Monday, March 1, 2010

Lesson #17: The Sattwic or Yogic Diet

The Sattvic or Yogic Diet
by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay.

Sattva is defined as the quality of purity and goodness. Sattvic food is that which is pure, clean, and wholesome. A sattvic diet is food that gives life, strength, energy, courage, and self-command. In other words, sattvic food gives us more than the gross physical requirements of the right mix of proteins, carbs, and fats, etc. It also gives us subtle nourishment for our vitality and consciousness. Food is seen as a carrier of the life-force called prana. Food is judged by the quality of its prana and by the effect it has on our consciousness.
These are important considerations in the practice of yoga. Yoga is defined as those practices that lead to “anushasanam”, that is the governing (shasan) of the subtle nature (anu). (Yoga Sutras 1:1) The goal of yoga is described as “chitta vritti nirodha”, the quieting of the mind-field (YS 1:2). Yoga practitioners advocate the use of the sattvic diet to support these subtle aims.
A beginning practice in both ayurveda and yoga is to simply observe the effect of each food choice we make. From our experience and awareness we can begin to make small changes. As we progress in this practice we can recognize three broad categories called the gunas. Some foods leave us feeling tired and sluggish. This is called the tamasic effect. Other foods leave us feeling agitated or over-stimulated. This is the rajasic effect. The third category belongs to foods that leave us feeling calm, alert, and refreshed. This is the sattvic effect and the basis of the sattvic diet.
If we persist in this practice we will arrive at our personal version of the sattvic diet. The Bhagavad Gita describes the sattvic diet as “promoting life, virtue, strength, health, happiness and satisfaction.” (Bhagavad Gita XVII:8) Sattvic foods are “savory, smooth, firm, and pleasant to the stomach.” (BG XVII:8). By contrast the Gita describes the rajasic diet as “excessively pungent, sour, salty, hot, harsh, astringent, and burnt,” leading to “pain, misery, and sickness.” (BG XVII:9) The tamasic foods are described as “stale, tasteless, smelly, left-over, rotten, and foul.” (BG XVII:10)
The true test of our foods comes when we meditate. All meditators know that there are two main problems. One is falling asleep. This is the tamasic effect. The other is an over-active mind. This is the rajasic effect. If we want to be able to quiet the mind and maintain our alertness to explore our subtle nature, we need to follow the sattvic diet. “When sattva predominates, the light of wisdom shines through every gate of the body.” (BG XIV: 11)

The Traditional Sattvic Diet
Although it has been suggested that one can arrive at the sattvic diet through trial and error, it can be most helpful to consider what tradition has described as the sattvic diet.
In general, the sattvic diet consists of pure foods which are rich in prana. Organic foods are therefore recommended for both their purity and vitality. The food should be fresh and freshly prepared. Leftovers are decidedly tamasic. There are some exceptions, but most people understand that if you make a beautiful meal one day and feel great from it, that is no guarantee that you’ll get the same effect or pleasure the next day.

