the practice of yoga while fasting

With Ramadan just around the corner, for many of us it’s that time of the year when we start to plan ahead in order to be able to keep up our physical yoga practice while fasting several hours a day. If you have fasted before, you have probably already experienced some of the overall health benefits that come with it. If you are new to yoga, however, you may be wondering whether continuing to practice on a completely empty stomach can be a wise or even healthy idea. In order to put things into context, here I would like to share a few facts about fasting and its relationship with yoga, along with my own experience of keeping up my asana practice during Ramadan.

Fasting in a yogic context

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"In yoga, the ideal break between one meal and the next meal is eight hours. You can manage these kinds of meals even when you are working outside. But a minimum of five hours is a must for everybody. This is because only when your stomach is empty, your excretory system functions properly." (Sadhguru)

Fasting is actually a very common practice among yogis who understand that this healing technique, one of the oldest known to man, can have incredibly positive effects both on the body and the mind.

Yogic fastings can be of different types, including juice fasts, water fasts, or more severe types of fasting in which the practitioner abstains from the intake of both food and fluids. Fasting can also last anywhere from several hours to days. Generally, anybody in good health can safely do a juice or water fast for 3-5 days without supervision. Longer or more extreme types of fasting may require supervision and I wouldn’t advise undertaking one without consulting your general practitioner and making the necessary preparations to ensure that you stay healthy throughout the process.

From a physical point of view, fasting promotes the process of autolysis, which usually begins one or two full days after you start the fast, and which consists in your body digesting and getting rid of diseased, damaged, dead, and dying cells. Fasting promotes the elimination of toxins from the organism, and also provides your digestive system with much needed rest, freeing up the energy that usually goes into the digestion process and redirecting it towards other purposes. Because of this, while many people initially think of fasting as an extenuating ordeal, those who try it tend to realize that, after a while, they feel more energetic than the usual.

From a spiritual point of view, fasting can increase your awareness, making it easier to focus and to enter a meditative state . Fasting may also help to develop your willpower, as you learn to resists bodily urges, and develop the ability to complete a self-imposed task. When you become able to distance yourself from food and look at it as a mere object, without giving in to your body’s craving for sensory pleasures, you start to realize that you are not this body. Fasting may also help you gain sensitivity and intuition.

All of the above create the perfect bodily environment for an enhanced yoga practice. You may enjoy more energy than the usual, and also be able to get deeper into some poses (or to perform poses you had never managed before) because your gut is empty. Likewise, your concentration may be improved, helping you turn your attention inward as you breathe in awareness.

3 keys to keeping up your practice while you fast

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Every year, before and during Ramadan, when Muslims around the world fast every day for a month from sunrise to sunset, I get questions on my Instagram account about whether I continue my regular yoga practice while fasting, and whether I still teach. The answer to both questions is yes. Here are a 3 key pointers that, from experience, work for me:

Asana is not everything

As I wrote in my previous blog post, “what is yoga?”, asana is not everything in a yoga practice. It is important to remember this, because it means that you can still practice yoga even if you’re not doing any physical postures. While it’s definitely better to keep the body active throughout your fast, there may be times when this is not possible or when you are just not feeling it. It’s okay. You can do other things: namely pranayama, seva (selfless service or action, i.e. karma yoga), concentration and meditation, and even reading and studying in order to deepen your understanding of yoga philosophy (you will find several book recommendations on my affiliate Amazon page, linked in the Recommendations section of this website.)

Find a time that works for you

If you’re practicing asana, find a time that works for you. You may need to change the time from your usual routine. As your energetic pattern will change, you may also feel more energized at different times of the day than when you’re eating. You may also want to save some energy in the morning, and dive into a more vigorous practice later in the day, when you’ll have less hours left until you can break your fast. In my particular case, I usually start my own personal practice, which lasts anywhere from 1 to 2 hours, between 11 am and midday. During Ramadan, I often prefer to start a little later, between 1 and 2 pm. I also change my teaching schedule, which goes down from 6 classes a week to just 3, which I hold in the late afternoon, so by the time the class is over people have just about a couple of hours to go home and get ready to break their fast. If you’re looking to join me for class during this Ramadan, please scroll down to the bottom of this post to check out the schedule and book a spot!

Modify your practice if needed

Because my personal yoga practice is not excessively dynamic and doesn’t usually include a vinyasa style flow, I don’t usually feel the need to modify it during Ramadan. I practice my school’s sequence, which is heavily inspired by the Sivananda sequence, and I usually add several extra more advanced poses or modifications, depending on how I’m feeling. During Ramadan, I keep up the same practice and, depending on how my body is responding, I stick to the basic sequence, or take it a little further, always with awareness. I have also recently started learning the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Primary Series, which I practice once a week at the moment, but I am unsure at the moment about whether I’ll keep this one up while fasting, as it’s more dynamic and demanding than my usual Classical Hatha practice.

