The body, mind and spirit are intimately connected. How we feel in our physical body affects and even determines not only how well our mind functions, but too the clarity of our thoughts and the nature of our emotions – or how well we embody and express our true nature or spirit. Similarly, the state of our mind affects how we treat our body. This explains why we often succumb to unhealthy food cravings, drug or alcohol addictions or other adverse behavioral patterns when we let our negative thoughts or emotions get the best of us, or are under stress and are taken over by the busy-ness of our own lives or the chaos of the external world. In a way, we become numb to our own sensory skills, and we don’t feel the harmful effects – whether at the physical, mental or spiritual level. Thus ensues the vicious cycle. Unhealthy thoughts and emotions lead to unhealthy physical patterns, which can further lead to a sense of dis-ease at the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels of our being. Just as this can be a vicious cycle, it too can be a victorious cycle… a positive and healing uplifting spiral. One place to start is our diet.
The food that we eat affects not just our physical body but also the state of our mental and spiritual well-being. In this way, the quality of our food determines the quality of our consciousness. In Ayurveda, this phenomenon is described through associating food with nature’s three qualities, or mental gunas – Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Just as our mental state embodies these qualities, so does the food we eat.
Sattvic food is that which is nourishing and uplifting to the body, mind and spirit. The Bhagavad Gita describes the sattvic diet as “promoting life, virtue, strength, health, happiness and satisfaction.” Sattvic foods are “savory, smooth, firm and pleasant to the stomach.” (BG XVII:8-10) In this light, sattvic food includes organic, local, and seasonal foods that are light, mildly spiced and prepared in a healthy and loving way – such as fresh fruits and vegetables, well-prepared legumes and whole grains, natural sweeteners, fresh nuts and seeds, cold-pressed oils, mild and relatively cooling spices (such as basil, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, fresh ginger and turmeric), and for those that can digest them, natural organic dairy products from a healthy and happy cow (e.g. kefir, milk and clarified butter).
Rajasic food is that which excites the mind – and include many pungent and spicy foods, as well as nightshades, alliums, the flesh of wild or active animals and stimulating drugs including coffee, nicotine and caffeine. The Gita describes the rajasic diet as “excessively pungent, sour, salty, hot, harsh, astringent and burnt,” leading to “pain, misery and sickness.” (BG XVII:8-10) Alliums (e.g. onions, garlic, chives, leeks, shallots, etc.) are considered by Ayurveda to induce aggravation, agitation, anxiety and aggression in the body and mind. While Ayurveda recognizes some medicinal qualities of garlic and onions and prescribes their use in certain conditions, they are generally regarded as emotionally, mentally and spiritually disruptive. While eating lighter foods and meals is considered Sattvic, it can be Rajasic if food intake is deficient to replenish our bodily tissues and to ground the mind. Being underweight can lead to hypersensitivity and hyperactivity.
Tamasic food is that which make us feel heavy and lethargic, including heavy cheeses, highly processed and gluttonous grains , the flesh of domesticated and inactive animals and depressant drugs and alcohol. They are difficult to digest and often lead to a build up of toxins in the body, which can perpetuate a lethargic state of being in both body and mind. The Gita describes tamasic foods as “stale, tasteless, smelly, left-over, rotten and foul” (BG XVII:8-10). Excessive eating is also considered tamasic.
These above principles regarding food and the mind and spirit provide a base point of this blog. I consider the definitions not so much as steadfast rules, but general guideposts for ways of thinking about and describing the effects of food and diet on our mind and spirit. What is perhaps most relevant for each of us on our path to awakening is both an honest reflection of how the food choices we take make us feel in mind, body and spirit and how well such choices are in line with our guiding belief system, religion, personal God and/or higher principle.