Why You Can't Ignore Nutrition's Role In Spiritual Personal Development
Why You Can't Ignore Nutrition's Role In Spiritual Personal Development
And A New Model For Integrating Eastern And Western Modes Of Physical Self-Mastery
When the proto-yogis were developing the system of yoga thousands of years ago, they understood very clearly that a properly attuned mind/body system could be a tremendous asset in spiritual pursuits. Asana yoga and pranayama yoga were developed essentially as technologies for bringing the body/mind into alignment with and support of one’s spiritual development.
In the intervening years, thanks largely to western scientific inquiry, we have made quantum leaps in our understanding of the human body and how to manipulate it towards certain ends. This knowledge set gives us the potential for physical self-mastery light-years beyond what yogis of any previous era were capable of. We live in a world where we know the conditions required to produce bodybuilders, endurance athletes, gymnasts and all points in between. Yet, there is a noticeable lack of integration of this immensely powerful knowledge set into spiritual transformative practices of current day. The vast majority of people interested in personal development tend to gravitate heavily towards either physical self-mastery *or* mental/emotional/psychic self mastery. Modern yoga (i.e. asana or other predominantly physical schools) does bridge this divide for a huge number of people, but even the most committed practitioners often leave a lot of other areas of physical self-mastery "on the table," so-to-speak.
What's needed is a new model in which the value of different systems of physical self-mastery can be understood and evaluated as they relate to spiritual development. This system will help us draw the “lines” between different wisdom streams that previously were intuitively connected, but lacked a more meaningful relationship. In other words, we’ll finally get clear answers to questions such as: What value do pull-ups have in developing higher circuits of consciousness? How will a deeply nourishing, detoxifying diet aid you in navigating shamanic states?
First, a definition of terms for the system to come below...
Gross energy is “energy” as defined by your average biochemist. The body converts food into simpler organic molecules that are then used to power metabolic process, which in turn will be translated into kinetic and cognitive action, among other things. When your body is converting food into energy efficiently, you have more gross energy available and you generally experience your body as having "more energy". Psychic energy is a bit more elusive to define. A secondary system of energy in the body, psychic energy, is not reducible to biochemical or other physical processes. Different traditions throughout the millennia have defined it as prana, chi and life-force among others. There is not a direct correlation between the two, but there is a relationship in my eyes. Psychic energy tends to increase as gross energy is cultivated via physical self-mastery and vice versa.
Transpersonal experience is simply any experience outside of the boundaries of one's normal operational awareness. By my definition this can include anything from a moment of deep self-reflection to shamanically-induced kundalini awakenings.
Currency, as I use it below, is a way of defining the one phenomena as the “substrate” from which the subsequent phenomena is produced. A given phenomena cannot occur without it's preceding "currency". Furthermore, the more of a given currency one holds, the more of the subsequent phenomena he/she can potentially acquire (permitting other conditions are right for such).
A New Model
So what does this mean in practical terms? If our goal is spiritual personal development, our aim should be to maximize the frequency and intensity of transpersonal experiences. There are countless means by which to access transpersonal experience (entheogens, meditation and shamanic ritual are common examples) and if you’re a reader of this fine website, you likely have such practices integrated into your life. Although critical, frequency and intensity of transpersonal experience aren’t the only necessary components for spiritual personal development. Interpretation and integration of the experiences also have a huge role to play in the process. As it’s quite beyond my own expertise and the scope of this article, I’ll leave this part of the equation to the mystics of the world.
Much in the way that transpersonal experience acts as the substrate for spiritual personal development, psychic energy plays the same role for the emergence of transpersonal experience. Transpersonal experience simply does not occur without an expenditure of psychic energy. Furthermore, the intensity and duration of the transpersonal experience is dependent, in part, on how much psychic energy the individual has available. An abundance of psychic energy alone does not ensure that transpersonal experience will occur, nor does it ensure that the magnitude or duration of the experience will be greater once it does occur...but it does make both of these more likely. The vehicle to transpersonal experience will come from your own personal development practices; an availability of psychic energy simply adds horsepower to the vehicle, so-to-speak.
