food / travel

The Siberian Fasting Cleanse For Body And Mind

Geneva native Marie-Laure Canosa says an eight-day fast at a world-renowned Russian treatment center was transformational. Many researchers seem to agree, as withholding food can heal the body of chronic diseases.

Ready for eight days of this?
Ready for eight days of this?
Marie-Pierre Genecand

GENEVA â€" Geneva native Marie-Laure Canosa has always taken food seriously by using only quality ingredients in both her private and professional cooking. But in September 2013, she came across a documentary on fasting in a Siberian sanatorium, and the enthusiast of Russia felt compelled to visit the idyllic place near Lake Baikal and undergo the therapy. It included eight days of strict fasting, drinking only water.

The process is supervised by doctors with daily consultations, and personal care (massages and mud baths) is provided every day along with assistance to the eventual return to eating.

The mother of three says last year's experience during the Easter holidays profoundly changed her. "I'm never tired anymore, and I feel stronger, more relaxed." It was a detox that went well beyond the physical.

An interesting past

Canosa's background is uncommon. After graduating in international relations and in physical education teaching, in 1995 she became a delegate to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), completing missions in Abkhazia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Albania and Jerusalem. When she returned, she began a new life: marrying, having children and opening a creperie, El Progresso, where everything is fair trade. She buys organic ham from a local producer and fera, a species of fish, from around Lake Geneva. Everything she sells is natural and additives-free.

She takes the same approach to food at home. "I think we pass on many notions of respect and solidarity to our children through what we feed them," she says. Her husband, a mobility and environment specialist, works in Bern. He supports her as much as possible in her daily life, but juggling the management of El Progresso and raising the children can be difficult.

“For 10 years, my whole life revolved around food," she says. "What I cooked for my children and what I offered my customers. Cooking had become more than an activity. It was my identity."

By 2013, the children were older, and she decided to pass on her creperie to her faithful coworker. That was in September. By chance, that's when she stumbled upon the fasting documentary: It was an eye-opener, and she was sure that's what she wanted to do.

Lake Baikal in Goryachinsk â€" Photo: Andrey Rinchino

Not a weight loss tool

Produced in 2011 by Sylvain Gilman and Thierry de Lestrade, Fasting, A New Therapy? shows how clinics in Russia, Germany, Switzerland and the United States treat chronic illnesses such as asthma, hypertension and obesity through fasts that can last as many as 12 to 14 days.

Even in the case of cancer, the film notes, fasting is recommended before the start of chemotherapy to improve the treatment's effectiveness. Canosa recalls a part that particularly struck her: "The Russian doctor who founded this therapy 40 years ago discovered the power of fasting when he noticed that one of his patients, a schizophrenic, almost ceased displaying any crises when his wish not to be fed was respected. In a situation of self-feeding, the body and mind adjust and repair themselves on their own," she says.

Before she went to the resort spa in Goryachinsk to regenerate, Canosa, who is in her forties, often woke up tired. "I immediately loved what the place gave off, and the idea of leaving the house for 15 days, alone, with no husband or children, wasn't a bad prospect either," says Canosa, who also happens to speak fluent Russian. The trip represented a chance not only to clean her body but also to stimulate her mind.

"I also liked the subversive aspect of this therapy, which doesn't serve any commercial interest," she adds. "In the Western world, we over-consume food and drugs. The solution offered in Goryachinsk is quite the opposite, and relies on slowing down."

It's accessible too. Canosa says she paid 800 euros for the program, and of course purchased a plane ticket to get there. "It's much cheaper than some luxury clinics that offer unaffordable therapies," she notes.

A healthy relationship with food

For admittance to the program, Canosa was required to send the facility a medical certificate showing she was in good health. Once there, a doctor conducted another exam to be sure she wasn't suffering from anorexia or bulimia.

Entrance to the Goryachinsk spa resort â€" Photo: Andrey Rinchino

"Before going to Goryachinsk, I weighed between 58 and 59 kilos (127-130 pounds)," says Canosa, who stands at 1.7 meters (5'6"). "While I was fasting, I went down to 52 (114 pounds), and now, I weigh around 56 kilos (123 pounds). For me, it's not a question of weight but of my relationship to food. After a fast, you don't feel obliged to eat when the others eat or what the others eat. You're more connected to your needs and you don't make social concessions anymore. Your body thanks you!"

That's especially true because the transitional fasting starts even before the real fasting. It’s impossible to stop eating from one day to another without risking a serious and painful acidosis crises, a reaction in the body meant to compensate for the lack of glucose. During this dietary change, acidity in the blood increases and sometimes leads to nausea, headaches and cramps. It's possible to reduce these symptoms by tapering food consumption long before the total interruption.

"A month and a half before my departure for Russia, I cut out alcohol and meat," Canosa recalls. "Ten days before, I did the same for dairy products. Then, I stopped drinking coffee â€" that was the hardest! â€" and four days before, I cut out cereal, fruits and vegetables." The gradual restriction of food is the reason she says she suffered no pain or hunger during the fast.

But what she did feel was great fatigue. "If I felt like sleeping, I slept, and I went to the hydrotherapy care and mud baths later," she says. "In Goryachinsk, everything is designed for us to follow our natural rhythms and for our bodies to reassert themselves. I feel like I got rid of a several-year-old tiredness."

Canosa says the place was magical: the Tartar massages, mud baths, the walks on the frozen Lake Baikal and, finally, the return to food with delicious homemade kefir, a fermented milk drink. She describes the experience as transformational.

"It’s exactly that, I've changed," she says. "I've started consuming every type of food again and I'm not fasting anymore, but, since my return from Russia, I wake up every morning in great form and I've decided to follow a mediation training because I think the idea of individual responsibility that's at work when you fast is close to that of going through mediation to resolve conflicts."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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