Onions, Garlic, and Ayurveda: What Restricted Vegetables Can Show Us about the Yogic Lifestyle
By Tasha Friedman
There’s nothing as mouth-watering as the smell of garlic and onions simmering in a pan full of spices.
Which makes it a bit disappointing (for me, at least) when you start practicing yoga and hear that you’re not supposed to eat them. Or, even worse, when you come to live at a yoga center and find that your favorite allium vegetables are strictly off the menu.
I spent three months this year serving in the kitchen at the Hridaya Yoga Center, and by far the most common question I heard from new students was “Why don’t you use onions and garlic?”
It’s a simple question, but the answer is a little complicated. To explain it fully, we’ll have to go on a brief journey through the basics of Ayurveda, the yogic diet, and tantric theory.
Divine Medicine or Demonic Potion?
There is an interesting Hindu legend about the origins of onions and garlic. According to several sacred texts, when Vishnu was serving the nectar of immortality to the demigods, two demons named Rahu and Ketu snuck into the line. Right as Vishnu put the nectar into their mouths, the Sun and the Moon told him that they were demons. Vishnu immediately beheaded them.
A mixture of demon’s blood and divine ambrosia spilled on the ground, and from this odd combination, onions and garlic emerged.
These vegetables also offer an odd combination of almost divine medicinal properties and potentially destabilizing mental effects.
Garlic, especially, is an incredible natural healer. It’s known for:
- Boosting the immune system
- Treating colds and flu
- Purifying the blood
- Treating infections, including skin fungus, toothaches, and ear infections
- Preventing heart disease
- Improving digestion
In Ayurvedic medicine, garlic-based treatments are used for everything from fixing digestive disorders to relieving asthma—even reversing hair loss!
So, if onions and garlic are so great for the body, why are yogis not supposed to eat them?
Ayurveda in a Nutshell
To understand the story with garlic, onions, and yoga, you’ll need the basics of Ayurvedic dietary principles.
In Ayurveda, all foods can be classified according to two main metrics.
First, there is which dosha they work on. Dosha means constitution, or basic body type and energetic or mental tendencies. Every person falls into some combination of the three doshas: kapha (earth/water), pitta (fire/water), and vata (air/ether).
Depending on which is predominant, you will need to eat, sleep, and exercise in a certain way to maintain a healthy balance.
In general, like attracts like and, if left unchecked, imbalances cause greater imbalances. If you are a kapha person, for example, you might naturally prefer to eat sweet, heavy foods— things that increase kapha. You are actually recommended to avoid these foods and, instead, choose pitta foods to boost the inner fire or vata foods to lighten and reduce kapha.
- Foods that increase kapha: Bread, pasta, oats, most nuts and dairy, avocado, bananas, coconut, papaya, squash, olives, tahini, and sugar. In general, foods that are sweet, moist, heavy, and have a cooling effect on the body.
- Foods that increase pitta: Brown rice, corn, millet, tomatoes, carrots, sour fruits, green chilies, onions, garlic, and hot spices. In general, foods that are spicy, sour, increase digestion, and have a heating effect.
- Foods that increase vata: Wheat, cereals, crackers, apples, dried fruit, lettuce and raw greens, broccoli, popcorn, and coffee. In general, foods that are light, dry, and have a cooling effect.
You can see that our friends onions and garlic fall firmly into the pitta category. That is why they’re so amazing when you get a cold and want to dial up your immune system. (The digestive fire is a purifying force responsible for burning out infections.) However, if you are already pitta-dominant or just don’t want more fiery energy in your life, eat them with caution.
The other Ayurvedic metric is the three gunas. According to the yogic tradition (dating back as far as the Bhagavad Gita), the gunas are fundamental qualities or principles that underlie all of manifestation. They are at work in all matter, including human bodies and minds.
- Tamas: The principle of inertia, heaviness, and downward motion. A tamasic person will be dull, lazy, insensitive, and dominated by lower impulses.
- Rajas: The principle of outward motion, activity, and acceleration. Ambition, greed, agitation, competitiveness, and desire are all rajasic characteristics.
- Sattva: The principle of balance, purity, and stillness. Sattva is the neutral point between all extremes that allows for transcendence. A sattvic person is peaceful and harmonious, which greatly supports the spiritual practice.
Everything you eat influences the balance of the gunas within your being. The more sensitive you are, the more you will become aware of the effects that diet has on your physical and mental state.