So following this model, if our intention is to maximize the frequency and intensity of our transpersonal experiences and thus set the conditions for spiritual personal development, it should be our aim to maximize the psychic energy we have available to us. This means designing our lives such that we include the most effective practices and rituals for cultivating psychic energy and eliminating those that diminish our supplies. Returning to the yogic systems, I think within these we can find a quality framework of the areas of self-mastery relevant in cultivating psychic energy. Looking at Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga, Asana Yoga (mastery of the physical/body) and Pranayama Yoga (mastery of the breath) and are the two limbs that are most determinant of how much or how little psychic energy (prana) a person will have available. (higher limbs progressively focus on the transmutation of psychic energy into transpersonal experience) The third element of yogic systems I find to be hugely determinant of gross and psychic energy is a mastery of the diet (sattvic diet in yogic systems). While not explicitly included in Patanjali’s 8 limbs, the thousands of pages of yogic texts devoted to sattvic diet practices shows that there was a high degree of attention paid to dietary practices. These three yogic disciplines (asana, pranayama, sattvic diet) will make up the focus of this article.
For my money, asana yoga remains humanity’s best technology for cultivating psychic energy. The system of asana yoga has advanced tremendously in the intervening millennia since it was birthed. I see this progression as one guided intuitively by the countless yogis throughout the years, and the focus of this intuition has primarily been to increase efficacy in cultivating psychic energy. The best of today’s yoga teachers are delivering what I believe to be the most complete and effective self-mastery technology for cultivating psychic energy the world has ever seen.
Yet, as effective as asana yoga is in cultivating psychic energy, its efficacy can be amplified by a considerable amount when it is complemented by other modes of physical self mastery. This is where the synthesis with modern western knowledge streams becomes relevant. Western modes of physical self mastery such as strength training, cardiovascular training and gymnastics have been developed with incredible robustness and precision by athletes, particularly over the past few decades. This is a huge body of wisdom that can be pulled from and used alongside asana yoga as part of a system more complete and effective than anything our proto-yogis could have dreamed of. This potential exists because these western systems of physical self-mastery are in fact, incredibly effective at cultivating psychic energy, often in ways that are quite complementary to asana yoga. What sets asana yoga apart is that psychic energy cultivation has continually been a guiding design principle for the system. Western systems, although effective, cultivate psychic energy as a byproduct of the pursuit of primary aims (athletic performance, strength, etc).
Before I give the impression that I’m defining asana yoga as simply a tool for building quantity of psychic energy (prana), I want to make another important point. Asana yoga’s more specific inclusion and awareness of psychic energy has made it a system that builds capacities largely untouched upon by western systems. Most relevant for this discussion is the way in which asana cultivates body-mind system stability. Always near the top of a list of asana yoga’s “benefits” is stress-reduction. I see this as a product of asana’s propensity to cultivate a body/mind system more resilient to energetically intense experiences (such as stress). Of course, transpersonal experiences can be hugely energetically intense experiences. Body/mind system stability allows the person engaging in the experience to process and integrate more of the experience in real-time before the system goes into “overload”, at which point the experience becomes chaotic and more challenging to integrate, even after the fact.
Some of the more observant yogis among you will likely have had the thought that the integration of western systems into asana yoga has already begun. A huge portion of the postures used in a typical yoga class today were created within the past 100 years or so, after significant influence from western systems like gymnastics. To this point I say “yes,” but I also believe this to be only the tip of the iceberg for potential new systems that integrate eastern and western systems of physical self mastery. I point to today’s highly popular vinyasa/flow classes as being at the forefront of this movement because they so frequently include more specific strength, agility, and cardiovascular training into their classes, while still maintaining a commitment to the more classical asana and breathwork. Only so much can be integrated into a single class, however, without sacrificing some of the meditative and pranic power of asana sequencing. The same applies in the other direction, as the western lines of physical self-mastery (strength, cardiovascular, etc) are best cultivated more intentionally and with more time and intensity than can be fit into a yoga class.