Sattvic foods are light (as opposed to heavy) in nature, easy to digest, mildly cooling, refreshing, and not disturbing to the mind. They are best prepared with love and awareness. On this last point, please note that you can take the best food, but if it is prepared or eaten in anger, it will have a disturbing effect. The subtle nature of the food is affected by our emotions and vice-versa. That being said, you can sometimes take less than pure food and bless it to overcome it’s impurities. Yes, our food affects our mind, but our mind, or what we hold in our mind, also affects our food. The idea ultimately is to absorb that which is nourishing and eliminate that which is not.
Pure sattvic food needs to be chewed carefully and eaten in modest portions. Overeating is definitely tamasic. The food should be enjoyed for its inherent taste and quality, not for the amount of spices and seasonings that are added. Too much salt and spice has a rajasic effect. “When rajas predominates, a person runs about pursuing selfish and greedy ends, driven by restlessness and desire.” (BG XIV: 12) The idea, rather, is to refine the sense of taste. This leads to increased pleasure. Indulging oneself in strong flavors fuels desire and leads to over-satiation, the loss of taste and the loss of pleasure.
Fresh Organic Fruits: Most fruits, including apples, apricots, bananas, berries, dates, grapes, melons, lemons, mangoes, oranges, peaches and plums are considered especially sattvic. Sometimes yogi’s go on fruit fasts when doing a special sadhana, an advanced practice, or have undertaken a vow. Fruit is also considered symbolic of generosity and spirituality and is often exchanged as an offering or a gift. Three dried fruits known as triphala are used to keep the digestive system operating optimally.
Fresh Organic Dairy: Dairy is considered controversial these days, but the yoga tradition insists on the value of a wholesome food freely given by the symbol of motherhood, the cow. We need to use the highest quality organic fresh dairy to benefit from its sattvic qualities. Milk, butter, clarified butter (ghee), fresh home-made cheese (paneer), whey, and fresh yogurt (especially lassi) are all recommended. They benefit from careful preparation, and the extra effort to learn the recipes is well worthwhile. For example, milk can be diluted and warmed with mild spices (i.e. fresh ginger, cinnamon and cardamom) and served with raw honey to overcome any mucus-forming tendencies. Traditionally, if a yogi is doing advanced practices, the dairy provides needed lubrication, grounding and nourishment. In fact, dairy along with fruit have been described as the epitome of the sattvic or yogic diet.
Nuts, Seeds, and Oils: Fresh nuts and seeds that haven’t been overly roasted and salted are good additions to the sattvic diet in small portions. Good choices are almonds (especially when peeled and soaked in water overnight), coconut, pine nuts, walnuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds. Oils should be of highest quality and cold-pressed. Good choices are olive oil, sesame oil, and flax oil.
Organic Vegetables: Most mild organic veges are considered sattvic, such as beets, carrots, celery, cucumbers, green leafy veges, sweet potatoes and squash. Pungent veges like hot peppers, garlic, and onion are excluded, as are gas-forming veges like mushrooms and potatoes. They are considered rajasic and tamasic respectively. Sometimes, the short-comings of these foods can be overcome by careful preparation. An excellent practice is to drink freshly made vegetable juices for their prana, live enzymes, and easy absorption.
Whole Grains: Whole grains provide excellent nourishment when well cooked. Consider organic rice, whole wheat, spelt, oatmeal, and barley. Sometimes the grains are lightly roasted before cooking to remove some of their heavy quality. Yeasted breads are not recommended unless toasted. Wheat and other grains can be sprouted before cooking as well. Favorite preparations are kicharee (basmati rice cooked with split mung beans, ghee, and mild spices), kheer (rice cooked with milk and sweetened), chapathis (non-leavened whole wheat flat bread), porridge (sometimes made very watery and cooked with herbs), and “Bible” bread (sprouted grain bread). Sometimes yogis will fast from grains during special practices.
Legumes: Split mung beans, yellow split peas, organic tofu, bean sprouts and perhaps lentils and aduki beans are considered sattvic if well prepared. In general, the smaller the bean, the easier to digest. Strategies include splitting, peeling, grinding, soaking, sprouting, cooking, and spicing. Legumes combined with whole grains offer a complete protein combination.
Sweeteners: Yogi’s use raw honey (especially in combination with dairy) and raw sugar (not refined).
Spices: Sattvic spices are the mild spices including basil, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, fresh ginger and turmeric. Rajasic spices like black pepper, red pepper and garlic are normally excluded, but are sometimes used in small amounts to keep the channels open (rajas is used to counter tamas). But beware, taking rajasic spices with tamasic food does not equal sattwa. A teacher once said you are more likely to fall asleep and have restless dreams!
Supplemental Protein: Yogi’s are advised not to indulge in flesh foods. It is said that the fear and anger of the animal being killed is transferred to the person eating the flesh. Fresh meat is considered rajasic, and old meat is considered tamasic. Another approach is to avoid the flesh of mammals, especially if one is using dairy products. How can one eat the flesh of one’s (symbolic) mother? This approach allows for some high quality fish, poultry, or eggs. Even then it is recommended to abstain from flesh foods a minimum of three days a week with at least two prolonged periods of abstention from all animal foods every year. Purists rely on dairy for supplemental protein as it is given freely and is considered non-harming.
One problem of the vegetarian diet is that it can become too cooling. For this reason, yogi’s of the Tibetan plateau sometimes include meat for warmth. One can also learn to promote bodily warmth through yoga practices centered on the navel region. An ayurvedic approach is to include warming and strengthening herbs in the diet like ashwagandha, astragalus or ginseng. Special combinations include masalas (based on cumin seed, coriander seed, and turmeric root), hingashtak, draksha and chyavanprash. There are also mineral and ash preparations used called bhasmas. One that is favored in the Himalayas to keep the body warm in cold weather is a preparation of deer antler called sring bhasma.
Sattvic Herbs: Other herbs are used to directly support sattva in the mind and in meditation. These include ashwagandha, bacopa, calamus, gotu kola, gingko, jatamansi, purnarnava, shatavari, saffron, shankhapushpi, tulsi and rose.

