Time for Fasting
Spring makes me think about cleansing. I’ve been foraging for dandelion leaves in the yard over the past few weeks. And here in Appalachia we have wild plants called “ramps” and “creases” that the mountain folks have been using for generations for internal spring cleaning.
According to Chinese medicine, this is the best time of year to fast. Whoo-hoo! Exciting to consider isn’t it? Currently, my twhirl box is full of tweets from yogis waxing poetic about their passion for chocolate. Now, I love food as much as the next yogi out there, but I also love fasting. It makes me feel clean, clear-headed, powerful and ready to take on anything. But it can also be hard, and takes a bit of discipline and preparation. And fasting works much better if you’ve got a fasting buddy or two around to help you keep your hands off the Green and Blacks.
I remember the first time I fasted, many moons ago, it was freakin’ scary. “How can I not eat, for a whole day! What if I pass out and no one is there? What if I get nauseous and throw up bile? I could die.
But I quickly learned that it doesn’t have to be that way. There are lots of options for fasting, and there are ways to prepare for a fast. Getting through a fast makes you feel really strong and confident. It also helps you empathize with the large numbers of hungry people on this planet.
The Krishna devotees in India have created a whole system of fasting that seems to work very well – I like to call it Moon Fasting because you fast according to the phases of the moon.
It’s all very weirdly scientific and complicated (like many wonderful things that have come out of that culture) – and, although I have a constitutional aversion to anything that smells faintly of math, I will attempt an explanation.
The moon circles around the earth, sometimes closer, sometimes farther. Ekadashi which means “11” is the Sanskrit word for when the moon is closest and also when it is farthest from the earth – it also means something like “a great day to fast.”
Ekadashi is both 11 lunar days after the new moon and 11 lunar days after the full moon. Please don’t ask me to explain what a lunar day is, I already have a headache. It has to do with the moon going around the earth elliptically so that sometimes it’s closer and sometimes it’s farther. These farthest and closest days of the moon create high and low tides respectively.
So the theory is, when the tides are high or low, and the moon is near or far, we tend to get a little loony. By fasting on these days, you can help to counteract the effects of the moon, feel more balanced, be able to meditate better, and generally, stay out of trouble.
Ekadashi is typically observed from sunrise to sunrise. Westerners start the day at midnight, but in India it starts with sunrise. I usually start fasting the night before though, because I found that if I get up early and eat breakfast before sunrise, it actually makes it harder to fast.
Now, I know that there’s research that says that the moon doesn’t affect us – but have you ever talked to an emergency room nurse? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence out there. And even if the lunacy theory is unscientific, fasting twice a month is a great way to stay cleaned out and give your digestive system a regular rest.
And here’s the deeper meaning: Upavasya. That’s the Sanskrit word for fasting and it literally means, “being close to the Supreme.” So the spirit of fasting is actually to take some time for inner reflection. Take the time that you would use to cook and eat and instead devote it to meditation, prayer or other intuitional practice.
I’ve been to ashrams where they have an Ekadashi collection jar – you put in the money that you would’ve used to buy food for that day and it goes to help feed the hungry. Nice idea – because then it takes fasting out of the realm of some kind of experiment in willpower or worse, masochism, and makes it an opportunity for seva.
So here are some ways of fasting that I’ve experimented with over the last 20 years or so that seem to work well.
- Dry fasting – This is the traditional way believe it or not. Yep, for one day, no food or water. Warning: Only for the hardcore. It’s intense, but also completely mind blowing – your senses become acute, your mind sharp and your will, steely. Only do this kind of fasting if you are very healthy.
- Lemon/Apple Cider Vinegar water fasting – This is a great way to fast if you are healthy but also a little nervous about the idea or have never fasted before. Water should be room temperature or hotter. Don’t overdo the lemon or ACV, a teaspoon or so in a large glass is plenty. A pinch of high quality salt is nice too for electrolyte balance and also because it helps you to eliminate.
- Juice fasting – no, you should not fast on grape juice! Try kale, collards, parsley, cabbage. Fruit juice can be really counterproductive, but adding a little green apple or a little carrot can help it go down and give you a little energy if you’re really dragging.
- Steamed veggie fasting – Stick mostly to green veggies like kale, broccoli, cabbage. Mung bean sprouts are also great.
- Miso soup fasting – Again, stick mostly to green veggies. Go easy on the miso, the soup shouldn’t be over salted.
- Kichiri fasting – This is a great way to fast if you’ve never fasted before – and actually it’s a great way to cleanse for a week or two each spring. Mung beans are highly digestible and also very detoxifying. Cook 1 part rice (mixed brown and white is great, but either will do. Organic is of course preferable, Basmati is wonderful) with 1 part mung bean dal (you can get it at Asian stores, but regular mung beans that you get at the health food store work too). Rinse it well, then cook it for an hour or two with a little high quality salt. Add some spices like curry powder, ginger, turmeric, etc. towards the end. Then add some green veggies. I like it really soupy myself, but some prefer it more like stew.
Breaking the Fast
If you are fasting with some food, breaking the fast the next morning won’t be much of a problem. But it can get harder depending on how extreme your fast was. A good way to break any fast is, after brushing your teeth and optimally scrapping your tongue, drink one to two large glasses of filtered water with a small amount of lemon juice, or apple cider vinegar. Add a pinch of salt. It’s better if the water is slightly warm. In the best of all possible worlds, you then make a visit to the bathroom and do what needs to be done. If you are unsuccessful in that endeavor, wait a bit and then drink a little more water and try again.
Allot a bit of time after drinking to allow for cleansing. I like to meditate if I can before eating. But sometimes I need a little food first. I prefer to break my fasts on vegetable soup with a good amount of ginger, sweet potatoes for energy and some sprouted mung beans for protein. But some folks like bananas – the idea is that the chunks of banana act like a sponge to soak up any toxins and then help eliminate them. A warm, simple breakfast can be a good way to break a fast. Best not to get into the chocolate donuts right away.
When not to fast:
- Don’t fast if you’re pregnant or nursing or have a serious health condition. That includes diabetes, hypoglycemia, fibromyalgia or anything that has sapped your energy. You also shouldn’t fast if your immune system is compromised or you get sick easily, if you have any heart conditions, serious digestive issues like ulcers, nutitional deficiencies, or if it’s really cold. Fasting is also not for children.
- Don’t fast if you have an eating disorder. Be very clear about whether fasting sounds great to you because it gives you an opportunity not to eat, and if it does, stop immediately. Fasting is about cleansing and deepening your practice and it should be avoided by people who have food issues.
Fast with a friend, partner, or buddy. My husband and I fast together and it makes the whole experience a whole lot more pleasant, especially when I’m making macaroni and cheese for my son for dinner.
Here’s a link for the ekadashi dates – but I have heard that those are the dates for India so they might be a day earlier in the States. Please consult your local Jyotisha rishis on this one.
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Kaoverii Weber, MA, RYT500 took her first yoga course from her hippy social studies teacher when she was in sixth grade and has been hooked ever since. She began sharing yoga with others in 1995. Kaoverii began training yoga teachers in 2003 and teaches workshops around the southeast, California and in Europe. She is committed to creating opportunities for each student to discover and pursue his or her path to self-realization. Kaoverii’s book, Healing Self-Massage is a great compliment to yoga practice and offers help for a variety of ailments including stress, neck and back pain, insomnia and anxiety. She has published articles for the International Association of Yoga Therapist’s journal, Yoga Therapy in Practice as well as various health related publications, and has been featured in Redbook, BodySense, Women’s World, and Natural Health magazine and Lifetime TV’s on-line magazine. Visit her website at www.subtleyoga.com