do we need to meditate?
If anything threatens, or lessens our feelings
of security and comfort, our will body react in
a way that helps us either fight and destroy the
threat, or run away to escape it. Scientists call
this bodily reaction to feeling threatened 'the
fight or flight response'.
If this response happens often, it has a detrimental
effect and can seriously rob us of happiness and
health. Over time, this physical response to stress,
speeds up the rate of wear and tear, and ageing
of the body and makes us more vulnerable to many
All sorts of situations can make us feel threatened
every day. Most of us have felt the fear of a
narrow escape when driving, or insecurity when
a friend lets us down. Many of us regularly experience
the effects of mild, or even intensely stressful
situations. Some people report that they are mostly
always tense and seldom feel really safe, secure,
and relaxed. The fearful feelings of anxiety,
guilt, panic and dread that we experience when
tense, are part of the fight or flight response.
To be happy and relaxed we need to understand
the fight or flight response and learn when and
how to calm it down. Practicing meditation gives
us both the understanding and the skills to calm
body and mind.
Research has shown that the practice of meditation
creates a different response in the body, the
very opposite response to the fight or flight
syndrome, scientists have called it 'the relaxation
And what is so good about meditating regularly
is that an experienced meditator can switch on
the 'relaxation response' and switch off the 'fight
or flight response' whenever they want to.
Fight or Flight Response
If we are faced with danger, a real danger such
as seeing a poisonous snake, or even an imaginary
danger, such as mistaking a coiled up piece of
rope in the shadows as a poisonous snake, our
nervous system leaps into action. An area in our
brain called the hypothalamus tells our pituitary
gland to inform the adrenal glands to produce
the hormone adrenaline. At the same time the other
sympathetic nerves in our body secrete noradrenalin.
Our endocrine system secretes hormones directly
into the bloodstream to give us the energy to
fight or flee. Vasopressin constricts blood vessels,
endorphins suppress pain so that we can fight
or flee without being stopped by pain and thyroxin
increases our metabolic rate.
Adrenalin and glucocorticoids cause the liver
to flood the blood stream with glucose, giving
us the fuel we need to fight or flee. Normally
we can feel these changes occurring, our body
temperature increases and we feel hot and perspire,
also our breathing pattern changes as our oxygen
consumption increases speeding up our breathing
rate. As the metabolic rate increase in the cells,
we feel agitated and shaky.
response to stress also produces a huge range
of other effects. It has been described as the
body acting like a nation at war, diverting resources
from less important services to the battlefront.
Indeed that is exactly what happens, for example
our digestion slows down, our immune system slows
down, and the process of energy storage and the
functioning of our reproduction system, amongst
other things, switch off. Dealing with the threat
to our security, be that a real or imaginary threat,
becomes priority for the body.
All these processes prepare the body to fight,
or escape from whom, or what, caused our experience
of stress, worry or fear. The fight or flight
response is programmed in each of us to make sure
we survive and feel safe and secure. It works
quickly and efficiently without us even thinking
about it. Its purpose is to save our life and
keep us safe. The response itself is not a problem.
Should we ever be really under an immediate threat
such as facing a tiger, or a mugger, an efficient
fight or flight response will help us out, and
hopefully save our life.
In real danger the fight and flight response quickly
provides the necessary resources to conquer, or
escape. Once all the fight or flight chemicals,
nutrients and hormones are used up by fighting
or fleeing, the now safe and secure body/mind
calms again. This system worked very well for
early humans who actually faced real dangers on
a regular basis. They needed to fight or flee
from tigers, wolves and other life threatening
However when we modern humans get stressed we
set off the same reaction in our body, yet we
do not have the same opportunity to fight or flee
from the causes of our stress. The things that
cause us stress are different.
