Preparing the Internal Sacrifice in Hatha Yoga: Measured Diet to Move beyond the Mind

This semester, I am leading a graduate seminar that explores the intricacies of the Haṭha-Pradīpikā (popularly known as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in modern yoga circles) for Loyola Marymount University’s (LMU) Master of Arts in Yoga Studies program. I recently had the opportunity to translate part of this text in Australian National University’s online Sanskrit program. As we are now slowly making our way through the text in my class at LMU with careful attention to the scholarship of James Mallinson and other scholars of haṭha yoga, I have become increasingly fascinated with the etymology of the word mitāhāra, a compound commonly translated into English simply as “moderate (mita) diet (āhāra).” In this article, I will unpack the etymology of mitāhāra and discuss the broader implications of the meaning of this word in haṭha yoga practice. Because mitāhāra is such a central component of haṭha yoga practice, or as the Haṭha-Pradīpikā (ca. 15th c. CE) boldly proclaims, “the foremost yama [ethical restraint],” (1.38, Akers 2002, page 18) it deserves our close attention. As we shall see, mitāhāra provides the foundations for going beyond the mind in order to achieve, from the perspective of hatḥa yoga, the highest human potential.

If one opens the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary and searches for the word mitāhāra, they will simply find the following definition: “moderate food, scanty diet.” And more often than not, when one reads the translation of this word within the broader context of a yoga text, this is the translation that is rendered for the reader. Translating the Haṭha-Pradīpikā, for example, Akers (2002) writes,

“A moderate diet means eating satisfying, sweet food for Shiva’s pleasure, while leaving the stomach one-quarter empty.”

Haṭha-Pradīpikā 1.58, page 28

Contemporary postural yoga practitioners who are primarily concerned with their physical health tend to follow Monier-Williams simple definition and the translations that have followed, understanding mitāhāra as a reminder to be attentive to a healthy and moderate diet when they encounter the word in their teacher training curricula. Though this interpretation is not completely out of alignment with the intention found in haṭha yoga texts, what I want to suggest here is that we understand mitāhāra in haṭha yoga not within a modern biomedical structure, but rather according to a Vedic and post-Vedic sacrificial framework.

Let us begin by taking a close look at the two main components of the karmadhāraya compound mitāhāra, mita and āhāra, in order to see if we can come up with another and perhaps more useful definition for this seemingly simple word. While Monier-Williams certainly defines mita as “moderate,” he also supplies a number of other interesting definitions including “fixed,” “firm,” and “strong” or, alternatively, “meted out” or “measured.” We might then render translations of the compound mitāhāra as “fixed diet,” “firm diet,” “strong diet,” “meted out diet,” or “measured diet.” There are a number of other possibilities, though for the purposes of this article I would like to focus our attention on this final translation, “measured diet,” as it seems that it might begin to help us more accurately interpret the intended meaning of mitāhāra as it is used in haṭha yoga texts.

I choose “measured” as a particularly apt translation of mita for two particular reasons. First, mita is derived from the verbal root “mā” meaning “to measure.” Mita, as the past passive participle of the verbal root “mā,” serves as an adjective to describe āhāra and thus takes on the meaning “measured.”

Secondly, if we look at the broader context in which the word mitāhāra is used in haṭha yoga texts, we often encounter prescriptions of specific proportions of food to be consumed by the yogin at each meal. Consider, for example, the brief prescription in the Haṭha-Pradīpikā wherein one is instructed, as we saw above, to leave “the stomach one-quarter empty” after each meal (1.58, Akers 2002, page 28). Though not mentioned in the Haṭha-Pradīpikā, what comprises the other three quarters of content in the stomach can be found in the Gheraṇḍa-Saṃhitā (ca. 1700 CE):

“Half the stomach should be filled with food, one quarter with water, and one quarter should be kept empty for practicing prāṇāyāma.”

