It was in India that I heard about fasting for the first time and I was totally weirded out. “No food for 10 days? I think I would die.” But over time the subject kept coming up around me and it started to pique my curiosity. I remembered that when my dog was feeling sick, she’d naturally refrain from eating for several days at a time. I learned that pretty much every major religion uses fasting as part of a spiritual practice. I also discovered how many Native American tribes also use fasting as part of a Vision Quest or similar pilgrimage. Then I read about a man who hasn’t eaten for years, but only sun gazes, as if he were a tree or something. What?? On top of all this, I started to question my own rituals around food when I picked up an ugly habit of emotional eating after a really hard breakup during my mid-twenties. So I decided to give it a try.
Now, I know there is a lot of mixed information out there about fasting and cleansing. And of course we can form our opinions based on what we read on the internet, but there is absolutely no substitute for direct experience. I’m sharing my journey with fasting because I personally found this process incredibly transformational and healing and I want people to have access to what I was able to experience through deeply cleansing my body, mind, and spirit. All that to say, don’t knock it til you try it.
My first fast was in 2010 at Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas. We started the fast with very simple raw foods for the first three days, then juices for five days, breaking the fast with two more days of raw foods. We were given spirulina capsules for a bit of energy, some fiber at night to stimulate the digestive system and some supplements to help the detoxification process (including Niacin, which made my skin look sunburned for 2 hours after I took it because of the cannabis that was being cleansed out of my system.) I remember the morning of the 2nd day of juices I felt a bit weak, but it passed quickly and overall I felt light and really, really good. The biggest downside to this retreat was that we were a group of 20 fasters within an ashram of 100 other people who were eating regular meals. I later learned this isn’t ideal.
My second fast was in 2012 with a friend on the beaches of Sri Lanka. We did a similar program on our own; raw foods, then 4 days of juice, then breaking the fast with raw foods again. Being able to soak in a lot of sun, relax and read on the beach, and swim in the ocean really made the experience, but this time I missed the group dynamic I’d experienced during my first retreat.
My third fast I hit the jackpot and had by far the most transformative experience yet. This was at Moinhos Velhos, a retreat center dedicated to fasting, near Lagos in Portugal. The founder of MV, Frank Jensen, has conducted hundreds of fasts around the world. He is in his 80’s, is still doing headstands, and has the clearest, bluest eyes I’ve ever seen in any human. Immediately upon arrival, I knew I was in good hands.
At MV we started with the juices right away. They were all organic, and most were made from fruits and veggies grown right in the retreat center’s garden. I was one of only 12 participants, and we were the only visitors at the center which meant that we were cared for incredibly well. The staff was genuine enough that there wasn’t a sense of inequality and service-oriented enough that it felt totally professional. The schedule of the day (below) was for me a perfect balance of structure with plenty of down time to sleep, read, swim, walk, or hang out with fellow fasters. During the week several therapists came to the center and they were out of this world. Reflexology, reiki, hypnotherapy, massage, cranial sacral…it was all amazing. The staff also organized two trips into town, one to explore the coastal cliffs and caves and the other was a beach day into Lagos.
But biggest difference at MV was something I hadn’t experienced during my previous fasts. [Warning…if you’re afraid of TMI now is the time to scroll away.] Here we were given clysmatic kits for a daily cleaning of the colon. If this grosses you out (I was definitely skeptical at first) consider that colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. We gotta keep our pipes clean folks! I could not believe how much of a difference this made over the course of the 10 day program. So, to sum it all up, here’s what all of these experiences have taught me:
1. We crave what is already in our system.
This may seem like a no brainer, but it’s totally true. When we’re in the habit of drinking coffee and eating croissants with butter and jam, that’s what we crave. When we’re in the habit of drinking herbal tea and eating lots of fruits and veggies, that is what we want when we wake up. Taking time to reset what you put in your body has positive effects that last way beyond the fast itself.
2. So–that’s why kids have so much energy.
I enjoy a rich piece of chocolate, a crisp glass of champagne, a nice red wine, a good craft beer, the perfect cup of coffee, and the occasional spliff, but holy cow does the body feel good when you put that stuff down for a moment. I find myself looking at children and their pure, boundless energy, wondering if it is really just age that makes us different? I don’t think so. I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that they don’t have any toxins in their little bodies yet. Or at least, not nearly as many as we put into ours. And on the 10th day of my fast in Portugal, I was sprinting down the beach, doing cartwheels, and bouncing around with more energy than I’d had in years, feeling truly like a kid again.
3. We hold onto a lot of shit.
I don’t know about you but the first place I feel stress in my body is right in my guts. We’ve got about 30 feet of intestines and when we’re stressed out they tighten up, so what we eat doesn’t get fully processed. The founder of Moinhos Velhos told me that one participant who came for their first cleanse at age 55 released a piece of orange Crayola crayon on the 8th day of the fast. This had been in his system since he had swallowed it as a child! WTF. And for me, [TMI warning] even though I’d been a vegetarian for 7 years and am generally a very healthy person, even after 9 days of drinking only juices, I was still letting go of some nasty sh*t during the clysmatic. And believe me, it feels so fucking good to clean that crap out after it’s been in there who knows how long.
