For the last year and a half, on the first Monday of each month I do a 5 Day Smoothie & Juice Fast.
What I’ve come to most appreciate from my regular fasting is that it enhances my daily yoga practice that week.
The yoga sutras outline a plan for living that flows from action to knowledge to liberation.
This path has eight limbs, which work more like spokes on a wheel than like steps on a ladder.
Whilst the truth ought to be that we are doing our yoga all the time, the pressure of everyday living makes remaining connected to our path more difficult.
This partly explains why we take refuge in holidays and retreats to escape routine and reconnect.
Fasting imposes some much needed simplicity to my life which I’ve found helps keep me grounded on the path. There is of course a period of metabolic adjustment and some symptoms of detoxing that may come with it, but within a couple of days you come through that into a clear space not only physically but mentally and spiritually as well.
Uncluttered with not having to plan meals and energy freed by not digesting solid food, this space that emerges allows a more intimate connection with yogic practice and validates to me why fasting is practiced in all of the world’s major wisdom / religious traditions.
To illustrate how fasting infuses into my yoga practice, I’ll firstly quickly recount the 8 limbs of yoga;
The first 4 limbs are the limbs of tapas, or spirituality in action.
The 1st two limbs comprise of the 5 Yamas or moral (outer) restraints and the 5 Niyamas or (inner) observances, together these a bit like the 10 commandments.
1. Yamas – include; 1. Ahimsa – non violence, 2. Satya – truthfulness, 3. Asteya – non stealing, 4. Brahmachaya – moderation and restraint / remembering the divine, 5. Aparigraha – non-possessiveness
2. Niyamas include ; 1. Saucha – purity or cleanliness (both internal & external), 2. Santosha – contentment, 3. Tapas – discipline / training the senses and ridding the body and mind of residue that cloud perception, 4. Svadhyaya – self observation, 5. Ishvara – surrender to life by being a living expression of the niyamas.
The next two limbs are Asana and Pranayama.
3. Asana – Postures that refine our bodies, deepen awareness of senses and enhance powers of concentration
4. Pranayama – Yogic breathing that develop control of breath and brings connection with the energy of life
The 2nd 4 limbs refresh the body, refine the mind and bring peace to the heart, leading to equanimity.
The next Next two limbs are Svadhyaya, or self-study, consisting of Pratyahara and Dharana
5. Pratyahara means turning consciousness inward
6. Dharana with stillness from pratyahara, concentration can now be cultivated, making connection deeper.
Dhyana and samadhi are the final 2 spokes of the wheel, comprising Isvara – the final frontier which is the surrender of the individual self to the universal self.
7. Dhyana is meditation
8. Samadhi is union with the object of meditation – the state in which we re-experience our primal oneness.
As I mentioned earlier, rather than being like rungs on a ladder, the 8 limbs are more like spokes on a wheel which are taken up all together at once.
Whilst the yamas and niyamas give a moral compass to guide life from and form the foundations of practice, the “all at once” nature of the 8 limb path of yoga is apparent when we consider that as we practice asana and pranayama, the postures and breath work that comprise the 3rd and 4th limbs, these refine our relationship to our body, creating the necessary circumstances for brahmacarya, or moderation, the 4th yama. Further, to practice living in the truth, or satya (the 2nd yama) we must have a mind that has let go of the habit of distraction and developed the habit of concentration – cultivated by dharana (the 6th limb).
Fasting weaves its way into the 8 limbs path, most obviously through two of the niyamas; saucha and tapas. Saucha being the practice of purity or cleanliness (both internally and externally) resonates in an obvious way with the practice of fasting. Likewise Tapas being a practice of discipline and training the senses (to rid the body and mind of residue that cloud perception) finds expression in fasting.
Fasting then through it’s cleanse promoting action, improves the flow of asana and pranayama which as detailed above, positively impacts brahmacharya and satya. To the extent too that fasting enables detoxing / cleansing to occur this unburdening of the body allows the final 4 limbs to be more readily accessed.
When in the “fasted state”, I wake up to my 5am asana (posture) practice with less mental inertia and less bodily stiffness. My ability to access pranayama (controlled breathing and connection with energy) and then pratyahara (inner awareness) and dharana (concentration) is therefore enhanced.
From here, accessing deeper states of meditation and even glimpses of samadhi are more attainable.
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Aaron Travers is author of “The Boda Fast – a three step plan to lower inflammation, maximise fat burning and restore vitality”. Aaron writes at www.thebodacleanse.com.au and shares his ideas and experiences on health and wellbeing from his personal life and through working with clients clinically and those doing his “supported fasting” programs. Every Friday he sends out his newsletter, click below to subscribe.
Gates, Rolf – “Meditations from the Mat” – many of the definitions above have come from this excellent book. Highly recommended for those interested in yoga.