By A. G. Mohan with Dr. Ganesh Mohan
Yoga will not fructify in a practitioner without tapas.
COMMENTARY OF VYASA, YOGA SUTRAS 2.1
Control over the quality and quantity of food we eat is critical for a successful yoga practice. Even more important, a balanced diet is necessary for good health. For long life, restricted eating is a must.
I remember Krishnamacharya reiterating many times over the years, “A yoga practitioner must eat less.” He was of the opinion that a person should make every effort to avoid becoming overweight, or as he used to say in his English, a “fatty body.” He was speaking of being lean only from the perspective of health and long life. In those days—unlike today—there was not the obsession with being thin as a cosmetic endpoint. In 1934 Krishnamacharya wrote on this topic in the Yoga Makaranda. He was describing a seated forward bend (janusirshasana). This passage is intentionally dramatic, as he wished to exhort people to practice yoga (few were practicing yoga in those days, and Krishnamacharya was trying hard to kindle people’s interest).
Those who have excess fat [“bad flesh,” in his words] on their waist and belly will find it very difficult to practice this [janusirshasana]. Over time, if practiced diligently, the fat around the waist, belly, and nearby places will melt away, the nadis and joints will become clear, and the head will touch the knees. Fat is the cause of the body not bending; it will melt away through asana practice.
Many people think they are healthy, though their belly pushes outward like a pumpkin. Others think that the bigger their arms and thighs are [from fat], the greater the strength in them, and they continue to encourage their increasing size. We can say with certainty that this is a wrong belief. Good health does not lie in increasing the size of the body. The limbs of adults should be supple and easily flexible, like the limbs of children, with an unhindered flow of prana and circulation of blood.
All of us know that those who are overweight or with a big belly are often short of breath. They do not realize that the flow of prana is not smooth throughout their body. The accumulation of fat hinders the flow of prana. Dust does not fly away without a breeze, is it not? The earth does not become soft without water, is it not? Thus, if we want the flow of prana to reach all parts of the body smoothly, the fat that is accumulated like a wall must be removed. The power to remove this fat lies only with the prana itself, not in medicines.
If we face early death, the cause for that is the belly and nothing else. The residence of death is nowhere but in the bulging belly. Is it not unwise that we who wish for health and and a long life should increase the size of our belly and give death a place to reside therein? Therefore, this janusirshasana should be practiced with discipline; it will result in the belly decreasing, however large it maybe. As the fat reduces, we can be certain that the death residing in it is leaving.
Once after a somewhat overweight monk visited him, Krishnamacharya said to me disapprovingly, “A monk should be lean. It appears that control over food habits might be lacking.” Holding up his index finger, he waggled it to indicate that a monk should be lean and supple.
Krishnamacharya was not offering idle advice to others; he followed his own advice without fail throughout his life. He had a flat abdomen even when he was in his nineties.
Krishnamacharya once gave a wonderful talk on how our body is both our enemy and our friend. He said, “We should not fight with our body; we must be friendly with it. Our body becomes our enemy if we eat indiscriminately and become overweight and unwieldy. Our body is our friend if we are lean and healthy, as it will help us in practicing yoga.”
So how do we manage the body? Krishnamacharya beautifully adapted the ancient four-step solution, well known in the Indian epic the Mahabharata, to the body and diet. The main story of the Mahabharata describes five righteous and noble brothers—known as the Pandavas—who belonged to a royal family. In the story, the brothers have been deprived of their inheritance, a share of a kingdom, by their cousins, the Kauravas. After many twists and turns in the story, the Pandavas finally request that their share of the kingdom be returned. A lesson in statecraft is presented through the story.
The first of the four steps is called sama, the effort to speak with the enemy, come to a mutually agreeable conclusion, and make friends with him or her. In the Mahabharata, this is the first step the Pandavas take. They try to reason with their cousins and point out the legitimacy of their claim. In applying this step to managing the body, we would follow a disciplined lifestyle and eat a moderate and healthy diet. By doing this, we respect and make friends with our body, thus gaining its cooperation for the practice of yoga.