Do remember that the above suggestions are just a starting point. Undoubtedly there are many other foods that will qualify. And some of the traditional suggestions may not be suitable for everyone. So put them to the test until you are full of “the sattvic essence.” In the words of the Charak Samhita, one of the classic textbooks of ayurveda, “The persons having the sattvic essence are endowed with memory, devotion, are grateful, learned, pure, courageous, skillful, resolute, free from anxiety, having well-directed and serious intellect and activities and are engaged in virtuous acts.” (CS III-8:110)
And then, when your mind has become sattvic and peaceful like a clear pool of pure water you may pass beyond the gunas altogether. The Gita tells us “they are unmoved by the harmony of sattva, the activity of rajas, or the delusion of tamas. They feel no aversion when these forces are active, nor do they crave for them when these forces subside. They remain impartial, undisturbed by the action of the gunas. Knowing that it is the gunas which act, they abide within themselves and do not vacillate. Established within themselves, they are equal in pleasure and pain, praise and blame, kindness and unkindness. Clay, a rock, and gold are the same to them. Alike in honor and dishonor, alike to friend and foe, they have given up every selfish pursuit. Such are those who have gone beyond the gunas.” (BG XIV: 22-25)

Lesson #16: Glad All Over: The Nourishing Diet

Glad All Over: The Nourishing Diet
by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay

