From Ramadan to the Way of the Bodhisattva, restraint from intake, particularly food, has been an integral part of many spiritual traditions. There's an inherent recognition that an emptier stomach empties the mind and aids spiritual awareness. Here in the midst of Holy Week for Western Christians, Stephanie and I thought we'd offer some helpful tips on how to fast well for your body and spirit.
Tip #1: Intention - There are a myriad of reasons for fasts: spiritual clarity, solidarity with the hungry, gratitude for the created order, and a sense of enough to name a few. Pick a positive spiritual intention and tailor your fast to that end. The primary goal of a fast is a spiritual gift not a physical hardship. A fast can be a way to clear the mind and focus on something other than fueling the body throughout the day. Although there are no benefits of fasting on body composition, from a spiritual sense, the practice can reveal new insights.
Tip #2: Moderation - There are lots of ways to fast: no food or water from sunup to sundown, no solid foods during waking hours, no altering substances (caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol), or no luxury items (sugar, meat, or dairy in the Christian tradition). We recommend a spiritual fast where the entire intake for the day does not exceed a single meal (a typical guideline for Good Friday). This kind of fast allows for clarity, solidarity, awareness, and gratitude without taxing the body into an inability to fully participate in partner practices.
To set yourself up for success, make sure to hydrate well throughout the day. Water is fine, but also add in some tea and/or broth. Warm liquids can help produce a feeling of fullness, and provide electrolytes that are necessary for function. The night before the fast begins, make sure to eat enough protein. Protein will help you to stay full longer, and not wake up with a strong appetite. Protein will also be important to consume AFTER the fast to help the body repair from the stress placed on it. Lastly, movement throughout the day is ok, but refrain from any moderate to vigorous exercise. Since there is no repletion after exercise (due to the fast), this negatively impacts the body. If you need some movement, go for a short easy walk, or try some gentle yoga or meditation.
Tip #3: Partner Practices - From a spiritual standpoint, a fast is a means and not an end in itself. Fasts are best done in conjunction with other activities oriented towards a spiritual goal. Here are a couple of examples:
Spiritual clarity - take some time to read and pray in conjunction with fasting. In my Episcopal tradition that might look like praying Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline throughout the fasting day, and journaling after each experience.
Solidarity with the hungry - coordinate your fasting day with volunteering at a local food pantry or food bank.
Gratitude for Creation- go for walk or if it's actually Good Friday, go for a hike and ponder these Wilderness Stations of the Cross.
Practicing enough - use food as a way to nourish your body, not just for indulgence. When you eat, be mindful of your food choices, and the impact they have on our world. Selecting foods for simplicity and moderation are ways to continue with a "fasting" mindset. A fast doesn't have to mean an absence of nourishment for the body, but rather a mindful approach to eating.
This ritual of eating simply creates a mindful space and increases awareness of moderation. If you’re up for giving it a try, here’s a simple example of a well-balanced fast:
Morning - porridge (oats made with milk or water)
Mid-day - broth-based vegetable soup with bread
Evening - Rice and beans with additional vegetables