Fasting is nature's way of harnessing all the body's energies for the process of healing and repair.

Fasting is a completely natural process which each one of us does at night while we sleep, and the next morning we break our fast with breakfast. In India many Hindus, especially ladies, practice regular fasting as part of their religious customs. Sometimes they fast once a week or on full moon days. If not a complete fast, they may take only fruits and other light foodstuffs. Fasting is also an integral part of the Muslim faith, with daylight fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. In Buddhism and Christianity fasting is also of great importance. Christ and Buddha both fasted for 40 days before reaching enlightenment and starting their missions.

Saints of every order have used fasting with prayer or meditation to reach higher spiritual states. Other people have used fasting solely as a practice to improve physical and mental health, while natural therapists have suggested that fasting is at the basis of curing many diseases. Fasting combined with yogic practices has been found to be very useful for digestive problems, helping to eliminate, even long standing conditions such as amoebic dysentery.

What is Fasting?

The word fasting comes from the old English word 'fasten' meaning to fix or make firm. Under no circumstances does fasting mean starvation. In effect, the point where the body starts to starve because it has depleted its nutritional reserves is the end of the fast. From the outset it is important to realize the fasting stage only takes place so long as the body can support itself on the stored reserves within the body. Starvation begins when the body's reserves are depleted or are at a dangerously low level.

Fasting, like all other natural cures, is based on the principle that the body itself contains the most efficient healing agents. These agents are most effective when they are unhampered by the process of digestion and elimination which tend to drain off much of the body's energies. Fasting gives these systems a much needed rest and releases energy for the elimination of toxins and restoring the body to health.

In the optimum state of health, there is no need to fast, however, this is rarely the case. Most people continually overtax the body by eating too much, drinking too much, and living in a continual state of tension. Instead of an adequate supply of natural nutrients, the body often receives a mixture of denatured and devitalised foodstuffs which tend to clog it up. Bodily efficiency is continually impaired by the surplus of food which it is unable to use up or throw off. Fasting gives the body time for a thorough cleansing and expulsion of accumulated wastes.

In the digestive tract, there is a continuous build up of waste material such as undigested or partially digested food particles, bacteria, etc. If a person habitually overeats or suffers from constipation, this build up will be greatly increased. This is the breeding ground for many more serious illnesses as well as general ill-health. The simplest way to clean out the whole digestive system is to miss a few meals. When no food is being ingested, the body can concentrate fully on what is already there. The build up of waste materials is more effectively expelled via the bowels, kidneys and skin, bringing about a marked purification of the blood. This in turn gives a wonderful feeling of lightness and freshness.

Many people are afraid to miss even one meal as they believe that this will weaken them. The fact is, however, that modern man suffers mainly from diseases of excess (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.). He digs his grave with his teeth. Life insurance statistics reveal that the less one weighs, the longer one is likely to live.

Fasting and Disease

Have you ever observed an animal, such as your pet dog or cat, when it is not feeling well? In most cases it will try to go some place where it will not be disturbed, lie down and take complete rest. Even if you give food, it will refuse to eat. Human beings, however, find it very difficult to rest and recuperate, and for most, fasting is nearly impossible. Many people think that, energy comes from food and so tasty dishes are prepared for the sick person to get him to eat. This attitude, however, fails to take into account the fact that one of the first signs of sickness is a loss of appetite. This is a natural warning designed to help nature's repair work.

When bacteria invade the body the immune system is mobilized. All available energy is required and therefore physical activity should be avoided. Eating requires a lot of metabolic energy and this energy must be kept in reserve for fighting the disease. Fasting speeds up the catabolic (breakdown) process which occurs in illness thereby helping to eliminate toxins. This appears to be the opposite view to that proposed by medical science which offers drugs and chemicals to reduce discomfort and suppress symptoms. However, if we allow the disease to complete its natural course, it will be finished and the body will be purified. Many poisons are thrown out through the skin via perspiration and through the blood via urine. Taking food is said to allow poisons to be reabsorbed back into the body, as eating food stops catabolism and starts anabolism, the build up of the body.

Fasting is more important for those who have been on a high meat diet. Those who only take animal products such as cheese, milk and eggs require less fasting. For vegans, people on a pure vegetarian diet, lasting is not necessary, but it can be used occasionally to rest the body or increase the digestive fire.

