Fasting and Meditation – How to Fast
FASTING, WHEN PERFORMED METHODICALLY, PURIFIES AND STRENGTHENS BOTH MIND AND BODY, AN ESSENTIAL REQUIREMENT FOR MEDITATION.
Yogis have practiced fasting for many centuries; as yogic science and ayurveda hold the practice of fasting in high regard. When practiced adequately and methodically, fasting helps to keep both the body and mind in a perfect state of health – an essential requirement for meditation, which needs the body to be supple, flexible and healthy. After all an unhealthy and rigid body will complain when seated for prolonged periods of time, immediately interrupting meditation.
It was Hippocrates that said “All diseases begin in the gut”, a notion that is shared by traditional eastern medicine systems such chinese medicine, ayurveda and siddha. In the human body, every moment, millions of cells perish with new ones taking birth to replace the old ones. A process which requires countless nutrients. But adequate nutrition requires efficient assimilation. Foods that cannot be assimilated often become toxic to the body. And it is these very toxins, that cause disease in the long term.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF FASTING ACCORDING TO YOGA’?
Fasting is generally done to purify and cleanse the body, but it is equally regenerative on the mind. The mind and body are not separate, they are fully and totally connected. A body filled with impurities will pollute the mind, and an imbalanced mind will naturally imbalance the body.
Fasting strengthens the mind, there is no doubt about it. Unless we do it with narcissistic intentions; with the sole purpose of altering our appearance to current social norms. In such cases, the act of fasting will likely make the mind weaker, as it is an act born from an unhealthy desire. But when done with positive intentions it will unquestionably strengthen the mind. What are some of the benefits we can expect from a conscious and suitable fast?
Fasting – which is one of Raja yoga’s fixed observances (Niyama) – challenges our willpower. We stop ourselves from ingesting all that we want to eat, prioritising will over instinct, a conscious strategy over a physical desire. The body still reacting to genetic data of multiple generations, encourages us to have periodic meals. It relates fasting with hunger and lack of food. It relates fasting with the scarcity of winter. But when we consciously fast, and maintain an inner awareness that everything is fine and under control, we help break away from these patterns. We make the mind less reactive and more intentional.
Secondly, fasting increases awareness. Hunger makes us aware of the emptiness of the stomach. It makes us realise the needs of the body and all the internal processes ongoing in the digestive system. Awareness of the body leads to awareness of the mind, and this is one of the reasons most beginners start with yogic poses (asanas) in their journey of yoga.
Lastly, by fasting we allow the body to take a break from digestion, assimilation and elimination. We give it time to heal and restore other systems in the body, thereby improving our immediate health. When the body isn’t involved in digestive processes, it very quickly starts eliminating toxins.
ANIMALS THAT FAST
Animals have a natural instinct to fast when they’re sick. Their curative instinct when facing infection or disease is a mix of light, fresh air, fasting and resting.
Their strategy is to save as much energy as possible whilst giving the body ample time to heal. In just a day or two of fasting, they are able to obliterate most infections; a strategy that could frequently work for humans too. But we don’t need to wait until we get sick to do a fast, we can practice fasting intermittently to prevent illness.
WHY MINDFUL EATING IS IMPORTANT
Mindful eating is not only highly beneficial, but extremely important if we wish to experience abundant health. We should generally aim to eat regular portions at regular intervals; matching the amount we consume to our levels of hunger. Overeating because we enjoy the taste of food or have a false appetite, can result in poor health in the mid to long run.
This is why it is important to remain aware of timings, portions, quality of food and the way we feel when we eat. Fasting will only increase our awareness of such matters, whilst giving our overworked digestive organs enough time to rest and heal. Unassimilated foods lying in the digestive track can be processed and absorbed. Digestive juices are able to rebalance, restoring their quality and quantity.
INTELLIGENT FASTING – KNOWING WHEN AND HOW TO FAST
Fasting is a potent practice, but it must be done methodically and only when necessary. Fasting forcefully without adequate preparation will be damaging to both body and mind. For instance, people who drink tea or coffee during a fast, will only damage their system. The acidity and caffeine in tea and coffee during a fast will not be cleansing or helpful in any way.
Energy expenditure throughout the day must also be checked during a fast. Fasting when we require high energy levels due to our lifestyle or profession will unequivocally be detrimental to health. If want to give our digestive system a break from its duties, we must first ensure we can take a break from our duties.
Though fasting may prove to be curative with many illnesses, it will not be fruitful in ailments emerging from scarce nourishment or other more serious troubles. And under no circumstances should it ever be practiced during pregnancy.
