My daughter was screaming at me because I had put her in the play yard after she tried to eat a piece of paper that was destined to become an orange origami rose. (I was having “Special Time” with my 7 year old. He said he wanted me to help him make an origami box and and an origami rose so that he could put the origami rose in the origami box and send me a flower. The kid has style.) She desperately needed a nap and all the nursing, cuddling and sweet talk would not convince her that it was time to make like a Samuel L. Jackson bedtime story and go the @#$% to sleep.
Meanwhile, I tried to return back to the origami box which was relatively simple normally, but difficult today as my cortisol levels were rising. Then I realized that it was time to turn off the oven because the batch of blueberry muffins I had baked were done. I still had a forum post to write and an assignment to proofread and turn in for my MPH class. And an assignment I wanted to finish for my childbirth educator certification. And a handout for the new breastfeeding class I’ve been preparing.
I needed an escape. I needed chocolate. I needed Facebook. I needed to have a meltdown.
Unfortunately, I had made a promise to God that today I was going to fast by giving up chocolate, Facebook, and meltdowns today. So I could either break my promise to the Almighty or start dealing with my emotions.
I did the latter. I took a deep breath and had a drink of water. I finished the box and rose and calmed my daughter- who did not nap.
But God has a sense of humor.
That evening we left on what was supposed to be a walk around the neighborhood and ski resort where we live. After a few wrong turns, it turned into a three hour trek around the mountain with three kids and a stroller in tow as darkness fell. And I was wearing sandals.
I needed an escape. I needed chocolate. I needed Facebook. I needed to have a meltdown.
And again, I chose to look at my emotions instead.
After realizing that I was actually more scared than angry, I took stock of the situation. My husband was staying calm and getting the boys and the stroller down the steep hill. We were getting close to home. It wasn’t too cold. The boys were being real troopers. My daughter was sleeping. We had a flashlight.
It wasn’t pleasant. But we would be OK. My fear left me and so did my anger.
I knew the kids needed calm leadership, so I decided keep my suffering to myself. When we got back I was in a calmer state of mind and able to get dinner ready instead of lashing out at everyone. And I did realize that I could not only navigate a mountain in the twilight, but also my emotions as well. It was because I was fasting.
Most religions have a history of some form of fasting:
- Catholics fast during Lent,
- Jews fast during Yom Kippur and other holy days throughout the year
- Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan
- Orthodox Christians fast weekly and during certain holy days
- Latter Day Saints (Mormons) hold a fast Sunday every first Sunday of the month
In addition to public fasts, members of some religions will observe private fasts. For example, Jews often fast on the anniversary of the death of a parent or teacher and Latter Day Saints will hold private or local congregational fasts for guidance or for sick friends or family.
In the tradition of Kundalini Yoga, there are many types of fasts that one can do, all with the goal of gaining greater spiritual strength. Even people with no religious affiliation have gotten into fasting. Silicon Valley start-up investor Tim Ferriss has talked extensively about the benefits of fasting for health and athletic performance. He has also challenged his social media followers to follow him in giving up substances and behaviors like alcohol, caffeine, complaining and masturbation for 40 day periods, citing increased productivity and discipline.
There are many reasons for fasting: sacrifice, discipline, repentance and a desire to help others who are less fortunate. Because reducing caloric intake and nutrients can have an effect on our developing babies or our milk supply, so most religions exempt pregnant and breastfeeding mothers from fasting. However, this makes it difficult to fully participate in religious activities that require fasting. But we can still gain the spiritual benefits of fasting by abstaining from other things.
What Are You Grabbing For?
“What happens with you when you begin to feel uneasy, unsettled, queasy? Notice the panic, notice when you instantly grab for something.”
― Pema Chödrön,
When you hit that edge, when you feel angry, scared, sad, what do you grab for? We all agree that it’s bad to go get high on crack-cocaine, beat your kids or cut yourself if you’re feeling upset about something.
But what about shopping, yelling, chocolate, going out to eat, soft drinks, energy drinks, social media, online gaming, criticizing, gossip, eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder) and codependent behaviors?
We typically don’t experience a stigma (or as much of a stigma) for grabbing an ice cream cone or energy drink or checking our Facebook or Instagram accounts. Codependency is one of the most beguiling addictions because it makes you look so good- you’re always serving others and saving the day.
When faced with the fact that we can use these as emotional pain-killers, sometimes we give blanket statements: “No more social media/TV/junk food, etc.” But it’s not just a matter of the substance or behavior. The underlying motivation behind the compulsive use is still there. And if you delete your Facebook account or throw out your TV or computer, something else will be there to take its place. This why the health field is using something called emotional regulation to help reduce rates of drug use.
So fasting a particular behavior or substance gives us the chance to take our spirituality up a few levels by getting real with ourselves. Even if you’re healthy enough to fast food and water, I still recommend this because I’ve seen how much it has helped me.
But there are some things that are just flat-out bad for us and others like smoking, junk food, gossiping, criticizing, whining, etc. Fasting gives a chance to work on cleaning these things out of our lives.
Fasting Strategies for Pregnant and Breastfeeding Moms
I highly recommend choosing a behavior related fast- for everyone. Possibilities include:
- Negative self- talk (The first time I did a fast for this, I was surprised at just how many times I criticized myself every day.)
- “Why me?” thought patterns
- Making excuses
- Video games
Food and drink possibilities:
- Junk food (candy, chips, etc.)
- Soft drinks/ sodas/ juice (Why juice? Check it out on this previous post.)
- High caffeine content drinks
- Meat and/or dairy (If you are going to give these up for a few weeks, please check with your care provider about ensuring you will have adequate iron, vitamin B 12 and protein.)
- Refined grain products (white flour, white rice, white bread, etc.)
- Microwaved, canned and fast foods
Another option is a kitchari fast from the yogic tradition. Kitchari is a pretty simple mung bean and vegetable soup with spices like turmeric, ginger, cardamom, chiles and black pepper. On a kitchari diet fast, you eat only kitchari, rice, yogurt, fruit and drink water or simple herbal tea- but you can have as much as you want. This kind of a diet would supply mom and baby with lots of nutrients and protein for a day or two, though it would probably be insufficient over a period of weeks. For mothers who are fasting between sunrise and sunset, other foods could be added in during early morning and evening. Make sure to check with your care provider to ensure that you and your baby will have your nutritional needs met. This site has some good menu ideas for kitchari fast and a good recipe for kitchari. (Note: many people specifically say that white basmati rice is best for a fast because it is supposed to be easier to digest. Personally, I choose whole grain rice.)
Supporting Yourself During A Fast
Fasting is a great time to connect with others who are also working on self-improvement. It can be helpful to join a support or recovery group for past grief or trauma- sometimes these feelings come up when we take away a substance or behavior that we have been using to cope. You can also get other pregnant and breastfeeding mothers from your congregation involved. Create a group that meets during holy days to focus on fasting intentions and provide encouragement to each other.
The natural thing to do is to binge when you’re done fasting- resist the urge. Once your fast day is over, don’t grab for the Hagen-Dazs immediately or head on a shopping spree. Fasting is an opportunity to develop new, healthier habits. Try to be mindful. (Family and friends who are fasting food and water might also feel better if they eat simple meals after fasting rather than big meals.)
We often think of fasting as taking away nourishment, but for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers fasting by eliminating unhealthy behaviors or substances can be a great way to actually nourish themselves and their babies better. It’s a great way to participate more fully in holy days and nurture ourselves spiritually.