Gheraṇḍa-Saṃhitā 5.22, Vasu 1979 [1914], page 40

Collectively, the contents of the yogin’s stomach therefore attempt to provide a particularly balanced proportion of the earth, water, fire, air, and space elements in the form of food, pure water, digestive fire, and empty space for air during prāṇāyāma practice. All things considered, what we can briefly gather from the Haṭha-Pradīpikā and Gheraṇḍa-Saṃhitā’s injunctions regarding yogic diet is the fact that the authors of these texts are deeply concerned with exactly what measure of food is to be consumed to support an effective haṭha yoga practice. On account of these texts’ preoccupations with quantity as well as the etymological roots mentioned above, and though filling the stomach only one-half with food certainly implies moderation, I would like to suggest here that a more accurate translation of the word mita might be “measured,” rather than “moderate.”

Why, you may ask, is the distinction I am making between “moderate” and “measured” really so important? To answer this question, we have to consider haṭha yoga within a broader, pan-South Asian framework of sacrifice (yajña). This also brings me to carefully consider the second word in the compound mitāhāra, namely, āhāra. In Sanskrit, āhāra is often simply translated as “food” or “diet” though again the etymological roots of āhāra reveal that much is hidden by such a straightforward translation.

Indeed, āhāra is a vṛddhi grade derivative noun that comes from the prefix “” (near, towards) plus the verbal root “hṛ” (to take). Taken together, “āhṛ” can thus function as a verbal root simply meaning “to bring.” More interestingly, however, “āhṛ” can also mean “to offer” as well as the opposite, “to fetch for one’s self” or even “to eat.”

The dual meanings of the verbal root “āhṛ” that I note here provide interesting clues regarding the deeper dimensions of the nominal form of āhāra. Consider, for example, that in Hindu temple ritual settings, food bears divine significance. In such contexts, āhāra reflects the simultaneous sacrificial offering of food by the individual to the Absolute (i.e., “to offer”) and the subsequent consumption of said consecrated food by religious devotees in the form of prasāda (i.e., “to fetch for one’s self, to eat.”). In such contexts, when āhāra is considered in its nominal form it becomes both a food “offering” to the Absolute as well as something simultaneously “fetched for one’s self” or simply “eaten” on account of its ritual consumption following the sacrificial ceremony.

To illustrate the transactional nature of āhāra as I am interpreting it here, try to imagine the following experience. Just this morning at the Venkateshwara Temple near Malibu, California, a group of our LMU graduate students and I witnessed Hindu devotees eating the blessed fruit prasāda (food offered to a deity) they had presented to the deities earlier that morning during the public abhiṣeka (ritual bathing of the deities). As we can clearly see in this particular example, āhāra is not just food, but also a substance of mutual exchange between the Absolute and the devotee wherein, ultimately, the two merge as one through the mediating substance of food. Following my line of thought here, I would therefore like to suggest that we translate āhāra as “food offering,” keeping in mind that the food offered in the religious or sacrificial context is a mediating substance intended to feed both the divine and human realms in a process of mutual exchange. Furthermore, following my translation of mita as “measured,” I would also like to suggest that we translate mitāhāra as “measured (mita) food offering (āhāra),” particularly when we consider the usage of mitāhāra in haṭha yoga texts, to which I now direct our attention.

In haṭha yoga, the aforementioned external religious worship and process of exchange via the food offering is wholly internalized. Thus the body becomes the temple, and the stomach the sacrificial pit into which the properly measured (mita) proportions of food offering (āhāra) prescribed in texts such as the Haṭha-Pradīpikā and Gheraṇḍa-Saṃhitā must be offered in order to initiate an embodied sacrifice. We find such a somatic logic outlined verbatim in the third text of the tri-partite modern haṭha yoga “canon,” the Śiva-Saṃhitā (ca. 14th c. CE), which advises that:

“The wise Yogi, having kindled his (vaiśvā-nara [i.e. digestive fire]) according to proper rites, should sacrifice food into it every day, in conformity with the teachings of his spiritual teacher”