The nourishing diet has a special place in ayurvedic practice. It is usually discussed in the context of cleansing and nourishing, or diet and nutrition. The logic is that there is an alternation between the two. Generally speaking it is wise to cleanse first in order to prepare the body to receive deeper nourishment. You can simplify your diet for two weeks or perform a short juice fast as a preparation. The exception is for someone who is too weak to cleanse, for example when convalescing from an illness. Then the rule is nourish first to gain enough strength to cleanse.
Another name for the nourishing diet is the tonification diet. It tones and builds all the tissues of the body. One aspect of tonification is a specialty of ayurvedic practice - rejuvenation. The idea here is we can actively build our health and restore lost vigour, rather than simply fight illness after it is formed, or prevent illness from forming.
The nourishing diet is referred to as brimhana which comes from the verb root brih - to be thick, grow strong, make heavy and increase. It is known as the gladdening diet. I think of it in terms of “brimming” over with good health and good cheer - glad all over.
The indications are for gaining weight, to build strength, for convalescence, after periods of extended travel, after a period of intense exertion, grief, overwork or other stress, after giving birth, after cleansing or fasting, to counteract a poor diet, and for rejuvenation.
Counter-indications are for over-weight, poor digestion, conditions with stagnation and congestion (termed ama), and many specific illnesses.
Proteins: Proteins make excellent building and strengthening foods. Use high quality dairy, meat, fish and eggs. Meat soup or broth is preferred in ayurveda for building strength, especially during times of convalescence. I guess the idea of chicken soup goes way back! The Charak Samhita (CS), one of the classic textbooks of Ayurveda says: “For all living beings, meat soup is nourishing and refreshing. This is regarded as nectar for the dehydrated, during convalescence, for the emaciated, and for those desirous of strength and lustre. Meat soup prepared accordingly alleviates many diseases. It promotes voice, youth, intelligence, power of sense organs and longevity. The persons indulged in physical exercise, sex and wine do not fall ill or become weak if they take diet with meat soup regularly.” (CS I.28: 312-315). Notice that rather than eating large quantities of meat by itself, the preferred method is to make soup where the meat can be balanced by vegetables, herbs and spices. In a similar way, fresh raw milk can be diluted and boiled with herbs and spices and then cut with raw honey to provide a nourishing easy-to-digest drink.
Grains: Whole grains are preferred, especially wheat, oats, brown rice, and kitcharee (a well-known combination of spices, ghee, basmati rice and split mung beans). Kitcharee is sometimes called the chicken soup of ayurveda and serves as a vegetarian alternative to the meat soup described above. During convalescence gruels are recommended. They range from thick to thin, with thin considered the easiest to digest. They are sometimes combined with digestive spices and/or medicinal herbs and roots. Traditional Chinese Medicine calls them congees.
Beans: Beans are good for their heavy quality if tolerated. They need to be soaked and well-cooked with some oil or oil added after cooking to counteract their dryness. They can also have their husks removed and be split or ground to improve digestability. Good choices include mung beans, bean sprouts, chick peas, tofu, and black gram.
Oils: High quality oils are one of the keys to the nourishing diet. The diet as a whole should emphasize high quality proteins, carbs, and fats which are known as the heavy food groups. They need to be taken according to one’s comfortable digestive capacity and balanced by appropriate veges, fruits, herbs and spices (the light food groups). Essential fatty acids come from fresh fish, fish oil, flax oil, borage oil, and walnuts. Other choices are organic ghee, butter, sesame oil, olive oil, and almond oil. Fresh nuts and seeds of all kinds are excellent in small portions. A classic ayurvedic preparation is to soak ten almonds overnight, then peel them, chew thoroughly, and enjoy! Oil can also be applied topically to bolster the body, lend strength, nourish the skin, and provide lustre. An old saying is “you can pay the oil-man now or the doctor later.”
Veges: Good choices are starchy veges, root veges, and unctuous veges. Organic veges and fruits contain a fuller spectrum of trace minerals which are missing in many diets. Try organic sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes, parsnips, squash, cucumbers, beets, Jerusalem artichokes, artichokes, lotus root, okra, and onions cooked in ghee. Fresh vege juices can be taken between meals for their enzymes and prana. Occasional salads are acceptable especially if well-oiled.