FASTING AND YOGA
Fasting should be approached gently and increased gradually. Fasting only on certain days is a good method. For instance, the yogic calendar has two specific days a month, which are considered to be highly beneficial for fasting called Ekadashi. A day which comes twice a month – on the 11th day after the full moon and on the 11th day after the new moon. Yogis have fasted on Ekadashi since ancient times. It is said on this day, the planetary conditions are such that fasting will enhance both mental and physical health.
But we can choose what days we prefer to fast on, depending on our lifestyle and daily schedule. There are also many different ways to fast. Some people don’t eat anything at all for the entire day, sipping only water from time to time. Others will perform a fruit fast, some will practice time-restricted fasting on regular intervals.
The general recommendation in yoga is start your fasts by eating only fruits, boiled or steamed vegetables and nuts. With time, the amount consumed or the number of meals can be decreased to make it a stricter fast. But the body should gradually be prepared for fasts, otherwise we run the risk of unbalancing the 3 humors – vata, pitta and kapha. Yoga and ayurveda both agree there can be no health if the humors are imbalanced, which is why we must always choose gentle and progressive strategies.
HOW TO BREAK A FAST
A fast can be broken at any time, but a conventional rule is to wait until hunger calls. There is a possibility we may feel constipated the first few times we fast, but it usually wanes very quickly. This is one of the reasons why simple foods such as fruits are commonly prescribed for a day or two when a fast is broken. Fruits digest with great ease and stimulate peristalsis. Another adequate food when breaking a fast, is a simple soup or other liquid foods such as green juice.
When a fast is broken, there is usually a strong craving to eat large quantities of different foods. This is an impulse which must be avoided by will, as the consequences of giving into such an urge will be far worse than not having fasted at all. If we yield to our instincts and overfill our stomach after a fast, to the extent we get bloated and constipated, it will be necessary to fast again. This time, with more awareness and restraint.
After fasting, it is possible that our stomach may have shrunk or that digestive juices are lowered. Which is why it is important to be mindful of the quantity of food we eat after a fast. Increasing portions gradually, matching our digestive capacity and vitality is always the best course of action.
Long fasts (over 3 days) should always be done under expert guidance, as to not damage the body. If done under expert guidance they can be greatly healing, energising and spiritually fortifying.
FASTING AND THE MIND
One of the greatest meditative practices of yoga is witnessing our thoughts. When fasting, It is important to be aware of the thoughts emerging in the mind. Thoughts of food should be disregarded quickly, as they will generate more desire, which will put us to the test not during the fast, but shortly after when we break our fast. The more thoughts of food we entertain, the harder it will be on our willpower to eat adequately once we have broken our fast.
AYURVEDA AND FASTING
“langhanam paramam aushadham” a popular ayurvedic phrase which translates to “Fasting is the supreme medicine”. Ayurveda’s ancient texts advise making regular modifications in our daily intake of food. This alteration should be based on many external conditions, such as the weather and time of the year.
However, Ayurveda encourages the consumption of easily-digestible foods in small quantities during a fast, rather than drinking only water. Because strict fasting lowers digestive power and increases vata (wind) in the body, consequently cancelling any benefits we may have gotten from fasting. The general rule in ayurveda, states that Vata personalities should minimise their fasts, as they already have weak digestive systems. Kapha (earth) personalities on the other hand can benefit from stronger and stricter fasting practices on account of their slow metabolisms.
“And how does fasting purify? Because whenever you are on a fast the body has no more work of digestion. In that period the body can work in throwing out dead cells, toxins. When the body has nothing to digest, it starts a self-cleaning process spontaneously and starts throwing out all that is not needed. Fasting is a method of purification. Once in a while, a fast is beautiful – not doing anything, not eating, just resting. Take as much liquid as possible and just rest, and the body will be cleaned. Sometimes, if you feel that a longer fast is needed, you can do a longer fast also – but be deep in love with the body. And if you feel the fast is harming the body in any way, stop it. If the fast is helping the body, you will feel more energetic; you will feel more alive; you will feel rejuvenated, vitalised. This should be the criterion: if you start feeling that you are getting weaker, if you start feeling that a subtle trembling is coming into the body, then be aware – now the thing is no longer a purification. It has become destructive. Stop it.” – Osho
KED SURI, FOUNDER OF THE YOGI PRESS
Ked was born and raised in Barcelona. He considers himself a blend of East and West, keeping from each world what is most exceptional.Yoga has played an important part of his life since his early years; he was initiated at the Bihar School of Yoga at the age of seven and experienced ashram life every year whilst growing up, spending much time with swamis, yogis and renunciates. Get in touch with him.