4. Emotional shit too.
Have you ever made the connection between cutting our hair and letting go of the past? I’ve seen many friends chop their hair off or shave their beard when they need a fresh start. Hair grows in time, so cutting it cleanses away a part of us that was growing during a certain period or chapter of life. The same is true for cleansing the emotional body. We carry emotional shit in our bodies from past relationships, past work projects, and any traumatic events that life throws at us. When our physical body begins to cleanse, we also release emotional trauma that gets stuck in our cells. We lose weight that hangs onto our body from stress. Fasting purifies our emotional body, our mind, and our spirit.
5. Real food is medicine.
I’ve met so many people who claim that they don’t like the taste of things like spinach, beetroot, or garlic, but they’ll take shots of liquor to get drunk and pop Advil like it’s candy. There is something truly profound that can happen when for a period of time we only put things in our body that grow straight, unprocessed, from the earth. Garlic for example is the king of all food plants, with tons of healing properties. And while fasting doesn’t technically cure diseases, it greatly enhances the body’s natural healing processes and has been linked to helping the body heal things like allergies, arthritis, diabetes, psoriasis, and even cancer. I remember getting a brand new pair of glasses right before my fast, and by the end of it the prescription seemed to no longer work. I could literally see more clearly and colors all around me were more vibrant. So if the taste of these healthy things is the obstacle, consider them medicine and know that they can cure ailments you didn’t even know you had.
6. Digital detox is part of the picture.
Right before my most recent fast I had just finished a big, 2-year long project in Berlin, so I was ready for a big cleanse. This meant switching off my devices completely. 11 of the participants were also completely switched off from their work life, but there was one who kept working, taking skype calls, and running his business. I remember hearing the vibration of his voice completely change when he got onto his phone to make a business call. And sure enough, on the last day when everyone was feeling shiny and light, he complained that he felt there was still something inside him that he wasn’t able to release. Even though we drank the same juices, practiced the same yoga, and took the same supplements, his body held on to some stuff because he didn’t switch off. Which leads me to the next lesson…
7. Fasting: #NSFW
Fasting at work, or even in “normal life” can not be nearly as effective as fasting in a removed and natural environment. I honestly think it is even doing a disservice to colleagues/clients to be fasting while participating in the regular working world, because coping with the stresses of work requires a lot of energy. And considering that fasting is not only about cleansing the body, we need to also monitor what kind of information we are putting into our mind during this sensitive time. Being subjected to stressful or toxic vibrations on any level will impede the cleansing process. In order to get the highest benefit it is important to be entirely focused on the process of cleansing, and that includes blocking out information that isn’t nourishing or soothing as much as possible.
8. The sun is food.
Humans are silly about the sun sometimes. It seems odd to me when people slather on SPF 50 to lay out in the sun at high noon. But taking in the gentle morning or afternoon sun through our eyes and skin (sans SPF) can be incredibly nourishing. The sun is the source of all life, and in a certain way we really are like plants, as our sun gazing friend above has proven. While fasting, I couldn’t believe how much energy I gained from simply laying in the sun and swimming in the saltwater. That being said, and I can’t imagine doing a fast in a cold or sunless environment.
9. We don’t actually need that much food.
You’d think that by going from eating three full meals per day (plus snacks) to drinking 3 juices a day for ten days, my weight would drop significantly. But I only lost about 5 pounds over the ten day fast. (Some other participants shed much more, depeinding on how much extra they were carrying when they arrived.) This led me to believe that our bodies can sustain themselves with far less food than we typically eat. Do we really need to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day? Or is that a belief we’ve adopted along the way? It seems we tend to eat for reasons other than being hungry a lot of the time–because we are dehydrated, stressed, bored, or even just a little piggish. In general I think there’s a lot of over consumption happening in our world and that food is one of the culprits. I also honestly did not feel hungry during the fast (we were given fibrous powders that expand in the stomach to give the feeling of fullness which helped a lot), and as the fast went on I was actually less and less drawn to wanting to eat again. But I found myself (and all the other fasters) talking about food with more love and appreciation than ever before.
10. If we block our digestive system we block our creative source.
Gabrielle Bernstein gets this spot on. We can be really abusive to our digestive system when we overeat, and pretty much everyone has had a food hangover at some point. I’m originally from Chicago, where for some reason stuffing ourselves is oddly celebrated during holidays like Thanksgiving, where we eat until we need to unbutton our pants and then lounge on the couch until midnight when we eat again. But many famous holistic doctors say that our digestive system is like the soul of our being, our fire, our ambition, and our spirit. When we block our digestive system, we block our creative source on a deeper level. When we honor our digestive system we allow our fire to burn brightly and our spirit to fluidly flow through us. Taking a break from indulging can allow inner fire to rekindle and our creative energy to reignite.
If you’re curious about giving this a whirl, you’re invited to join me in Portugal from May 7-17th. If now isn’t the time, perhaps a seed has been planted?
Thanks for listening.