As we continue in the month of introspection and self-restraint, we’d be remiss not to explore the parallels between fasting and yoga. The former calls for both a strong mind and a strong body in order to endure 14-hour fasts, day after day, as temperatures inch towards 40ºC. The latter is a strength-based practice that has been proven to enhance brain function – a 2017 study in International Psychogeriatrics journal revealed that two groups of participants over the age of 55 showed significant improvement in memory through Kundalini yoga and memory enhancement training respectively. However, only the group that practised Kundalini yoga showed significant improvement in executive functioning and depressive symptoms.
And then there’s the matter of food consumption – or lack thereof. Renowned yogi and Isha Foundation founder Sadhguru says the body and brain work best when one’s stomach is empty, advising a minimum of five hours between meals, which echoes the practice of fasting in Ramadan. “In the yogic system, we say there must be a minimum of six to eight hours between one meal and the next. If that is not possible, at least a five-hour gap is a must.” From a spiritual perspective, fasting can help improve focus, making meditation – a key component of yoga – easier, deeper, and more fulfilling. With that in mind, The Gaggler tapped yoga teacher and meditation instructor Dina Ghandour for her insights on this synergy. Here’s what she had to say.
On the Correlation Between Yoga and Ramadan
“The correlation became much clearer to me as I became a more seasoned practitioner. You start to understand spirituality from a different perspective because you grow up with a certain idea of religion or faith, and then whether or not you stay connected to it is one thing. But if you get lost or are just going with it without knowing why, then you get into yoga and it’s like, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ It just puts all the puzzle pieces together and can help you better understand your faith. Ramadan, particularly, is a time of being quiet and more mindful, it’s more reverent and restrained in some ways –that’s why it’s such a perfect backdrop. It’s the perfect environment if you’re hoping to deepen your spiritual practice.”
On the Type of Yoga Best Suited to Ramadan
“Traditionally, yoga was taught as this whole science with a spiritual side, and it would be good to seek out a method that helps you move deeper into that space if you’re trying to deepen your spirituality this month. And maybe that’s just a meditation practice? Maybe it’s not yoga? You could simply meditate for a couple of minutes or half an hour every day. And if you want to incorporate the physical aspect, you can complement the introspective period with something a little bit slower, something restorative.
The style I teach is called Jivamukti, and the reason I love it is because it’s one of the first styles that specifically integrates the aspects of yoga that’ve been stripped away in favour of being hip and modern back into a classroom setting. Each of my classes has a spiritual teaching, and there’s always a meditation at the end. The bulk of it is still like a typical yoga class, we’re still flowing and moving to music in an uplifting environment. But it’s grounded in the spiritual side, which is one of the reasons I came to it.”
On the Best Asanas If You’re Fasting
“If you’re fasting, then opt for something a little slower, like restorative yoga. Yin yoga can actually be quite intense because you’re holding a pose deeply and the stretch can be quite intense. Restorative yoga, in contrast, is much softer – you’re supported by all these bolsters and sort of floating in air. As for specific asanas, twists and folds are really nice because they aid the digestion area of the body. Every time we twist, we’re sort of gently massaging the organs. There are so many different kinds of twists – standing twists and seated twists and lying down twists – and they all give the digestive system a little bit of extra support while it’s trying to break down food after not having eaten for a long time. Folds, meanwhile, are very calming.”
Watch The Video: In Practice with Dina Ghandour
On the Best Time of Day to Practise Yoga
“It’s always best practise on an empty stomach, so first thing in the morning is good, depending on how early you had suhoor and when you wake up. If you’ve had enough time to digest it, then that could be a really nice option. And if the session isn’t too draining, it will offer a little boost to energise you for the rest of the day. And then right before iftar is also great because you expend that last bit of energy through movement, knowing you’re going to be rehydrated soon.
The other really good thing about doing it before iftar is getting the body in that rest-relax-heal state, which happens with a practice that’s not too rigorous. We’re now learning that a couple of deep breaths before you start eating can help solve any digestive issues, and it’s sort of the same thing. We have this big nerve called the vagus nerve and, by taking a couple of deep breaths, we stimulate it. We give the body permission to rest a little. A lot of digestive issues stem from living in a state of high stress, so feeling rested and zen after yoga will help the body digest a big iftar afterwards.”
On How Meditation Fits Into the Picture
“Meditation is a tool that helps people move deeper into that space of awareness, so it can be really nice if people are used to praying – they can add it before or after their prayers, perhaps. They can use it like an affirmation or intention for whatever kind of behaviour they’re trying to omit or incorporate during the month of Ramadan. Meditation is a great way for people to slow down and move inward even deeper. I know Ramadan is a celebratory month, but if someone is not as interested in its social aspects, they’re likely to see meditation from a different perspective when they have that kind of a grounding.”
On Misconceptions Around Yoga in the Middle East
“It’s such a melting pot here in Dubai, so I haven’t dealt with a lot of negative stereotypes, but I know some think the chanting is strange. It feels a bit too cult-y for a lot of people because they’ve moved away from religion. And then there are people who are religious and therefore uncomfortable chanting something they don’t understand, something they assume is about other gods. That’s why it’s very important for me, as a teacher, to explain that chanting is about creating steadiness of the mind. It’s crucial that teachers share correct information and dispel these myths. It takes time, but people get into it. I was like that before I eventually started singing my heart out! Educating people and making them feel welcome – not intimidated – is key.”