NOT SO FAST!: A Guide to Fasting
by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay.
Fasting doesn’t mean simply not eating, although that’s one way to fast. So, not so fast! According to ayurveda, the time-tested health science related to yoga, there are many ways to fast. Let’s review the rules of fasting.
First we’ll look at the context for fasting. Fasting is a cleansing technique. For good health, we need a balance of cleansing and nourishing. Both cleansing and nourishing require a healthy digestion. Digestion means to separate out the good from the bad, assimilating what is nourishing and eliminating the waste. If someone has good digestion, assimilation and elimination, then fasting isn’t indicated.
However, if someone has poor digestion, assimilation and elimination, they could feel undernourished, tired, have food cravings, and be accumulating waste materials in the body. This is when fasting is indicated. Fasting then is a method to promote cleansing of old waste, to re-set the digestion, and to provide for better assimilation, and therefore deep nourishment.
There are counter-indications for fasting. If someone is very young, very old, or very weak, they should not undertake fasting. Also, if someone has a diagnosed illness and is under a doctor’s care, they should not undertake fasting on their own.
The first level of fasting is to avoid overeating. The digestion is like a fire. If you dump too much fuel on the fire all at once, you will simply put out the fire. One method to prevent overeating is to practice chewing. Chew, chew, chew your food until it is all but liquified. This slows down the process of eating and improves assimilation.
The second level of fasting is called slight undereating. Try to stop eating several bites before you are full. You can take smaller portions with no seconds, or practice leaving some food on the plate. The problem here is the stomach-to-brain time lag. We often miss the signal that we are already full. Therefore, stop eating while you still feel hungry and relax, watch your breathing, and wait for the signal that you are in fact full.
Level number three is a corrective measure. If your digestion feels sluggish from overeating, simply skip a meal. Instead of solid food, have some fresh juice, or herbal tea, or lemon juice and warm water with a little raw honey. This can be done as needed, but don’t use it as an excuse for overeating!
Level number four is probably the best overall method and is called the daily fast. Finish eating dinner by 6 or 7pm. Then fast from solid food for a period of 12 to 14 hours. Have break-fast between 7 and 9am. This means no eating before bed, and no midnight snacks! The digestive system can then switch from digesting your food to cleansing the body naturally while you sleep. The same fire that is responsible for digestion is also responsible for cleansing.
The next level or type of fast is to remove one food from your diet for an extended period. For example, eat no wheat for 40 days, then slowly re-introduce it to your diet. Other choices are no meat, no dairy, no sugar, no nightshades, or no salt. Or you can simply eliminate whatever food you’ve become a little overly attached too! This becomes a spiritual practice for developing non-attachment or non-grasping.
You can also remove several foods from your diet at once. This is called a cleansing or detox diet. Simply reduce or remove all questionable foods from your diet and eat very simply for one week up to six weeks. Then return gradually to a more nourishing balanced diet.
Next comes the mono-diet. This is where you remove all foods from your diet except for one food. An easy choice is brown rice. Simply eat brown rice three meals a day for a few days and you will definitely feel a cleansing affect. The traditional mono-diet in ayurveda is the kitcharee diet. Kitcharee is a combination of rice, split mung beans, and mild digestive spices cooked together. Another common choice is to eat just fruit (i.e. organic grapes or apples).
A juice fast is next on the list, and is even stronger. Simply replace each meal with fresh juice, herbal tea, or warm lemon-honey water. This is a strong fast. For most people it should only be attempted, if needed, once a year for three days in the spring. Experienced fasters can practice a one to three day fast every three months at the change of the seasons if needed. Or they can practice for one day every month.
There are stronger fasts, such as the water fast, or no food and no water, but these are seldom indicated and not recommended.
The advice is to start slow, try little experiments, and watch the results carefully. It is important to reduce your eating slowly before the fast and to reintroduce foods slowly after the fast. If you know your constitutional type, please note that vata’s should fast the least amount of time, pitta’s a moderate amount, and kapha’s the greatest amount. Ayurveda says it takes around 40 years to master fasting, so be careful and take your time!