January 5, 2011

Yoga and Dairy: An Alliance of Holy or Unholy Cows?

Great yogis have considered dairy products to be an exceptional nutrition for body, mind and spirit for thousands of years. Warm milk, according to the yoga tradition, is a wonderful drink to build up energy for the practice of pranayama, or breathing exercises. Indeed, when I started my practice of closing and opening my nostrils to the rhythms of breath and mantra, I was told by my Indian teacher to consume protein-rich foods such as dairy on a daily basis, especially during the first three months of the practice.

And, according to ayurvedic texts, clarified butter, or ghee, is one of the best foods to enhance ojas, a vital essence that produces physical and mental endurance and nourishes the development of our spiritual faculties. If you are a yogi, we are told, milk is one of the best foods you can ever consume.

Yes, except for the great Tibetan yogi Milerepa, who allegedly lived on nothing but nettle soup for long periods of time, it would be rather difficult to find pure vegans among the yogis of ancient India, Nepal, China and Tibet.

Back then, there were no Whole Foods in the neighborhood, no over-abundant supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, protein bars, soy milk, and green chlorophyll-drinks to keep up the yogis’ stamina. A simple diet of select herbs, vegetables, rice, legumes and milk was their natural foods of choice. As environmentalist Michael Pollan suggests, they did not eat too much, and mostly plants.

The yogi ascetics and householders of old grew up in a culture centered around the cow. From these large and gentle mammals, they were provided milk, cream, cheese, butter, yoghurt and ghee. Indian children are told stories of how the great yogi leader Krishna was notorious for stealing butter and ghee from any unsuspecting milkmaid when he was young. Indeed, milk and yoga have had an intimate and holy relationship since the beginning of Indian civilization.

Many ascetic yogis lived on nothing but warm milk, raw sugar and certain herbs and spices for extended periods of time. In yoga’s sister science, ayurveda, milk products are, according to prolific author David Frawley, prepared “medicinally, particularly for improving resistance to disease, and to promote convalescence and regeneration.”

Does that mean all yogis would benefit from the use of milk products? Does that mean dairy is always good for you? The short answer is: NO. The long answer is: IT ALL DEPENDS.

For yogis there are at least two important factors to consider when choosing a diet: health and ethics. In some circumstances, milk may be healthy, in others not. Similarly, the yogic ethical principle ahimsa, which is often translated as non-violence, is also a complex and gray area.

Since it is humanly impossible to be completely non-violent towards other living beings, the yogic choice is this: to consciously try to do the least harm possible, to eat those living beings who suffer the least pain when killed. Thus yogis decided to eat carrots rather than cows. Thus the yogis of old chose to become vegetarians; while many modern yogis are opting to be vegans.

Here’s the ethical gray area: Even the most conscientious vegan will indirectly kill other animals and insects, simply because that is the nature of agriculture: millions of animals are killed by tractors and machinery on fields each year, even in sustainable agriculture, even in fields grown for a vegan diet.

Frawley emphasizes that it is important to use “good quality milk from cows who have been treated well.” This is not so easy to do, of course, in a society where cows are not seen or treated as “sacred” but more often like four-legged machines on an assembly line.

Thus, for both health and ethical reasons, many yogis choose not to eat dairy at all. They rightly claim that milk may be bad for health as it creates mucus, increased weight, allergies and candida. They also rightly claim that if you drink milk, you become part of an industry that promotes cruelty and slaughter.

True. But militant vegans seem to forget that it is possible to consume milk and not experience those health side-effects, that it is still possible, as in ancient India, to obtain healthy, cruelty-free milk products from local farms selling organic milk, such as from the tiny organic dairy farm here in my neck of the woods.

Moreover, vegan moralists, who claim lacto-vegetarians indirectly support animal slaughter, may sweep under the grass-mat the fact that millions of rodents, snakes, birds and other animals are killed each year in order to produce the soy milk that they love as a milk substitute.

It is not a black and white issue no matter how you look at it. There are many gray areas to consider, and each yogi and yogini have the choice to carefully weigh the pros and cons of their diet. That said, I do not think dairy products are absolutely necessary for yogis; it is of course possible to lead a dynamic, peaceful and healthy yogic life on a vegan diet.

But a raw vegan diet, for example, such as the one promoted by David Wolfe, also has its environmental downsides. Many of the super-healthy ingredients come from far-away places, such as the Amazon rainforest. This makes the Eat Locally slogan harder to follow.

Indeed, it might be environmentally less harmful and hurtful to eat a local lacto-vegetarian diet than a vegan diet with lots of items shipped in from far away. There are no absolutes. It’s all a matter of conscious (or unconscious) compromise.

Even in the best, cruelty-free and organic circumstances, milk is best used in moderation. In our consumer culture, we habitually stock up on more food than we need and thus overeat and overuse products, including healthy organic dairy and raw sugar. This would have been unthinkable, and practically impossible, for the thin yet healthy yogis of ancient India.

According to ayurveda, a strong-boned and big-muscled kapha person should only use dairy in small amounts, as it produces too much fat and mucus, while a lean and thin pitta person, who burn calories like an incinerator, may use it more liberally. So, for health reasons, it all depends on our body type and also on our genetic makeup.

Many ethnic groups not accustomed to herding cows, such as Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and many Asians, are lactose intolerant, as are many individuals. So, a balanced yogi diet depends on many different factors.

“Of milk and dairy products,” says David Frawley, “milk and ghee are excellent for the practice of yoga.” He recommends consuming milk freshly boiled with spices such as ginger, cinnamon and cardamom. Yoghurt is best taken in small quantities and also mixed with water as a drink, either sweetened with fruits or honey, or salty, especially on hot summer days. Ghee can be used in cooking or eaten from the jar—a few spoonfuls daily is said to be enough to produce that sought-after elixir called ojas.

Indeed, milk products, especially cold milk and yoghurt, have an optimal effect during the warm season. And if you drink milk at night, drink it warm and with the above mentioned spices. This will prevent mucus build-up and thus the formation of cold and flu.

So to sum it all up: the alliance between yoga and dairy has a long, healthy and illustrious history. However, there are also examples of ancient yogis who primarily lived on plants for long periods of time. Due to cruelty towards cows and environmental destruction caused by industrial farming methods, this sacred alliance has become more and more complicated and unholy.

What is your experience with using or not using dairy? Why do you think it is healthy and ethical; why do you think it is unhealthy and unethical?

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