Semi-structured individual interviews were conducted at three timepoints: before (n = 7), during (n = 8), and after fasting (n = 8). In total, 23 individual interviews were conducted. Three months after the fast, two focus group interviews were conducted to verify the codes developed from the individual interviews, with a total of n = 8 participants. A total of thirteen different participants were interviewed in the course of our study, either individually or in a group.
We interviewed four women and four men aged 21 to 69 (P1–P8) individually. The main occupational characteristics that describe the interviewees follow: two students, a person on long-term sick leave, a teacher, a psychotherapist, an artist (freelancer), one geriatric nurse in training, and an office employee. At the first study visit time point (V0), we interviewed seven participants, and at the second study time point (V1), one more person was interviewed to balance out age. Therefore, three interviews were conducted with seven interview partners, and two additional interviews were conducted with the 8th participant. Out of these 23 interviews, the three interviews of one interview partner were excluded from the analysis, because the interviewee struggled with language comprehension, and interviews became too long and hard to understand, leaving space for misunderstandings and wrong interpretations. Therefore, 20 single interviews were included in the analysis.
For focus group A, we recruited five interviewees, two women and three men, out of the pool of participants not having participated in the individual interviews. The main occupational characteristics that describe the focus group participants were an office employee, a former teacher, who had not been working for two years, two biologists, of whom one worked at a publishing house, and one chemist owning his own company. For focus group B, we recruited three former interviewees: two women and one man. Focus groups took place at time point V3.
3.1. Qualitative Interview Findings
From the individual interviews (I), we extracted 42 codes, which were summarised in three main categories: (A) grounded in religion, (B) elements of fasting, and (C) impacts of fasting. For the verification of these codes, the two focus groups (II) were conducted. During analysis, theoretical saturation was reached for the main topics of interest through our qualitative exploration and iteratively validated in the incremental elicitation and analysis process.
Grounded in religion
All interviewed Bahá’ís described fasting as deeply grounded in their religion. Therefore, religiosity is a pervasive dimension that we differentiated in two categories, “Trust in God” and “Meaning of religiosity for fasters”, and briefly summarise below. For an overview of these results, see Table 2
Religiosity was described as an expression of love, trust in, and connection to God. Some interviewees understood spirituality as part of their religious belief, a mental attitude of how to connect with and perceive nature and others. The motivation and endurance to fast was described to be based on lived religiousness, which included an inner mindset, a will for personal growth, as well as a marked dedication to religious ordinances. All interviewees viewed their behaviour as a deference to God’s directive and an expression of trusting in God’s word and his support. One interviewee even stated that “all religious commandments that He gives us as individuals and as society are good for us and lead us to progress (...). So, if He said to run up and down the stairs two at a time, I would do it!” (P7, I2, 123).
Three interviewees reported that submission to God’s will engendered the possibility to pass the responsibility over to God at the same time.
Religious laws were seen by all interviewees as an inherent part of Bahá’í religious life, and fasting was described as a central part of those. To follow religious laws was either seen as a willing and voluntary submission to God’s will or as a duty. “I actually experience the scriptures as being the greatest support (...) and the providence that it (fasting) is a fixed component of Bahá’í life and included in these whole commandments is also this daily praying and meditating, which is intended throughout the whole year anyway, not only during the fasting period.” (P1, I1, section 78).
Interviewees described religious laws as an “operating instruction” for personal growth (P4, I3, 102). Religious fasting was described as “a spiritual and religious exercise, leading you closer to God
” (P2, I2, 126). During the fast, interviewees emphasised focusing on their religion. Two-thirds reported feeling an improvement of their connection to God. The existence of the directive to fast was described as a supportive “cornerstone for daily life
” (P5, I3, section 84).
“I think too little about my religion during the year and during these 19 days, I think about it more. (...) I read more of the texts and can tell that it does me good…Like a homecoming.”
(P2, I2, section 80)
Elements of Fasting
We identified four main prerequisites for the fasting period, as expressed by several interviewees: motivation, a sense of community, the opportunity to spend time alone, and a changed daily structure. Table 3
summarises these elements.
