Fasting for Health and Spiritual Development

Swami Satyananda Saraswati - Chamarande, France, September 3, 1980

Everyone agrees that food is necessary for the physical body. However, it is not sufficient to merely ensure that food is nutritious. Even the most nutritious foods become detrimental to the health if the body cannot assimilate them. Just because you are able to eat food does not mean you can digest it. The digestive process is very complex. Food has to be split up into so many components before it can be absorbed into the body.

To digest the food you eat, you need five digestive secretions in proper balance, as well as a specific group of enzymes. Besides this you need the correct inner body temperature, which varies in different areas of the body. From the mouth to the rectum there are different zones: In the small intestines one needs a constant temperature for a long period of time. In the stomach you need a higher temperature for a maximum of three hours. If there is a higher temperature for longer than three to four hours you will have hyperacidity and stomach ulcers. If you have a reduced temperature in the stomach and small intestines, then you will have indigestion, and if you have a higher temperature in the large intestines, you will have diarrhoea, dysentery and colitis.

Whenever there is indigestion or some other digestive disturbance, the inner temperature becomes very erratic and all the other systems of the body are disrupted sooner or later. Many degenerative processes and diseases develop in this way. This is why proper maintenance of the digestive process is necessary to preserve our physical health. This is achieved in two ways: firstly by adopting proper dietary habits, and secondly by undertaking fasts from time to time.

It is a fact that most of our diseases, whether they are physical or mental, are caused by overeating. Nobody dies on account of fasting, but many people die on account of overeating. Fasting and feasting are two different things. By overeating you disturb your digestive system, invite diseases, and create imbalance in the body. By fasting, you can create a balance in your digestive system and also in your nervous, circulatory and coronary systems. We have to understand what is fasting in relation to our physical and mental health, and also for better spiritual experiences.

Somo-psychic or psychosomatic

Fasting is usually done to purify the physical body, but if the mind is very turbulent then you can also resort to fasting. When food is in the body, it affects the mind, and when the body is not pure, the tranquility is disturbed. This is because in human existence body and mind are not separate; they interact upon each other.

A body full of rubbish transfers the foul smell to the mind; a mind with evil thoughts transfers the evil influences into the body. You can never escape from this law; what affects the body, affects the mind and vice versa. Because the gross body is fed by food, the best way to purify it is by the system of fasting. It is a way of rousing ourselves from sleep to gain a higher level of health and to catch a glimpse of the higher possibilities of life.

When Mahatma Gandhi was experimenting on the three principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), and brahmacharya (celibacy), one of the things he practised was fasting. Once he fasted for a period of forty days. When he was asked why he exposed his body to such a rigor at his advanced age, he replied, 'For self-purification. When the Self is purified, light shines. Then you begin to see things more clearly.' Just as you clean your bowels with laxatives, the Self also has to be purified. But how to purify the Self? Gandhi found that along with other practices, fasting was most powerful.

Fasting and meditation

Fasting is a yogic practice because it reduces the tamasic element in the body. Tamas is the greatest obstacle to meditation. While fasting, we shed extra weight from the body and gain strength and clarity of mind. This is important. We cannot progress in meditation with a fat body and a weak mind. Therefore, fasting should be regarded by all aspirants as an independent yoga.

Unless you practise fasting, it will not be possible to sit for long hours of meditation without incurring problems. During meditation many of the physical processes are minimized. For instance, the inner body temperature falls below normal, the blood pressure and the respiratory rate are decreased, and the secretion and circulation of many of the hormones approach the baseline level.

If your stomach is loaded at this time, the result is disastrous. Disturbed peristaltic waves and chaotic secretion patterns disrupt the whole digestive process. Due to the decreased temperature, partially digested food sits in the small intestines and ferments, causing bad winds to be passed. Toxins are formed which the body cannot eliminate. So, if you want to practise long hours of meditation, such as japa, remember that the stomach has to be empty. Fasting and long hours of meditation are two practices which always go together.

Balancing the hormones

Management of our passions is another important aspect of life which can be attained through regulated periods of fasting. Of course, passion is not bad, but we have to set some limits, otherwise there will be no end to it. We can never satisfy our passions. It is like pouring a tin of ghee on the flames in order to extinguish them. They will only roar up more furiously. On the other hand, if we suppress them, later on they will give us a kick. How to solve this dilemma? The best thing is to try fasting - then the monster sleeps.

There comes a stage in life when the passions must be transcended. Imagine a candle is burning in the centre of a room, but all the windows are wide open and the wind is very turbulent. So the candle is constantly being blown out. This continues all night until finally a wise man enters the room and suggests that you close the windows. What a brilliant idea! Now the candle can burn steadfastly without being extinguished.

Similarly, as long as the turbulence of passion is blowing through the mind, how can the consciousness become stable? The light of consciousness is lit all the time, the spirit is illumined by nature. You are not the dark night; you are the effulgent candle, which the tempest of passion keeps blowing out. Just as the windows must eventually be closed, so the passions will have to be contained at some point in life. They do not have to be killed or suppressed, but they will have to be given what we call a free exodus.

Fasting, I have found, contains the passions. How does it do so? By balancing all of the hormones that are secreted in the body. The various hormones circulating in the bloodstream produce different emotional reactions. For example, the thyroid secretions have their own influence on behaviour, while adrenalin has another. Similarly, there are certain basic hormones that are secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, which are responsible for different types of passion like violence, ambition, anger and cruelty. Even the ordinary behaviour in sexual life is a reaction of these same hormones.

