Health Tourism – Fasting, a journey to wellness and mindfulness

Keri-Michele and Archie

I know the look. I see the expression form on a face when I say I fasted for ten days.

The voice feigns polite interest, but the face says, ‘Why would you do that?’

Dr Keri-Michele Cox, author, lecturer, former FIFA Committee Member, Chief Exec of NZ Football Foundation, CEO of Asylum Seekers Support Trust and a pioneer of women’s international football reflects on her recent journey through a 10-day fasting programme at Aio Wira Retreat Centre. 

Aio Wira

I know most people think it’s peculiar to think that fasting for ten days at a health resort could be called a holiday and not self-inflicted torture. A friend sarcastically remarked that my starvation vacation was just a fad – some new-age thing that was a scam and not the transformative and rewarding experience I’d paid for.

As it transpires, fasting isn’t new (its benefits have been known for centuries) and I’m no newbie to this (I’ve done this every year since 2007) – facts my sceptical friend didn’t know about me, or fasting.

The fast crew at Aio Wira

“Ah, but it’s elitest. You must have some serious money at hand to go to a health resort,” said same, pedantic buddy. But he’s wrong again. My 10-day course came to a grand total of NZ$950 (that’s about €550) all inclusive. Sure, I have the luxury of committing ten days to do this, but that hardly qualifies me to some millionaires’ holiday category.

Aio Wira is set in the peace and beauty of the Waitakere Ranges

Embracing the fast

The uncomplicated way to illuminate my experience is to tell you that after three days of fasting I wasn’t missing food, coffee or a glass of wine and that I sailed through it carefree. Those are the throw-away lines for the naysayers or those I have no time for. Nothing in life that challenges you is easy. Making such a drastic change to a lifetime committed to the daily ritual of eating, even for a brief period, runs counter to everything you’ve been told about balanced diets and healthy eating habits.

Embracing a concept that from denial of food your own body and mind will heal and improve takes considerable effort. Or I should say that from my experience it took conviction that this was beneficial so I could fully commit to the fasting process.

Why put your body and soul through this?

It’s natural to feel hungry when you stop eating. However, when your body figures out that food won’t come from an outside source, it transforms to break down fat and other stored nutrients and self-nourish. My sceptic-friend raised his eyebrows at this news… that our bodies are completely capable to take over the feeding requirement such that hunger pangs and even desire for food disappear. And this happens very quickly in the fasting process (for most).

We are what we eat

Fasting on the Aio Wira programme isn’t a complete absence from sustenance – naturally, we all need some nourishment if we’re expecting to be healthier after ten days. Throughout the days of the fast, participants are served diluted organic fruit and vegetable juices, herbal teas and potassium-rich broths. Having a good intake of water is critical over the fast, as is varying the herbal tea mix (they all have differing health benefits).

While light exercise is encouraged, rest is equally important as are the daily enemas (sorry, but they’re a part of making this a success!) and the group sessions where you share ideas, thoughts and, if you’re comfortable, your emotional state.

FIFA grassroots mission in Syria, just prior to war commencing

To progress in life, to grow and remain happy, I need to understand what I’ve felt and why I no longer need feel the same way

Meditation is a vital component of the fasting process. If you’ve no time for self-reflection, then I don’t think there is a route forward with Aio Wira Juice Fasting because negative thoughts are toxic to physical health. That’s not a hokey-pokey alternative concept. It’s something your own physician will tell you when your stress and headspace keep you low on energy or under the weather.

So much of modern life warps us. It’s tempting to embrace pessimism or be locked into a digital screen that constantly delivers rubbish to the senses. It’s only when you place your business concerns, your family and your friends in safe hands, and at a distance, that you have a chance to complete a fasting experience that positively alters metabolism and mind.

Hosting Angela Merkel on matchday
Media duties on matchday

Stillness and dreams

Perhaps you’ve heard or know that people consciously or unconsciously use food as a suppressor of emotion. I’m not categorising myself to either camp or hinting at my psychological goals for what recently transpired on my fast… what I will share is that when there is no food to dampen, suppress or tame what you feel then emotions may escape. In group sessions I’ve seen passions rise and spill uncontrollably like mad drunken rambles, and I also know from my personal journeys that in other contemplative moments a reservoir of feeling erupts, and you bear the joy or sorrow of that moment alone.

Keri-Michele with street kids in Phnom Penh after they scaled into the football stadium

Mindfulness reveals itself in different forms during a fast, with varied sensations, from diverse sources and from a multitude of triggers. The dreams I’ve had when fasting are vivid and were more lucid and memorable. On reflection I thought them more complete with important, personal messages that found me as I rested.

Keri-Michele with her mother, Barbara Cox, MBE

Fasting makes me feel better, but I’m not better than you

It’s difficult to speak about my fasting journey and the benefits I gain without sounding a tad sanctimonious, which is why I’m conscious that this isn’t a programme for many people I know. Returning to my doubting friend, at least he listened to me and then read something about the transformative process that fasting delivers.

After 15 years of fasting retreats at last my old friend knows where I take myself off to from time to time, and I’d like to think that he’s also tempted to join me one day. At least that’s one less fasting sceptic I know – I’ve many more to convince….

Keri-Michele’s latest book

Travel to inspire – Culture