We cannot fight someone on the street for stepping
on our toes, or run away from a unexpectedly high
credit card bill. But still we have the same internal
physical reaction. The fight or flight response
that once saved early humans, now sometimes becomes
the enemy of us modern humans. Over time the chemicals
set off by the fight or flight response can slowly
cripple us from within, simply because we are
living a completely different lifestyle to our
hunter gatherer ancestors. Our fight or flight
response is out of date and not caught up with
how best to deal with often milder, but more frequent
stresses we experience in our lives today.
Because of this out of date system, we can find
ourselves becoming stuck in an agitated, or stressed
out state. We discover we still get upset when
feeling our sense of safety being threatened,
maybe by losing a partner to another, or losing
a job, or simply by feeling inadequate in a competitive
environment. However for us to survive in our
modern world we need to be accepted by society
and so it doesn't work to physically fight, or
turn and run from the people, or situations that
upset us. That means that the chemicals released
by the fight or flight response, creating anger
to encourage us to fight, or fear to encourage
us to flee, are not used up and instead they hang
around our system sustaining fearful or angry
emotions and anxious thoughts. This is a problem
for all of us. It can be that we calm down a little,
but often not back to the fully relaxed state.
Instead we stay in a place of lower, but chronic
tension, that can eat at us all day, or even longer.
Our modern human lifestyle creates chronic tension,
which means we feel scratchy and then tend to
get stressed out at the slightest irritation.
Our body/mind can be wound up sometimes for days,
weeks, even months, or a lifetime! Scientists
call it 'simmering stress'.
need (without getting over anxious about it!)
to learn how to master the controls of our own
bodies, because too much stress, for too long,
can be very detrimental to our health.
High blood pressure can give rise to heart disease,
kidney failure and respiratory failure. High metabolic
rates can result in fatigue and cell damage. Muscular
tension can lead to physical pain and injury.
Constricted respiration and heart functioning
can lead to asthma and lung infections. Reduced
blood supply to the digestive system and excess
hydrochloric acid in the stomach can produce a
range of gastrointestinal problems. The immune
system, which protects us from infection and disease,
seems to suffer the most under chronic stress.
A poor immune system affects everything, in particular
allergies, arthritis, asthma and cancer. Even
most back ache is caused by stress.
It is important to often ask ourselves the questions
"Is my body in a stressed state? Do I need
to relax myself more?" Because while the
fight or flight response is not a health problem
in itself (all animals need it for survival),
we do really need to recognise that to be stressed
when necessary is good, but only when necessary,
and only short term, as soon as possible we need
to return to a relaxed state.
Meditation is the answer. If our body is stressed
out, we can turn that around within minutes. Meditation
does just that. Meditation relaxes the body. There
are many ways to learn to relax; progressive relaxation,
breathing techniques and visualisations are just
a few. Sitting meditation has been researched
thoroughly over the years and the results are
Meditation will teach you how to activate the
relaxation response where and when you need it.
Research has shown that those who meditate regularly
can, when stressed, not only return to a relaxed
state more quickly, but also do not get so agitated
in the first place. A meditator's body is less
responsive to noradrenalin.
Because meditation relaxes our body, our mind
also calms down, during meditation our whole being
is in a self-healing state.
Meditation creates 'the relaxation response'.
The relaxation response is the opposite to the
fight or flight response. It causes a steep drop
in metabolic activity, reducing blood lactic acid
levels and muscle tension, slowing breathing and
lowering high blood pressure. It creates a shift
from faster beta brain waves to slower alpha,
theta and delta waves giving the experience of
We can often experience the relaxation response
occurring as we meditate, muscular tension is
reduced and we feel our body softening, our breathing
changes indicating a slower metabolic rate, we
feel warmth or tingling on the skin, showing blood
returning to the surface, often we notice more
saliva or tummy rumbling as the digestive system
returns to normal.
Meditation is the perfect antidote to stress.
Too much stress has us feeling angry and tired.
And worse still, over years it can cause illness
and premature death.
Meditation may not make us blissfully happy every
moment of our life, but even a short session,
that perhaps seemed a bit flat, will still lower
our physical and mental tension. Research shows
that lowering our stress levels even by five percent
could prevent illness and add years to our life.
