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Spiritual and Physical Benefits of Fasting

In the lessons in the Tanya, the current book I am learning is called Igeret HaTeshuva meaning the epistle on repentance. The description repentance is inaccurate and even the author mentions that in the first chapter. The more accurate translation is return. What is one returning to? Their wholeness, their connection with Oneness, with God. In other words, living their best life. It is written as return because essentially we started as whole and life is about returning to that wholeness. Pretty cool, I know. Rather than than thinking one enters the world corrupt and has to right their wrongs, this approach is about remembering that which you already are - whole. Using a parable, imagine a mother telling a child to protect himself when playing outside. He doesn’t listen and ends up getting hurt. The mother said now they need to go to the doctor. The boy doesn’t want to go to the doctor. Is he punished for not listening? No, it’s a cleansing process. The doctor is there to help him heal and return to his healthy state of being.

Nevertheless, this book is on teshuva and most recently has been discussing fasting. According to the Tanya written in 1795, the sages would prescribe fasts (a lot of them!) for certain ‘sins.’ Without getting into too much detail nor the humor (from our modern perspective) of having to fast 151 times for losing one’s temper (Chapter 3, Part 1), I began to correlate the Sages ‘decrees’ with modern scientific understanding of fasting and the types of fasting.

While it was discussed that fasting was and should be used as a compliment to teshuva - by not being concerned with food one can go inwards and focus on how they can improve their behavior - it can also be very beneficial to our health. Perhaps, the benefit on our physical health actually aids our mental and spiritual well being?

Although during a fast practiced on holy days, like that of Yom Kippur, where a healthy person refrains from eating and drinking, there are many calorie deficit fasts, non-caloric beverage fasts, and time restricted fasts that foster health benefits - muscle recovery, mental acuity, decrease in inflammation, fat loss, etc. In the article The Powerful Health Benefits of Fasting, human performance consultant, speaker and New York Times bestselling author, Ben Greenfield, shares a host of scientifically proven benefits of fasting. It is also a topic he writes/speaks about frequently. To drive the connection of physical and spiritual health further, consider the benefits on Gut Health. There is a direct connection between the gut and the brain through the vagus nerve (link to podcast I did with Dr. Navaz Habib about the Vagus nerve). Greenfield shares in the article above, “Fasting can protect the gut against the negative impacts of stress and can lead to increased microbial diversity and elevated rates of fermentation, making your gut and immune system stronger.” A healthy gut means the person is, most likely, feeling healthy and thus thinking clearly, able to learn better, less reactive, etc, and thus open to solutions for spiritual growth i.e. teshuva.

So perhaps with our modern understanding of practices like fasting, we can evolve that which the sages (of all backgrounds, as Greeks, Native Americans, Christians, and others) stressed, and we can see that a fast can be conducive to our spiritual, mental, and physical health. As the 3rd Chabad Rebbe and grandson of the author of the Tanya, Tzemach Tzeddek told his son (it may have been to his grandson) on Yom Kippur when he was praying from a state sadness, “the Zohar says the higher world is a mirror of the lower world and the face I show the mirror is the face I’m shown back.” The physical is a reflection of the spiritual, so wouldn’t boosting our physical health, through practices like fasting, open us up to greater spiritual awareness? Yes!

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