How to Bolster Your Spiritual Life with Fasting
Much has been said about fasting — by the fitness community and by me.
Fasting actually has a pretty good moment right now. I know friends who are downright foodies and are now considering fasting as a way to improve their health and perhaps lose weight.
For me too, fasting was a game-changer. For decades, health “experts” told us that the way to lose weight is to eat small meals at regular intervals to keep your metabolism stoked.
Fasting broke all of that.
There are all kinds of reasons why fasting — and its most popular sibling, intermittent fasting — is good for you. It gives you mental clarity and concentration. It can lower blood sugar levels. It improves fat-burning abilities, lowers cholesterol, increases growth hormones, reduces inflammation, and so on. It might even prevent Alzheimer’s.
These were enough to get me on board!
But the purpose of fasting changed for me when I started growing spiritually. I was previously fasting only because of the health benefits and the increase in mental acuity. Little did I know that fasting would have a significant impact on my spiritual life as well.
Most religions including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc have a mention of fasting in their teachings. Personally, as a student of yoga, I found a lot of benefits mentioned in different texts.
Apparently, many monks, nuns, and yogis practice fasting every week. Even one day of fasting a week can eliminate a lot of illnesses from their very roots before they even show up.
Yet, these are superficial benefits of what’s been an ancient practice for millennia.
Fasting Can Create a Desire for God
There’s a story that Paramahansa Yogananda¹ narrates of when he was a child.
While staying at his guru’s ashram, one day everyone was waiting for a man (the ‘headman’ he says) to eat. Due to his arrival, the mealtime is now shifted to 2 pm instead of 12 pm.
Before he moved to the ashram, at his home, he could call his mother or the servants to bring food if he was hungry.
In the ashram, however, there was no such option. By 10 am, Yogananda started feeling hungry.
The man who was supposed to come was on a train which was running late. Finally, the man arrived at 5 in the evening and sat to meditate!
After meditation at 8 pm, he got up and ate food with everyone without the slightest sign of happiness on his face. He was, in fact, picking on food with disinterest.
Yogananda wondered, “This man doesn’t appreciate good food!”
Later, Yogananda asked him why he wasn’t grateful for the food served
The man said, “You know I was traveling on the train for four days and the vibrations were so wrong I didn’t eat anything!”
“Do you mean to say you didn’t eat anything for four days?” Yogananda asked.
“So what? I didn’t drink any water even! I have many interesting things than food” the man said. “You must not ask for any food!” he continued.
“I don’t ask. But when I don’t get it, I feel very hungry!” Yogananda said.
“God will give it to you!” the man assured him.
Still doubtful, Yogananda replied, “But suppose nobody gives to me and I die?”
“Then die! Die to know that you don’t live by food but by God!” the man shouted.
All food consciousness vanished from Yogananda’s mind.
And so you see, we don’t live only on food or water or sunlight or air. We live on “prana” which the cosmic energy sustaining all of us. The Chinese call this “chi.” Being aware of this prana is being aware of God inside you.
Yet most of us are too restless or stimulated by constant consumption of food to realize that we have a subtle source of energy. When you fast, you feel this prana inside you in meditation. When energy is not wasted in digestion, you can be more still and thus feel the prana flowing in your spine.
This, more than anything, awakes in people a deep desire for God. We all can pray but an experience is a different thing altogether. An experience deepens your faith.
Fasting helps us to get that experience.
A New Kind of Satisfaction
When Christ’s disciples noticed that He hadn’t eaten all day and tried to get Him to slow down to eat, Christ said,
“I have food to eat that you know nothing about….My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work.”
That’s what I’ve found to be true. We all are here to do His work. The difference is some of us realize that and some of us don’t.
I follow the teachings of Kriya Yoga taught by Paramahansa Yogananda (author of the spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi). He gave his disciples tons of techniques to be aware of the energy in your body (prana).
One of such techniques is Energization Exercises which I’ve talked a lot about. The more I practice them the more I feel attuned to His will and not my egoic will guided by whims and fancies.
“The whole purpose of true exercise is to awaken the inner source of energy which we have ignored throughout our lives.”— Paramhansa Yogananda
Food can fill you only for a short while. It never satisfies. After some time, you’d want more. But when you’re fed from prana, you’ll have amazing energy you never thought possible.