Daily meditation is perfect as a life enhancer
by keeping us more youthful, energised, healthy,
happy and alive for longer. It does us good and
makes us feel good. Why then isn't everyone meditating?
Why do we find it so difficult to practice?
There are obstacles to overcome before we can
gain the benefits of meditation.
emotions make it difficult to sit with ourselves
Because we are so familiar with the speedy tense
'stressed out' state, we feel uncomfortable about
slowing down. It feels as if it is going against
our survival system. It feels that way because
through the pressure we are put under by society
and our families and ourselves, we seldom take
our finger off the alarm button. We can quite
easily get into being 24/7 anxious! Try telling
someone to slow down, sit down, and take a few
deep breaths when they have high alert screaming
inside them! It feels wrong to waste 'essential
fighting, or escaping time' just sitting on a
cushion dropping thoughts of potential danger
and doing what can seem like a boring and mundane
task of following each breath.
soon come to face, when sitting to meditate, the
fact that we are inwardly tense and have painful
emotions. We are all familiar with feelings of
disappointment, failure, inadequacy and resentment,
although we normally try to avoid noticing them.
To sit for five minutes faced with these negative
emotions is hardly relaxing! Our negative emotions
contain a tension that makes us want to do something
active because they fire off the fight or flight
response. Trying to avoid anything uncomfortable
is often our biggest obstacle to having a happy
Creating the relaxation response, can make us
feel a lot better emotionally, giving us a brief
mental/emotional rest or holiday.
Yet meditation can be far better than that….
After a while, we can, during our meditation practice,
calmly look at the distressing emotions such as
anger, or sadness. We can, while sitting quietly,
take a step back from them, noticing that all
thoughts and feelings come and go without us having
to act upon them. In this way we learn to detach
more and more from our previously uncontrolled
negative emotions and allow our more reasoning
mind to steer our life.
By sitting regularly we can learn to be relaxed
in the middle of life, rather than needing to
fight it or escape it.
Meditation teaches us to watch and know ourselves.
Watching allows us to notice our stress signals
such as a headache, or a churning sick feeling
in our stomach. Awareness of our body responses
to life means that we can calm ourselves, thus
immediately lowering stress levels. By watching
ourselves we also learn what our habits are, and
understand ourselves more. We notice where we
set off our 'fight or flight', what things 'get
to us', and where we over react.
How many ropes do we mistake as poisonous
This observation and insight, that only meditation
can teach us, gives us information to prevent
further distress. We realise things about our
self we simply hadn't seen before, mostly because
we were too busy being stressed and scared about
our well being.
Sitting often shows us our strengths. Most meditator's
report feeling much happier about themselves and
far more self reliant than they did before they
practiced regular meditation. The main benefit
of meditation is to know ourselves, to 'Self Realise'
(to Realise who our Self is). At a deeper philosophical
level we begin to realise that we are not the
body, or the mind and its emotions. We can see
the unity of all life. Such seeing dissolves worry.
is important to acknowledge that meditation takes
practice. Certainly we need to be patient. Just
as in learning to do anything, such as learning
to speak a foreign language, or drive a car, or
play an instrument, we are faced with our inability
at first. It can all seem so frustrating and therefore
But if we are prepared for initial feelings of
inadequacy and are willing to watch those as well,
and then keep plodding on, we will reap the rewards
of becoming an experienced meditator.
Patient perseverance is the key. It might not
be easy but it is certainly worth it.
Regular meditation makes each moment of our lives
sweeter, richer, and more worthwhile.
The alternative is not so happy. A tense life
is not much fun. Being tense means living with
an aching body, or feeling tired a lot, or ill.
Being tense means living with a fearful mind,
often anxious, angry and resentful.
takes just a few minutes, maybe half an hour each
day. But the results stay with us always.
recent study showed that experienced meditator's
were happier and more satisfied, not only during
their meditation period, but were also more accepting
and content throughout the day.