As participants expressed the belief in the benefit of God’s directives, they also expressed a high motivation to follow them. Repeating the fast annually was seen by all but one interviewee as reinforcing their described positive experiences, increasing their motivation to fast again. These experiences included physical well-being, a deepened feeling of religiousness and closeness to God, and an intensified feeling of connectedness with oneself. Additionally, some expressed the hope for a more conscious and healthier diet and a better-regulated eating behaviour. One person articulated the wish to lose weight, while another hoped for rejuvenating effects. Some of the interviewees mentioned feeling lighter in their body through fasting and hoped to reexperience this when fasting again. The outlook of an improved daily structure and seeing the fast as a chance to set goals for the upcoming year were also mentioned. Nevertheless, these elements were described as side effects that would not be important enough to fast were it not for the religious law.
As eating and drinking is allowed only between sunset and sunrise, all interviewees described this as the most substantial influencing factor of day-to-day structure. They woke up early enough to eat and, of particular importance to all interviewees, prayed before eating. For all interviewees, fasting created a structure that they normally did not have, which was described as beneficial by all but one. How intensely an individual experienced these structural changes as different from their normal life differed from person to person. While one interviewee did “not have to change [much], I just have to get up a little earlier” (P1, I1, 81), another described that life was “really totally different: nutritionally, sleepwise (…).” (P2, I2, 25). Some interviewees explained that fasting helped them reduce distractions and use their time in a more systematic way. For six interviewees, it provided time to pray, read in the religious texts, and reflect on themselves, which was highly appreciated and valued during fasting. Challenges narrated by some interviewees were struggling to balance investment of time between the demands of the fast and other obligations. One interviewee struggled because of family life with young children, another because of homework for university. The latter reported suffering under the lack of time to focus on the fast while feeling pressured to work for university.
Except for one interviewee, all reported spending more time with their religious community, friends, or family during the fast. While the two youngest interviewees focused mainly on their Bahá’í friends during fasting, the older participants used the fast to connect with a wider network of friends, family, colleagues, or neighbours. According to four interviewees, communication with Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís allowed for new perspectives on the religious texts and their lives. Three interviewees reported that intellectual exchange with other Bahá’ís deepened insights in their religion; for one, it expanded her consciousness. Four interviewees mentioned that interaction with others helped them become aware of their pronounced irritability or impatience during fasting. Realising these tendencies was described as helpful, as the respective interviewees saw it as a chance to consciously change their behaviour. In addition to these valued aspects of socialising during the fast, three interviewees emphasised how breaking their fast in the evening in company made them eat more and heavier food and go to bed later than compared with eating alone, which made the next day more challenging. In contrast, four interviewees reported beginning the day with a collective breakfast followed by shared prayers and discussions on religious texts, which was described as very supportive and enjoyable, facilitating early rising.
“It was very precious for me, at least the freedom to be alone (...) because I find that during the fasting period personal reflection is also very important (...). The introspection. And you cannot do that in company” (P1, I2, 122). Meditating, praying, and reflecting on themselves and their lives were considered central elements of the Bahá’í fast by all interviewees. They reported changing their daily structure to make time to do so. While one of the two youngest interviewees did not profit from her time without the group at all and emphasised that she would have needed more time in community, the other one reported after the fast, that she had for the first time found out that time on her own was also very valuable. All other interviewees emphasised the importance of having time alone for self-reflection and prayers. One interviewee stated that he appreciated time in community but believes that “the way to the search for God needs to happen in solitude” (P2, I2, 98).
Impacts of Fasting
Interviewees reported that fasting changed their individual behaviour. They described bodily changes, increased well-being and mindfulness, the experience of discipline and freedom, as well as changes in daily habits. Table 4
illustrates these findings.
