Monday, January 23, 2017

Occasional Fasting for Optimal Health

Sometimes less is more!
Caveat: This may not work for all, but it will for some. It certainly worked for me!
This is a companion or continuation to the post “Enjoying Good Food and Deep Sleep” (along with the comments section):
Before starting any fast, it is implicitly assumed that one is already eating well on a regular basis, for fasting occasionally is not equivalent to starvation! The phrase “optimal health” conveys Physical along with Mental well-being.
One of the salient features of a Hindu Diet is to observe a fast one day every fortnight, called the Ekadashi Vrata. The word “Ekadashi” literally means “Eleventh”, which corresponds to the 11th day of the lunar phase (e.g. today, 23rd January 2017), occurring about twice a month. On this day, a person takes a vow (“Vrata”) to fast without eating anything. However, if it’s difficult to go on a full fast, one is advised to not consume starchy foods (rice, beans, etc.), but is permitted to have limited portions of these items:
  1. Fruits.
  2. Vegetables (Soup).
  3. Salted and diluted buttermilk – such as Chaas.
  4. Milk.
Along with the physical fast, one also typically undergoes a “Mental Fast”, where one abstains from ruminating on worldly pleasures or temptations. Similar fasts can be found in other religions too.
Here’s a modern view of dietary fasting that appeared in TIME Magazine (March 30, 2016):
You Asked: Should I Try a Fasting Diet?
It’s sometimes called the 5-2 diet—meaning five days of normal eating followed by two days of severe calorie restriction—though it’s more commonly referred to as intermittent fasting. No matter what you call it, avoiding food for hours or even days at a time appears to be more popular than ever.
The plan’s benefits may extend far beyond weight loss, says Mattson. “We’ve found that mice or rats that maintain alternate-day fasting have brain neurons that are resistant to the kind of damage associated with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and even stroke,” Mattson says. He’s in the middle of a study that seeks to confirm these brain benefits in people.
Another proponent of fasting is Dr. Valter Longo, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California. One of Longo’s recent experiments involved a small group of people who fasted for five consecutive days once a month, three months in a row. Among the study participants, markers of cell regeneration increased, while risk factors for diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and aging all dropped, he says.
“We know that the accumulation of cellular damage is the cause of many diseases,” says Dr. Luigi Fontana, a professor of nutritional science at Washington University in St. Louis and Italy’s University of Brescia. But when you go long periods without food, the resulting metabolic changes appear to stimulate “autophagy,” or a natural cleaning out of your body’s damaged cells. “Cells start to eat dysfunctional proteins, organelles, and mitochondria, and this kind of cleaning of garbage and regeneration may be very beneficial,” he explains.
The link between physical fasting and spirituality appears in the book “Talks with Ramana Maharshi” [1]:
Q: “Can fasting help realisation?”
A: “But it is temporary. Mental fast is the real aid. Fasting is not an end in itself. There must be spiritual development side by side. Absolute fasting makes the mind weak too. You cannot derive sufficient strength for the spiritual quest. Therefore take moderate food and go on practising.”
This is explained further [2]:
Q: “How shall I overcome my passions?”
A: “Find their root and then it will be easy. (Later) What are the passions? Kama (lust), krodha (anger), etc. Why do they arise? Because of likes and dislikes towards the objects seen. How do the objects project themselves in your view? Because of your avidya, i.e., ignorance. Ignorance of what? Of the Self. Thus, if you find the Self and abide therein there will be no trouble owing to the passions…There are, no doubt, other methods for the suppression of passion. They are (1) regulated food, (2) fasting, (3) yoga practice, (4) medicines. But their effects are transitory. The passions reappear with greater force as soon as the check is removed. The only way to overcome them is to eradicate them. That is done by finding their source as stated above.”
Regulated diet and physical fasting are said to be only temporary methods of calming the mind, not the eradication of “passion” (lust, greed, anger) via a “Mental Fast”, which culminates in Wisdom. However, one would argue that a temporary fix is better than none at all!
The 2016 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discovery of Autophagy, a process by which the old is recycled to new in the body at the cellular level. Some preliminary research connects the benefits of autophagy to fasting [3]:
Our data lead us to speculate that sporadic fasting might represent a simple, safe and inexpensive means to promote this potentially therapeutic neuronal response…food restriction causes a rapid and profound upregulation of autophagy in the brain…However, caution is counseled, because…chronic starvation might inhibit autophagy, an outcome that could damage, rather than protect, neurons.
[1] Talks with Ramana Maharshi, Talk 523. 2nd October, 1938.
[2] Ibid., Talk 170. 24th February, 1936.
Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy
Mehrdad Alirezaei, Christopher C. Kemball, Claudia T. Flynn, Malcolm R. Wood, J. Lindsay Whitton, and William B. Kiosses
Autophagy. 2010 Aug 16; 6(6): 702–710. Published online 2010 Aug 14.  doi:  10.4161/auto.6.6.12376