Imagine what the world could be like for human
beings, if we all sat quietly and meditated for
just twenty minutes each day.
really does begin with me!
thousands of years yoga masters have taught
the importance of good diet. Our body is
formed from the food we put in our mouths.
The importance of eating well is mentioned
in many yogic texts. The masters knew it
was important to be aware and temperate
with regard to our eating. A very old yogic
text called The Bhagavad Gita states 'This
yoga is not possible, for the one who eats
too much, or who eats too little'.
Another teaching from the 15th century,
called The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, warns students
to refrain from certain foods claiming they
are 'injurious to health', and encourages
consuming other types of food for well being.
And while some of the advice from the Hatha
Yoga Pradipika is not in agreement with
modern suggestions for healthy eating, the
basic idea of being aware of our diet and
of eating for 'well-being' was and still
is an important part of yoga practice.
Yoga Sutra which was written over two thousand
years ago teaches that everything in our
universe including ourselves and our way
of thinking, feeling and behaving and even
the food we eat, consists of three qualities
of nature. The three qualities or gunas
Sattva - the quality of truth, calmness,
Rajas - the quality of passion, frustration
Tamas - the quality of gloom, inertia, and
are advised to create a sattvic lifestyle
by eating sattvic foods, keeping sattvic
company, and thinking sattvic thoughts.
this paper on yoga diet, while explaining
food in the traditional yogic terms of the
three gunas I have also included the latest
scientific research and advice on which
foods are best for health and well-being.
Buddha taught that life is constantly changing
and that includes advice on healthy eating.
Nutrition is a fairly new science and is
often making new discoveries; please check
out the latest information, because eating
well is essential for good health.
Tamas - the quality of gloom,
inertia, and darkness
Eggs (sometimes referred to as Rajasic)
Processed food, such as white sugar
Eating foods that are over ripe, or heated
up too many times.
Over consumption of alcohol
happens to us if we eat too many tamasic
Tamasic is the state that yoga practitioners
try to avoid the most. That refers to within
as well as around us. The yoga masters suggest
that if we decide that our lifestyle is
too tamasic we need to adopt a more rajasic
way first and then gradually develop a more
Tamasic foods withdraw our energy; make
us more lethargic and vulnerable to disease.
Our mind also becomes more negative.
Eating too many tamasic foods is harmful
because they create tiredness and a stuck
feeling of being unable to move forward.
Eating too many tamasic foods makes our
thoughts become negative, and we feel despondent.
The body's resistance to disease weakens
and we can become overwhelmed by minor illness
and negative emotions such as inadequacy.
Through over-consumption of tamasic foods
our body becomes stiff, tired and prey to
viruses and infections. Life can feel like
an uphill struggle.
Of course we can experience different degrees
of tamasic qualities, depending on how much
food and other tamasic aspects affect our
Yoga and Vegetarianism
Tamasic foods include meat, and perhaps
eggs. Not all yoga practitioners, or even
all yoga masters are vegetarians. Some yoga
masters consume small amounts of meat, eggs
and other tamasic foods.
There are several reasons that may explain
why the old yogic texts describe meat as
Years ago there were no fridges and food
poisoning was a common problem. Perhaps
the advice to refrain from eating meat and
eggs was to avoid food poisoning.
Health is important to yogins. Most often
the yoga diet is lacto vegetarian which
recent scientific studies are showing to
be the healthiest diet. Following it we
are less likely to suffer from heart disease,
cancer or many other physical problems.
Some yogins choose not to eat meat for other
reasons, such as the practice of tapas or
austerity. Tapas involves doing something
difficult, to strengthen self-discipline.
When we have solid self-discipline, we can
extend our boundaries and break through
Yogins also believe in ahimsa, which means
non-violence. Many yoga practitioners make
an effort to avoid causing harm to other
creatures and so choose not to slaughter
animals for food.
