I know a lot of yogis these days are into different kinds of fasts, such as juice fasts, three-day weekend fasts, Emergen-C fasts, etc. Today, I’d like to briefly ponder some of the reasons why people fast, and whether or not these reasons are genuine, honest, and truly conducive to well-being. It seems to me that people fast for one of at least three reasons (or some combination of these three reasons): (1) bodily health, (2) spiritual health, (3) losing fat.
Fasting for bodily health is usually driven by the idea that fasting cleanses the body. For instance, I’ve heard claims that fasting allows the body to shut down the digestive system and kick into high gear the body’s natural systems for self-detoxification. People often remark that after a few days of fasting, you may notice really bad breath or strange, even distusting tastes in your mouth, and that these are signs that your body is purging bad stuff that has been trapped inside, maybe even for years. People also report or claim that fasting allows your body to naturally clean the colon, dislodging impacted gunk on the intestinal walls and finally getting it out of your system. I’ve also heard claims that fasting helps the body to release and eject heavy metals. My understanding is that there is mixed opinion within the medical community about these and other claims about the health benefits of fasting. At the very least, if it turns out that some of these claims are (at least somewhat) true, then it seems that fasting for health is a pretty authentic reason for fasting, and that, if done properly, fasting can be in line with the promotion of well-being.
The spiritual benefits of fasting, it seems to me, are more immediate and far less controversial. Certainly, fasting is very much in line with what I take to be a central aspect of yoga philosophy: training the self to break free from attachments to the body and mind. One of the strongest attachments we have is to food. We are often driven by our hunger. We can become cranky, unproductive, irritable, depressed, etc. when we feel hungry. In this sense, we our not in control of ourselves when it comes to hunger. Fasting, I take it, is a way of confronting this head on. In order to fast, one has to continually deny one’s desire to eat and to satisfy bodily impulses. Indeed, perhaps the only desire stronger than the desire for food is the desire for sex. (It’s no wonder that the pinnacle, some would say, of the yogic lifestyle is to renounce all sensual pleasure and satisfaction, most especially sex.) The spiritual development, if I can call it that, of fasting seems to consist in the following. By refraining from food or drink for days or even weeks on end, one breaks the cycle of desire-suffering-satisfaction, and in doing so, the faster/yogi strenthens the spirit, being now able to live peacefully and mindfully in the face of one of the greatest challenges to the physical self. Of course, one doesn’t want to starve oneself to death (although some ascetics have in fact done this in the name of spiritual freedom); the objective of spiritual development doesn’t have to come at the price of physical harm or death. It’s enough, I think, to break the attachment. It’s too much, I think, to break the body.
Finally, and somewhat disturbingly, I sometimes hear yogis talking about fasting in terms of weight loss. In particular, it seems that some people are attracted to fasting because it gives them an excuse not to eat, or to eat very little, for several days or even several weeks. This kind of thing, if I can be a little cynical here, seems potentially to be a case of an eating disorder being passed off or legitimized under the guise of fasting. Even when we’re not necessarily dealing with a true eating disorder, in general, the goal of losing fat, not for health reasons, but for purely aesthetic reasons, seems to me to be very far from the mark in terms of yogic behavior. It belies a strong attachment to one’s physical body, one’s sex appeal, one’s public image, etc. Fasting to serve these ends, I think, is clearly not authentic or conducive to true well-being.
So, to wrap up, I do think that fasting can be an important and healthy part of the yoga lifestyle. Indeed, depending how much you are into yoga philosophy, and how you interpret it, fasting may be an essential part of the yoga lifestyle. In any case, what is important is that if you do try fasting, do it for the right reasons, and do it safely. Some progressively-minded doctors will even assist you through an extended fast, taking blood samples along the way, and monitoring your health to make sure that you are at no point in any danger. I personally have fallen off the fasting bandwagon — it’s been over two years since I’ve done a fast — but I’d like to get back into it in the near future. There are of course always excuses for why this week is not going to be the week to fast, but, as I’ve found, if you really think something is important and you have to make time for it.