If the first step fails, the next is dana. In this step, one concedes what the enemy wants, thereby gaining his support. In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas lower their demands repeatedly and are willing to settle for less:
“We will leave the kingdom to you. Just give us five cities.”
“Then give us five villages. Let us avoid conflict.”
“At least give us a mere five houses.”
“We will not give you even the land covered by the tips of five needles!”
Similarly, if the body does not cooperate with food discipline—that is, if the tongue is too strong and draws us to eat unhealthful food, we follow dana to subdue the tongue. We do not begin by fighting with the tongue; instead, we placate it by giving it the food it wants, but we begin doing more asana and pranayama. As we practice more healthful asana and pranayama, we feel lightness in the body and a sense of wellness. A reluctance to lose this feeling of wellness helps us resist eating indiscriminately. Thus we can control our unhealthy food habits over time, supported by good asana and pranayama practice.
If the second measure also fails, the third is bheda, in which one speaks with a friend or supporter of the enemy and removes his power, thus creating divisions in the enemy camp to avoid war. In the Mahabharata, the head of the Kauravas is called Duryodhana. His bosom friend and support is Karna. The Pandavas send Krishna, their well-wisher in the story, as a messenger to the Kaurava camp. Krishna speaks with Karna and tries to woo him away from Duryodhana, revealing to Karna the truth of his parentage: that Karna was abandoned as an infant and is actually a half brother of the Pandavas. Karna is distressed but remains steadfast in his loyalty to Duryodhana, saying, “Krishna, I know that you have justice on your side. I also know that Duryodhana will lose in the war that is inevitable now. Still, he gave me my life, respect, and trust when all others looked down upon me. I will not turn my back on him in his hour of need. I will lay down my life for him in battle.”
If the body has too much fat and the mind wanders unnecessarily, asana and pranayama will not be sufficient to turn around one’s habits. To break the cycle, it is necessary to apply bheda—to interrupt the support for the tongue. Fasting for a day every now and then or skipping a meal will help bring the tongue to heel. It will also help strengthen our will by giving our mind the message that all whims will not be satisfied.
Finally, if all other measures fail, force or punishment (danda) is the only recourse. In the Mahabharata, this results in the epic war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, the culmination of their conflict, and the setting for the Bhagavad Gita.
If the body and mind are spoiled, serious transformation can come about only through strong measures. Certain restrictions become necessary, like completely giving up the unhealthy food items that we like most, like sweets or chocolates, or avoiding salt or fatty foods entirely for an extended time—say, one month. This is firm discipline for the body and mind; it is like going to battle with them. They will protest, but as long as our health is not affected, strong determination will help us prevail and effect the desired transformation.
Note that this four-step approach can be applied just as well to the other aspects of our life—the discipline could involve not watching television or not speaking about someone, for instance, depending on which aspect of our mind and behavior we wish to transform.
Another reason Krishnamacharya emphasized eating less was pranayama—the practice that he believed was most important for a long life. Proper pranayama is not possible without a controlled diet.If we eat heavily, the breath will be short and erratic, the bandhas will be impossible, and the mind will be dull. A verse at the end of the section on pranayama in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika supports this view, listing “slimness of body” as the first sign of success in practicing asanas and pranayama.
The signs of perfection in hatha yoga are: slimness of the body, brightness in the face, manifestation of the inner sound (nada), very clear eyes, freedom from disease, control over the seminal fluid, stimulation of the [digestive] fire, and complete purification of the nadis.
HATHA YOGA PRADIPIKA 2.78
A. G. Mohan, longtime disciple of the legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), is an internationally renowned yoga teacher and author of Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind (1993, Rudra Press, USA), Yoga Therapy (2004, Shambhala Publications, USA), Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings (2010, Shambhala Publications, USA) and Yoga Reminder (2015).