To claim that fasting is a 'cure-all' no matter what the nature or duration of the disease would be foolish. Fasting is a science and it must be practiced under expert guidance especially when utilized as a therapeutic technique. The age of the sufferer, the nature of the complaint (whether acute or chronic), and various other considerations will all have to be taken into account. If an organ is structurally defective, fasting will not bring it back to its original state. However, if there is any functional disorder, fasting is a simple, direct and effective method of cure. It attacks disease at the roots by expelling poisons and also by increasing willpower and inducing a relaxed, meditative state of mind which is very important for removing tensions that cause disease.

Psychology of Fasting

Fasting must be practiced under the right circumstances and with the right frame of mind. If one is worried about toxins building up in the body or becoming too fat, then the fast will be ineffectual. There will be tension instead of complete rest and relaxation. Such fasting is not natural; it arises out of desire or fear rather than need and throws the body's metabolism out of balance. It is better to call this sort of process starvation instead of fasting.

You will know intuitively when it is the right time to fast. Something inside says it is better to miss a meal or two. Perhaps hunger is absent or you feel that you may be getting sick. When the body tells you 'No more food, please!' it is nature's signal to fast and the process feels good.

Self imposed fasting can be used as a sadhana. If the hunger is great, you can practice antar mouna and observe everything that goes on in the body and mind. Through this you will learn many things about yourself and the importance of food in your life. You will see the psychological pull that hunger and taste exert as well as your habitual approach and attitude towards food. This is a method not only to discover the inner workings of the body and mind but also to develop mental strength and willpower. Fasting, when approached correctly, is very relaxing. As the body slows down the mind does also and this can be felt in the following ways:

  • * Breathing is freer
  • * There is greater ease of movement
  • * That 'tired feeling' disappears
  • * Fullness and discomfort in the abdomen are soon replaced by lightness
  • * Blood pressure is lowered.

How to Fast

Preparation for a fast is very important. It is not advisable to make an abrupt transition from your usual diet unless you are very ill. In this case all solid food should be eliminated from your diet and plenty of fluids consumed so as to flush the kidneys. If you are well and able to prepare for the fast, first abstain from meat land heavy foods, then over the next few days switch over to a light fruit diet. After this you can commence the fast.

The following suggestions will help to make your fast more successful:

  1. If possible, fasting should be undertaken during the warmer periods of the year. During cold weather food is converted into energy to keep the body warm. Fasting at this time makes the body more susceptible to cold. Of course in the case of acute disease, a fast can still be undertaken but the house should be kept warm and whenever you go outside be sure to wear plenty of warm clothing.
  2. Few people are aware of the benefits of fasting, so before you begin make sure that your family and friends understand the basics of fasting and your goal. Fasting in the early stages is difficult enough without having nagging relatives trying to force food down your throat. A positive, encouraging atmosphere amidst family and friends is most helpful. If you wish to fast for a long period of time and your surroundings are not suitable, we advise you to stay in an ashram or similar institution where fasting is regularly undertaken with the aid of expert guidance. Most people are a little uncertain during their first attempt at fasting so it is essential that the environment be as congenial as possible.
  3. The body itself is the most reliable indicator of how long the fast should be. This applies whether one is fasting for cure of disease or for general cleansing. Also the severity of the disease may determine the length of the fast. As the constitution of each of us is slightly different, the duration of fasting must suit each individual. Rely on what the body tells you rather than on the experience of others.
    The duration of the fast depends largely on the purpose for which the fast is undertaken. For a general clean out, 1-3 days per month is sufficient. If fasting is practiced once a week the benefits will be greatly enhanced. For more specific purposes the standard duration is 3 days if one is without guidance. This is generally long enough to give the whole system a complete rest.
  4. In a pure fast one should take only plain water, nothing else. It is good to drink plenty of water while fasting as this increases the natural process of purification. In a fast of longer than a days, one should take water with a little lemon juice (no sugar) 3 times daily to aid the cleansing process.
  5. In a 1 day fast, feelings of weakness (if they occur) are largely psychological. Your mental attitude will make all the difference People have been known to fast for many days and grow progressively stronger! Some people say that on a 1 day last it is essential to maintain all normal activities, for if one rests all day 80% of the benefits will be lost due to lack of natural blood circulation. While fasting most people experience a wonderful feeling of freshness and lightness, and many report that they can carry out their daily duties even more efficiently. Others say we should take complete rest. The average person may wish to avoid strenuous physical activities on a fast of 3 days or longer. You must find your own middle way.
  6. In prolonged fasts hunger sensations disappear after the first few days even though the hunger contractions of the stomach may persist. This is thought to be due to an adaptive process in the brain. Drinking water helps to relieve the desire for food, but never drink iced water. Also use bhujangini mudra to reduce hunger. Keep in mind that there is a difference between hunger and appetite. Hunger is the natural call of the body for food in order to maintain itself while appetite is hunger of the mind.
  7. It is beneficial to take an enema or to do basti or laghoo shankaprakashalana on the day of or the day after fasting, especially if there is no bowel movement. Do not use laxatives.
  8. Bathe once or twice a day with cold or lukewarm water. Inner and outer cleanliness go hand in hand.
  9. Keep yourself occupied mentally and do not think about food. One who fasts but spends the whole time waiting for the fast to be over is wasting his time and creating mental tension.
  10. Fasting is not generally advised for reducing fat. The average dieter will fast for 1 day, then eat enough for 3 days the day after.
  11. Look upon fasting as a spiritual practice and when you fast never advertise it. Aside from its physical benefits, fasting is a powerful method of developing willpower and self discipline.
  12. The important thing to remember in fasting is moderation. Never fast if the cravings of the body and mind become excessive, and don't fast if you do not feel like it. Be open to the possibility of tasting and use it when the need arises. It is said in the Bhagavad Gita:
    "Yoga is not possible for he who cats too much, or for he who abstains too much from eating." (6:16)

