Yoga and Nutrition

Yoga, ahimsa, and diet

As a yoga teacher and nutritionist, I’m often asked what a “yogic diet” is. While I don’t believe there is one-and-only-one yogic diet (the same way there is no one-and-only-one diabetes or weight reduction diet), I do turn to the ancient text, the Yoga Sutras, to offer some definition as well as food for thought.

The Yoga Sutras are 196 aphorisms, recorded by the sage Patanjali, that outline the practice of Ashtanga (“eight-limbed”) yoga. The Sanskrit word sutra means thread. Indeed, the verses provide a common thread or backbone to organize the philosophy and teachings of this type of yoga, and may be built upon and woven into again and again.

When most people hear “yoga,” they think of exercises performed to stretch and strengthen the body. But in fact, the Yoga Sutras contain only one verse about asana, or physical poses. And, of the eight arms in Ashtanga yoga, only one has to do with physical poses.  Most of the teaching and philosophy is devoted to understanding the mind and living a harmonious life.

While yoga philosophy may be applied to nutrition in myriad ways, I’d like to address just the first part of the first arm in Ashtanga yoga: ahimsa, or non-harming. 

It is impossible to go through life and never harm another living entity, whether by our direct or indirect actions or our words. However, I would argue we have not only the ability to minimize the suffering we cause other sentient beings, but also the responsibility to do so.  Our dietary choices are a critical way we can uphold that responsibility.

Vegetarianism and veganism are often touted as the most yogic diets in that they eschew killing or harming animals for food. Another way to look at ahimsa is the active promotion and protection of life. When a person does not eat animals – whether furred, finned, or feathered – she does protect the lives of sentient beings.  The lines become blurred, however, when we consider how animals used for food are treated, raised, or killed. In Ayurveda, dairy foods are often considered sattvic or pure, clean, and good. Traditionally, cows were sacred beings in the Hindu religion, and if they freely gave their milk, this was an honor and gift. The same cannot be said of cows in today’s factory farms – animals may be kept in a forced state of lactation, in confined and unsanitary conditions. The resultant dairy foods may be tainted with added hormones and antibiotics. Not only are animals harmed, but the milk they produce is no longer pure, natural, and good.

Some individuals are comfortable consuming eggs only if they are from hens raised in safe, clean conditions, who are allowed to roam freely and fed a healthy diet. Other people would still say this is taking advantage of sentient beings to serve our own desires. How about a small dairy farm in New York state where goats and sheep are kept for cheese making, but treated gently through their lives? We also have the option of soy cheese; however, conventional soybean agriculture may contribute to deforestation and the destruction of indigenous species in South America. What if we eat fish that lived freely in the wild – but were caught using methods like trawling or gillnetting that destroy not only animals themselves, but, in turn, ecosystems? Is this preferable to consuming fish raised in “farms”? Animals aside, what about food that is produced with the use child labor (such as some cocoa) or by persons in unsafe or abusive work conditions (such as meat from some slaughterhouses)?

Perhaps no meal is entirely benign of consequences. The problem arises when the distinction between what causes harm, versus what fosters people’s and animals’ natural lives, is determined more by our taste buds, convenience, or economic concerns than a true regard for ahimsa.

It’s important to remember that ahimsa is also taking care of ourselves – not harming our own bodies or spirits. A friend of mine recently received chemotherapy that caused his body to reject most food. To help protect his life, I suggested liberalizing his diet for the time being, so that he had more options for nourishment, rather than limiting his dietary choices.

The word yoga means to bring together, or unite. The yoga described in the Yoga Sutra is non-dualistic. There’s no dictate to worship Krishna, Jesus, or Mohammed. Patanjali doesn’t say a yogi must meditate on one correct object, or speak one correct language. Similarly, there’s no one correct way to eat. Certain principles delineate what a healthful and compassionate diet is. Within these guidelines, we have flexibility to craft a perfect diet for ourselves. As long as we consciously think about ahimsa and do our best to reduce suffering for all, we are on the right path.