Experiencing physical consequences of behavioural changes during fasting
The limited amount of time allowed for food and fluid intake during fasting was said to lead to a shift of attention to normally mundane, incidental tasks. All interviewees discovered effects of their behavioural changes on their bodies and their well-being. “I think it really is this experience! This bodily experience of consciously restricting something during the day and feeling what it does within the body, and that it is actually good” (P1, I2, 132). Many interviewees enjoyed the feeling of an empty gut and physical lightness. Except for one interviewee, all reported drinking more than usual to avoid thirst during the daily fasting interval. Three interviewees emphasised how important it was that they went to bed early. During the fast, they discovered how lack of sleep had an intense negative impact on their physical condition. One interviewee linked the feeling of an empty, quiet stomach directly to feeling more energetic. Becoming aware of how their body felt while fasting heightened the perception of bodily changes. Interviewees reported employing different strategies to conserve their energy, e.g., moving more consciously and slower; being careful to avoid dizziness; working less or stopping earlier; and not talking much to avoid becoming thirsty.
All fasters reported being happy about fasting itself. Even though it was described as burdensome by one interviewee, still, he was glad that he had to focus on himself and his body and valued this experience. Fasting was perceived as a physical and spiritual cleansing by two interviewees. During the fast, three interviewees described feeling light and relaxed, which was caused by their focus on their religion, their increased introspection, and the physical sensation of an empty stomach. By not overeating, eating qualitatively good food, drinking more fluids than usual before and after breaking the fast, and sleeping enough, all but one reported feeling physically comfortable. One interviewee explained that only the fast reminded him of his body, which he stated not treating well enough in general. Although he reported suffering from lack of sleep, hunger, and tiredness during fasting, he perceived it as positive experience: “It’s cool to fast, take a break, to tell the body: ‘now you’ll do something else (...)’ That’s good (...), you get out of your normal routine, your normal lifestyle, to step aside. And sometimes it hurts. But because it pushes you, gives you another pulse. That’s refreshing. That’s beneficial” (P2, I2, 130). Early mornings, before sunrise in particular, were often mentioned as a very special and comforting time of the day. Three interviewees underscored feeling more energetic than usual after managing the first days of fasting. Although all interviewees reported being happy about fasting, three were unsatisfied with their external life circumstances during fasting but stated they were pleased to fast because they were following the word of God.
Interviewees reported very different experiences of increased awareness of their body, their surroundings, and others. Three interviewees described benefits in the form of greater consciousness and awareness. By not eating, some interviewees mentioned they experienced freedom from physical, mundane needs: “The whole body is subordinated to the spirit” (P7, I2, 61). One interviewee stressed this freedom as an important outcome of fasting. Others emphasised a more transcendent experience in the sense of a higher sensitivity towards nature and entering a dream state of mind while awake. Four interviewees described learning to let go of more than only hunger and thirst. “This moment of letting go. That you notice how many things feel easier because of it. I think that also influences daily life, starting the day more relaxed.” (P1, I2, 74). Accordingly, five interviewees described fasting as “a time where you become aware of what is central in life or where focus shifts on yourself.” (P3, I1, 43–44). Two interviewees spoke extensively about finding one’s place in the world, a feeling described as being part of the larger order of the world, and saw fasting as a “recalibration of life” (P7, I1, 48). Three interviewees reported a heightened awareness of their feelings and emotions, which helped them either to react more consciously, to not react but observe and reflect, or to feel more relaxed in stressful situations. All but one interviewee reported experiencing self-sufficiency and an increasing sense of empathy, becoming kinder and more affectionate. Additionally, one interviewee mentioned a renewed sense of inner balance: “I had this feeling of becoming one with myself again.” (P1, I1, 56).