Breaking the Fast

There is a great tendency to overeat upon completion of the fast. Much care should be taken to ensure that a proper diet followed. The method of breaking the fast will depend on the duration of the fast, but generally the first food taken should be liquid - fresh fruit juice or milk. Orange juice diluted with water, taken every 2 hours is a popular way to break a fast. The first solid food to be taken should be something easy to digest, like melon or vegetable broth. Take only small amounts and chew each mouthful well.

The following diets are suggested after the liquid diet:

  • Fruit diet - preferably composed of chopped fresh fruits in season (apples and dates or peaches and dates, if available) taken in small quantities every 2 or 3 hours.
  • Milk diet - take a glass of milk every few hours as desired.
  • Gruel diet - best for gastric and duodenal ulcers. Boil a tablespoon of oatmeal or barley in a pint of water and add a pinch of salt. Take small amounts at first and slowly increase over a few days.

After breaking the fast, it is well to keep the following points in mind:

  • * Drink plenty of water.
  • * Your stomach will have shrunk so take care not to overeat.
  • * Don't over-exercise for the first few days.

Partial Fast

Many people will find it impossible or impractical to complete a prolonged fast. For them we suggest a partial fast which can give many benefits although not to the same degree as a full fast. A partial fast involves restricting the diet to fruits, which cleanse the body by their accompanying laxative influence on the bowels and also supply the blood with needed minerals and vitamins.

Here are some dietary suggestions for carrying out a partial fast:

  1. 6-8 oranges a day - 1 at a time every few hours.
  2. 1 grapefruit every 3 or 4 hours.
  3. ¼ pint of fresh fruit juice every 3 hours, up to 6 times a day.
  4. 1 cupful of vegetable broth every 4 hours.

Should Children Fast?

Children often know instinctively when to fast. If you let the child miss a meal or even a day's food, when he is sick, for example, and doesn't want to cat, real hunger will soon appear. The child will naturally want food when the body requires it, especially if in between meal snacks are stopped and raw fruit is substituted for after dinner sweets. There are times when the instinctive wisdom of the infant or child in such matters may be far greater than many of us give credit for.

Fasting Sadhana

While fasting, yogic practices should be directed towards helping eliminate the toxins of the body. The following techniques are particularly useful:

  • Hatha yoga: Laghoo shankaprakashalana, kunjal and neti, basti
  • Asanas: Pawanmuktasana, vajrasana, shavasana.
  • Pranayama: Bhramari, nadi shodhana, ujjayi.
  • Meditation: Yoga nidra, antar mouna, ajapa japa.

Note: If you are fasting for illness seek competent advice on sadhana.