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.
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.