May 14, 2010

I fasted to cure my giardia (!)

My five day Fast was excruciating—and totally worth It.

“It was day four of my fast when the Oreo hallucinations began. Was that an Oreo on my desk? On the dash board? I don’t think I’ve actually eaten an Oreo since the early nineties. There they were haunting me. I Facebooked my dilemma. My friend Sam encouraged me to try juicing some. I settled for more kale broth…”


It all began in November of 1994. I was cold, thirsty and several miles from something safe to drink.

I dipped my green plastic water bottle into what, I convinced myself, was a clean-looking Himalayan stream. Dropped in a couple of iodine tablets, and half waited for them to dissolve. Then I drank it.

Turned out to be some serious Kool-Aid.

Later that day I found a guest house and passed out under my sleeping bag in a small cold room. In the middle of the night, I woke up with horrible stomach cramps and stumbled to the outhouse, which, incidentally, sat perched over a clean looking Himalayan stream.

After some wonderful diarrhea and a little vomiting I emerged and promptly passed out a little-too-close to the edge of a cliff. I remember, as I came to, noticing that the stars were startlingly vivid.

For the next three or four days I ate very little, slept and got to know the outhouse. Finally, I felt strong enough to continue my trek. I eventually emerged from the mountains and continued my travels around South Asia, but the mountains never got out of me. I had diarrhea every day for almost a year.

When I returned to the States I had numerous tests, saw doctors and natural healers—did what I could to get the giardia out of my body. Eventually, I felt better and learned how to maintain a decent level of health—but even after all these years, my digestive system has still not fully recovered.

Two weekends ago I decided to try something I hadn’t—“long fasting.”

I attended a yoga detox retreat taught by a yogi who probably weighs about as much as I did in, you know, 7th grade. But he claims to have tons of energy, sleep four hours a night and rarely get sick. And did I mention he could eat? I saw some serious putting away—mostly salad, fruit and vegetables but still, quite an appetite for a skinny guy who loves fasting. I’m not interested in regular long term fasting or reviving long-dead disordered eating patterns, but I thought a cleansing fast might help. I’d tried just about everything else.

Day one and two: we fasted on juice and broth. Pretty easy, I’ve been doing one day fasts for years so, no biggie. Day two was optional, lots of people broke their fasts, but I, along with a few others, decided since I was feeling okay that I’d keep going. I had more juice and broth. The detox guru said that if you feel hungry, try drinking a big glass of salted lemon water – then you’ll know if what you are feeling is real hunger or what he called “demon hunger” – acidity welling up in your digestive tract as you go through your detox process. If you’re not hungry after the lemon water, then you’re being haunted by your “demons” – keep fasting until you are really hungry.

Day three:I was back home now, out of the security of a fasting community and people to make fresh juice for me. I cooked for my family, taught a yoga class, went to Earthfare and bought a kale, spinach, cucumber, wheatgrass, and parsley juice (yeah, it was just as nasty as it sounds). Then I went home and worked. I got pretty hungry, but the lemon water helped. In the evening I had more juice and went to bed early.

Day four: This is when the Oreo hallucinations began. Was that an Oreo on my desk? On the dash board? I don’t think I’ve actually eaten an Oreo since the early nineties. There they were haunting me. I Facebooked my dilemma. My friend Sam encouraged me to try juicing some. I settled for more kale broth.

That evening I quelled the demon hunger with several glasses of salted lemon water. The hunger kept subsiding. But the acidity was becoming more and more uncomfortable. I taught a yoga class, or rather floated around the room in a haze trying to remember which side we were on.

Day five: I woke up dizzy, drank a big glass of water with apple cider vinegar (I was out of lemons at this point), dragged myself to the bathroom and promptly vomited. Then I collapsed on the couch to enjoy some soft moaning. That felt good. I was planning on a seven or eight day fast and wondering what the heck to do now. I had to take my son and his friend to school but that wasn’t happening any time soon. They played with Starwars Legos and gave me funny looks between light saber battles. I canceled all of my clients.

I began to recall details of lying in the small cold room in Nepal sick with Giardia and what I was going through then—a failing relationship, gnawing insecurities, deep longing to find some personal meaning. My nausea then was in many ways a rejection of my life—an inability to “stomach” it or assimilate it. Then I went back further to high school and my not atypical teenage self-loathing and bulimia, diet pills that made my head tingle, iceberg lettuce with non-fat Italian dressing and fake bacon bits, followed by three chocolate chip cookie lunches. Lots of hungry afternoons. Fear. Not having the guts to grow up.

I quit dwelling on the past long enough to call my friend Cindy—she’s a wonderful yogini and nutritionist. I told her my dilemma. Wisely advising the obvious she said, “Probably at this point, you should break your fast.” Kindness and the permission to not be a perfect yogi. What a relief. Her simple compassion pushed me from melancholy to gratitude.

She recommended spirulina and advised that I tune in to what my body was telling me it needed. After fasting for more than four days, I had become pretty good at convincing my body that it really didn’t need to tell me anything, so that was a challenge. The only thing that sounded bearable was almond milk.

So I warmed some up and added a little spirulina. I had to dilute it with water because it seemed so rich. I slowly sipped a cup, and felt like I was returning from the ethers to the planet I belonged on. I was able to release more toxins, from the ahem “proper” orifice. Then I started to feel very clear and awake.

I took my son and his friend to school which is at a church that happens to have a beautiful white stone labyrinth on the premises. I hadn’t sat for meditation that morning so instead of racing home to work, I decided to meditate under the tree next to the labyrinth.

I closed my eyes and began my practice. From five days of fasting, my senses felt acute. I noticed the birds singing but it sounded more like they were chanting mantras all around me. The labyrinth began to glow in my mind’s eye and I imagined I was walking it with my personal spiritual teacher. Then came relief, gratitude and tears for this beautiful world that I get to live in, for the abundance of healthy food I have access to, for the people who love and support me, for being gifted with a chronic health issue that gave rise to this spiritual, emotional and physical healing process.

Perhaps I was gifted with a tiny sliver of insight into why the Buddha fasted, why Jesus fasted, why Native Americans fast, why great saints have always fasted and recommended fasting. Fasting is not only about cleansing the body, and it certainly is not confined to the realm of penance—what it does hold is the possibility of blasting open the heart.

The touching the earth mudra.

After his long fast, the Buddha ate sweet rice and touched the earth. Fasting opened him to enlightenment, to the beauty of this world, and to the simplicity and rightness of the human experience.

Fasting allowed me to understand the role of food—and relationships—in nurturing and sustain this precious human birth.

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