The yogic self-mastery system that likely has the least to gain from integration with western systems is that of breathwork (pranayama yoga). There is a small history of intentional breathwork in the west, but it pales in comparison to the extensive systems of breath-mastery developed over the millennia in yogic traditions. Stan Grof’s holotropic breathing would be one of the notable exceptions to this as a western-derived system that aims to use the breath as a transformative driver. That being said, I believe that there is something to be gained in integrating western cardiovascular training with pranayama yoga. Many practices in pranayama use the muscles involved in breathing specifically to build prana. Naturally, if this musculature (and metabolic pathways involved in oxygen transport) becomes stronger and fitter, your pranayama will become more powerful.
Balancing The Integration
The details of how this integration will happen across countless disciplines will be figured out by a new generation of teachers and devout practitioners over the coming decades. As I’ve said, I see this as a process that has already begun and one that will only continue to accelerate as more voices like my own aim to define and systematize the larger patterns and phenomena involved in this integration. Greater conceptual/philosophical clarity here will naturally inform the practical integration and vice versa. The conceptual distillation of these pranic self-mastery technologies will allow them to be more fully integrated into the evolutionary current of the information age. Once a conceptual framework and language is in place, ideas can be exchanged freely across disciplines by practitioners the world over. This could set the conditions for a proliferation of pranic self-mastery technologies akin to what we have seen of other types of technology over the past 20-or-so years. We could be entering a “Pranic Golden Age” of sorts.
One guiding principle I propose for any such integration, is to use asana and pranayama yogas as the standards by which we evaluate the usefulness of various western modes - at least for now. There are thousands of years of wisdom imbued into asana and pranayama postures and sequences. It may be the case in the future that we will be confident our wisdom exceeds that which is contained within the system of yoga. At that point we can forge forward and develop completely new technologies for psychic energy cultivation. But realistically, I see this as being a ways off. For the foreseeable future I propose that western physical self-mastery technologies be integrated only to the extent that they are supportive of one’s asana and pranayama practices. Strength, agility and cardiovascular training are three examples of western modalities that unquestionably have the potential to hugely amplify the psychic-energy cultivation power of asana and pranayama. If any one of those becomes the focus to the extent that one’s asana or pranayama suffers even in the slightest, it is likely that you have diverged from the balance that will produce the greatest cultivation of psychic energy.
Nutrition As A Tool In Facilitating Transpersonal Experience
As great as the promise is for integrating western knowledge streams into yogic systems of physical self-mastery, it is our huge and ever-expanding knowledge of nutrition that hold the greatest promise for drastically improving the capacity of yogic systems to build prana. The sattvic dietary system is a remarkably good one given the knowledge set available at the time when it was created. However, the past 100-or-so years of continual research has expanded our knowledge of metabolism, endocrine function, digestion, etc light-years beyond what early yogis could have ever imagined. Unlike with asana and pranayama yogas, where I believe our western wisdom is still well behind, our knowledge of the nutrition needed to create optimal well-being (and thus, prana) far surpasses that which was drawn upon to create the sattvic system.
This is a relatively recent development. Nutritional paradigms of even 30 years ago were abysmal and the average “healthy” person from that period would have been doing worlds better by following a sattvic diet. It is the past 10 years, give or take, where I see our western nutritional wisdom as having exploded. Biochemistry and nutrition research has expanded our knowledge of those systems at a particularly rapid pace during this time. Like it has for so many other fields, our globalized communication system has been the biggest driver of progress in nutrition in the past 10 years. Individuals (often trained nutritionists/biochemists/etc) are synthesizing the most recent research and experimenting in their own diets. Online communities allow these individuals to share experiments and results. The bio-hacker, bodybuilding, paleo and raw food communities come to mind as the most prominent such communities, but really there are thousands of them, each with their own unique focus. The cumulative data produced by these millions of individual experimenters has produced an advancement in nutritional knowledge that academia simply could never have produced.
