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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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Prāṇāyāma — the means to attain serenity of the mind!

Prāṇāyāma is one of the eight limbs of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, as propounded by Sage Patañjali. The word itself, is a compound word comprised of two Sanskrit words, prāṇa and āyāma. The words are loosely translated to life-breath (prāṇa) and elongation/control (‘āyāma.) Several explanations are offered in the Upaniṣads and Purāṇas, for the word ‘Prāṇa.’ Amongst the senses attached to this word are vital breath, energy, and embodiment of the Supreme. The Liṅga Purāṇa explains the word prāṇa as the vital breath that resides in the body – ‘प्राणः स्वदेहजो वायुः.’

The Nirvāṇa Prakaraṇa of Yogavāsiṣṭa states,

प्राणोऽयमनिशं ब्रह्मन्स्पन्दशक्तिः सदागतिः।
स बाह्याभ्यन्तरे देहे प्राणोऽयमुपरि स्थितः॥

prāṇo’yamaniśaṃ brahmanspandaśaktiḥ sadāgatiḥ।
sa bāhyābhyantare dehe prāṇo’yamupari sthitaḥ॥

[Yogavāsiṣṭa, 6.25.3]

That which moves incessantly within and without is Prāna. Within, it animates the body it pervades.

The word ‘āyāma’ means restraint or elongation. The Nārada Purāṇa states, ‘prāṇa is the vital breath that rests within the body, and the control of this breath is known as āyāma – प्राणो वायुः शरीरस्थ आयामस्तस्य निग्रहः।‘

The Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa summarizes the significance of Prāṇāyāma thus –

The Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa explains the significance of Prāṇāyāma as:

यथा पर्वतधातूनां ध्मातानां दह्यते मलम् ।
तथेन्द्रियकृता दोषा दह्यन्ते प्राणनिग्रहात् ॥

yathā parvatadhātūnāṃ dhmātānāṃ dahyate malam ।
tathendriyakṛtā doṣā dahyante prāṇanigrahāt ॥

[Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa, 30.10]

Just as metallic ore is purified to metal upon smelting, so too is man purified of impurities arising from absorption in the senses by the practice of Prāṇāyāma.

Maharṣi Patañjali states in his Yoga Sūtras, ‘with the proper practice of Prāṇāyāma that culminates in the utmost suspension of breath, the Yogi’s mind becomes free of wavering thoughts. He recognizes the pristine nature of the mind.’ With continued practice, Maharṣi concludes,

ततः क्षीयते प्रकाशावरणम् ।

tataḥ kṣīyate prakāśāvaraṇam।[2.52]

the veil which obscures the light of discerning knowledge is lifted.

P.S: It is advisable to practice Prāṇāyāma under the guidance of a spiritual master.

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Maharṣi Patañjali

Maharishi patanjali yoga book

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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How does one control the mind?

The human mind is notorious for its fickleness. So much so, it has earned itself the moniker ‘monkey-mind!’ Much like sand held in a tight fist or water borne in a cloth, the mind races, leaving man baffled. It engages with objects of the world, leaping from object to object with lightning speed. It embraces that which it mustn’t and relinquishes easily, that it shall do well to dwell on. Summarily, the human mind is an intractable mystery. Yet, our Scriptures exhort that it is only by the taming of the monkey-mind that man may progress. They speak endlessly of the immense possibilities of the stilled-mind. Summarizing the seemingly impossible task, Arjun states in the Bhagavadgītā,

चंचलं हि मनः कृष्ण प्रमाथि बलवद्दृढम्।
तस्याहं निग्रहं मन्ये वायोरिव सुदुष्करम् ॥

caṃcalaṃ hi manaḥ kṛṣṇa pramāthi balavaddṛḍham।
tasyāhaṃ nigrahaṃ manye vāyoriva suduṣkaram ॥

“O Kṛṣṇa! Indeed, the mind is fickle, turbulent, strong and obstinate. It appears to me that controlling it is as difficult as controlling the wind.”

Kṛṣṇa offers a simple solution.

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम्।
अभ्यासेनतु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते॥

asaṃśayaṃ mahābāho mano durnigrahaṃ calam।
abhyāsenatu kaunteya vairāgyeṇa ca gṛhyate॥
[The Bhagavad Gītā, 6: 34, 35]

“O mighty son of Kuntī! The mind is undoubtedly fickle and difficult to control, yet it can be controlled by practice and detachment.”

The inherent nature of the mind is such that it attaches itself to the senses. It identifies with the emotions of pleasure and pain. It courts the pleasurable and shuns the unsavory. Man gains mastery over the mind when he detaches himself from pain and pleasure, treating both with equanimity. Such detachment proceeds from discernment of the eternal and the ephemeral. When the mind is trained to treat sorrow and pleasures as passing clouds, the mind grows accustomed to identifying less with the passing emotions thus caused. When the mind is repeatedly refocused on the higher force that pervades all, a dispassionate force that lies within merely a witness to everything, the mind dawns to a stillness. When thus stilled, the mind allows for the experience of man’s true nature.

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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).