Linda Johnsen, M.S., is the award winning author of Teach Yourself Yoga in 24 Hours, Lost Masters: The Sages of Ancient Greece, and six other books on spiritual traditions.
In the U.S.A. I watch my neighbors struggle with all-too-typical modern American problems: drugs and alcohol, gnarly relationships, frustrating careers. I myself have sailed past those treacherous shoals unscathed, but there’s no point in getting cocky: it’s whipped cream puffs and marzipan tarts that lay me low.
As you may guess from my last name, I’m Norwegian—and we Scandinavians have the richest, most delicious desserts on the planet. My family is from a part of the world where the sun disappears for a fourth of the year. Even in the darkness our lives are sweet. When we party up in the northern Norwegian province of Troms, it’s not with beer and wine. It’s with a dining room table completely covered with the best cakes, cookies and pastries you’ll ever taste, washed down with a strong cup of coffee. It’s our culture.
So maybe it’s no surprise that keeping my weight down has been a battle since childhood. The daily struggle with food cravings is my worst problem, an area of life where I’m out of control. But I’m a Yoga student too, and the very first step in Yoga Science is yama, self-discipline. I know all too well I need more yama and less “yum!”
When Leonard (Ram Lev) asked me to write on this topic I thought, “How can I advise readers about their eating habits when I’m so poor at regulating this myself?” He suggested I use this opportunity to examine my own unhelpful habits and share my thoughts with you honestly.
Obesity and Spiritual Life
Eating too many calories is a recent problem. For most human beings, for most of human history, the problem was not getting enough. When Paramahansa Yogananda first brought Kriya Yoga to the U.S. in the 1920s, he was surprised that some Americans questioned how he could be an authentic yogi when he was overweight. Back in India his wide girth was admired; it meant he was successful and prosperous enough to enjoy hearty meals on a regular basis.
Swami Nityananda, one of the greatest masters of the Siddha Yoga lineage, was quite heavy, as you may know if you’ve seen the photos and life-size statutes of him at the Siddha Yoga centers. Neem Karoli Baba (guru of Ram Dass and Grammy-nominated kirtan singer Krishna Das) would eat as many as 40 meals in a day! According to my teacher Swami Rama who knew him well, Neem Karoli’s mind was so absorbed in higher consciousness, he was barely aware of his own body and often didn’t know whether he had eaten or not.
The Compassionate Buddha discouraged his students from getting too thin as fasting would eventually weaken the body to the point that concentration became difficult. My favorite Tibetan Buddhist master of all time (Dolpopa, fourteenth century) actually weighed several hundred pounds.
So the good news is obesity is not a showstopper for spiritual life. People who tend to overeat usually have kapha constitutions according to Ayurveda, the yogic system of medicine. Kapha is grounding, which is not a bad thing if you’re going to sit for meditation an hour every day. So what’s the problem?
There are two serious difficulties as I see it. The first, obviously, is health.
We know there are cultures where eating a diet rich in fat is necessary for survival. Almost always, people who need a lot of fat live in especially cold climates and must exert themselves strenuously to stay alive (think of the Inuits, Tibetans, and—yes—the Scandinavians). Some of us carry genes that cry out for fuel (fats and sugars), but today we live in comfortably heated homes and exert ourselves primarily to reach for the TV remote. We’re no longer burning thousands of extra calories a day. We’re just adding inches to our waistlines and cholesterol to our arteries.
You already know the consequences: heart disease, high blood pressure (read: stroke), and diabetes. There is a substantially increased risk of developing cancer. Being fat won’t necessarily stop us from having good meditations. But death will.
And that’s not even the worst of it. SPECT scans (that’s “single photon emission computerized tomography” scans which measure activity levels in the brain) dramatically reveal the debilitating effects of bad diet on our most valued organ, the one we think with. No wonder Alzheimer’s rates are also higher among the obese! Encouragingly, repeat SPECT scans often show significant improvements in brain function when patients junk, junk food, and adopt a diet high in vegetables, nuts, fruit, beans and whole grains, and low in refined sugars, fats, and intoxicants. These latest findings from Western science merely reinforce what Yoga students already know. After all, this is the menu our Yoga teachers have encouraged us to adopt for decades now.
As High as You Can Go
Books, magazines, and TV infomercials focus almost exclusively on the physical repercussions of our unhealthy food habits. But there is a second, more subtle reason for those of us on the spiritual path to be more conscientious about what we eat and how much we eat. In the Christian tradition, gluttony is considered one of the seven deadly sins. That means, in religious terms, it’s a vice that can actually cut us off from God.