Secondly, we live in a radically different world than the one that existed 2 millennia ago. Environmental and dietary toxins have emerged to be what I consider to be one of the most significant nutritional considerations. While toxins were certainly around 2 millennia ago, they were far less common (and less toxic, in many cases). While there is awareness of toxins in traditional yogic dietary systems, today’s toxins are more numerous and dangerous and as such, require more sophisticated detoxification strategies. Finally, we have to acknowledge that we have available to us a huge diversity of quality foods that simply didn’t exist or were not available until the past 10-20 years.
What’s the underlying message here? The importance placed on diet in yogic systems confirms the idea that nutrition can be an asset in the cultivation of psychic energy (and thus, in spiritual personal development). However, because our knowledge of the body’s systems and nutritional needs is so far beyond that which informed sattvic dietary systems, we have the tools to use nutrition as a driver of psychic energy cultivation in a way that was never even remotely available to previous generations.
A New Set Of Principles
Naturally, there is a huge amount of wisdom in sattvic systems that we would want to distill and include in any new dietary system for prana cultivation. Sattvic systems place a high priority on eating foods that are “light”, meaning they digest easily and require minimal time and investment of energy to extract the nutrition contained within. The sattvic diet also directs followers to avoid foods that are irritants (like very spicy foods), stimulants (caffeine, etc) or foods that have a tiring/depressing effect (heavy foods).
If we’re going to expand and improve upon the sattvic dietary system, we need to take these traditional principles and include them in a new system, guided by new principles that reflect our current state of nutritional understanding. As with the other schools of physical self-mastery we’ve discussed, the overarching goal of any nutritional system should be to maximize psychic energy available to us over time. The foods and dietary systems that increase psychic energy most consistently and stably are prioritized. To identify the foods that fit in this system, we need a set of criteria to judge them by. There are a few markers of psychic energy levels that we can use in evaluating the usefulness of a food or dietary system in psychic energy cultivation. These are:
Energy Levels - As I see it, the experience of having “energy” is an amalgam of your experience of your gross (physical) and psychic energy levels. This “experience data” is then filtered through your emotional body, which can either have an amplifying or suppressing effect. The resulting “output” is your experience of “energy” or lack thereof.
As I mentioned in the introduction, there is a meaningful relationship between gross and psychic energies. Psychic and gross energy levels tend to mirror each other in relative abundance or deficiency. In other words, when the body is converting nutrition into metabolic energy efficiently (gross energy), psychic energy seems to increase alongside it.
Cognitive Performance/Mental Clarity - Holding and processing complex systems in one’s awareness is an energetically intense undertaking. Like the experience of having “energy,” my sense is that cognitive performance requires both gross and psychic energy. If there is any question as to the gross energetic demands of cognitive function, consider that although the brain constitutes only 2% of body weight on average, it consumes around 20% of the body’s metabolic energy output. This is a number that will increase if your brain is working hard. Following the idea that there is a strong correlation between gross and psychic energetic demands, we can expect that availability of psychic energy is also a determinant in cognitive performance.
To determine the dietary systems and foods most deserving of our consideration, we can use these indicators as proxies for psychic energy cultivation. What we’re actually after is well-being of the body/mind system. It is when the whole system is vibrant and functioning optimally that gross and psychic energy will be greatest. Perceived energy levels and cognitive function are simply components of and indicators for complete body/mind well-being. Well-being, by itself, is far too nebulous, personal, and subjective to be useful in these types of evaluations. Perceived energy levels and cognitive performance are obviously also subjective, but it’s my experience that they are quantifiable enough to be useful in comparing data between individual experimenters.
Eating For Psychic Energy
Fully outlining the system that best supports energy levels, cognitive performance and complete system well-being would be difficult to compress into one book, not to mention this article. Instead, I will focus on the handful of practices that I believe hold the greatest promise for psychic energy cultivation if incorporated into daily rituals.