Further reading and resources:

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda. Integral Yoga, 1978.

The Yoga Mala: The The Original Teachings of Ashtanga Yoga Master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. North Point Press, 1999.

The Humane Society of the United States.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.


The skinny on soy

Whether the conversation is about cancer or vegan diets or just plain tastiness, everyone has something to say about soy. There's a lot of misinformation out there, perhaps from well-meaning sources, but potentially troublesome nonetheless. Here's an attempt to offer some clarity.

First, let's talk about breast cancer risk. While some early studies in rodents showed questionable effects of soy, we now understand that rats and humans metabolize estrogen very differently! Large studies in human females (rather than their furry little counterparts) show that whole soy foods such as miso, tofu, and edamame do NOT increase risk of primary breast cancer or recurrence. Data suggesting that soy foods may reduce breast cancer risk is exciting and promising. However, such evidence comes mostly from studies where women had been eating soy foods over a lifetime and therefore had early exposure. We don’t know if starting to eat soy foods later in life confers the same benefits. Women in these studies also may have had other diet or lifestyle habits that contributed to their reduced cancer risk. If you have a personal history of breast cancer or are at high risk, go ahead and enjoy the soy, just keep the portions practical. Research suggests a limited dose-response benefit of soy foods with regard to breast cancer recurrence and total mortality: about 10 grams of soy per day (the amount in a cup of soy milk) seemed to offer the maximum benefit.

Whole soy foods are a great source of calcium, protein, and other nutrients. They're extremely versatile and can be prepared in many delicious ways. But they're not magic. They won't, in and of themselves make you lose weight or relieve every future hot flash, or result in other jazzy phenomena you may read about. 

There’s less research on concentrated soy products, such as soy protein isolate, which are sometimes used as meat analogs. Processed foods with added soy protein are still processed foods, and likely not the best for our health for a number of reasons, including typically sky-high amounts of sodium. There is also insufficient data to show benefits with soy isoflavone oral supplement pills.

Ingredients like soybean oil and soy lecitihin are often found in small amounts in dietary supplement pills. This amount of soy is trivial, unless of course, one has an extreme allergic reaction to soy.

Soybean oil isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but it does have a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fat compared with, say, olive oil. So stick with the latter for you salad dressings and sautees.

Keep in mind, most soy crops grown in the United States are genetically modified, unless they are certified organic, in which case you're in the clear. So if you're concerned with GMO, this is one food where you'll want to check labels.



"The Operator"

The New Yorker recently ran an informative and thought-provoking article on Dr Mehmet Oz. I've noticed particularly in the past 6 months or so, everyone from my patients to my friends to my dentist have asked me about recommendations Dr Oz has made. I'm troubled by much of what he promotes these days, and I find myself steering people away from his advice more often than not. Read a snapshot of my thoughts, in a letter I wrote to The New Yorker that was published yesterday. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too.


8 tips to get to the other side of February

February may have fewer days than any other month, but it sure can feel long. If it has to be, why not make it joyful? Herein, some healthy ideas to keep on keeping on for two more weeks... 


1. Coffee

Some evenings, I go to bed already looking forward to the next day's coffee. No fewer than eleven of my friends admit the same. My opinion? Enjoy that hot, caffeinated liquid goodness; just don't over-ingest. There are worse things you could be doing each morning.


 2. Yoga

Get your body moving. Your outer body will thank you and your subtle body needs it, whether your thinking head realizes it or not. You know how good you feel when you finish vinyasa class? Yeah. That. Going upside-down and sideways, and seeing the world from a different view -- literally -- breaks up the monotony, happily revs your nervous and endocrine systems, improves blood flow, and quite possibly prevents wrinkles.  


3. Spiritual reading and/or a stellar novel

Whatever makes you tick. Bury yourself and enjoy. If you need ideas, here's my list. 

- Recently read: Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron

- Recently re-read: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy* 

- In progress: Look At Me, Jennifer Egan

- On tap: Spiritual Bypassing, Robert Augustus Masters.  


