“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”

  -Bernard Shaw.

I agree and most of us would. Apart from sustaining us, food has a psycho-social component. While there is such a passion for food, we also see a growing interest in fasting. Why do we fast and why is it much sought after?

Evidence shows that fasting has the potential to delay aging and prevent or even treat some diseases . Fasting is not new as it has been practiced for millennia for a variety of reasons.  Different cultures have evolved different methods of fasting.

Let me share a glimpse of one of the ancient medical systems: Ayurveda’s approach to fasting.

Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine, is known for its holistic approach to health and well-being. It dwells on aspects such as sustainable happiness and longevity.  Fasting is seen as a remedy for various illnesses as well as a promoter of well-being. Proper fasting under medical supervision benefits a person through its preventive, promotive and curative values.

Upavasa -How it works

Fasting in Ayurveda refers to abstinence from chewing, licking, and swallowing food, as well as abstinence from drinking. Upavasa (Sanskrit language) is the term that refers to fasting.

Upavasa (fasting) is not just about refraining from food but includes refraining from all pleasures that kindle the senses. In the Sanskrit language, Upa means near; vasa means reside. Together they mean being near the supreme. Whatever be the faith, proximity to the supreme being is the goal.

According to Ayurveda, the functioning of the digestive system impacts the health of an individual and it’s analogous to a purifying fire. Imagine a blaze whose intensity is hampered by the burnt ashes accumulating in it. Similarly, the digestive organs are considered to be a furnace with the burning fire of digestion. Any accumulation of waste will weaken the digestive system and disable the digestive fire. With a weakened digestion, metabolic toxins and waste get accumulated in our digestive tract. These toxins and waste run into our organ systems and disrupt cellular metabolism. This leads to illnesses.

Upavasa (Fasting) leads to the removal of these accumulated toxins and clears the blocked channels within us. As the body eliminates metabolic toxins, body fat is also lost which aids in weight loss. Ayurveda views obesity not only as an issue of overeating but also as a systemic issue with digestion. Interventions are planned to restore the digestive power and also to maintain the digestive power even after weight loss.

Once the choked channels are clean, the digestive fire starts blazing again and proper functioning of organ systems is restored.

fire isolated over black background
According to Ayurveda, the digestive system is a purifying fire that can be kept ablaze through fasting.

Body composition influences what you eat post-fast

The five elements of nature, namely air, space, fire, water and earth, constitute our body, and they control our physical and mental well-being. These elements are further grouped into three combinations called the three doshas or bio-elements:

  • kapha (water and earth)

  • pitta (fire)

  • vata (a combination of space and air)

“Kapha constitutions have solid builds and a tendency toward obesity, while Pitta  constitutions are medium-built and maintain the most regular eating patterns. Vata constitutions are thin, have sporadic eating patterns, and are least likely to gain weight. Individuals may be either dominant for one dosha or have a combined dosha profile.” Schenk et al.,2006 Comparison of Ayurvedic Dosha Types for Energy Balance Factors.

These three doshas are capable of innumerable permutations and combinations and define an individual’s constitution. All of us have a blend of these three doshas which makes each one of us unique. Fasting for detoxification is also unique to everyone based on their constitution.

In Ayurveda, the physician examines a person by analysing the combination of these three doshas and gives out a unique plan. As a general rule, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, ginger, fennel, and cinnamon are included in the diet post-fast. To detox the accumulation of excessive kapha, ginger, garlic and basil are included as part of a fasting diet. Bitter herbs, coriander, cinnamon and lime form part of a detox fasting diet for aggravated pitta doshas. Vata dosha aggravation is corrected by including ginger, black pepper, fennel, cinnamon as part of a fasting diet. It is recommended to plan fasting under the direction of an Ayurvedic practitioner.

Food influences your mood

Ayurveda stresses on the fact that an individual’s temperament influences their health, and that food can influence temperament. There are primarily six states of psychological expression -lust, anger, greed, arrogance, delusion and jealousy. These result in three types of temperament:

goodness/calmness (Sattva)

passion (Rajas)

lethargy (Tamasa)

Food can influence these temperaments and is also classified as Sattvik, Rajasic and Tamasic.

Sattvic food is fresh and juicy, and includes seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dried nuts, honey, herbs, milk and dairy.

Rajasic food is spicy, and includes onion, garlic, and deep fried and sugary foods.

A Tamasic diet consists of reheated,foul smelling and left-over food.

Sattvic food increases purity, strength, and health and happiness. Fasting helps enhance Sattvic temperament.

Since Ayurvedic interventions are focused on the physical, mental and spiritual aspects, fasting as an intervention is also focused on working at these three levels.

Fasting Dos and Don’ts according to Ayurveda

Latin woman enjoying a cup of coffee breathing fresh air on the beach a sunny day
Ayurveda recommends eating mindfully both before and after a fast.

Do fast in the spring

Ayurveda states spring is the ideal season for Upavasa (fasting) as it believes that the self-cleansing forces are aroused within us when the power of sun begins to set in and boosts our metabolism. But that does not mean that one cannot fast during other seasons.

Do eat mindfully

Contemporary studies indicate that what you eat before starting a fast may exert substantial influence on the metabolic events initiated by fasting. Ayurveda asserts so. What you eat pre and post fast is as important as the fasting itself. Mindless feasting before and after observing a fast is not at all recommended. After fasting, nourishment with light food is best.  Post fasting food is planned based on the length of fasting. The idea is that the food should be light,liquid,fresh and hot to comfort the body. A freshly prepared light rice-based porridge is an example of what Ayurveda advises immediately post fasting.

Do pay attention to your body

Fasting restores vigor of organs which eases the body and mind. Acharya Charaka, one of the pivotal contributors to Ayurveda, states that proper expelling of flatulence, urine, stools, lightness of body, ease in the respiratory tract, an immense hunger and thirst, absence of weakness in body and mind, and the revival of the sense of taste, are indications of a properly observed fast.

Don’t fast if you are very young, elderly, weak, or pregnant

Ayurvedic fasting is to be done under the proper guidance of a qualified physician since the physician needs to evaluate the individual’s dosha state and type of illness.

Ayurveda is an ancient science but cannot be more relevant today, where a changing lifestyle has led to the proliferation of lifestyle-based health issues. So, what are you waiting for? Let Ayurvedic fasting be thy medicine. Don’t forget to do it under medical supervision, though.

 KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • According to Ayurveda , functioning of the digestive system impacts the health of an individual.

  • Upavasa (Fasting) leads to the removal of the accumulated toxins in our bodies and clears the blocked channels within us.

  • Upavasa(fasting) is not just about refraining from food but includes refraining from pleasures that kindle senses.

  • Ayurvedic fasting focuses on physical, mental and spiritual health.

  • Proper fasting under medical supervision benefits a person through its preventive, promotive and curative values.