Yoga & Medicine: Fasting & Diet

Integral Yoga Teachings   |   January 9, 2015

“Why are you eating?
Not to develop the biceps and triceps;

you are eating to gain enough energy to serve others.”

  -Swami Satchidananda

Yoga and Medicine 6Question: I would like to know more about fasting. When fasting, how does the body get the necessary proteins and vitamins, etc. How should I ease into fasting? When I am not fasting, what is the best diet to be on?

Dr. McLanahan: Perhaps the reason fasting originally got its name was because it was found to help make you healthy “fast.” Indeed, fasting is a very useful natural technique for relieving many bodily problems. But fasting must be approached cautiously. Know that nature works best gradually and doesn’t do well with sudden changes.

One way in which fasting benefits us is by giving the body a chance to rest from expending energy to digest and assimilate food. The stomach, intestines and all the digestive organs have time to repair themselves and rest from active duty. In addition, the body is able to send more of its blood supply to weak areas of the body to catch up on left-over work.

When the stomach and intestines are filled with food, a great proportion of the blood supply must go there. That’s why if you run, after eating (drawing blood to arms and legs), you may feel slightly sick. Or if you try to meditate on a full stomach, you feel drowsy because, again, you are asking the body to put its blood supply and energy in two places at once.

Animals naturally fast when they are sick–in fact, you cannot make them eat anything. This allows the body to correct problems by concentrating on eliminating toxic substances rather than digesting. Almost every disease is helped by fasting–arthritis, high blood pressure, etc.

Cleaning House

Yoga and Medicine 5Of course, we do need raw materials for our bodies to function well. Probably if we always ate the right food in the right amounts there would be no need to fast. But unfortunately, by our bad habits, we eat toxic things (refined and synthetic foods, chemical sprays) or eat too much, both of which create toxic conditions within the digestive tract. These toxic products accumulate in our livers and fat storage areas. In order to regain our health we must fast to eliminate these accumulations.

What takes place physiologically is that as fewer nutrients come in, the body must rely on its stored supplies. As it uses them up, deposited waste products are eliminated and balance is restored to the body. You can verify this yourself. As the deposits are disturbed and the body is “cleaning house,” the tongue may become coated, the mouth cloggy and a bad smell develop. All this comes from within as the elimination process continues. But as the fast progresses, the tongue coating will disappear, the eyesight will become clearer and the saliva will actually taste sweet. You will feel very alert. This alertness is probably why so many religions associate holy days with fasting.

How to Fast

Yoga and Medicine 4One fast day a week is an excellent regular practice for health. On this day take only juices–one kind of your preference (orange is good). Don’t use canned juice; when possible take fresh, or if not, frozen. If you are having a very quiet day, you may take only water. In the beginning, if you feel very weak, take some solid fruit (fruit fasting).

Once you are used to this, you may try three–day fasts or go as long as two weeks twice a year with great benefit, but judge according to how you feel, not by any pre-set rules. When the tongue clears and the saliva is sweet the fast is long enough, For long fasts, a mixture of juices is beneficial: to one gallon water, add two cups orange, one cup prune and one cup papaya juice. This mixture of diluted juices is very gentle on digestion and aids fasting.

Most important, take as many days to break a fast as you have fasted. During a fast the stomach and intestines become smaller, so you can’t go right back to eating the same foods as before. A good approach is: begin the fast on juice (make sure the last few meals before fasting are light). Take an enema each day you fast, because the body’s normal reflexes of elimination are not in effect. Come off the fast by first taking juicy fruits like oranges or grapes or by taking yogurt and finely chopped cucumber. Next add easily digestible items like cream of wheat, applesauce and plain steamed vegetables until you have equaled the number of days of the fast.

The Best Diet

Once you return to a regular diet, what is the best way to eat? The very best is to eat foods as close as possible to the way they come in nature. At least 50% of the diet should be raw because vital nutrients are destroyed by cooking. Raw salads, fruits, nuts, sunflower and sesame seeds and yogurt or cottage cheese form the basis of the diet. These foods build a perfect body, if taken in the right quantity. To know the right quantity, develop the alertness to eat only when you are really hungry–not because it is a certain time of day. Ask the stomach, “Did you empty yourself fully of the last meal?”

Yoga and Medicine 1Most of all, moderation is important. The ancient South Indian scripture, Tirukkural, says, “No medicine is necessary for him who eats after assuring himself that what he has already eaten is digested.” Overeating any food produces mucus. The real mucus-less diet is simply not overeating any food.

Try to eat only one main meal per day, the other two very light. Eat the main meal at noon so it is fully digested before bed. Train yourself to be conscious while eating of how your stomach is reacting. Stop when it is 3/4 full. If possible, sit in Vajrasana while eating, and for ten minutes afterward.

Just as we should not overeat, neither should we take the other extreme and fast to excess. You can judge for yourself how much you need to fast. Start with one day a week. If needed, try a longer one later. Return to taking food with an attitude that food is medicine for the body, not only sensory pleasure for the tongue. In this way, you will avoid getting caught in overeating and remain in a light state. You will better be able to manifest your own inner Light.

“Keep this in mind: ‘I am here to serve; I am doing everything to serve others.’

(from the November 2013 IYTA Newsletter)

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