4. Put one foot in front of the other

Bundle up and go outside. Run or walk for a few minutes, or a few miles. It's fun to get really cold on the outside and really sweaty on the inside, then come home to a steaming shower. Other benefits: seeing trees, a river, the sky, dogs. 


5. Sephora

New lipstick is no small pick-me-up.**


6. Baking 

This one is obvious. Contrary to popular belief, Christmas is not the time for cookies. Who needs more cookies in December? The time is now. Commit to a whole day messing around with whole wheat pastry flour and shaved dark chocolate. Side benefit: It's nice to have the oven on when it's 30 degrees out.


7. Cat photos



8. Get on a plane and get out of the cold

After thirty-something years, I know this about myself: I get really blue around February, and I feel happier when I go somewhere hot and tropical for a few days. For years, I waited for the right man to sweep me away on a romantic and pineapple-drink-filled Caribbean vacation. This year, I thought ahead, and booked a solo trip for myself to the east coast of Barbados. Rough, rocky beaches, very few tourists, botanical gardens... it was lovely. If a trip out of the country is too much to ponder right now, start thinking about next year. Having something good to look forward to is so important!


* (If you haven't read this, START NOW. Seriously. This book IS about karma, emptiness, and the meaning of life. And it's impossible to put down.)


** I know this one doesn't help if you're a man. I'm sorry.


Tent Bay, Bathsheba, Barbados


It's 18 degrees out. Go inside and turn on your oven.

I'm a summer girl at heart. I love the sun and warmth, abundant vegetables and fruits, and myriad opportunities for healthy plant-based meals. Come winter, I've been known to fall into a food rut. Let's face it: life doesn't look the same without plump New Jersey blueberries to sprinkle in muffins, or oodles of garden-fresh basil to put in, well, everything. To break out of the doldrums, I've been experimenting with ingredients that have a long shelf-life, and are just as delicious whether you use them in January or July. At the top of my list are nut and seed butters.

We’ve all eaten good old peanut butter. But when is the last time you enjoyed sunflower seed butter or cashew butter? It's worth playing with the whole lot of them. Nut butters are calorie-dense for their volume, so portion control is a consideration. However, even a small amount of nuts, seeds, or their butters offer essential fats, protein, fiber, and many micronutrients. Two tablespoons of almond butter contain about 6 grams of fiber, 7 grams of protein, as well as iron. The same amount of sunflower seed butter provides vitamin E, zinc, copper, and beneficial monounsaturated fat. 

The following sunflower butter muffins make a delicious breakfast. The healthy fat, fiber, and protein from sunflower seeds make for a satiating little meal that will keep you feeling full all morning. Coconut oil imparts lush moistness and a hint of tropical taste. And whole wheat pastry flour bumps up both the flavor and fiber, without being gritty or dense.  I love these topped with a dollop of honey or strawberry jam. 

Sometimes it only takes one fun new recipe to brighten a winter day. Let me know if you agree.


Sunflower Muffins



3/4 c whole wheat pastry flour

3/4 c unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 c sunflower seed butter

1 c brown sugar

1/4 c canola oil

1/4 c unrefined coconut oil

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 c almond milk or soy milk

1 c finely chopped mixed nuts (I like pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts, and hazelnuts. You can use whatever you have on hand and like best.)



1. Preheat oven to 375˚ and place paper liners in muffin tin.

2. Combine flours, baking powder and salt, and set aside.

3. In a standard mixer, combine sunflower butter, sugar, oils, egg, vanilla. Add in soymilk and mix until batter is evenly textured.

4. Add dry ingredients to above, mix just until combined. Stir in half of the chopped nuts.

5. Fill muffin cups about 3/4-full with batter. Top each muffin with a sprinkle of the remaining 1/2 cup of chopped nuts.

6. Bake until tops are browned and a knife inserted to the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes.


These muffins are delicious straight from the oven, but even better if you let them stand for a few hours after baking. They keep well for 2 days in a tightly sealed container, or wrap extras in foil and keep in the freezer for up to 2 months.


Makes 12 medium-sized muffins



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