In India, milk has been nectar for body, mind, and soul for millennia. So why is it so controversial in the West? Here, a look at ancient wisdom about dairy, blended with the perspective of modern science.
When morning arrives in cities throughout India, what do many homemakers do? Typically, they receive fresh milk from a milkman who delivers it to their home early each day. But the milk isn’t prepackaged. Rather, the milkman pours the milk into the homemakers’ stainless steel bottles. Then, because it’s not pasteurized, they boil the milk before refrigerating it. A similar scene takes place in villages each day. “The lithe, ebony milkman…would fill the milk buckets that were waiting for him…,” writes Maya Tiwari in A Life in Balance. The milk was “delivered, buff-colored and foaming, within the hour of the milking. It was never preboiled. Milk was a vital and living food for as long as the ancestry could remember.”
For thousands of years in India, milk has been an integral aspect of the yoga of food (anna yoga); indeed, the teachings of yoga promote a plant-based and dairy diet that is designed to nourish physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Both ancient Vedic scripture—which dates to about 1500 BC—and the wisdom of the Upanishads (872-222 BC), are rich repositories of food wisdom that mention milk, grains, and fruit as the “first foods” of the human diet. Consider this reference from the Rig Veda (IX 2.7): “The cows yield…milk inexhaustible for thee set on the highest summit.”
Although there is no specific date for the first usage of milk in India, it was the rishis (seers), the original yoga practitioners, who provided insights into milk and the other foods that make up the yogic diet. Meditating in the dense woods in India 4000 years ago, they used their own bodies and minds as laboratories to explore optimum eating strategies that would enhance their yoga practice. Thousands of years later, the rishis’ dietary wisdom surfaced in the concise nutrition philosophy described in the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.
What exactly is the diet followed by 80 percent of India’s population? It consists of foods that yoga’s ancient seers realized could contribute to sitting still and silently during meditation, and to holding certain poses (asanas). Called sattvic foods, these include: fruits, vegetables, grains (rice, oats, wheat, etc.) legumes (beans and peas), nuts and seeds, and milk and milk products (such as yogurt, butter, and cheese).
Flash forward 4000 years later. It was in the 1970s that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of India (MIT) confirmed in their high-tech laboratories what ancient rishis had intuited instinctively centuries before: The carbohydrate-dense foods of the sattvic diet do, indeed, calm and relax the mind/body. The mystical mechanism? Serotonin, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter (chemical “messenger”) that is released when you consume carbohydrate-dense, plant-based foods and milk—which, unlike the other animal foods of meat, poultry, and fish—is high in carbohydrates—and ultimately, a conduit to soothing serotonin.
While the Bhagavad Gita describes yogic foods as sattva (having a gentle connection to the earth), Western cultures are likely to explain them as lactovegetarian—the type of vegetarianism that eschews meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, but includes all plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds), as well as milk and milk products. For devout yogis and Hindus, consuming a sattvic diet is based largely on ahimsa, the Hindu doctrine of non-violence. In this light, dairy foods are acceptable because even though they come from an animal (cow), it is the killing of live animals, poultry, or fish that underlies this food philosophy.
The sacred cow. But there’s another reason for welcoming milk into the diet. In India, the cow is perceived as sacred; an animal that is consecrated and treated with love and reverence. “Because it gives milk and is a nurturer that sustains life, the cow is honored as a mother,” says yoga teacher Nutan Brownstein, who grew up in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), India. Now living in Kauai, Hawaii, Brownstein clarified India’s view of the sacred cow: “Cows are so revered and respected in India that when people drive by cows (which roam freely in city streets and in the countryside), they touch them and offer prayers.”
Such an expression of love is linked to the Hindu concept of prasad: If food is offered with love before it is eaten, then it will not be harmful. Can treating cows and their milk with love provide protection? Possibly. When a group of people from Spindrift (an organization that researched the effects of prayer) recently were in Haiti, without refrigeration, they had problems keeping the milk fresh. But with prayer, the milk stayed bacteria-free for days longer.
Health and milk
The health benefits of pure dairy products have been documented and developed for 3500 years in Ayurveda, India’s ancient “science of life.” For instance, a cup of milk, diluted with water, is believed to cool the system and aid digestion. However, dairy foods can be either healthful or harmful—depending on the quantity and quality of the milk and milk products you consume.
Quantity. In the 1990s, pioneering physician Dean Ornish, M.D., proved that heart disease could be reversed with a yogic lifestyle: the sattvic diet (minus nuts and seeds), yoga and meditation, exercise, and group support. Specifically, plant-based foods were staples of the reversal diet, with only one cup or less of nonfat dairy foods daily. Ayurveda, too, recommends a limited intake of dairy foods for optimal health.
Quality. “The health problems caused by food in India today are due to the excessive [ital, mine] use of milk…and to the more recent infiltration of chemical pesticides and herbicides into her livestock feed,” writes Tiwari. So, too, in America. On the other hand, organic dairy foods that come from cows fed no pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and hormones, are less likely to harm health.
Milk may be consumed widely, but not necessarily wisely. By merging India’s ancient wisdom about milk with the West’s state-of-the-art nutrition knowledge, you may reap the physical, psychological, and spiritual gifts offered by both worlds. Here, some guidelines to get started.
- Go organic. Check the container, then choose name brands that produce unadulterated, pure, organic dairy products.
- Consider condiments. Limit the quantity of dairy you consume each day by treating dairy foods as condiments. The goal: Consume mostly plant-based foods, with small portions of dairy. A sampling: Try fresh fruit with a dollop of yogurt.
- Think Vedic. Ancient guidelines suggest drinking milk cool, warm, by itself, or with fruit or fruit juice. Avoid consuming it with vegetables, fish, meat, salt, or meals.
- Honor the sacred source. Bring a “yoga consciousness” to milk and dairy products (and all food) by thinking thoughts of appreciation for the Mother cow and the nourishment she provides for you.
- Become calm. Enhance your yoga practice with the relaxing benefits of milk (and plant-based foods).
Viewed through the veil of India’s ancient dietary wisdom, milk is more than an amalgam of nutrients for our body. Pure, unadulterated milk may also calm and relax the mind and provide spiritual sustenance—if we take the time to listen to the subtle messages in milk.
Deborah Kesten, M.P.H., was the nutrition specialist on Dean Ornish, M.D.’s first clinical trial for reversing heart disease through lifestyle changes, and Director of Nutrition on a similar research project at cardiovascular clinics in Europe. She is the award-winning author of Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul, The Healing Secrets of Food, and more recently, The Enlightened Diet. Visit her at www.Enlightened-Diet.com to take her FREE What’s Your Eating Style? quiz, and to discover more about her optimal eating programs, health coaching, and books.