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Enjoying Good Food and Deep Sleep

Happy Diwali! This is the day (and night) to devour sumptuous sweets followed by a long siesta! The title is therefore very apt for the occasion!
At the outset, the title should be elucidated, as it can be easily misconstrued.
  • The word “Enjoy” is used in the sense of “Enjoying Peace”, as opposed to indulging in gross pleasures!
  • The qualifier “Good” for Food is to be interpreted as “Nourishing”, rather than “Tasty”.
  • By “Deep Sleep” is meant the restful and refreshing nightly sleep that everybody requires to function normally the day after. (Not the kind of dull or lazy sleep that accompanies an unnaturally heavy meal.)
Now, what do Food and Sleep have to do with being Spiritual? Everything! I will freely quote both the Bhagavad Gita as well as the Master Ramana Maharshi throughout this article.
The Sixth Chapter of the Gita has a couple of key verses on Diet and Sleep:
(6.16): Yoga is not for him who eats excessively or insufficiently, nor for him who sleeps excessively or insufficiently, O Arjuna.
(6.17): [But] To him whose food and sleep are moderate, whose action and recreation are regulated, Yoga exterminates pain.
There is obviously some weightage given to moderation in Diet and Sleep. The various kinds of Diet are further elaborated in the Seventeenth Chapter:
(17.8): The foods that improve one’s life, vitality, health, joy, and are wholesome and satisfying, consisting of healthy oils, are relished by the Saattvic (“Good”).
(17.9): The foods that are (severely) bitter, sour, salty, hot, pungent, dry and burning, are relished by the Raajasic (“Passionate”), causing discomfort and suffering.
(17.10): The foods that are rotting, insipid, decayed and waste, are relished by the Taamasic (“Dark and Ignorant”).
The “Saattvic Diet” touched upon in the above verses is understood to be Nutritious, Easily Digestible, Vegetarian Food, and refers to the “Good Food” in the title [1]. An example of a Saattvic Diet is:
  • Variety of Vegetables (Spinach, Green Beans, Broccoli, etc.) for Vitamins and Minerals.
  • Lentils, Beans, Nuts (Walnuts, Hemp Seeds, etc.) for Protein.
  • Cereals and Grains such as Rice, Wheat Bread, etc. for Carbohydrates.
  • Coconut Oil, Sesame Oil, etc. for Oils and Fats.
Ramana Maharshi says in His book “Who am I?”:
“Of all the restrictive rules, that relating to the taking of saattvic food in moderate quantities is the best; by observing this rule, the saattvic quality of mind will increase, and that will be helpful to Self-enquiry.”
It is possible that one is still unable to secure all the nutrients for individual requirements from one’s meals alone, leaving “nutritional gaps” in the diet, which needs to be covered by Nutritional Supplements.
According to Ramana Maharshi, the Peace of Deep Sleep is akin to the Bliss of Salvation (again quoting the book “Who am I?”):
“As all living beings desire to be happy always, without misery, as in the case of everyone there is observed supreme love for one’s Self, and as happiness alone is the cause for love, in order to gain that happiness which is one’s nature and which is experienced in the state of deep sleep where there is no mind, one should know one’s Self.”
IMHO, the most important nutritional supplements are those that aid in Deep Sleep, and they are, in order of significance (from personal experience) [2, 3]:
Magnesium (200mg): ideally taken in the Citrate form, 5-7 days a week.
Iron (25mg): ideally taken in the Bisglycinate form, 2-3 times a week.
Vitamin D: can be obtained by about 15 minutes of daily activity in bright sunshine.
Vitamin B12: only sparsely available in vegetarian diets, and hence is good to supplement.
(This one is cautiously recommended:) Calcium (300mg): 1-2 days a week, or less. Calcium can both calm and excite the nerves depending on the dosage, and should be used only sparingly!
These are digestive supplements:
Oils (Flaxseed, Hempseed, Coconut, Algal, etc.)
As always, please consult with your doctor before taking the aforementioned supplements.
It should of course be noted that the Enlightened Man remains unaffected by any kind of Diet [4]:
D: “Are there restrictions for the Realized Man in a similar manner?”
M: “He is steady and not influenced by the food he takes.”
The final goal transcends sleep as well [5]:
The experiencers of the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep…are not the Self. It is with the object of making this clear, namely that the Self is that which is different from them and which is the witness of these states, that it is called the fourth (turiya).
However, since most of us are not yet at the final stage of Wisdom, but still under the influence of Diet and Sleep, it is necessary for us to enjoy the bliss offered by a Saattvic Diet and Deep Sleep, before performing our routine prayers.
Here’s wishing everyone a Wonderful Diwali filled with (De)Lights!
  1. Vegetarian Diets have been approved by both the Canadian and American Dietetic Associations:
    Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, 2003 Summer;64(2):62-81.
    Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 103, Issue 6, June 2003, Pages 748–765.
    Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: vegetarian diets.
    “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
    Magnesium and Iron: The “Silver Bullet” Solutions to Better Baby Sleep?
    “Magnesium has been called "nature’s muscle relaxant"...For these reasons, healthy levels of magnesium have been linked to deep, undisturbed sleep...Low levels of iron have also been linked to sleep issues...All of this research suggests that having healthy levels of iron in the bloodstream contributes to deeper, more restorative sleep for both children and adults.”
    5 Vitamins You Can’t Sleep Without: Supplements for sleep
    “#1 Iron, #2 Melatonin, #3 Magnesium, #4 Vitamin B12, #5 Vitamin D”
  4. Talks with Ramana Maharshi”, # 22, 31st January 1935.
  5. Spiritual Instruction” by Ramana Maharshi, Chapter 4, Question 8.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Morality (Dharma) in the Gita