If you feel like you don’t have the energy for a full regular practice, or you wish to start slower to gauge your capacity and endurance before committing all the way, you can always start by modifying your practice and seeing how you feel. Some ideas are sticking to a few rounds of the sun salutation and 4 or 5 other poses of your choice, or exploring a gentler and more static yet powerful practice like Yin Yoga, in which each pose is held somewhere between 3 to 10 minutes with the aid of props if needed. Yin Yoga is perfect to release the connective bands and tissue all around and within your muscles, as it works on the deepest layers of our anatomy, providing an enhanced sense of relaxation, clearing energetic blockages and promoting circulation.

I hope that the keys above will help you sustain your practice while you fast and make the most out of it— please let me know if you have any additional advice and share your experience in the comments.

If you’re in Oujda (Morocco) and would like to join us for practice, check out the schedule below and book your spot here.

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ETA: You can find an enhanced version of this article, published as a guest blog post, on Juru Yoga's blog.

what is yoga?

Ironically enough, it’s never an easy task to answer the question “what is yoga?”. However, one thing that I can tell you is that it always rubs me the wrong way when I get questions along the lines of “do you practice other sports?” or “what's this exercise called?”. Because I don’t consider yoga a merely physical practice, and because my goal for practicing yoga goes beyond the tangible results, I always find myself struggling to respond to such questions in a way that doesn’t reduce or dilute yoga into something that doesn’t define it for me.

So, what is yoga?

Is it all about balance?

Is it all about love, about cheap positivity, good thoughts, prayers, rainbows, and unicorns?

Or maybe it is about honoring your uniqueness, because surely you must be a special being?

And it feels so good -- doesn’t it feel good?

It must be the joy of being able to accomplish a pose, to realize that your body can do things you never imagined possible?

What if I told you that the answer is neither of the above? That, while all of the above may be byproducts of the practice of yoga (except the cheap positivity, the rainbows and the unicorns, maybe), none of those is the true goal of this 5,000 year old practice that has, almost miraculously, survived its way through to this day.

Yoga means “union” and, as its very name indicates, it’s the science of self-realization or, in better words, the state of unification or enlightenment.

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Yoga is the supreme science of contacting reality. It is perfection in action. It is equanimity of attitude. It is perfect peace. Yoga is union with God.
— Swami Sivananda

What is commonly called “yoga” in the West usually refers to the practice of physical postures or asana, which are but one of the eight limbs of yoga.

The practice of asana comes with many general benefits, such as increased strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance. In addition, each posture targets a different area of the body, both externally and internally, meaning that we’re not just toning and stretching our superficial muscles, but also our internal organs. Asanas also work on an subtler energetic level, helping mobilize stagnant energy, thus purifying the body in preparation for the path of spiritual practice.

If we practice the science of yoga, which is useful to the entire human community and which yields happiness both here and hereafter – if we practice it without fail, we will then attain physical, mental and spiritual happiness, and our minds will flood towards the Self.
— Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois

Ashtanga Yoga

The eightfold path of yoga, as described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is called “Ashtanga,” ashta meaning eight, and anga meaning limbs. “The Yoga Sutras,” compiled prior to 400 CE by Sage Patanjali, is a collection of 196 aphorisms on the theory and practice of yoga, and describe the process a practitioner must go through in order to attain Samadhi (self-realization or enlightenment.)

The eight limbs are the following:

  • Yamas or ethical standards
    • Ahimsa (non violence)
    • Satya (truthfulness)
    • Asteya (nonstealing)
    • Brahmacharya (moderation)
    • Aparigraha (non covetousness)
  • Niyamas or spiritual observances
    • Saucha (cleanliness)
    • Santosha (contentment)
    • Tapas (austerities, discipline)
    • Svadhyaya (self-study)
    • Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to God)
  • Asana (physical postures)
  • Pranayama (breathing techniques)
  • Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
  • Dharana (concentration)
  • Dhyana (meditation)
  • Samadhi (self-realization)

As illustrated by this list, asana isn’t but a very small part of the bigger picture, when it comes to a yoga practice. In fact, the eight limbs are listed in order, meaning that one must first start practicing the yamas and niyamas before proceeding to the physical practice. Likewise, the physical practice would precede the breathing techniques and, together with these, prepare the body for the remaining 4 limbs as the practitioner advances towards the goal.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classical text written in the 15th century, however, describes asana first, followed by shatkarma (purification techniques) and pranayama, mudra and bandha, and, finally, samadhi. The reasoning behind this order is that “in this day and age too many problems can arise if an aspirant comes into direct confrontation with his mind at the beginning of his spiritual quest. [...] Hatha yoga commences with purification of the body, the shatkarmas, then come asana and pranayama. Yama and niyama can be practiced later when the mind has become stable and its outward-going tendencies can be controlled.” (Commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda on Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.16)

Regardless of the method that one prefers to follow, one thing is clear: asana is a tool for the purification and preparation of the body and the calming of the mind, in order to become able to control it as we delve into deeper spiritual practice.