Don’t take my words. There are a lot of devotees around the world who, by practicing these exercises alone, have not only gained tremendous energy but cured themselves of pains and wounds.
Train Your Willpower and Discipline
Fasting by its very nature is putting-off of the physical needs in order to tap into higher realms of meaning.
Your willpower is like a muscle. The more you train it the stronger it becomes. The less you train it, the weaker it becomes.
And so every decision is important. If you make and justify poor decisions from time-to-time, you will stunt your growth. You will not have the resolve to develop good habits in the future.
No matter which direction you choose — positive or negative — both have their own momentum. If you’re on the negative momentum, every bad decision makes it that much difficult to change. Your aim should be to be on the positive wave.
When you’re fasting, you constantly avoid food and the temptation to eat. If you’re doing a 24-hour fast, you’re at least avoiding the temptation to eat 3 big meals along with 2–3 opportunities to snack throughout the day.
By training yourself not to eat, you’re in fact developing the willpower that you can use for other causes. This same willpower will come in handy when you want to quit smoking or say no to your friends when they ask you out for a drink.
For me, this increase in willpower and discipline to stick to my meditation practice, and reduce the consumption of useless content in my life.
I was able to replace those habits with more spiritually uplifting ones.
Being Grateful for the Food
When you fast, you change your relationship with food.
Often, we take food for granted. If you’re reading this, you likely have steady access to food and don’t have to think a lot about where your next meal is going to come from.
This attitude makes us not appreciate the food we eat. In that act of ingratitude, we rob ourselves of the true joy of eating.
Your first bite while breaking a fast feels wonderful.
Instead of eating out of emotions or compulsion, you’re consciously choosing to enjoy the meal in front of you.
This gave me a newfound appreciation for food that will stay with me for long.
Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy. Autophagy simply means the destruction of damaged or redundant cellular components. Think of it as the body’s way to recycle waste and repair itself.
Another study shows that interference of neuronal autophagy prompts neuro-degeneration. This means that autophagy is crucial for a healthy brain.
- reduces cognitive stressors that cause aging, cognitive decline, and chronic diseases.
- reduces the risk of cancer.
- increases longevity and lifespan.
- enhances learning and memory.
- elevates focus and concentration.
An increase in cognitive function helps me improve my spiritual practices. I can be more alert in meditation and perform yoga postures with ease.
Many meditators have found this to be true. And it doesn’t take a lot of time to see this for yourself.
I do a 20–24-hour water fast every Saturday. That’s the day when my meditations are longer and more focused. Plus, I’m also able to read more spiritual/philosophical books that help me advance spiritually.
Though this is more of a scientific benefit that can be used in any aspect, I’ve found it to be a great help in deepening my spiritual life
It’s funny how much my day frees up when I don't have to worry about what to eat and when to eat.
If you think about it, our lives are structured around food. Our meal times are pre-decided. On the basis of that, we set our schedules every day.
But what if those meal times are non-existent? The whole day suddenly seems like one big block of time you can use as you like.
Fasting also keeps me avoid talking a lot to people whom I usually meet during meals.
This gives me the much-needed time to pause and think about where my life is going. It’s not that I ponder existential questions every Saturday but it does make me aware of poor habits, disorganization, and lack of effort in my life.
Finally, fasting also serves as a reminder of my strength to overcome distractions and low-level addiction. By resisting one addiction that all humans have — food — I can be confident to win against every other bad habit in my life.
With all the above benefits, comes a sense of direction in life. This direction is what most people lack because they don’t have clarity in the first place.
I know it’s hard to believe that such clarity can come only from not eating, but try for yourself and see.
Fasting is commonly understood as a means to lose weight and perhaps gain mental clarity.
However, the benefits of fasting go deeper than that. Why else would the religions of the world include it in their teachings?
The aim of this post was to give you a new perspective on fasting.
For spiritual aspirants out there, I hope this convinces you to give fasting a try and feel His energy inside you.
It’s wonderful how much we can do without when we’re plugged into a deeper source of power.
Again, as I’ve said repeatedly above, don’t only think “Ah, this is a great concept.” Try it for yourself! It is only by direct experience we can grow, it’s not enough to have intellectual appreciation.
When you do, feel free to share your experience with me!
 Yogananda, my guru, was a liberated soul and a master from birth itself. He narrates such stories however to set an example for other devotees who’re aspirants on the spiritual path.
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