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As a freshman at Colgate University, I took a Religion class in which we were told to observe an important tradition that was not part of our own faith. I chose to fast for Yom Kippur. The twenty-five hour fast is part of a really beautiful tradition in the Jewish faith, and I was excited to experience it — but that day-plus was far more straining than I imagined it to be.
Ramadan starts this Friday, and for the next month, millions of Muslims worldwide will radically change their approach to food. Fasting (Sawm) is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with prayer, pilgrimage, alms-giving, and the center pillar, belief. Fasting for Ramadan radically disrupts your everyday sense of space and time with intense psychological effects. It begins at daybreak and ends at sunset — nighttime means food, drink, and sex, though in some cases, sexual intercourse is forbidden during non-fasting hours as well.
Almost every major religion in the world practices some form of fasting (optional or not) at some point in time. Many fast for something specific — like an individual who is sick or otherwise afflicted, or as a search for spiritual enlightenment, strength, comfort, or help. Some people fast in devotion to important causes, while others fast to show devotion to another person. There is a longstanding Hindu tradition, Karwa Chauth, in which all the women fast to honor their love for their husbands. A professor of mine likened fasting to training a horse with the purpose of withstanding the rigors of war.
Regardless of reason or personal faith, here are some things to keep in mind before participating in any kind of religious fasting:
1. You will need to consider your body’s ability to handle fasting.
Fasting is hard — it is intended to change your daily regimen so that your faith becomes stronger. But it is important to take your own dietary restrictions and health into consideration before undergoing a fast. Safe fasting means acknowledging that some bodies simply cannot handle the restrictions fasting imposes. If you struggle to keep up a certain weight or bodily necessity (sugar, iron, potassium, etc.) that requires the intake of specific foods or drinks every day, fasting may not be for you. Fasting will not kill you, nor is its purpose to make you physically ill. In fact, there are health benefits associated with fasting. But fasting is not supposed to be convenient; it is supposed to, through it’s exhausting concentration, bring you closer to your faith, beliefs, and relationship with God.
2. Look for the loopholes — or makeup dates.
Pregnant women or women nursing a child, those traveling, sick, children, the elderly, people with medical conditions, or those whose health would be put into danger by fasting are exempt. Sharia law outlines these circumstances.You can also compensate with another important and rewarding deed, such as caring for the poor. Especially when fasting for a personal reason, you can set the regulations and duration. But if your fast is convenient, it’s not really a fast.
3. Fasting can be isolating, but it doesn’t have to be.
While fasting is often done with other members of your shared faith, it is most often described as a solitary experience. Especially if you work or engage with peoples of other faiths daily, being around their iced drinks and Cliff bars is tempting. But discussing the experience of fasting with other peoples of your faith or in a journey can help you stay motivated. As you’re able, fast with friends and family and others who have the same reasons for fasting. To share this experience is rewarding.
4. Cheating defeats the purpose.
Don’t be a cheater. If you cheat, you’ll ruin your journey. Before you fast, list for yourself all the reasons why it is worth not eating or drinking and how important it is to your faith. Carry your list with you every day during your fast as a small reminder that can go a long way when the cravings hit. Keeping a consistent and simple diet before and during non-fasting hours will also help your body adjust. Drinking juices, broths, or eating simple foods like rice, applesauce or yogurt will allow your body to transition in and out of the fasting period easier.
5. Above all, remember what you are fasting for.
Religious fasting of any kind requires dedication to the reasons that the tradition of fasting exists. That tradition has preceded you by years and years, and it will outlive you by many years more. Fasting is a way to become part of something larger than your own life. Whether you are fasting for a holiday or for a specific cause, the idea behind your fast is more nourishing than whatever food you’re missing on any given day. If it’s not, then you may not be ready for your fast.
Image by Kamyar Adl.