Fasting & Meditation: Everything You Need to Know
Fasting is an ancient practice that has been used by many cultures and religions for centuries. Historically, its purpose is to purify the physical body and the soul, a health remedy that works on various levels, physical, mental and emotional. In our present society, fasting is mainly seen as a weight-loss technique or is associated with important dates on the religious calendar like Ramadan, Lent and Yom Kippur.
In recent years however, as Western society embraces more and more spiritual practices such as meditation and mindfulness, yoga and holistic medicine, fasting is beginning to grow in popularity alongside these other ancient traditions as they become mainstream.
We are learning more about the body-mind connection as medical experts continue to explore their understanding of how our physical and mental health are inextricably linked. This body-mind relationship is important when it comes to understanding the health benefits of fasting and how it can affect your mental and emotional health as well as your physical body.
We know that creating a state of good health is not just about diet and fitness, it’s also about peace of mind and contentment, managing stress and feeling vibrant and full of energy, at least most of the time. Including a carefully balanced combination of fasting and meditation in your life can really help promote a sense of wellbeing and create lasting good health on many levels.
The two practices of fasting and meditation are complimentary and have been used alongside each other since ancient times.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, fasting is used to purify but also to increase focus and awareness in meditation. These religions agree on the principle of achieving a better, higher sense of spiritual purpose when the body is emptied and lighter. It’s as though the body is a mirror of the mind and vice versa.
The belief is that when our stomachs are full, our minds are affected. They are more jumbled and turbulent making it harder to meditate and find tranquillity. In some Native American and Indigenous Latin American communities, the tradition of fasting is linked to the day or so before a vision quest with plant medicine like Ayauscua or before other shamanic rituals. The fast acts to purify the body and mind and helps to stimulate psychedelic experiences. Mahatma Gandhi practised prolonged fasting, once for a time period of forty days. He said that when the self is purified, light shines.
Of course not all of us are practiced in this tradition like Gandhi or anyone else that has grown up in a culture where fasting is a normal part of life. We should inform ourselves of the benefits of the process of fasting and then find easy ways to integrate the practice into our lives in a way that works for us. If we also meditate regularly, we can begin to use fasting as a way to improve our meditation experience and mental clarity.
Fasting and Meditation
Meditation as we know, is the practice of quieting the mind and connecting with ourselves. It’s a practice best done regularly to establish a sense of peace and calm that we can return to in the more stressful moments of life. A deepening of connection to an inner self that is always there for us.
When you combine fasting with meditation, you will discover that it’s easier to go deeper into your practice. This is because by denying your body food for a period of time, your focus is turned to your spirituality, faith and meditation. In other words, your mental focus is intensified which helps you to meditate with more ease plus there’s the fact that your physical body is lightened and not doing hard digestive work, which can also detract from your ability to reach a heightened state of spiritual contemplation.
Finding that state of stillness and quiet happens faster when you are emptied of the heavier energies of food that can weigh down the system and you can access those higher states of consciousness without being held back.
Mindfulness with food is also increased, simply because the act of fasting enforces a certain awareness of hunger and the sensation of being full or empty.
Your thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour will become more apparent as you are forced to observe them in greater detail. Mental acuity is heightened and when you go back to eating normally, you will become very aware of what you are putting into your body and how often. From that perspective, fasting combined with meditation can literally change your life for the better. Even once the fast is over, you will find your energy levels are higher and you will have created a different perspective on your life and a deeper connection to your spirituality.
So What Exactly is Fasting?
In simple terms, a fast is a length of time, usually twelve hours minimum, where you do not consume anything or very little. This does not mean starving yourself! For any period longer than a day you must consume something, especially electrolytes to keep your organs functioning. Lots of people choose to do juice cleanses or similar which can be a good way to go about it, not starving yourself but instead replacing meals with a healthy juice or smoothie.
How Does Fasting Work in Your Body?
On a physical level, going on a fast of several days will affect your body in the following ways:
Cleansing State- Your body reacts at first in a way that can make you feel negative and unwell, but that’s part of the process that has to happen before healing occurs. In that way, it’s as though you are purging both physically and emotionally at first. Your body begins to consume its own resources, meaning that you start to lose toxic waste through the digestive system and the blood. You may feel sick, but this will pass if you stick it out. As you sweat and urinate you are helping your body to rid itself of toxins and head in a healthier direction.
Peak Fasting State – This is when your body starts to feel great! You move out of the phase of sickness and start to function at a high level. You’re likely to experience mental clarity, high energy, stronger sense of taste, smell and touch and a feeling of vital youthfulness. Your body is now running on ketones (what we create when fat is burned), which your muscles prefer as fuel as opposed to glucose.
Regular Fasting State – This is when your body balances out as it grows accustomed to the fast. Now you might see your energy levels lessen depending on individual factors.
Health Benefits of Fasting
Controls Blood Sugar Levels – going on an intermittent fast can help to control insulin levels. By starving your body you can increase insulin resistance, which means glucose, can be carried to your cells from your bloodstream more effectively. Fasting can help keep your blood sugar steady and prevent any sudden crashes or spikes.
Boosts the Immune System – When you go on a fast you also burn up extra fat and release toxins, which causes a natural detoxification process. In response to be starved, the body needs to conserve energy and par of how it does this is to get rid of immune cells, which are not needed. This causes your immune system to function better and regenerate itself.
Weight Loss and Metabolism Boost – short-term fasting can give your metabolism a boost by allowing the digestive system a chance to rest and recover. Fasting has been shown to be more effective for weight loss than restricting calories as it causes the body to burn fat as fuel while also preserving muscle tissue.
Improved Brain Function – Fasting can help relieve inflammation and aid cognitive function. The brain produces more of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) when it burns ketones instead of sugars (a direct result of fasting). A higher level of BDNF in the brain promotes memory and regeneration.
Longevity – According to studies, when we eat less we are more likely to live longer for the simple reason that our bodies are allowed more time to repair and regenerate which is an essential part of how we function.
Other benefits include reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and relieve symptoms of ulcers and gastrointestinal diseases like Crohn’s disease.
Are you convinced yet?! It is important to remember that fasting needs to be done in a mindful and healthy way. You don’t want to just begin to starve yourself for long periods of time without knowing how to manage a fast correctly. Starvation can cause malnutrition and a whole host of other problems. You need to remain hydrated at all times and when you re-introduce food do so mindfully with light, easy to digest, nutritious options like vegetable soup, broth or a bowl of cucumber or fruit. If in doubt always speak to a doctor or a nutritionist first.
How can you incorporate fasting and meditation together?
There is never a “one size fits all” way to go about meditation or fasting. Your own approach to spirituality and your mind and body is very personal. If you’re just exploring these two traditions, you could begin by fasting just for one day a month, abstain from breakfast, lunch or snacks and have a light, small meal in the evening like soup or similar. This is the easiest way to start incorporating a regular fast into your life.
If you have an established meditation practice you might consider lengthening your meditation time and observing the effects fasting has on your ability to get into that quiet state of mind. The best way to reap the benefits of both practices is to keep at them; these processes have long-term results and ideally should be adopted as a natural part of your life.