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The Spiritual Benefits of Abstinence

A Yogic Perspective on Fasting/Abstinence

This article about the spiritual benefits of fasting/abstinence is a part of the Yoga Practice section of our Guide to Spiritual Yoga for Beginners.

Spiritual Yoga & The Meaning of Fasting/Abstinence

Beyond Food & Sex: What is the Purpose of the Practice of Fasting/Abstinence in Yoga?

When we talk of “abstinence”, we usually mean sexual abstinence or abstaining from alcohol. When we talk of “fasting”, we usually mean food. Both of these terms—abstinence/abstention and fasting—are used to describe instances of “abstaining from” or “restraining oneself from” doing something (usually which provides some kind of pleasure, destructive or not). And though there are unique forms of self awareness that can come from abstaining from alcohol, drugs, food, and/or sex, understanding abstention/fasting in general will allow us to see the more general spiritual benefits of fasting/abstinence: self-awareness & freedom.

Abstinence/Fasting: The Spiritual Benefits

The Benefits of Fasting beyond Weight Loss, Reduced Stress, and Increased Focus: Spiritual Fasting for Freedom & Self-Awareness

Abstention of any kind removes the possibility of the fulfillment of some habitual way(s) of engaging with the world; the “loop” of desire and fulfillment cannot be closed, and this gap provides an opportunity for becoming aware of the nature of the motivation to engage in some behaviour. However, this experience of this ‘gap’—of unfulfilled desire—is often uncomfortable, and an inability to remain with this discomfort can often produce/reinforce other behaviours designed to close the loop of discomfort, especially if your approach is suppression/repression by any means necessary.

What is the relationship between yoga and fasting? And what are the spiritual benefits of fasting and abstinence? Traditional yoga contained many kinds of abstention—not in order to suppress elements of our inner life but rather to bring them to awareness, to become aware of the way(s) in which our awareness is always already being consumed, to notice our relationship with that from which we were abstaining (including our relationship to related things, the existence of which we may have been unaware). Our instinctive often arrives on the scene, so to speak, before our conscious self shows up. The longer it takes for our conscious self to show up, the more our behaviours are subject to the compulsions of our instinctive self. In the context of abstention, the point of meditation in yoga (including mindfulness) is to cultivate the capacity to remain with our triggers rather than have our behaviours be defined by them. 

 

Meditation in traditional yoga was used as a tool for the cultivation of our capacity to see the myriad ways in which our attention is automatically and habitually pre-occupied. As a tool of self-awareness, meditation allows us to notice our automatic habits prior to being consumed by them. These habits are often connected to protecting ourselves from feelings and thoughts that we want to avoid. Meditation helps us to cultivate the capacity to remain with these challenging aspects of our inner life so that our lives aren’t determined by them. 

 

Abstention also allows us to become aware of both the nature of our dependence on some particular thing/person/behaviour and on the nature of the experience of fulfillment—including the extent to which said fulfillment reinforces the sense of “lack” that motivated the behaviour in the first place. And abstention also allows to become aware of the various parts of our life connected with this dependence/habit, including our relationships—both with others and with ourselves—and the extent to which our habit is supporting or hindering the pursuit of our most meaningful projects and goals. 

 

And so abstinence is particularly useful when dealing with what we might call “addictions”. While stronger forms of addiction present uniques (and serious) challenges (such as alcohol addiction), the self-awareness gained via fasting/abstention applies to various kinds of addictions, including addictions to those things that we may not think to be destructive, such as exercise, self-help, and even spirituality.

 

The purpose of abstinence in yoga is not, strictly speaking, to extinguish any particular behaviour. The purpose of abstinence in yoga is awareness, nothing more. Abstention in traditional yoga is intended as a tool of self-awareness, and self-awareness is what produces transformation. However, self-awareness pursued for the purpose of transformation remains infected with inadequacy and limited by the anxious (and narrowed) pursuit of self-transcendence.

 

Among the benefits (including the “worldly” benefits) of fasting/abstinence, self-awareness/freedom is the spiritual benefit. The cultivation of one’s spirituality is the cultivation of one’s sense of “wholeness”, and the relentless background uneasiness of dis-ease of inner lack that gnaws at us motivates our relentless quest for “filling up” said sense of lack in/with the world. Abstention (from sex, alcohol, drugs, food, etc.) allows us to bear witness to the way(s) that we are pushed/pulled by what’s missing in us and the feeling of inner lack itself. Abstinence—as a kind of ‘limitation’—is what opens up the (meaningful) freedom of not being determined by our unthinking, automatic habitual way(s) of being in the world.

diya clay lamp spiritual benefits of abstinence fasting
And so abstinence is particularly useful when dealing with what we might call “addictions”. While stronger forms of addiction present uniques (and serious) challenges (such as alcohol addiction), the self-awareness gained via fasting/abstention applies to various kinds of addictions, including addictions to those things that we may not think to be destructive, such as exercise, self-help, and even spirituality.

Further Reading

This article on the spiritual benefits of abstinence (and other forms of abstention, such as fasting) is part of our Yoga Practice section of our Guide to Spiritual Yoga. Various forms of abstention (from sex and sexual activity, food, etc.) are often a part of spiritual path/life and are said to contribute to one’s spiritual growth and spiritual goals. In this article, we’ve conceived of abstention more generally and not just as a restriction of sex or sexual activity as a spiritual practice and/or the pursuit of a celibate life. Apart from sex/sexual activity, we’ve also not conceived as abstinence as a restriction of alcohol consumption. Abstention allows for distance from being taken in/up by a particular habit (sex/sexual or otherwise); restraining ourselves from something allows us to better see our relationship with that from which we are abstaining. This space or stillness allows us to better see the nature of this relationship—i.e., how we were (being) moved. And though the activity of sex (including sexual relationship with other people) is a particularly powerful way of becoming consumed, abstention is capable of revealing our existing relationship with many different things/people/situations (beyond just sex/food/drugs/alcohol), including the ways we are addicted to said things/people/situations (or even addicted to avoiding them).

 

One spiritual benefit of understanding our relationship with something (again, with sex, food, drugs, alcohol,  or otherwise) is becoming aware of how we consumed by some activity (or relationship with something). This often provides an opportunity for freedom and, ultimately, the opportunity for a more “complete” sense of self as we realize the ways in which our self is determined. For a more comprehensive discussion about this, please see our introduction to spiritual yoga. In the context of this “spiritual” approach to yoga, our article on yoga postures discusses how to do them “correctly”.

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