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Every year around this time, I don’t eat or drink anything while the sun is up—for 19 straight days. That essentially spiritual practice—called the Baha’i fast—has enormous benefits.
Scientists have only recently begun to discover the positive, lifelong physical effects of intermittent fasting—of consciously depriving the body of nutrients for a short time. In fact, intermittent fasting has become a major trend over the past few years, because it has so many bodily benefits: not only weight loss, but the prevention of heart disease and cancer, reducing inflammation, promoting brain health and guarding against Alzheimer’s, and even extending your lifespan. Studies on human and animal populations that intermittently fast have shown they live longer, healthier lives.
But those are only the known physical benefits—the spiritual benefits have changed my life. I’ve become more conscious of my inner reality, gotten in much closer touch with my soul, and enlarged my sense of empathy by feeling a greater connection to those who go hungry every day around the world. Fasting has helped me become more connected to the spiritual plane by transcending the physical one.
When I first became a Baha’i and began fasting once a year, some people I knew wondered if I had lost my mind. They didn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily not eat or drink during the day, and saw the practice as somehow strange or foreign. But today, as knowledge and awareness of the benefits of fasting have grown, I now get asked by friends: “If I wanted to take part in the Baha’i fast, could I do it?”
“Sure,” I tell them.
So given this level of interest in fasting along with the Baha’is, I thought it might be helpful to outline what the Baha’i fast entails, and let everyone know what it takes to fast with the Baha’is.
The Basics of the Baha’i Fast
First, let’s look at the basics: the Baha’i teachings recommend abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours for 19 days prior to the vernal equinox every year:
… as the sun and moon constitute the brightest and most prominent luminaries in the heavens, similarly in the heaven of the religion of God two shining orbs have been ordained—fasting and prayer. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 39.
… this material fast is an outer token of the spiritual fast; it is a symbol of self-restraint, the withholding of oneself from all appetites of the self, taking on the characteristics of the spirit, being carried away by the breathings of heaven and catching fire from the love of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 69.
For that one 19-day Baha’i month each year, Baha’is all over the world abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours. Children and the elderly, travelers, pregnant or nursing women and those who are ill or engaged in heavy physical labor are exempt from fasting. Of course, like all Baha’i laws, fasting is voluntary—it depends on the individual who observes the Fast.
Baha’is have long experience with this practice, because they’ve fasted this way since the Faith’s beginnings in the 1800s. Many generations of Baha’is have learned that their annual Fast symbolizes detachment from the physical world, develops empathy for the poor and hungry, and engenders the development and growth of the soul.
Understanding the Physical Benefits of Fasting
We humans evolved as hunters and gatherers. For hundreds of thousands of years, our prehistoric ancestors spent hours each day searching for food. Their lifestyle required it, because food wasn’t always abundant, and sometimes wasn’t available at all. They would fast involuntarily—and then, when they found food, they would feast.
Because of those evolutionary conditions, humans gradually evolved a genetic code, a genotype, which allowed their bodies to thrive by adapting to these cycles of feasting and fasting. We still carry that genetic code, even though most cultures in the developed world now eat regularly, consuming two or three or even four regular meals each day, plus snacks and desserts, without fail or respite. As a result, our digestive tracts stay full, unable to experience the beneficial effects of temporary emptiness.
But recent scientific research has found that our genotype still thrives when we fast intermittently. Multiple research studies have demonstrated the health benefits of various intermittent patterns of fasting and voluntary abstinence. Because these patterns can replicate the feast-or-famine diet of our ancestors, many researchers now cite the advantages of periodically emptying the human digestive system, and allowing it to self-cleanse and purify without the constant presence of food.
That makes sense, if you think about it. Allowing our digestive system the opportunity to rest once a year replicates the practices of a wise farmer who lets a field lie fallow for a season. That practice allows the soil to replenish itself while undergoing a natural process of rest and regeneration, much like cells in our bodies do when we fast intermittently.
The scientific studies of intermittent fasting show that a regular pattern of calorie restriction, in which people reduce their routine intake of nutrients with a recurring fast, can deliver some very significant benefits. Intermittent fasting reduces risk factors for multiple chronic diseases in animals and humans, and it dramatically increases life span in several animal studies:
Religions have long maintained that fasting is good for the soul, but its bodily benefits were not widely recognized until the early 1900s, when doctors began recommending it to treat various disorders—such as diabetes, obesity and epilepsy.
Related research on calorie restriction took off in the 1930s, after Cornell University nutritionist Clive McCay discovered that rats subjected to stringent daily dieting from an early age lived longer and were less likely to develop cancer and other diseases as they aged, compared with animals that ate at will. Research on calorie restriction and periodic fasting intersected in 1945, when University of Chicago scientists reported that alternate-day feeding extended the life span of rats as much as daily dieting in McCay’s earlier experiments. Moreover, intermittent fasting “seems to delay the development of the disorders that lead to death,” the Chicago researchers wrote. – David Stipp, “How Intermittent Fasting Might Help You Live a Longer and Healthier Life,” Scientific American, January 2013.
Scientists now understand that people who regularly fast can considerably extend their lifespans, as well as reduce the chronic physical and mental illnesses common in old age. These positive effects may come about because fasting also ramps up the process known as autophagy, a kind of garbage-disposal system in cells that gets rid of damaged molecules, including ones that have been previously tied to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.
So for the physical benefits alone, you might want to try fasting with the Baha’is.