Fruits: The heavier, more nourishing fruits are organic fresh figs, dates, mangoes, papaya, raisens, bananas and avocadoes. Also good are berries, grapes, and cooked apples.
Spices: Fresh ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, garlic, fennel, and cumin are especially helpful to support digestion and balance the heavy nature of the above foods. They are best added to ghee and cooked with veges, grains, and/or beans. They can also be made into digestive teas or taken in pill form. Also use a good quality rock salt or sea salt.
Sweeteners: The sweet taste is one of the keys to the nourishing diet. This taste is included in all the proteins, grains, beans, oils and sweet fruits and veges listed above. In general, the sweet taste is said to give coolness, moisture, heaviness and satisfaction. For added sweeteners, complex sugars are recommended. Try raw unrefined sugar, sucanat, jaggery, barley malt, maple syrup, honey, molasses and rice syrup. Simple sugars are not recommended.
Supportive recommendations: The nourishing diet is supported by taking time off to rest more, relax, and enjoy. Sleep freely. Spend time in nature. Walk barefoot on the earth, spend time in gardens, green places, and the woods. Take a vacation by the seashore or visit the mountains. Gaze into the starry sky at night and bask in the moonlight. Turn off the computers and the phones. Slow down.
The rejuvenation diet is a special form of the nourishing diet known as rasayana. It is the same as above, only with no meat, garlic or onions. Ayurveda teaches that meat can cloud the mind (tamas) and fuel unrest and excessive desire (rajas). The rasayana approach focuses on building mental clarity and the vital reserves of the body known as ojas.
Ojas comes from the verb root vaj, to be strong. Related words are vigour, august and vitality. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is referred to as ching or jing. It refers to the vital essence of all the bodily tissues and is the product of perfect digestion and assimilation. It is likened to honey which is formed from the essence of all the fruits and flowers. It is the refined form of the water element, and is said to maintain and support the life-force.
Ojas foods: All the foods above can increase ojas if properly prepared, well-chewed, and eaten sitting down in a relaxed atmosphere with gratitude at regular mealtimes. Overeating must be strictly avoided.
Tonic herbs and special foods: Certain foods are considered especially good for building ojas. They include ghee, raw honey, sesame oil, blanched almonds, dates, figs, organic milk, saffron, pumpkin seeds, yams, mung beans and essential fatty acids as in flax seeds and walnuts. Some examples of tonic herbs that build ojas are ashwagandha, shatavari, ginseng, wild yam, tang gui, aloe, amalaki, astragalus, and marshmallow root. Tonic herbs are sometimes added to soups and gruels, made into teas, or taken in tablet form. They are sometimes combined with almonds, seeds, complex sugars and/or aromatic spices into various pastes and confections. A classic rejuvenative combination is Chavyan Prash, an herbal jam made from ghee, honey, spices and tonic herbs.
According to the Charak Samhita, “When the ojas is diminished, the person is fearful, weak, worried, cheerless, rough, emaciated, having disorders of the sense organs with pain and loss of complexion...Excessive exercise, fasting, anxiety, rough food, undernourishment, exposure to wind and sun, fear, grief, ununctuous drinks, vigil, excessive discharge of mucus, blood, sexual fluids, old age, and injury - these are the causes of diminution of ojas.” (CS I.17: 73, 76-77). “One who wants to protect... the ojas should avoid particularly the causes of the affliction of mind...(and) regularly take the measures which are conducive to the heart...serenity of mind, and knowledge.” (CS I.30: 13-14)
Thus, in addition to the foods and herbs, the practice of the eight rungs of yoga - yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, concentration, meditation, and silence - is recommended for rejuvenation of the body, mind and spirit. In what is known as brahma rasayana, a spiritual retreat of at least one month is recommended. The knowledge mentioned above refers to the realization that we are part of the whole, that we have the source of life within us, and that the life of the spirit is immortal. So here is to the constant renewal of good cheer and joy from that well-spring of life within. With the support of nourishing food, fresh air, and loving-kindness may you be glad all over.