Others yogins are concerned that a slaughtered
animal would have died in fear so its body
would be full of fear hormones. They do
not want to eat meat full of stress chemicals.
Some yoga practitioners are vegan. A vegan
diet requires careful planning to ensure
If you are considering becoming vegetarian,
before you make the change I suggest you
explore the scientific evidence of the value
of being a vegetarian.
- the quality of passion, frustration and
Overeating is tamasic. It is inevitable
if we eat a lot of tamasic foods that we
will also overeat, because tamasic foods
cannot fully nourish us. Undernourished,
we feel lethargic and tired so we try to
perk ourselves up by eating. We sense that
food gives us energy and will lift us. But
because we desperately need a lift of energy
we are attracted to the 'quick fix' tamasic
foods. We desire the fast glucose release
that comes from consuming alcohol or over
.Practising hatha yoga regularly helps us
avoid too many tamasic foods.
Of course it is important not to be too
fanatical about anything. The middle path
is always the best path. Yoga masters often
say that in a healthy body and mind, a small
amount of tamasic food occasionally will
do little harm. The experienced yoga practitioner
will have enough tapas/self-control not
to over-indulge. The more we practice yoga,
the more sattvic we become. It normally
Hot spicy foods, or very strong herbs
Onions and garlic
Stimulants such as coffee, tea and chocolate
was considered rajasic but more recently is
regarded as a healthy food for the brain.
Fish consumption requires caution during pregnancy.
Eggs are sometimes referred to as rajasic
Caution during pregnancy.
Eating in a hurry is also considered rajasic
What happens if we eat too many
The rajasic state isn't nearly as harmful
as the tamasic one, and it is fine to include
some rajasic foods in our diet. But too
many, too often, will stimulate the body
making the mind restless and frustrated.
Rajasic foods destroy the harmony between
mind and body. Rajasic foods are the ones
that cause anxiety. We are more likely to
be tense or agitated after eating these
foods. Agitation can prevent us from settling
into relationships, jobs, or even being
with ourselves. The mind/body balance is
upset, with the body over-active and the
mind going round and round in circles.
Insomnia is a rajasic state, as is constantly
talking and worrying, the consumption of
too many rajasic foods can have us living
on our nerves, as anyone who has drunk too
much coffee will know! Therefore if we want
to eat these foods, we need to do it with
awareness of their effects. Again the rule
of the moderate pathway is called for. A
little of what you fancy may do you good
but a lot of rajasic or tamasic consumption
can do you harm.
- the quality of truth, calmness, lightness
Eating too fast or in a hurry is rajasic,
and has negative consequences on the digestive
system. In yoga we are encouraged to be
'in the present moment' and to slow ourselves
down in order to meditate on the' here and
now'. To gulp our food down would mean that
we are not focused on the process of eating
and of nurturing ourselves, or caring for
ourselves in a positive way. We need awareness
to notice what we are doing to ourselves.
Only then can we avoid our harmful habits
and strengthen our healthy behaviour patterns.
To rush food means we are not watching our
body's needs, awareness is not possible
if we are on the run.
Low-fat Cheese, caution, no soft cheese, during
Low fat Yoghurt
Nuts, seeds, sprouted seeds.
Pure fruit juices, herb teas and water
Pulses and legumes such as peas, beans, soya
Eating moderately is considered sattvic
Vegetable and nut oils.
happens if we eat sattvic foods?
Sattvic foods are the purest and are for
any yoga practitioner who is interested
in eating for health. These foods nourish
the body and maintain it in a balanced state.
'We are what we eat' is literally a true
statement. The Taittiriya Upanishad tells
us 'Verily, this person consists of the
essence of food'. Our bodies are made up
of the food we eat.
We are taught in Yoga that the food we put
in our mouths not only affects our body
but also our mind. A sattvic diet calms
the mind and helps us to feel the best we
can psychologically as well as physically.