Discipline and freedom
Challenges were reported by all interviewees, especially during the first days of fasting, starting by missing the meal at lunchtime. Four interviewees felt tired and one felt cold. Although the Bahá’í fast is a dry fast, thirst was seen as a challenge only by two interviewees, one of whom reported having a dry mouth when speaking too much. However, five interviewees mentioned irritability due to hunger and reported strategies they developed to face this challenge, for example “just go to bed and wait for hunger to pass, sometimes” (P5, I1, 80). The sense of hunger was reported by three interviewees to decrease after the first few days. Experiencing the ability to apply the required discipline to manage these challenges was reported by all interviewees to be a decisive factor for persevering during difficult times of fasting. Feeling good while fasting strengthened resolve: “If I can simply say ‘No, I can decide now’. Even if my body wants something else, then I am free.” (P5, I1, 33). This effect was reported by three interviewees as one of the longest lasting, most crucial consequences of fasting with the largest influence on their general life, as they learned to decide more freely.
Changes in daily habits
During the fasting period, interviewees described measures they took to prepare for the fast, giving structure to their daily activities. Every interviewee had an individual way of preparation: two described a reduction in the amount of food intake one week before, another hid all her sweets, someone else planned his food shopping to avoid having to do a lot of it during the fast. One pre-cooked all meals for the whole fasting period, one planned which of the religious texts he would read during fasting. Two interviewees prepared mentally by increasing reflection on the upcoming fasting period. One interviewee reported having downloaded a prayer app on his smartphone to facilitate reading religious texts in the early mornings. Interviewees described starting preparations as early as January and as late as a few days before fasting. Just before the fast, there are a few days of Bahá’í festivities, which were valued as an important preparation by some interviewees. Interviewees reported changing different aspects of their eating behaviour during fasting. Every interviewee reported drinking more during fasting than before, and one person reported still drinking more even after the fasting period. All interviewees ate less. Some gave up sweets, chips, and other snacks during fasting and tried to make it last after the fasting period. One interviewee, who normally ate a lot of meat, increased the number of vegetables during fasting, another one focused on including more fruit in his diet. All but one interviewee reported enjoying food itself more, eating more slowly and consciously, and aimed to continue this after fasting. Only one interviewee described the change in his eating habits as difficult and not enjoyable.
Four of the interviewees wished to integrate their new eating habits into their daily life after the fast, including the amount of food intake and, for one interviewee, regular eating times. The aim to change behaviour long-lastingly was reported to be an annual response to fasting: “Nineteen days is not long, but it seems to be long enough to establish new habits” (P7, I1, 173). Lasting effects varied individually, and most stated they did not expect being able to keep up all positive changes. Shortly after fasting, most interviewees still felt impacts of fasting on their behaviour. Changes in daily structure also allowed for more religious practices, which all wished to keep in their everyday lives. “Before fasting everything was very normal in daily life, daily routine patterns (…) During fasting, about different elements of life, somehow more reflected and deliberate. (…) And afterwards is when you try to keep it, or some elements of it or so. I am still trying to tweak some small parts, I would say.” (P3, I3, 21).
Focus group B discussed fasting predominantly as a way of healing that is different from non-religious fasting because it includes not only physical but also spiritual aspects such as love and connection to God as an act of cleansing of the “outer” and “inner body”. Regarding changes experienced during fasting, focus group B talked extensively about drinking and eating habits. The main discussion points in this regard were not feeling a strong sense of thirst or hunger during the fast and enjoying eating less. They also discussed how changes in their eating habits continued beyond the fasting time.
Focus group A focused more on changes of their daily structure, describing fasting as an exercise of detachment and emphasising the importance of having time alone for reading in the holy scriptures, praying, and meditating. Mainly driven by one interviewee, focus group B discussed more about religious aspects of fasting than focus group A.
Both groups touched upon all main categories that were developed from the individual interviews. They talked about the importance of social support during the fast. The role of the family was emphasised, whose members may not be Bahá’ís but support the person fasting, in addition to the religious community. Experiencing discipline, challenges, and chances for personal growth were mentioned in both groups, such as increased well-being through fasting and the strengthened connection to God. Both groups discussed aspects of mindfulness enhanced by fasting, such as awareness and reflection of themselves and others, being more empathetic, and being able to let go of emotions: “In the end it’s all a practice in letting go.” (Focus group A, 40). “Through sacrifice of fundamentally different things in life, I gain greater consciousness.” (Focus group B, 6).