- Sattvic foods: Light, easily digestible foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, plant-based oils, mild spices (turmeric, basil, ginger, cinnamon, etc.), unrefined natural sweeteners (honey, molasses), organic dairy products from well-treated animals.
- Rajasic foods: Hot foods and strong spices, onions, garlic, eggs, coffee, and chocolate.
- Tamasic foods: Meat, fish, poultry, alcohol, fermented foods, food that is stale, over-processed, no longer fresh, or difficult to digest.
For obvious reasons, a yogic diet aims to be as sattvic as possible.
Tamasic foods are best avoided. Eating them will make you neither more spiritual nor more effective in other pursuits, but definitely less healthy.
Rajasic foods are a more complicated story.
In general, it’s not advised to eat a rajas-dominant diet: it will make you too hot and agitated, and these foods are hard on your digestive system.
If your spiritual path is more on the ascetic, Vedantic side of the spectrum—all about transcendence, not making use of the energies of the world—you are recommended to avoid them completely. They will stimulate desire and generate too much energy, which will disturb your practice.
However, there are some situations in which you may want to bring some rajas into your diet.
For example, if you are living in the normal world (not an ashram or spiritual community) and you have to maintain a career, family, or whatever else alongside your spiritual practice, you might want some extra fire under your bum to stay active and get things done.
Some rajasic foods are actually very healthy in small doses, like strong spices that boost a weak inner fire and kill intestinal parasites. You’ll also notice onions and garlic, with all their medicinal value, solidly on the rajasic list. They speed up your whole system and act as potent aphrodisiacs to boot.
Rajas and Tamas: Should You Deny These Energies or Can You Use Them?
By now, I hope it’s clear why there are no onions and garlic in the Hridaya Dining Room. Although their boost to the immune system (and flavor) is very appreciated, the mental agitation they induce is not so helpful—especially during retreats!
That doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with them, or inherently wrong with anything. Any energy ultimately can be transformed and sublimated. This fundamental mutability is the basis of Tantra.
In fact, the tantric traditions, in general, make strong use of rajasic and, even, tamasic energies.
For example, the Panchamakara, or “Five M’s,” is a tantric ritual centered around five substances that are forbidden in conventional Hinduism: madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched grain), and maithuna (sexual intercourse). All of these are elements of rajas or tamas.
Tantrikas would use the meat of an uncastrated male animal, since it is considered the most rajasic.
The fundamental belief is that all energies come from the Self and lead back to the Self. What takes you down can bring you up.
By increasing these frequencies within a controlled setting, they can catapult trained practitioners into a higher state of consciousness.
That said, when it comes to energies that can easily lead you astray, it is good to always reflect and decide whether they’re aligned with your current practice, whether you have the tools to deal with them beneficially, and if your intention is pure.
Conclusion: A Personal Note
Full disclosure: I used to eat tons of onions and garlic (and Sriracha, and hot chilies, and cayenne pepper…) before coming to live at Hridaya. I didn’t really feel that they affected me so much.
While in retreats and serving as a Karma Yogi, I didn’t eat onions or garlic for several months. But, at some point, when I ate a garlicky sauce in a restaurant, I noticed a surprising difference in myself the next day: agitation and restlessness like I hadn’t felt in almost my whole time at the school.
I had been so acclimated to this energy that I wasn’t aware of it, and I had to get it out of my system entirely just to perceive what used to be normal.
In general, the more sensitive you become, the more care you might have to take with your diet. With a strong yogic practice, you might find foods you used to eat a lot now make you feel sick, heavy, or just not in the right state. It doesn’t mean your body has become more fragile but that it’s becoming more finely calibrated, attuned to more refined frequencies.
It might also change with your practice. If you are a kapha-type person, you might be fine eating a lot of spicy pitta foods, but if you work a lot on manipura and grow a huge inner fire, that same old hot sauce might give you a rash.
That’s why there are very few hard and fast rules for a yogic diet. There are plenty of recommendations: the doshas and gunas from Ayurveda, yin and yang polarity from macrobiotics, insights from physical health sciences, and moral considerations that lead many yogis to vegetarianism.
The most important guideline is simply to listen to your body. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and when you want to put anything into your system, it is best if it provides an energy that you want to give back to the world.
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga student and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all her posts here.