Śiva-Saṃhitā 2.34, Vasu [1914], page 20

As we can see here, there is no longer a need for an external temple or sacrificial pyre, as the body of the haṭha yogin serves this function itself. But what is particularly interesting here is the Śiva-Saṃhitā’s use of the word vaiśvā-nara to describe the yogin’s digestive fire. The word vaiśvā-nara is a karmadhāraya compound constructed from two words. First, the word vaiśvā is the vṛddhi compound form of the word viśva. Derived from the verbal root “viś” (to pervade), viśva can mean “whole, entire, universal, all-pervading, omnipresent, the whole world,” or “the universe.” The second word, nara, translates both as “man” in a general sense, but also “the primeval Man or eternal Spirit pervading the universe.” Thus vaiśvā-nara translates roughly as “the all pervading, omnipresent man/Man,” though the double meaning of nara implies that the yogin and the primeval Man/eternal Spirit are coextensive, making reference to the pervasive primordial fire underlying the sacrifice of the body of the great Man (mahā-puruṣa) recounted in the ṛg-veda out of which the entire universe, its seemingly immutable laws, and all human bodies were created and continue to exist.

A much earlier and quite helpful description of vaiśvā-nara appears in the Bhagavad-Gītā (ca. 2nd c. BCE?) – a text much more ancient than the recently popularized medieval haṭha yoga canon (Śiva-Saṃhitā, Haṭha-Pradīpikā, Gheraṇḍa-Saṃhitā) – wherein we find the term appear in Krishna’s description of the “Yoga of the Supreme Spirit” (Sargeant 2009, 609):

After becoming the digestive fire [vaiśvā-nara] in the body of a human, I, inhabiting the body of living creatures and joining together with the inhale and exhale, digest to perfection the four-fold foods.

Bhagavad-Gītā 15.14, my translation

We can see here that the cosmic person in the form of Krishna enters the body of humans to become the digestive fire, or vaiśvā-nara, which is then stimulated by the inhalation and exhalation. This helps us more clearly understand why, in the Śiva-Saṃhitā, vaiśvā-nara is used to describe the same process. In sum, the digestive fire is the Absolute inhabiting the body of the yogin to which the yogin offers a measured food offering (mitāhāra) that is then ignited and stoked by the practice of prāṇāyāma. All is One and thou art That – and That (the Absolute) is rooted in your digestive fire.

The significance of the etymology and general prescriptions concerning mitāhāra traceable to texts such as the Bhagavad-Gītā and later found in haṭha yoga texts suggests that both the yoga practitioner and the Absolute (typically conceived as atman and brahman, respectively) are consummating an embodied, elemental, and internalized sacrifice beginning with the yogic meal within the yogic body itself. Having laid the internal kindling, so to speak, by carefully attending to a measured diet, the yogin of the Haṭha-Pradīpikā, Gheraṇḍa-Saṃhitā, and Śiva-Saṃhitā is then provided with elaborate instruction in other yogic practices such as nāḍī-purification, prāṇāyāma, and mudrā intended to stoke the internal fire. These practices are ultimately intended to accomplish what White (1996) has described as an embodied, pan-haṭha yogic alchemical process that is thoroughly pneumatic, thermodynamic, and hydraulic in orientation and which results, as we find throughout haṭha texts, in a state of rāja-yoga that is beyond the mind and therefore sometimes referred to as unmanī (beyond the mind) or amanaska (no mind). The foundation of such a transcendent experience begins with a yogic diet conceived of as a properly “measured food offering” – mitāhāra – aimed at fueling an embodied sacrifice that is inextricably linked to a sacrificial, Vedic understanding of the cosmos and humanity’s place and potential within it.

*Special thanks to McComas Taylor at Australian National University for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Bio: Dr. Christopher Patrick Miller is the Clinical Professor in Yoga Studies in Loyola Marymount University’s Master of Arts in Yoga Studies program. He is the author of a number of articles and chapters concerned with the history and practice of modern yoga, Jainism, religion and ecology, yoga and politics, and yoga philosophy.

Works Cited

Akers, Brian Dana. 2002. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. New Delhi: New Age Books.

Sargeant, Winthrop. 2009. The Bhagavad Gītā. Albany: SUNY Press.

Vasu, Srisa Chandra. 1914. The Siva Samhita. Allahabad: Bhuvaneśwari Āśrama.

Vasu, Srisa Chandra. 1914. The Gheranda Samhita. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

White, David Gordon. 1996. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

© Christopher Patrick Miller 2019