Lesson 2: Upavāsa – Illumined by Gentle Fasting
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Let my hunger be for the experience of the Divine.
Let my feast be the Name of God.
Food and eating always have a role to play in the ways we engage with sacred festivals and times of heightened spiritual energy. Yet this often takes the form not so much of rich, festive foods but of observing a special kind of fasting known as upavāsa. It is an important practice in celebrations for Mahaśivarātri, Navarātri, the birthdays of deities such as Lord Kṛṣṇa and Lord Rāma, in observances for the new moon, and in devotional vows.
In addition to being a spiritual practice in itself, upavāsa creates a quiet inner environment that greatly enhances practices like silence and studying sacred texts, and communion with the divine through rituals, chanting and meditation. At the same time, it also promotes the exquisite balance of good health.
In Sanskrit, upa means near, and vās means to reside. So the purpose of upavāsa is to stay close to our own divine essence, to the chosen forms through which we connect with the divine, and to the sacred within all life.
The specific foods to eat on an upavāsa day can include certain grains and vegetables that are particularly easy to digest. But the simple approach is to eat only milk and fruits, plus a few nuts in winter. (If you have trouble digesting cow's milk, almond milk is fine.)
Some people observe this gentle fast from sunrise to sunset, eating a small vegetarian meal in the evening. Others maintain this practice for 24 hours, which is ideal. There are also people who choose to make their fast more intense by observing nirjala upavāsa, eating nothing at all - not even a sip of water - until the sun has set, though this is usually done in the context of a vrata or vow, or while performing penance. It is not what we are focusing on here.
However, regardless of intensity, upavāsa is not the same as the kind of extended fasts that we read about in ancient texts, where yogis subsisted on nothing but bitter leaves or water for months or years on end. That kind of total fasting is not upavāsa, but a form of tapasya or austerity practiced along with other severe practices and aimed at bringing each of the outward-directed senses under complete control. This kind of tapasyā has a fierce quality to it.
The image below shows an ancient carving of Arjuna performing grueling tapasya.
In the tradition of Ayurveda, there are healing fasts for people suffering from certain illnesses, and cleansing fasts for people who need to give their digestion a rest by eating only specific light foods. These fasts are medicinal practices to restore good health, rather than simply forms of deprivation. Similarly, the contemporary practice of intermittent fasting has health as its goal.
Of course, upavāsa does require discipline and vigilance. But there is a gentleness to this kind of fasting. It is a practice of moderate austerity, but its purpose is not simply to battle with your senses. Nor is it losing weight or detoxing.
The goal of upavāsa is a calm, lucid state of mind. It is a state where you are neither distracted by digesting heavy food, nor by the pangs of severe hunger, nor by the stimulation and agitation that certain kinds of food and drink create. Many people sweeten their fasting by approaching it as an expression of devotion.
Yes, eating less than usual - even a little bit - is part of the practice of upavāsa. The exact quantity is a personal measure and will depend on things like the strength of your digestion and your level of activity, and taking care of practical things like insuring you're too light headed to focus when you drive. But don't shy away from eating less. Explore what it has to offer. Let yourself be at ease with a little hunger.
What you eat while practicing upavāsa suggests not only food, but everything your senses consume: what you take in through your eyes and ears, for example. Everything you give your attention to becomes something you consume and need to digest. So an upavāsa day is a great time for a break from media and politics, for example, and from social situations that are overly stimulating, distracting or negative.
In this way, we can fast at all levels. Both the body and the mind get a break from stimulation and hard work.
In addition, on occasions like the new moon, the tradition invites us to offer food to the spirits of our ancestors by feeding birds, animals and trees. It can be a really enriching inner experience to feed others while eating very little yourself.
An upavāsa day is a day that expands your spirit from within, and makes focusing your mind easier. So take advantage of this heightened clarity and stillness and use it for inward and creative exploration.
Here are the main foods that are fine to eat in moderation when you are observing upavāsa:
- Fresh and dried fruits
- Milk and milk products, other than cheese (choose organic where possible)
- Buckwheat, amaranth flour, tapioca
- Nuts, especially coconut, almonds, and walnuts
- Root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, taro, water chestnuts
- Squash, pumpkin, cucumber
- Herbs: cilantro, mint, fresh ginger, curry leaves.
- Digestive Spices: Himalayan rock salt, cardamom, black pepper (just a little), cumin seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mango powder (amchur)
- Honey, raw sugar, jaggery
This seemingly odd collection of foods have actually been chosen carefully according to the principles of Ayurveda. They are easy to digest yet still provide enough energy to function.
This has been confirmed by many generations of people who have practiced upavāsa regularly. Something to note is that combining most fruits with milk makes these light foods way harder to digest. So wait a couple of hours after drinking milk before you eat fruits.
If this looks a bit overwhelming, you can start with smaller steps:
- Eat only plant-based foods, dairy and honey, but don't include any garlic or onions.
- Avoid all processed and fast food.
- Make a commitment to avoid snacking for the duration of your observance.
This is a basic introduction and starting point to this practice. Of course, there is much more detail and nuance to upavāsa that we will explore in future courses!
Teacher: Hema Patankar
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