Lesson #15: The Cleansing Diet

The Cleansing Diet
by Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.

There is an old saying that says you have to exhale before you can inhale. Put another way, you have to empty before you can fill. In terms of nutrition, you have to cleanse before you can nourish.
This article will focus on one of many cleansing techniques - the cleansing diet. The cleansing diet can be used anytime your digestion is sluggish, you feel heavy, congested, lethargic, or when you are coming down with a cold. Symptoms may also include headaches, a thickly coated tongue, bad breath, and digestive discomforts like gas, bloating, and constipation. Counter-indications are extreme weakness, emaciation, insomnia, palpitations, fainting, absence of menstruation and many specific illnesses. Please check with your health care practitioner before attempting a cleanse.
The first step is to cut out all junk food, food additives, snacks, desserts, left-overs, canned foods, processed foods and salty foods. The idea is to eat fresh foods freshly prepared and to keep meals very simple. Decrease the size and frequency of meals and be sure to slow down and chew your food thoroughly. You can skip dinner and/or breakfast for a day or two and replace them with lemon water or juice.
The second step is to distinguish between the heavy and light food groups. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are termed heavy, or nourishing in Ayurveda. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs are termed light, or cleansing. In a balanced diet, portions of heavy foods are matched more or less evenly with portions of light foods. For the cleansing diet, we reduce the heavy foods and increase the light foods.
Carbohydrates can be divided into the so-called ‘bad’ carbs and ‘good’ carbs. ‘Bad’ carbs are simple carbs like sugars and refined flours. Eliminate them completely. ‘Good’ carbs are complex carbs like whole grains. They can also be eliminated or sharply reduced for a few days up to a week, but should then be added back. However, care must be taken with the gluten-containing grains because of gluten’s sticky property. In fact, if you take the last three letters off of glu-ten the name would be more descriptive! It is best to avoid wheat altogether during your cleanse as it has the highest gluten content. The other gluten grains are barley, oats, rye, spelt and kamut. Corn is best avoided as well because it is a common allergen. The best whole grains for cleansing are rice, millet, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and kasha.
Next we eliminate animal-based proteins. These include pork, red meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. These are dense and highly nourishing foods and are therefore counter-indicated for a cleanse. They are also high on the food chain and therefore more likely to carry environmental toxicity. We can continue to eat plant-sourced protein in small quantities during our cleanse for energy. The best choice is simple well-cooked whole grain and bean combinations. The smaller the bean the easier it is to digest. Mung beans are well-documented for their cleansing and protective attributes. The classic cleansing dish in ayurveda is kitcharee, a combination of basmati rice and split mung beans cooked with turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds, and perhaps fresh ginger. Whole mung beans can be sprouted and eaten like a vegetable. Brown rice and red lentils is another good complete protein combination. Nuts and seeds also provide protein but are high in fat and best eaten fresh in very small quantities or avoided altogether.
Fats and oils are used in very small quantities to counter dryness and provide EFAs (essential fatty acids). Use best quality, fresh, cold-pressed oils like olive, sunflower, flax and borage. A small amount of organic ghee is also acceptable. By all means avoid all fried foods, greasy foods, junk oils, refined oils, oily snacks, saturated fats, lard, crisco, and trans-fats.
Fresh organic vegetables are excellent detoxifiers. In warm weather salads with fresh herbs are a good choice. In cold weather, make vegetable soup with herbs and spices. Steamed veges can be used anytime. Fresh vegetable juice is excellent as are sprouts of all kinds. Wheat grass and barley grass sprouts make especially cleansing juices. Vegetables also combine well with grains and beans. They can be added to the kitcharee recipe mentioned above, or a small handful of grains and/or beans can be added to vegetable soups. Some veges are heavier and more nourishing like sweet potatoes and winter squash and should be used sparingly.
Organic fruits are perhaps the best cleansers and are best eaten alone. Make a meal out of them or make fresh fruit juice. If the juice seems too sweet, dilute it with some fresh filtered water. Be careful with the heavier fruits like bananas and avocadoes. Fruit is cooling so go easy in cold weather.
There is an old story about the young doctor who was on his way to a village where he was to serve his apprenticeship. He was happy at first because the doctor there was almost ready to retire. But when he approached the village he was dismayed that it was surrounded by lemon trees! “Everyone knows that people who eat lemons never get sick” he complained. But the older doctor reassured him, “Yes, that’s true, but I don’t tell them not to eat the seeds!”
An excellent cleanser is to add the juice of half an organic lemon to a cup of warm water with a little raw honey and a pinch of rock salt. One or two cups can be taken first thing in the morning to help move the bowels, or it can be used as a meal replacement during a cleanse. An alternate version is organic lemon juice, warm water, a little maple syrup and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
For cleansing purposes, herbs and spices fall into two categories - heating and cooling. Heating spices are termed pungent in taste and include black pepper, ginger, cayenne, fennel, cardamom, cinnamon and cumin. They help support digestion and burn off impurities. They can be cooked into grain, bean and vegetable dishes or taken as a tea. Fresh ginger can be juiced with other veges to give warmth. Ginger tea is an excellent choice during cold weather. The cooling herbs are termed bitter in taste and include dandelion, burdock, aloe, gentian and turmeric. They are especially good at cleansing the blood and removing excess heat from the body. Drinking burdock and dandelion tea during warm weather is a good choice.
Your cleansing diet can be supported by gentle stretching, aerobic exercise, deep breathing, sweating and massage. Remember to leave ample time between meals and take no food between 7pm and 9am. A short cleanse can be accomplished in three days. Others may need to stay on the cleansing diet for one to three weeks depending on constitution and condition.
In warm weather, the cleansing diet could consist of lemon water upon arising, fresh fruit for breakfast, rice and steamed vegetables with bean sprouts for lunch, salad for dinner with fresh water, dandelion or burdock tea to drink between meals. In cold weather, try the warm lemon drink upon arising, kasha for breakfast, kitcharee or other grain and bean combination with cooked veges for lunch, vegetable soup for dinner, with warm water or ginger tea to drink between meals. And once emptied and cleansed, your system will be ready once again to receive full nourishment.

Lesson #14: Not So Fast!: A Guide to Fasting

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!