Common Ground Food is the First Yoga April 2014


Food is the First Yoga

The father of modern yoga, Sri Krishnamacharya—the guru of B. K. S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois—famously said, “The first yoga is food.” [i]

From age 15 to 18, B. K. S. Iyengar lived and ate with Krishnamacharya.[2] When Krishnamacharya cooked, it was so good, Iyengar called it madhupakam–“like honey.”[3]

Krishnamacharya was an Ayurvedic doctor as well as a yogi, and his medical prescriptions included mantras, yoga poses, and food.[i]
He said, “Food is the first medicine.”
Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

We know that food can heal us as well as doctor’s care.

There is evidence of breatharians, but most of us still eat, and if the first yoga is food, we’ll eat with the same care that we practice poses.
Like yoga, eating is a razor’s edge. Yoga can damage muscle and tendon and bone.  Bad eating can ruin your digestion, your circulation and your sanity. 

Honoring stillness makes both yoga and food yummy.  The well-known Slow Food movement aims at mindfulness when eating, and studies by Duke University[5] and others confirm that “slow eating” aids digestion and reduces stress.  Duke’s studies show prayers or pauses before meals prepare the digestive tract to receive.

Rest-and-digest is fight-or-flight’s metabolic opposite.  To get to “rest and digest,” we do a reboot.  Pray, pause, (or even toast!) your meal and you’ll start turning your nerves toward “digest” mode, just like stillness in yoga creates “rest” mode.

Pausing makes eating yogic.  It fulfills the promise of Krishnamacharya’s teaching.

Krishnamacharya was a great philosopher, and he knew that there was more to eating than the two clever quips of his I quote above.  He knew that both food and yoga help us deal with desire.  There are few moments when desire flares up more than when we eat (perhaps only sex, money or fame inflame us more). 

Yoga’s philosophy says desire’s hot flames drive the engine of existence.

Living things on Earth want to eat—to eat experiences, sensations, emotions, etc.

Freedom comes from understanding our desires and using them wisely.  Otherwise, the karma they bear keeps us mindlessly eating and birthing and dying on this Earth until we learn to pay attention to this life we’ve come into.

MeatRLichtenstein1962Krishnamacharya understood the three vibrations of the world that drive us forward:  rajas, tamas, and sattva (Active, Inactive and Balanced) and how they impact our eating and karma.  

Heavy, less-fresh foods (tamasic) weaken awareness and bind us closer to our karmic programming.  Tamasic food can sequester us in a cold, unchanging cycle of habit.

We can eat stimulating rajasic foods to see-saw us in the opposite direction—toward blind action—or hold out for food that is sweet to the system, and enhancing to our awareness.

We can seek food that’s madhupakam, like honey.

We can seek food that is sattvic.

Who knew the Bhagavad Gita gave diet advice?  It tells us:

Delicious food . . .

is different with different people.

The sattvika likes food to be pleasing,

soft, savory, juicy, and healthful,


The rajasika likes food

to be bitter, sour, salty, dry, burning;

food that produces pain, sorrow,

and ill health.

–BG 17: 8 -9

Like the yin and yang of Chinese worldview (formulated in the early Common Era, near the time of the Gita), yoga teaches us about tamas (yin) and rajas (yang).

In synergy, these universal dualities create sattva.

Tao Safeway.

We want food that is whole.  Sattva can be called the whole “Yin-Yang” symbol (called the Tai Chi Tu). It is like the old Safeway Grocery Store sign!  Yoga aims at Sattva.  Healthy foods aim at sattva, too.

Pausing creates the sattvic mind.

We can pursue a “yoga of food” both inwardly and outwardly.

The prayer, or toast, or dose of silence before feeding cuts us free of greed.  It opens us to ease.

The Yoga Makaranda, p. 1934

The Yoga Makaranda, p. 1934

We can eat as a king or queen whens stopping to allow our whole selves to receive.  Quiet reflection also helps us choose sattvic food to begin with.  It sensitizes us to the subtle effects of eating, and helps us choose foods that support our path of yoga.

Krishnamacharya felt strongly about this.

Fiercely self-disciplined, he ordered all aspects of his life, and he lived to be 100 (1888 – 1889).  He ate carefully and did meditation and devotions from the moment he arose at 2am each morning![6]

In his Yoga Makaranda, (pub. 1934), he wrote, “Those who have incorrect food habits are unfit to undertake yoga.”[7]

Abide by the wisdom of yoga and make eating the “first yoga” of an exceptional life.


[1] Desikachar, T. K. V. 1998, Health, Healing and Beyond: Yoga and the Living Tradition of Krishnamacharya, New York: Aperture, p. 36

[2] Iyengar, B. K. S., 2001 (1991), Iyengar, His Life and Work, Manuso Manos, ed., New Delhi: CBS Publishers and Distributors, pp. 7 – 20

[3] Iyengar, B. K. S., 2000, Astadala Yogamala, New Delhi: Allied Publishers, p. 52

[4] Desikachar, Kausthub. 2005, The Yoga of the Yogi:  The Legacy of Krishnamacharya, Krishnamcharya Yoga Mandiram, passim.

[6] Mohan, A. G., Krishnamacharya, His life and Teachings, Boston: Shambhala, p. 81.

[7] Krishnamacharya, Tirumalai, 2011 (1934), Yoga Makaranda, T. K. V. Desikachar, trans., Chennai:  Media Garuda, p. 62