Monthly Archives: May 2012

Honoring the Mother

This Sunday, we honor mothers. Relatively young as holidays go, Mother’s Day dates to 1907, when an American woman held a memorial service for her mother. She campaigned to make the second Sunday in May a nationally recognized holiday, and in 1914, her lobbying paid off … at least for greeting card companies, floral shops, candy makers, etc. She went on to protest the empty commercialism of the holiday, but by then it was a wrap … in pink ribbon and tulle, of course.

Here in the states, we give moms flowers, candy, jewelry, and 140 million Mother’s Day cards, spending nearly $2 billion on flowers alone. But if we look beyond the commercialism, we see that there is a long tradition across cultures celebrating motherhood, often in springtime. Fertility, renewal, and childbirth are associated with the feminine aspect of the universe, along with Earth and its satellite, the moon.

Roses have been associated with love, beauty, and hidden knowledge.

We find male and female symbolism throughout yoga. Samkhya, one of the traditional philosophical systems of India, and the foundation of yoga and ayurveda, is based on a dualistic view of the cosmos: pure Spirit (male) and the creative force (female). In asana, we honor the feminine with Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose), forward bends such as Upavista Konasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold), Balasana (Child’s Pose), and most especially, Salamba Sarvangasana, the shoulderstand, considered the queen of all asana.

There is a cooling, relaxing element to feminine asanas, which focus on the parasympathetic division of the nervous system, our “rest and digest” state. Left-nostril breathing, the pranayama known as chandra bhedana (“moon passing through”) also cools the physical body and is excellent for treating sleeplessness or a restless mind. All these practices are nurturing and regenerative—qualities that we associate with mother love. More than ever, we need these qualities in order to find balance in our fast-paced, thought-dominant society.

Earth herself is nurturing and patient, endlessly giving—she holds us in her arms during Savasana. She supports and grounds us during meditation and pranayama. Prakriti—the feminine aspect of the cosmos—is the mother of us all, shaping our experiences and connecting us by our humanness.

On Mother’s Day, we honor those who’ve embodied the feminine aspect in our lives. Along with the flowers, the candy, the cards, we can also celebrate by remembering the creative, regenerative power that is essential to our earthly experience.

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To ghee or not to ghee…

A few days ago, I made ghee for the first time in many months. According to ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, ghee is food, medicine, and more. Because it is sattvic—pure, balanced, wholesome—it is an ideal food for those who practice yoga.

For years, a jar of ghee or two, delicious and lovely, sat on my kitchen counter for daily use. But even though ghee (similar to clarified butter) is not difficult to prepare, I started making it less and less often. My routine changed with a couple moves to smaller kitchens and electric ranges, and I started using virgin coconut oil, more convenient and equally delicious.

Some people avoid ghee because they have high cholesterol. A handful of studies about ghee and cholesterol show mixed results, including one that says ghee decreases serum cholesterol slightly, another saying that while ghee raises total cholesterol, it does not create fatty deposits in blood vessels. The latter fits with what ayurveda tells us, that ghee clears the body of toxins. Add that to the plus column.

In the minus column, ghee is expensive. I don’t bother to make it unless I’m using organic, unsalted butter, and over the years I’ve found that cheaper brands usually contain more water and solids than expensive ones, yielding less ghee. Making ghee is a simple process (see Dr. Vasant Lad’s recipe here), but in a moment of inattention, ghee can burn—and wasting a pound of organic butter is a sad event.

But even if ghee does raise cholesterol and cost more than cheap butter or margarine (which is often loaded with trans fats), its benefits are many. As mentioned, ghee helps to detoxify the body’s deep tissues, and it has been used for centuries as part of ayurvedic cleanses. As it cleanses, it also rejuvenates. Dr. Lad, founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, recommends ghee for yoga practitioners because it lubricates connective tissues and prepares the body for stretching. Also, many nutrients are difficult to absorb without fatty acids, and ayurveda has long used ghee as a delivery system for healing herbs.

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The Charaka Samhita, an ayurvedic text dating to about 800 B.C., describes ghee as “the best of oils.” 

Beyond the physical benefits, ghee has many spiritual associations. In India, cows are considered sacred. Shiva’s vehicle is Nandi, the bull. Krishna, the god of love, was a cowherd. Butter, given freely to us from the cow, is like a gift from the gods. When butter is transformed by fire into ghee, it becomes the earthly equivalent of ojas, the fluid of life. Ghee has been used for centuries in lamps, to bathe murtis (figures of the gods), and to feed ceremonial fires.

Tradition has always fascinated me, the things that connect us to those who came before. I am especially fascinated by the traditions that we often participate in without thinking about as we go through our daily lives. To me, making ghee is like baking bread, or drinking wine, or even eating breakfast porridge—sharing in a food technology that has extended through the ages. In yoga, we talk often about lineage in regard to our teachers, their teachers, and the teachers who taught them. It is said that when we honor the lineage, it protects and supports us. I believe that food (at least the foods our great-grandmothers would recognize, to paraphrase Michael Pollan) is part of our human lineage, a touchstone that connects and grounds us as it nurtures. 

I am also a strong believer that food heals. In fact, my recent return to ghee was spurred by a visit from a friend with a chronic illness. Serving ghee was a small and simple way I could help him. So today, once again, a jar of ghee sits on my counter next to the olive oil. And when I have some every morning on my porridge, I remember that I am feeding the spirit along with the body.

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