Protect Yourself Against Toxins - It is an unfortunate consequence of our modern society that toxins are constantly all around us and inevitably find their way into our bodies. Once in the body, toxins disrupt metabolic processes and nervous system function and most significantly, disrupt hormone production and regulation. If these systems are disrupted, energy levels and cognitive function are predictably affected. Protecting yourself against the effects of toxins means both taking measures to keep toxins from entering in the first place, and then neutralizing the toxins that inevitably will make it into your system.
Keeping Toxins Out - This requires mindfulness about both what you put in your body and what goes on or around your skin. Cleaning products and skin products both frequently contain disruptive chemicals (such as solvents and plasticizers, respectively) that *will* make their way into your body if they are in your home or on your skin. Taking the time to look carefully at these products and finding the least-toxic options available is an important step to take.
The foods you put in your body have the potential to be a far more significant source of toxins into your body, and require attention accordingly. Buying organic and avoiding processed foods are both strategies for toxin reduction that are in most people’s awareness, but there are even more significant toxin sources that escape most people’s attention.
Commercially produced grains such as wheat and corn are almost guaranteed to be contaminated with mycotoxins, a particularly nasty breed of toxin that is a byproduct of mold contamination from when grains are stored in large grain silos. Even if when the mold is removed, the mycotoxins remain. Removing these grains from your diet will greatly reduce your exposure to these damaging toxins. If you eat meat, this should be expanded to include conventionally-raised meats, as they are fed grains and mycotoxins accumulate in the meat. Sourcing genuinely pasture-raised meats from animals that are never fed grains is the only way to avoid significant risk of toxin exposure from your meat.
The other very common, yet largely ignored, source of dietary toxins is oxidized cooking oils. Every oil has a temperature at which it breaks down and oxidizes (referred to as that oil’s “smoke point”). These oxidized oils are toxins and will have disruptive effects in the body. Otherwise “healthy” oils like olive oil are particularly prone to oxidizing and becoming toxic due to their low smoke points. There are really only two oils I consider it safe to cook with (due to their high smoke points and lack of other issues): coconut oil and butter or ghee (clarified butter).
Actively Detoxifying Foods - Toxins will inevitably make it into your body. So what can be done to minimize their damage in the body? Make sure your diet is rich in actively detoxifying foods. Plants produce compounds referred to as phytonutrients, and depending on the specific plant and phytonutrients contained within, they can have powerful detoxifying effects in the body. One branch of detoxifying phytonutrients is antioxidants, which specifically eliminate the capacity of a toxin to oxidize (i.e. damage) proteins, enzymes, hormones, and the body’s other critical metabolic components. It’s important to include a variety of antioxidant-rich foods in your diet as there are many types of antioxidants, each with a propensity to negate certain types of toxins.
The other branch of detoxifying phytonutrients is chelators, or compounds that actively bind to disruptive heavy metals in the body, allowing them to be safely excreted. Chlorophyll is the most common chelator in foods and consuming large amounts of chlorophyll daily via foods like kale, spirulina, and chlorella will do a lot to minimize risk of heavy metals disrupting metabolic or hormonal function.
Be Strategic With Macronutrients - Macronutrients is the term used to refer to proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. While most people’s relationship to macronutrients seems to focus primarily on quantity (i.e. how many calories you eat), I think this is a relatively low priority concern. Far more important to creating optimal body/mind well-being is the relative quantities of each you’re consuming in a day, and when you consume them. The number one reason for the “energy lulls” people experience throughout the course of a day is too much carbohydrate or improperly sequenced carbohydrate. Meals comprised primarily of carbohydrate will produce a spike in blood sugar lasting anywhere from an hour to several hours, depending on the meal. But inevitably, your body will burn all the carbohydrate and your blood sugar will drop, taking your energy level, mood and cognitive performance with it. Eating a diet heavy in carbohydrate inevitably traps you in a cycle of feeling ok then crashing, which is taxing to both the metabolism and psychology over time.