Of the above, no method is superior to the other, as long as it is suitable to the practitioner and followed with discipline. Yoga can also be classified into different types (raja, jnana, karma, bhakti) which appeal to people with different characteristics, but the end goal is always the same: transcendence of this material world.

With the popularization of yoga in the West and its growth in recent years into a multi-billion dollar industry, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of its actual purpose or significance, reducing asana to a some type of oriental gymnastics. It is also true, however, that while many come to yoga initially drawn in by the idea of exercising a bit more or becoming more flexible, many find in it an oasis of well-being that invites them to dig deeper - asana becoming a stepping stone into a vast ocean of knowledge.

Ultimately, I believe, it’s up to us what we make out of our yoga practice.

Truth, however, always remains the same (whether we can put it into words or not.)

In the same way, the essence of yoga always remains the same. We can pick and choose the parts that we actually want to practice and integrate into our lives, or we can surrender and follow the path in its integrity.

Yoga, however, doesn’t change according to our preferences.

It is what it is, and it is us who change, evolving or not, in the way in which we relate to the practice.

 

Tell me more about you! How did you come to yoga and has your relationship with it changed over time? 

falling into the path of yoga

Most of us live our lives in a continuous free fall. Flapping our limbs around without control. Screaming as we precipitate into the abyss day, after day, after day... in a seemingly endless loop.

And then one day, we hit the ground. We make a soft landing.

And, as if waking up from a nightmare, we gasp and sit up. Our breath short and shallow. Droplets of cold sweat on our forehead. And that uneasy feeling that tells us we just dodged a bullet.

Then the breath calms. We shake it all off. We look around and, for the first time, we feel like we can actually see.

It’s as if, for a microsecond, everything slowed down, and we can take it all in. The coldness of the air as it passes through our nostrils. Our lungs as they expand. All the smells, the colors, the blinding light of the sun sneaking into the room through the space between our curtains.

And we finally A R E.

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Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame.
— B.K.S. Iyengar

It’s been almost 9 years since I stepped into my first yoga class, on a cold London fall morning, without quite knowing what to expect. I was on a break from life, a runaway, some sort of modern day hermit, trying to find in physical movement the solace that I hadn’t been able to find in my shallow life, which had collapsed into ruins after my father’s suicide earlier that same year.

Let it be no shame in admitting that I was broken and lost, for don’t we all need to be lost first in order to find ourselves?

Little did I know that that yoga class on that particular morning was about to change my life forever.

So I stepped in the room and somehow followed along an Anusara Yoga class, confused when I couldn’t quite figure out or keep up with the sun salutations, yet making it a point to continue to move, doing my best to follow the teacher’s instructions, until the end. I honestly don’t remember what asanas we practiced that day. I don’t remember anything the teacher may have talked about. It’s all foggy, a whirlwind of confusion, but the vivid kind of it.

And then savasana came, and I laid there, on my mat, eyes closed, waiting for a cue that never came.

If there’s something I remember clearly it’s that, in this particular class, the teacher didn’t provide any instructions for savasana. I recall my mind racing, wondering what I was supposed to be doing, jumping through my thoughts at full speed and then coming up with some more, and then, all of a sudden, being sucked out of my body into the darkness.

Into a quiet place.

My mind stopped rambling and, as it did, I could almost feel a gentle tap on my temple, and a whisper in my ears: “Remember.”

And I remembered.

My whole life rushed in front of my eyes, just like they say it does when you realize you’re dying, but this was a whole other experience. A side of me that I had somehow forgotten along the way, spiritual me, had come back full force and was holding my head in place so that I couldn’t look away. Everything that I used to be, everything that used to matter came back in a matter of seconds that could have lasted for hours.

And when my awareness sank into my body again, I was a new person.

Or rather, I was a little closer to my old self, to the essence of my Self.

I walked home that day in a sort of magic spell that has never left me since. The realization that yoga is the path I was supposed to be on all this time. And the determination to never let it go again.

My free fall had come to an end. I had made a soft landing.

And so the journey began.