What happened to saying grace before meals? Maybe you grew out of the habit, maybe you never had it, or maybe you only say grace on special occasions. A feeling of gratitude for the pleasure and nourishment of a good meal is natural, but we seem to be losing the tradition of grace, and as we do, something deeper, more subtle and satisfying to the heart, is also being lost.
Part of that loss is our vanishing awareness of our deep connection with the natural world. According to the yogis, we are indebted to the forces of nature, which nurture and support our lives. Saying grace is one way of discharging that debt. But in the modern world, food materializes from plastic wrappers, cardboard boxes, and aluminum cans. When we pluck peppers from a nest of synthetic grass, and lunch pops out of a Styrofoam carton, it is easy to forget the richness of the soil, the sweetness of the rain, and the heat of the sun that brought it to our table. A cereal box doesn’t inspire the same feeling as a field of wheat rippling in the sun; a display of perfectly shaped waxed apples stacked under the neon lights of the supermarket doesn’t call to mind the generosity of the tree; and a plastic jug of homogenized milk doesn’t remind us of the cow that gave it. Food becomes just another commodity, and the expression of gratitude—the acknowledgement of our debt to nature—seems old-fashioned and cloyingly pious.
The early yoga tradition acknowledged the interconnected web of life and man’s place in nature with yajnas, or fire rituals, which nourish the forces of nature. In a fire ritual, mantras are recited as ghee (clarified butter), herbs, rice, and other ingredients are fed into a sanctified fire. The fire digests them and carries the subtle essence of this food into the atmosphere and the unseen world, where it nourishes the wind, the sun, and the rain, which in turn nourish the soil and bring forth the bounty of the earth, part of which then becomes the offering. Thus the cosmic cycle continues.
The sages also recognize that in the field of the body, yajna is constantly performed as we offer food to our own inner fire. Our digestive fire transforms food into bone, muscle, and nerves, as well as physical and mental energy. The offering of food we make to our own indweller allows us to carry out the work that is our offering to the world, which nourishes and sustains us. An early yoga text advises that we accompany the act of eating with greetings to each of the five pranas (energies) of the body, and that after eating, we acknowledge that “the breath and fire of the highest soul have entered into the five pranas of the body, and that the indweller is pleased by pleasing the highest soul.”
The food being offered is Brahman, the individual offering the food is Brahman, and the process of offering itself is also Brahman.
That idea, and references to the fire ritual, resonates in a verse from the Bhagavad Gita (4:24) that is traditionally used by yogis and monks when saying grace before meals:
Brahmagnau brahmana hutam
Brahmaiva tena gantavyam
Om shanti, shanti, shanti
In a literal translation, references to the fire ritual are apparent:
Brahman, the supreme divinity, is the ritual. Brahman is the offering, Brahman is he who offers to the fire that is also Brahman. By seeing Brahman in all actions, one realizes Brahman. May the soul of the universe be pleased. Om, peace, peace, peace.
A more explanatory translation might go something like this:
O Lord, may I remember the truth: the food being offered is Brahman, the individual offering the food is Brahman, and the process of offering itself is also Brahman. Therefore, I perform this offering with full awareness of Brahman alone. May the entire act of cooking, serving, and eating be transformed into sadhana—spiritual practice—leading us all toward Brahman, the highest goal of life. Through this offering may the universal consciousness that pervades and permeates the individual consciousness be worshipped and satisfied. Om, peace, peace, peace.
For yoga students, meals are built-in opportunities for practice, an opportunity to cultivate and stabilize the understanding that arises out of the more formal aspects of practice and study. The yogi’s prayer acknowledges our connection with the cosmic ritual of life, our place in the interconnected web of creation, and the divine source of consciousness that animates everything and impels all actions. The divine permeates all—the offering, those who make the offering, and those receiving and eating the offering. From that perspective, water is the gift of the river, milk the gift of the cow, fruit the gift of the tree—and all arise from the sun, the rain, the wind, the earth. Thus eating becomes a sacrament that nourishes and enlivens the web of life. It satisfies our hunger and enables us to discharge our duties as we move through the grand ritual of life. Grace reminds us of our place in the cosmos, and of the sacredness inherent in the seemingly mundane act of eating.
If you have forgotten how to say grace, or never learned, consider making it part of your practice. This simple and easy ritual can be deeply satisfying. It is helpful to wash your hands before you sit down to eat, not only for the obvious reasons of sanitation, but also as a means of making a conscious transition from other activities to the act of eating.
When you sit down at the table:
- Sit up straight.
- Look at your food.
- Now close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath.
- Breathe out, breathe in.
- Breathe out: your exhalation is received by the space around you.
- Breathe in: your inhalation is the exhalation of the space around you.
- At the navel center acknowledge the inner fire that is about to receive the offering.
- At the heart center acknowledge the inner guide, the indweller.
Who breathes? Who eats? Mentally or audibly recite the grace, keeping in mind the meaning. Then eat and enjoy! Let yourself be fully gratified.
The important thing is to take a moment of remembrance.
If the yogi’s grace doesn’t suit you, consider making up your own, or using a prayer from your religious tradition. For a long time I used an abbreviated version of the yogi prayer—“Everything is for, from, and of Brahman”—combined with a visualization of a profile of paleosoils on the Taos Plateau. Years ago my study of those soils had driven home the connection between sun, rain, rock, and life-sustaining food, so for me this combination of grace and image worked. For you the image might be your garden or a favorite spot in the forest. Or you may prefer to skip the image and simply say a prayer that reminds you of the sacredness of food and the life it brings forth.
Another alternative is to infuse your favorite childhood prayer with an expanded sense of understanding. Most traditional graces are an expression of the ideas inherent in the prayer from the Bhagavad Gita. For example, consider a simple Christian prayer often taught to children:
Come, Lord Jesus,
be our guest,
May this food to us
Here’s a simple interpretation: May the universal consciousness be present. We acknowledge the gift of food from the divine and ask that by eating we support our highest purpose and intention—that is to know ourselves and all the universe as an expression of divine consciousness.
Whether you recite the prayer from the Bhagavad Gita, a prayer from another spiritual tradition, or your own personal prayer, the important thing is to take a moment for remembrance, to reconnect with your own inner being and the greater unseen world that nourishes and supports us. Any prayer that accomplishes that will do, but you may find that the sonorous cadences of the yogi’s grace keep your intention and understanding from collapsing into a casual rote, “Gee, thanks.” As you recite the Sanskrit phrases, the mind slows down, recalibrates, and settles closer to the center of intuition, joy, and gratitude.