Beach body or subduing my attachment to the sensual world? Sattvic dieting in India
Let’s be clear, I like my food. And while I like all the healthy stuff we are told to eat, like fruit, nuts and vegetables, I also like a nice cup of tea, chocolate, cake and wine – a bit too much if I’m honest. So although my BMI is pretty good, and I’m quite healthy, I’ve always been a bit concerned that I eat too much of the wrong things. So going to India for an extended period to do some yoga teacher training was a great opportunity to change my diet and see how I felt. My course at Trimurti Yoga in Goa included three meals a day on all the course days. So it was a great opportunity for a few weeks of really healthy eating, early nights, and of course lots of yoga.
I hoped I might lose a little bit of weight, maybe look a little fresher faced. I didn’t expect to re-evaluate my relationship with food or learn in a very practical way about the yogic practice of “vairagya” or subduing attachments to the sensual world.
First, a bit of background about my diet in India. It was a “sattvic” diet. Sattvic is derived from the Sanskrit word Sattva. Sattva is one of three gunas (qualities or attributes) and means “pure, natural, or vital”. The other two gunas are Rajas (agitated, passionate, moving, emotional) and Tamas (dark, spoiled, stale, unripe, unnatural, unclean). A sattvic diet includes food and eating habits that are "pure, natural, energy-giving, clean, and wise”. In practice, that meant no hot spices or pungent herbs, no onions or garlic or caffeine – obviously no meat, and very little sugar. We did get small amounts of milk, cheese and yoghurt but most of our diet consisted of vegetables, grains and fruit. You could choose to buy extras like eggs, carrot cake and coffee but I made a conscious decision to stick as closely as I could to the sattvic diet, with no snacks, and staying with it on our days off, as long as I felt well, and had sufficient energy for the pretty intense course.
First of all, let me say the food was all perfectly acceptable and palatable. The portions were more than adequate for me. The first few days I enjoyed it. But it was a bit bland, and the menu was repeated every few days and rapidly became boring. I don’t eat a lot of meat or eggs so i didn't miss them and I quickly got used to going without chocolate, cake and alcohol. The bit I struggled most with was the lack of caffeine. After about five days of almost constant lethargy and headaches (at least partly jet lag I’m sure), I gave in and allowed myself one cup of iced coffee a day which was just enough to keep the caffeine withdrawal symptoms at bay .
What I found most interesting was how much my appetite waned because I wasn’t really interested in the food. My taste buds were not being constantly overstimulated. I soon started requesting less on my plate, and still ended up throwing some away. I was rarely hungry and if I was, a small amount sufficed. My body did not miss the food at all. My mouth however did. On my first day off I went to the local beach and for lunch ordered Thai vegetable noodles – which although vegetarian, had spices, salt and sugar in. When the plate came out I could not believe the size of the helping – huge, far more than I would ever normally eat. But it was so delicious and flavoursome that I polished off the lot and almost licked the plate – not because I was hungry but just for the flavours.
After about two weeks I decided to let go of my purely mental cravings for food and stop obsessing about it. One of things we try to achieve in yoga in “vairagya” – non attachment to material things as a way of stilling the restless mind. My task wasn’t made easy by the fact that everyone else on the course was still constantly talking about food, or the lack of it. But for the most part I ate only the minimum required to satisfy my hunger. By the end of my stay I was fasting from 7:30 in the evening till lunchtime the next day.
Did my diet make me feel better – it’s hard to tell. I felt fine but then I didn’t feel unhealthy before. I was in a very different environment, living a different lifestyle, in radically different temperatures and humidity. The main difference I noticed was less dryness in my nasal passages. I had plenty of energy and my digestive system worked perfectly normally the whole time I was there. Did I lose weight? No. Not an ounce. Did I look different? My hair was very happy (even other people commented on it) and it did seem the dark circles and puffiness under my eyes faded a little.
On reflection, I’m fairly sure that the lack of sugar and general blandness of the food suppressed my appetite. But the main thing I learnt from the experience was how much I use food (and drink) not as sustenance, but for other reasons. I don’t need to eat a fraction of what I normally consume. I eat more for the sensual qualities of the food, the smells, tastes and textures. I eat and drink to be sociable – for the sense of community sharing food brings, and quite often I eat for the pleasure of forbidden fruit. The India experience helped me to really put “vairagya”, letting go, into action and for a while I largely succeeded in stilling my mind from its constant chattering about food (which normally occupies an inordinately large proportion of my thinking). Now I’ve returned home with that understanding I might be able to make some better choices – after I’ve had a glass of red wine and some chocolate that is.