Those who are following the news about the upcoming trial and proposed banning of the Bhagavad Gita in Russia will certainly be aghast that a nation would place on trial a book that forms the foundation of a religion. There have been protests against the trial, and appeals to the courts to drop the case. Even non-Hindus have spoken out against placing a scripture on trial. According to some Russian officials, the ban is not on the Gita per se, but only a commentary on the holy book. The good news is that sales of the Gita have gone up during this controversy, and a Krishna temple is expected to be built in Russia!

There may still be a small puzzling question as to why a holy book would be set in the middle of a war zone. The Gita is a dialog between Arjuna (Human) and Krishna (Divine) between two armies – a large force fighting for Duryodhana and a smaller one under Arjuna’s command. Before the war commences, Arjuna has some doubts that need to be resolved, beginning with – is it not moral to reject war rather than to engage in it? The moral dilemma is further complicated by the fact that Arjuna is fighting his cousin Duryodhana!

Almost anyone will accept and appreciate that one ought to wage peace and not war. But the conclusion at the end of the Gita appears to be different – Arjuna must fight the war, not flee! This conclusion requires justification, and this post will attempt to do so.

The Gita is a small part of the Epic Mahabharata. To give an idea of just how small a part – the Gita consists of 700 verses, while the Mahabharata consists of about 100,000 verses! No serious scholar in the history of interpreting the Gita has ever made the mistake of reading the Gita as disparate from the Epic Mahabharata. Unless the events of the epic are examined, there is no way to make sense of the moral dilemma of Arjuna. What were the series of events that gave rise to Arjuna’s dilemma, and make him want to abandon the war with Duryodhana? Here are the highlights indicating how vicious Duryodhana really is:

1)  Duryodhana poisons Arjuna’s brother (Bhima), binds with a rope, and throws him into a river to drown. (Bhima is fortunately saved).

2)  Duryodhana invites Arjuna and his brothers to live in a palace, and one night while the guests are fast asleep, sets fire to the palace in order to burn them alive. (Arjuna and his brothers manage to escape).

3)  Duryodhana plays a game of chance (dice) with Arjuna’s brother, and wins over the opponent’s kingdom on the condition that it will be returned after thirteen years. At the end of thirteen years, Duryodhana refuses to return the kingdom, thus making war inevitable.

The main reason for the war is that Duryodhana does not fulfill the conditions of the bet – ruling over the kingdom for thirteen years and then returning it at the end of the period. What is outrageous is not only does Duryodhana not fulfill his part of the agreement, but also the manner in which he seeks war and not peace: 

Arjuna and his brothers: Duryodhana, you are bound by the conditions of the wager to return our kingdom to us, but can you at least spare us five villages that we can rule over?
Duryodhana: I don’t want to spare even five villages for you.
Arjuna and his brothers: How about five houses so we live as ordinary citizens in your kingdom?
Duryodhana: I will not give you as much land as there is on the tip of a needle!

This last statement is one of the most notorious uttered by Duryodhana – he wants no part of any peace process, and wishes only war!

To recap:
(1)    Arjuna is fighting evil.
(2)    Arjuna is a warrior, who cannot abandon his duty in the midst of a war zone! The peace process is past, war is the present reality!

Arjuna’s moral option is to go ahead with battle against evil and not abandon his responsibility towards his fellow warriors.