There is always a time of year when it is a bit introspective, when you pull back a little bit and spend some time inside yourself. Yes, those who know me might argue that that’s how I spend most of my time out of work, teaching and the occasional socialising but this month for me it takes on a different level altogether. It is currently day 18 of the Muslim fasting month, Ramadan and although it might come as a surprise to a lot of people, I do observe it. In fact, there is something about this act of abstaining that fills me up.
I wouldn’t usually write about this as I think my personal beliefs are my own, but I do realise that I belong to a community and within this community, for a lot of people, I might be the only Muslim person they get to connect with like this. Of course, some people might question how good a Muslim I really am, but that is not for a human to judge. I am just sharing an experience that a lot of people find completely foreign and unknown.
Ramadan for those who don’t know, is a month according to the Hijra or Islamic calendar when Muslims all around the world take to abstaining from food, water, sex or anything that includes putting things into the body, from the crack of dawn until the sun sets for a duration of 30 days. It is not a cleanse or a diet, and in fact, because no water is allowed during the day, some might argue that it isn’t really healthy for the physical body. One can also argue that constantly being on one cleanse or another through the year isn’t really a sign of a sound mind, so to each their own. Ramadan is more a mental, emotional and spiritual practice.
During the evenings, there is a strong focus on community where people often gather for Iftar (breaking of fast) and big prayer gatherings, either at home or at the mosque. A lot of people have the view that once the sun goes down we gorge ourselves until we can’t move anymore and although this isn’t necessarily true, I do believe that we perpetuate this belief.
There is so much more to this month.
Different cultures around the world ‘teach’ Ramadan in different ways. It is only compulsory to Muslims once they have reached puberty, and only then if they are sound of mind and healthy. In my culture, the Malay culture (my name is Azra and it’s not because I had some hippy parents who decided to give me a unique name), we start ‘playing’ with fasting at about the age of 9. We might go a few hours from 9:00am – 12:00noon and then with time extend it. By the age of 12, most of us are comfortable doing it all day.
My own understanding of this month has taken on it’s own form of yoga and has changed with the years. When I was a child, I fasted out of the fear that if I didn’t fast, then I wouldn’t get to celebrate Eid, the celebration at the end of Ramadan. After my grandmother passed, I didn’t care about Eid anymore but I fasted out of the fear of getting roasted in hell if I didn’t and I pretended that Eid mattered because it was supposed to. While I was in Malaysia, it was the family thing to do, then my first couple of years here, I had friends from Pakistan and Indonesia who did it with me. Then there were a couple of years when I didn’t participate at all.
In the last couple of years however as my yoga practice deepened, it has taken on a different meaning to me. Ramadan for me is a part of my life, a part of practice. It is this month in the year that I pull myself back and spend more time than usual in quiet contemplation. As it is winter, the crack of dawn here is at around 5:30am, so I am awake at around 4:00am. In this silence, I have my morning meal, write in my journal, meditate and at around 5:30am, start a slow yoga practice.
My practice in this month changes. It is more sensitive and compassionate, and I go into poses in degrees instead of just jumping in. I modify where I wouldn’t usually and take rests when I feel they are needed. It is true that when you have less fuel, you have less energy, but I’ve also learned, that the less you move, the ‘heavier’ you will feel and in winter, it is this movement that keeps you warm. I remember when I was in university in Malaysia and most of the boys would disappear during the daytime in Ramadan (sleeping) only to emerge when the sun was about to come down. It’s great on paper, but really it makes you more lethargic than just going about your business.
And you are meant to go on like you are not fasting anyway.
The whole purpose of this month is to understand suffering. In places where people are without, they don’t get to sleep all day or sit in air-conditioned rooms or take a break. Without food or water, life goes on, as it should for people observing Ramadan. It is a time when you get to see how you react to things when your blood sugar levels are low and what you reach for first when the prayer calls sound time to break fast. It is also a time when you consider what you put into your body. Honestly, since I don’t eat meat, this has become way easier for me. Plant based proteins are way easier for my resting digestive system to process and I don’t have to do a whole lot of planning. A good stew, soup or broth often does enough.
Ramadan, done consciously and it is a whole lesson in getting to know yourself.
It is also an act of community.
I don’t participate in the evening prayers because I like my solitude at the end of the day, but if I didn’t work most nights, and if I had more space, this would most definitely be the month when I would invite friends over to break bread with me. The act of sharing is very much part of this ritual, no matter how little you have. In my way, I suppose I am sharing by bringing little bits of things to people at work and deriving great satisfaction when they enjoy the treats.
Like in yoga, the essence of Ramadan is in self exploration but wrapped around it is this whole idea of building community.
It is so much more that just starving for the sake of gorging when the sun goes down.
This year, Ramadan decided to teach me another lesson. Right after the halfway mark, a massage kicked my body into a whole other level of detox. As I write this, I am recovering from a cold, but am still suffering from a painful chesty cough. The heaviness in my chest reminds me of how it felt when I had childhood asthma right after my parents split up. If you believe in the correlation of the body and the emotions like I do, illness to the respiratory system or chest area is a sign of the body releasing some trauma to the heart. It could be some unexpressed grief, or hurt or heartbreak. This is my body letting go of something that it has probably held on to for a while in a way that only she knows how.
Why now? Why not now? The body does things when it is ready. Letting my digestion rest and allowing myself to step back probably allowed my body to go into this exhale, this release of what it didn’t need anymore. It is by no means easy, but the body has it’s own wisdom in coping with things and for me this is the perfect month for it.