The four-step approach

By Indra Mohan and Nitya Mohan

Use this strategy to communicate with your body

Control over the quality and quantity of food we eat is critical for a successful yoga practice. Even more important, a balanced diet is necessary for the wellness of body and mind. Our body is both our enemy and our friend. Our body becomes our enemy if we eat indiscriminately and become overweight and unwieldy. Our body is our friend if we are lean and healthy.

So how do we manage the body?

The ancient four-step solution, well known in the Mahabharata, can be effectively adapted to the body and diet. The main story of the Mahabharata describes five righteous and noble brothers — known as the Pandavas — who belonged to a royal family. In the story, the brothers have been deprived of their inheritance, a share of a kingdom, by their cousins, the Kauravas. After many twists and turns in the story, the Pandavas finally request that their share of the kingdom be returned. A lesson in statecraft is presented through the story.

The first of the four steps is called sama, the effort to speak with the enemy, come to a mutually agreeable conclusion, and make friends with him or her. In the Mahabharata, this is the first step the Pandavas take. They try to reason with their cousins and point out the legitimacy of their claim. In applying this step to managing the body, we would follow a disciplined lifestyle and eat a moderate and healthy diet. By doing this, we respect and make friends with our body, thus gaining its cooperation for the practice of yoga.

If the first step fails, the next is dana. In this step, one concedes what the enemy wants, thereby gaining his support. In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas lower their demands repeatedly and are willing to settle for less.

Control food habits

Similarly, if the body does not cooperate with food discipline — that is, if the tongue is too strong and draws us to eat unhealthy food, we follow dana to subdue the tongue. We do not begin by fighting with the tongue; instead, we placate it by giving it the food it wants, but we begin doing more asana and pranayama. As we practice more healthy asana and pranayama, we feel lightness in the body and a sense of wellness. A reluctance to lose this feeling of wellness helps us resist eating indiscriminately. Thus we can control our unhealthy food habits over time, supported by good asana and pranayama practice.

If the second measure also fails, the third is bheda, in which one speaks with a friend or supporter of the enemy and removes his power, thus creating divisions in the enemy camp to avoid war. In the Mahabharata, Bhagavan Krishna, the well-wisher of the Pandavas speaks with Karna and tries to woo him away from the Kauravas but Karna remains steadfast in his loyalty to them.

If the body has too much fat and the mind wanders, asana and pranayama will not be sufficient to turn around one’s habits. To break the cycle, it is necessary to apply bheda — to interrupt the support for the tongue. Fasting for a day every now and then or skipping a meal will help bring the tongue to heel. It will also help strengthen our will by giving our mind the message that all whims will not be satisfied.

Finally, if all other measures fail, force or punishment (danda) is the only recourse. In the Mahabharata, this results in the epic war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, the culmination of their conflict. If the body and mind are spoiled, serious transformation can come about only through strong measures. Certain restrictions become necessary, like completely giving up the unhealthy food items that we like most, like sweets or chocolates, or avoiding salt or fatty foods entirely for an extended time — say, one month. This is firm discipline for the body and mind; it is like going to battle with them. They will protest, but as long as our health is not affected, strong determination will help us prevail and effect the desired transformation.

Note that this four-step approach can be applied just as well to the other aspects of our life, depending on which aspect of our mind and behaviour we wish to transform.

This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.