbs) and ābhyantarāṅgāni (internal limbs.) Bāhyāṅgāni comprises of what is also termed as Kriyāyoga. Bāhyāṅgāni are yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇyāma, pratyāhāra. Ābhyantarāṅgāni, also called samyama, are dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi. Sustained practice of samyama, states Sage Patañjali, results in wisdom (prajñāna.)

Maharṣi Patañjali describes the benefits of Aśṭāṅga Yoga as follows –

योगाङ्गानुष्ठानादशुद्धिक्षये ज्ञानदीप्तिराविवकेख्यातेः ॥२.२८॥

Yogāṅgānuṣṭhānād aśuddhi-kṣaye jñāna-dīptir
āviveka-khyāteḥ ||28||

By practicing Yogāṅgās (the limbs of Yoga), the impurities of the mind are eliminated and the light of wisdom dawns by way of discernment. Discernment in turn, leads to Kaivalya (liberation).