Fasting 101: Its Health and Spiritual Benefits

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Far back into our recorded history, fasting has been seen as a method to rejuvenate the body, cleanse the mind, and allow Spirit to shine through. Christ fasted for forty days in the desert; Buddha fasted for forty-nine days under a tree at a river’s edge; even animals in nature instinctually use fasting as a method to rid the body of disease, pain, and ill-health. What does it mean to fast?  The typical definition is total abstinence from food, but there are many types of fasts you may participate in depending on your current state of health, activity levels, and goals. The various types of fasting include:

Strict fast – In its strictest sense, fasting using this method means the abstention from taking anything into the body outside of pure water, which is sipped in small quantities throughout the day.  Fasts of this type rarely exceed seven days unless under direct supervision by a medical practitioner or holistic healer with direct experience in the field.

Dry fast – This is the most intense of fasts, and should only be undertaken after making your intentions clear to your family physician and obtaining his or her approval. Dry fasting does not typically exceed three days duration, but longer periods are not unheard of.

Food specific fast – During a food specific fast, certain types of foods are avoided.  Most common are abstention from meat and dairy products, or eating only fruit and vegetables in their raw state. Fasts of this nature are usually maintained for prolonged periods exceeding two weeks and as long as six weeks.

Common fast – The most popular of fasts in Western culture, the common fast usually involves consuming only water, diluted fruit juices, herbal teas, and/or other liquid detoxifiers. As is the case with the majority of fasts, milk products are avoided while fasting using this method. The typical duration for a common fast is anywhere from one day to two weeks.

One of the advantages of this method of fasting lays in the detoxifying and cleaning affects of both the herbal teas and the diluted juices, which remove waste products and harmful toxins from the body.  Fruit juice must be consumed sparingly and never at full strength, as this will only excite the digestive system and cause stomach burn. Diluting juice at a ratio of two parts water to one part juice (i.e. 2/3 cup water, 1/3 cup of juice) is a good place to start. If you are experiencing stomach burn or pain/cramps, increase the ratio to four or even five parts water to one part juice.

Physical Benefits

The physical rewards of fasting include both subtle and overt benefits. On a grosser level, weight reduction, restored skin elasticity, increased energy and vitality, a deeper and more rejuvenating sleep cycle, and a reduction or total cessation of disease symptoms or sickness. At a more minute level, millions upon millions of cells are revived and rejuvenated, the organs are given the opportunity to expel accumulated waste, the blood is cleaned and better oxygenated, and the joints and tendons of the body relax and become more flexible.

Mental Benefits

Fasting encourages us to reclaim our personal power and reassert control over our own minds.  As creatures of habit, the ‘habitual momentum’ of self destructive behaviours can be difficult in itself to defeat. Fasting brings our present lifestyle and modes of behaviour to an abrupt halt, allowing space in which we have the opportunity to assess ourselves and reflect on how we are going to live our lives from here forward. Through fasting, we can literally step outside the box of our physical and mental existence and view things from a point of non-doing and stillness.

Spiritual Benefits

No matter what the driving force behind your reasons to fast, the deepest and most profound effects of fasting are not immediately visible to the outside world. Through physical and mental restraint, we harness the mind and body and rein them both to a stop. I liken the state of the Ego Mind in the early few days of fasting to a child who feels punished and refuses to communicate. There is enough of a shock at the denial of food that the Ego becomes quiet, as if realizing for the first time that the Silent Observer or True Self is the one in charge.

In this silence that fasting creates naturally and effortlessly, our true selves begins to speak.  At first it is only a whisper, and you may not even be aware of it. Over time; especially during a fast of three days or more in length, this voice becomes clearer and more easily heard. Old emotional scars and negative experiences often surface in a new light of understanding and are resolved and expelled from the mind and body. I would argue that the natural emotional cleansing that accompanies a fast is just as powerful if not more so in its ability to heal our physical state as the physical benefits alone. Disease (dis-ease) originates in our mental and emotional body, and is then manifested outwardly in our physical form. In cleansing ourselves of this dis-ease, the physical body is free to heal the damage it may have caused.

Usual Suspects

There are a number of physical side effects during the initial stages of fasting that some may find confusing, difficult, and even a little fearful in their manifestations. The majority of these effects are totally natural and are not directly related to fasting itself, but rather to the amount of accumulated toxins within our bodies. As previously mentioned fasting is best done after consulting a physician or experienced holistic healer. If any side effect from your fasting worries you, please contact your doctor or another professional. Common physical side effects include:

Nausea or vomiting – If you are a heavy smoker or a heavy drinker, you are going to experience nausea and perhaps even vomiting during the first few days of your fast. This is a perfectly normal reaction and will often be accompanied with headaches and nervousness. Do not break the fast during this period, as it is transitory and you will soon feel much better. If vomiting continues repeatedly throughout the first two days, please check with your doctor.

Shakes, cold sweats – As your body goes through the initial stages of dispelling accumulated waste and toxins from the body, it is not uncommon to experience shakes or cold sweats; even both. Again, this is a natural part of the process and can be alleviated by consuming hot tea, or sipping on diluted fruit juice and very warm water.

Bad breath, heavy tongue – You may experience bad breath, ‘cottonmouth tongue,’ or gummy teeth as well. These are transitory effects as well and are again a product of toxins being released from the body. These are especially common side effects in those suffering from chronic conditions.

The Good News

The good news is that fasting provides an experience that simple words do not convey. The whole body, mind, and spirit feel lighter, more focused, and more aware. Energy levels which may drop significantly during the first few days quickly rebound to new heights. As stress and tension drains from your body, your Yoga is instantly improved by allowing you to move more freely without obstruction.

I would offer these final words of advice to you our valued readers; Make fasting a very personal, very important part of your life. Over time, you will naturally build up to fasting for durations exceeding three days – this is when the true magic begins to happen…