These hormones keep flowing in the bloodstream because that is the law of nature, and in order to grow in body and mind, they must flow. But sometimes these hormones are in excess or there is an imbalance between them. When the hormone secretions flow into the body in excess, they create hysteria, epileptic fits, sudden violence and suicide. These matters will eventually be tackled scientifically, but at present science does not have much idea about them. They have definitions and explanations, but they do not have any practical system which shows how to remedy the situation.

What happens when we undertake fasting? During the period of fasting, a major process of harmonization between the different endocrine glands and their hormones occurs. The extraction and metabolism of the hormones from the bloodstream is accelerated. As a result, you will find your passions becoming more civilized and contained.

Important fasting days

Fasting is a discipline which has been enjoined by the various religious traditions since time immemorial. In Hinduism, however, this science has developed to a very high degree, and it is still very much alive today.

Everyone in India knows about the special days of fasting, not only the saints and swamis, but even the old people and the little children.

According to the Hindu calendar, every month is divided into two lunar cycles - the bright fortnight and the dark fortnight. Both of these fortnights have a powerful influence over the biological functions of the human body. Every day is not the same within these cycles. On certain days, for example, the digestive system is very active, and on others it is not. The 11th, 13th and 15th days of the dark and bright fortnights are said to have disturbing effects on the body, mind and emotions. Therefore, fasting is traditionally undertaken on these days in order to maintain balance within the whole system.

On the 11th day, fasting is especially important for ladies, because it has a stabilizing effect on the menstrual cycle which generally occurs around this time. This cycle is a very important indication of health in the female body. It has often been observed that the menstrual cycle is either preceded or followed by a period of intense emotional turbulence. Therefore, fasting on these two days helps the woman to balance her hormonal system as well as her emotions.

Fasting on the dark and full moon days is considered to be very important, especially for unmarried boys and girls. It has been noticed that in most mental cases disturbances become particularly acute around the dark or full moon periods. Thus, if a child exhibits peculiar behaviour, he is asked to fast on both these days.

There is another important series of fasting days which is observed during the rainy season, in the months of August and September. Wherever the rainy season occurs, whether in Europe, India or Africa, it always disrupts the cycles and systems of the body. Therefore, in India, special days of fasting have been set aside during this period in order to stabilize the body processes, particularly the digestive system.

How to fast

Fasting days are necessary throughout the year in order to maintain a balance in the entire mental and emotional structure. Therefore, every family should fix a regular day for fasting. On this day, do not take breakfast, lunch or any snacks. Just have a light, warm meal in the evening. This is the simplest and most effective way to fast. If you follow this course of fasting for a year or two, your health will improve and you will gradually prepare yourself for longer fasting.

For quick progress in spiritual life, you should fast once a week or a few times in a month. If this is not possible, you can practise fasting for nine or ten days at a time, every year, taking only the minimum requirement of milk or fruit and practising your mantra, prayers, or kriya yoga for at least six or seven hours a day consecutively. During this nine day period of fasting, you will find the brain becomes very clear, concentration keen, and problems of the body are eliminated. Then you can easily sit in one asana for several hours at a stretch.

For those who have emotional, nervous and sexual problems, there is no better way than fasting. The mind will at once become quiet. Fasting, whether for physical well-being, or a spiritual purpose, is a very scientific system, in yoga as well as in religion. Everybody should learn the system of fasting. It should be a must to fast one day a week. By fasting, you are not going to lose anything, you are only going to gain. As I told you, nobody dies from fasting, but people do die on account of overeating.

A little prasad

During the time I was living with my guru in Rishikesh, I used to read the accounts of different saints, many of whom had practised long periods of fasting in order to purify the body, mind and soul. When I read about Gandhi's experiments with fasting, I was so inspired that I decided to try it myself.

I did not have much experience with the science of fasting so I started off gradually with a three day fast, which was rather unpleasant due to intermittent hunger. But after I broke the fast I realized that these three days without food had been the most peaceful days of my life. During this period, whatever I undertook was successful and my decisions were always correct. So I decided to try a longer fast of forty days.

I began the fast with all sincerity. For the first few days I took only light fruits and some vegetable soup, then lemon water. After fifteen days I took only water, and finally nothing at all. In the beginning I was very hungry, but after a few days the hunger subsided, and I experienced deep peace within myself. My body became very light and the weakness passed off, so that I was able to participate in the ashram work. During those days, I had no difficulties. Everything was spontaneous. I was able to practise my sadhana without any efforts.

The fast was going very smoothly right up to the twenty eighth day, when there was a great celebration in the ashram to commemorate the sixtieth birthday of my guru. At that time, an enormous amount of sweets was prepared, enough to distribute to ten thousand people. As fate would have it, my guru, thinking me to be the most abstemious and well controlled disciple, decided to put me in charge of the entire store. Whenever the inmates came for sweets, I supplied whatever amount they asked for - one kilo, five kilos, ten kilos. My mind was made up not to eat any myself, but then I thought, 'After all, it is a very sacred day. What is the harm of taking a little prasad?' That was the mischief of my mind. At first, I took only one piece and it was extremely tasty. Then I took another, and you cannot imagine how much I finally took. So I broke my fast before completing forty days. But I had no regrets, it still helped me in every respect and brought me nearer to my aim in life.

The second time I fasted was for 120 days in Monghyr. During this period I observed complete silence and closed my door from inside. Occasionally a boy used to bring some fruits for me. During those four months I practised many things and my spiritual experiences were another matter.