Just as tamasic and rajasic foods can have
an effect on our behaviour, so can a pure,
natural sattvic diet. The sattvic diet contains
the most prana and so makes us joyful, compassionate
The yogic way of eating is quite simple.
A sattvic diet is as natural as possible,
including fresh, light, nutritious foods
such as fruits, grains and vegetables. It
keeps the body strong and energised and
the mind happy and clear.
We need certain foods to make and keep us
healthy: proteins to rebuild the body; fats
and carbohydrates for energy; vitamins and
minerals to stimulate the production of
certain hormones and enzymes to prevent
disease. In recent years the medical profession
and scientists have become increasingly
interested in the effect food has on our
health. The World Health Organisation recommendation
of a healthy diet is very similar to a yoga
sattvic diet. They suggest that we cut down
on the amount of meat we eat, and instead
consume more vegetarian protein foods such
as pulses; cut down on saturated fats and
use low-fat dairy products, and cut down
on all sugary foods such as cakes, biscuits
and sweets, and instead eat dried fruit
such as sultanas, dates and nuts. They advise
that we eat less processed foods and less
fast food and instead eat at least five
portions of fruit and vegetables every day,
drink plenty of fluids, and cut down on
the consumption of tea, coffee and alcohol.
The ancient yogic teaching that what we
eat affects our well-being is validated
by the scientists of our own time.
to change to a sattvic diet
Eating moderately is sattvic. The Siva Samhita
states, 'Let the yogin eat moderately; otherwise,
however clever, she/he cannot gain success'.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says moderate diet
is defined to mean 'Taking pleasant and
sweet (unprocessed) food, leaving one quarter
of the stomach empty and with thanks to
the universe'. To eat slowly, mindfully,
with appreciation of our food is the sattvic
A sattvic diet gives us energy, a clear
skin, a firm, strong and fully functioning
body. It gives us a light step; we feel
in touch with ourselves and comfortable
in our body and mind. With little or no
conflict, we work in harmony on every level
of our being. Our emotions are more stable.
External disturbances do not so easily upset
us. We feel grounded and centred. We can
sleep well, and wake feeling refreshed.
We can tackle the challenges of life with
stamina and a clear head. We feel agile
and have a zest for life. Once we have experienced
the effects of a sattvic diet we are not
so tempted by tamasic or rajasic foods.
We become so finely tuned we can detect
their inharmonious effect upon us almost
immediately. Most people find that with
regular, hatha yoga practice they become
naturally drawn to a more sattvic lifestyle.
It is important to change slowly, because
a sudden change can create stress. There are
many ways you could adopt a more sattvic diet,
here are a few suggestions that might be helpful:
Make one day a week a sattvic day. Eat moderately
with appreciation and only sattvic foods.
Be aware of the tamasic foods you eat. If
you are overeating, try to eat a little less.
Be aware of the rajasic foods you eat. If
you are rushing your meals, try to slow down
Be aware of the effects rajasic and tamasic
foods have on you.
Do not eat when angry. Wait until you feel
calm again. Chemicals that upset digestion
flood the body when we are angry.
Try not to overeat but equally do not under
eat. It is important not to become obsessive
Work on avoiding tamasic foods as much as
possible, and limiting rajasic foods.
Make one meal a day sattvic, perhaps breakfast.
After a month or so add lunch. Then when
you feel ready make your main meal sattvic
sattvic menu suggestion
whole grain cereal with low fat milk. Low
fat yogurt with fresh fruit. Fruit juice
or fruit tea.
Home-made vegetable and lentil soup with
whole grain bread. Fresh fruit juice, fruit
tea or water
bake: aubergines, sweet potatoes, courgettes,
red onion with a tomato and vegetable sauce
and pasteurised goats cheese crumbled on
top, served with fine beans and broccoli.
Fruit with yoghurt. Fresh juice, water or
are many excellent vegetarian cookbooks
on the market today. Yoga books often give
sattvic diet recipes.