I’m fascinated by Hermeticism, the ancient Greco-Egyptian spiritual tradition that influenced early Christianity and, when it was rediscovered in the late Middle Ages, helped spark the Renaissance. At the time of death, the Hermetists taught, we have the opportunity to return to “our Father in heaven” who dwells in a realm of eternal light. However, in order to reach him, we must pass seven gatekeepers who are determined to prevent our rising any higher in consciousness. They are called archons in Greek, meaning “governors.” If they find any qualities in our nature that they rule (pride, envy, greed, lust, anger, laziness, and—yes—gluttony), they can arrest our spiritual ascent and force us back into another physical body on Earth where we continue to serve them in the form of slaves to our passions.
In numbers of the very early Christian texts discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, Jesus discusses these archons with his disciples. When his brother James asks where he will go after he dies, Jesus replies, “As high as you can go.” If you have purified yourself of the desires and aversions that attract you back to physical life, you can ascend to heaven. If not, the archons claim you and back to Earth you go. (Yes it’s true, some early Christians believed in reincarnation.)
Gluttony doesn’t seem like a big vice. It’s not murder. It’s not even “accidentally” losing your little sister’s Justin Bieber CD so you don’t have to listen to “Baby” for the thousandth time. When you eat too much, or eat delicious but non-nutritious food, you’re not hurting anyone but yourself. But according to this tradition, anything you value more than spiritual light stands between you and that light, leaving you in its shadow.
Knowing its potentially serious consequences, why is a “silly” vice like gluttony still so hard to beat? The answer lies in the neurophysiologically addictive properties of poor quality food, particularly sugars and some fats. According to the wisdom of India, everything in nature has a devata or “living intelligence.” If you approach a devata respectfully, it may bless you. If you abuse a devata however, it will abuse you back. Any addiction, whether it’s to cocaine, tobacco, or sugar, can actually feel like a demonic possession as the “living intelligence” of the substance you’re abusing takes over the biochemistry of your brain and creates almost uncontrollable craving. To progress in spiritual life, these demons need to be exorcised. It takes a lot of patience and self-awareness to achieve this.
Tasting the Taster
There’s another tack some yogis in India prefer in confronting this type of problem. Texts like the Vijnana Bhairava encourage students not to back away from the pleasures of life, but to enjoy them with greater awareness. Sometimes (as Swami Rama warned us) simply trying to wrench oneself away from a vice only creates “suppression and repression.” The moment you’re off guard, the compulsion reasserts itself or takes another equally destructive form. The Vijnana Bhairava recommends instead that when you taste something delicious, don’t just swallow and rush on to the next bite. Instead, approach every delightful flavor as a spiritual event. Bring the full light of your awareness to the experience. Who is tasting the chocolate? Who is having the sensation of pleasure? Shift your center of focus from the sensation of taste to the taster, pure spirit beyond space and time which is relishing this one moment right now. Slow down and feel the sacredness of this unique moment.
In this tradition yogis are called bhogis, “enjoyers.” The point is to pull back to one’s transcendent being, recognizing your true self as the real enjoyer and, ultimately, all sensations as enjoyable. You’re fired from your job. How interesting! You smash your foot against the table leg. You notice new wrinkles forming on your face. The tofu spinach pie is delicious. The tofu spinach pie is spoiled. You’re enjoying it all as if you were watching a really good TV show. You enjoy the show, whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but there’s always a distance between you and the show. After all, you’re watching the show; you’re not in the show. The vanilla layer cake is in time and space; you are in eternity. Self-control begins to flow naturally out of the experience.
I’ve always been impressed by my husband’s mastery of his appetite. Whatever I feed him he innocently enjoys, and when he’s full he doesn’t crave more. I’m not there but I’m working on it. I exercise six days a week come rain or shine. I don’t eat after six p.m. What I do eat is vegetarian and wholesome—except perhaps for the occasional Scandinavian desserts. Working on it!
Many great sages, like Neem Karoli Baba or Yogananda, engaged life with gusto, but they weren’t slaves to it. Those seven nasty archons couldn’t block their way. We do our Yoga practice so we can follow close behind.
This article is posted with the generously given permission of the American Meditation Institute (https://americanmeditation.org/) who initially published the article in the January-March 2015 of Transformation.