There is increasing evidence that western societies have been getting macronutrient ratios wrong since the agricultural revolution. Rethinking macronutrient ratios is one of the primary tenets of the increasingly-popular Paleo diet movement. I won’t go into the details here, but there is increasing evidence that our bodies and metabolisms are designed to function best on a diet that uses high-quality fats as its primary energy source (around 65% of total calories is ideal). I suggest looking further into this, as moving to a high-fat diet can produce huge improvements in energy levels and cognitive performance. In case you are wondering, people tend to see body composition improve (i.e. less body fat) after switching to a high-fat diet. At minimum, if you’re not going to move to a committed high fat diet, being more mindful about your carbohydrate consumption will do a lot to improve the stability of your metabolism and perceived energy levels. Avoid processed carbohydrates and sugar as much as possible, and always eat carbohydrate accompanied by at least as many calories of some combination of fat, protein and fiber. This will allow for a slower digestion of carbohydrate and less dramatic rises and falls of blood sugar as a result.
One last word about macronutrients. I’ve focused primarily on the relationship of fats and carbohydrates, but proteins also have a critical role to play in energy metabolism. Proteins are broken down in the body into amino acids, which then are used to support and rebuild muscle tissue. Keeping your body supported in this way will translate to a stronger, more vibrant body and more consistently high energy levels. Proteins are also used as the building blocks for countless other components of metabolism, hormone and neurological function. Inadequate or low-quality protein consumption will result in a less robust (and less active) energy metabolism over time. Shooting for 1g of amino-complete, high-quality protein per 1kg of body weight every day will keep your body adequately supported.
Incorporating Functional Plant Foods - This is an area of particular fascination to me, as we’ve learned so much in the past 5-10 years about how certain plants have the capacity to support our bodies systems in new ways. In the west, we’ve traditionally thought of foods as sources of macronutrients, vitamins and minerals and little more. Now, the influx of unique superfoods coming from tropical regions has opened our eyes to the potential for plant foods to have more distinct and powerful effects on our metabolism. The binary of “food” and “medicine” begins to dissolve and the world of nutraceuticals begins to open up. Actively detoxifying foods like the ones discussed above certainly fall into this category, but there are even more interesting examples out there.
Raw cacao, the unprocessed plant from which chocolate is made is an excellent example of a functional plant food that blurs the line between food and medicine. Not only is high-quality raw cacao the single most antioxidant-dense food on the planet, it also functions in the body as a cardiovascular stimulant, dilating blood vessels and allowing nutrients and other nutraceuticals to move deeper into tissues throughout the body. This vasodilating quality comes largely from the compound theobromine, a compound that has also been shown to be mood-elevating.
Raw maca has exploded in popularity over the past decade or so. Maca is a hearty root native to the Peruvian Andes that contains a huge number unique chemicals that have been correlated with adaptogenic activity, meaning that they support the endocrine (hormone) system and tend to bring it into a state of balance and proper functioning.
These are just two of the more widely accepted examples of functional plant foods that have a more direct effect in the body. Ashwagandha, cordyceps, shilajit, noni and turmeric are all other examples of functional plant foods that have grown in popularity because they contain a wide spectrum of unique organic compounds that have specific supportive effects in the body. This too goes far beyond the scope of this article, but taking the time to look more deeply into this area of nutrition can pay huge dividends.
The Golden Age
In the end the element that strikes me most about this process of integrating eastern and western wisdom streams is the speed at which it happening. The proliferation of ideas facilitated by our technological state has certainly aided this process, although perhaps not as quickly as it would have if the conceptual framework for the integration had been better articulated earlier. As more experts and intellectuals in the disciplines of self-mastery continue to share ideas and frameworks around integration, the process will accelerate at astonishing speed. The leap made in the diversity and efficacy of self-mastery technologies over the next decade has the potential to surpass the cumulative leap made over the past millennia. The golden age of personal development is here.