When you are on a diet, every morsel of food is had with guilt. Looks like there are even cheat days in diet plans that allow the dieter to take an occasional day or time off and have some cheat foods. But that too comes with a lot of guilt and compensation. Especially if you in the Yogic path, you will need at least 3 hours after food to take up any practice but with the kind of food that we eat, we hardly get the necessary gap.
Is there a right quantity of food? Is there a good way to measure how much is necessary and sufficient. These are questions that run in the mind on anyone looking at reducing weight or boosting strength or exercising. Different foods satisfy hunger differently. Sweets make us want to eat them more and more but then we feel satiated after a point. We end up regretting having had those sweets when we catch a cold or feel sleepy (increase in kapha). High fibre diets reduce food intake because they may be hard to eat or take longer time to digest or impact harmones connected to food intake. Even if the 2 different foods have the same amount of calories, the ingredients could make you feel satisfied or go for more.
For some people, consuming the same food daily could also reduce the palatability of the food. Mentally, they may start rejecting the food leading to reduced consumption. We often yield to temptation and end up eating more than what we need. After such a meal, we feel heavy, drowsy and uneasy. Our full focus is on the stomach and we can barely read, meditate etc.
One problem that Sadhakas have with regular intake of heavy meals is the lack of enough time gap to devote to sadhana. If one has to spend 3-4 in Yoga sadhana or Dhyana then one may have to look into the frequency and quantity of food. Taking breaks for food can be distracting and at the same time an empty stomach can be a disturbance too. To find the right balance is always tricky. That is when we need the help of our Shastras.
Thirukkural 941 says
மிகினும் குறையினும் நோய்செய்யும் நூலோர்
வளிமுதலா எண்ணிய மூன்று.
If (food and work are either) excessive or deficient, the three things enumerated by (medical) writers, Vata-Pitta-Kapha, will cause (one) disease.
The Matrasitiya Adhyaya of the Sutra Sthana of Ashtanga Hridayam is dedicated to providing insights on the right quantity of food to partake.
मात्राशी सर्वकालं स्यान्मात्रा हि अग्नेः प्रवर्तिका
मात्रां द्रव्याण्यपेक्षन्ते गुरुण्यापि लघून्यापि
गुरुणामर्धसौहित्यं लघूनां नातितृप्तता
मात्राप्रमाणं निर्दिष्टं सुखं यावत् विजीर्यति
The chapter starts by saying that proper quantity of food should be had as only that promotes proper digestion. Foods that are easy to digest and hard to digest, both need our attention.
भोजनं हीनमात्रं तु न बलोपचयौजसे
सर्वेषां वातरोगाणां हेतुतां प्रपध्यते
अतिमात्रं पुनः सर्वानाशु दोषान् प्रकोपयेत्
Consuming less food leads to loss of strength and ojas (the essence and vitality) and causes all types of vata disorders (gastric and flatulence problems).
What happens when we have excess quantity of food?
पीड्यमानो हि वाताद्या युगपत्तेन कोपिताः
आमेनान्नेन दुष्टेन तदेवाविश्य कुर्वते
विष्टम्भयन्तो अलसकं च्यावयन्तो विसूचिकाम्
Excess quantity of food results in:
a. Sudden increase in Vata and other doshas
b. produces diseases due to undigested food and toxins (ama)
c. causes Alaska by blocking the movement of food inside the alimentary tract
d. results in expulsion of food both downward(diarrhoea) and upward (vomitting)
These conditions are seen in people who gluttons and crave for food.
The Ashtanga Hrudaya further says that the imbalanced doshas create further complications including abdominal pain, piercing sensations in stomach, bloating, dullness, hallucinations, fever, panic, difficulty in speaking etc. Hence the right quantity of food is key to good health.
Bhagavan Shri Krishna, while speaking about Dhyana, says that:
नात्यश्नतस्तु योगोऽस्ति न चैकान्तमनश्नत: |
न चाति स्वप्नशीलस्य जाग्रतो नैव चार्जुन || 16||
nātyaśhnatastu yogo ’sti na chaikāntam anaśhnataḥ
na chāti-svapna-śhīlasya jāgrato naiva chārjuna
युक्ताहारविहारस्य युक्तचेष्टस्य कर्मसु |
युक्तस्वप्नावबोधस्य योगो भवति दु:खहा || 17||
yuktāhāra-vihārasya yukta-cheṣhṭasya karmasu
yukta-svapnāvabodhasya yogo bhavati duḥkha-hā
Yoga does not become possible for those who eat too much or too little, those who sleep too much or do not get enough sleep. But those who are moderate in food, sleep, work and entertainment become the slayer of all sorrows.
The understanding of “moderation” is key to happy and healthy life. When we take up anything new we tend to over do and then we end feeling tired or bored of it. This works in highs and lows and rarely moderate. Raga-Devasha too works like that. We either like something or hate it. In these extremes, we lose a sense of the right amount of something. This reminds me of a story. There was once an old wheel-maker working in the palace of a king. When approached by the king’s attendants to make the wheel of the king’s chariot, the wheel-maker said that he was too old to start the job. The attendants asked if he could handover the job to his son. The wheel-maker was in tears saying that he couldn’t teach his son how to make wheels because if the wheels were too rough the chariot wouldn’t move and if they were too soft, the chariot would skid. He never could find the best way to teach how to make wheels that were neither rough nor smooth. We are like the wheel-maker, always wondering what would be the best amount of food to eat such that it would neither be heavy or nor too light. But a experimentation and observing the impact of various quantities of food on our practices is the best way to learn.
The Thirukkural, written by Thiruvalluvar, has very practical insights on food.
அற்றால் அறவறிந்து உண்க அஃதுடம்பு
பெற்றான் நெடிதுய்க்கும் ஆறு. (943)
Once the previous meal has digested, consuming the right quantity that is needed leads to a long and healthy life.
தீ அளவு அன்றித்தெரியான் பெரிது உண்ணின்
நோய் அளவு இன்றிப்படும் ( 947 )
When one feeds oneself beyond the capability of his digestive fire, diseases develop.
What can one do?
~ Intake your regular quantity and observe when your stomach feels light (after how many hours). Also observe if you feel sleep after a while. Meditate after 3 hours and see the impact. Do you feel disturbed or still? Are any of the nostrils blocked badly? Do you feel drowsy?
~ Try intaking food that is a little bit less than what you normally eat. See if it affects your practices. Try this for a few days and if this enhances your experience of Dhyana or any other practice, then this may be a good quantity
~ Try reducing further and see if this helps or gives hunger pangs. Does this stomach grumble while meditating? Then may be you may a little more food to keep you stable. Pranayama can reduce the need for compulsive eating.
~ Poha/Aval is a meditator’s super food. A handful of dry poha can satisfy hunger pangs and yet not overload the stomach.