A Holistic Fasting Retreat at Israel’s Dead Sea
by Buzzy Gordon
The Dead Sea has been extolled throughout history for its healing properties. While thousands of sufferers from psoriasis, rheumatoid disorders and other diseases flock annually to its shores and waters for relief, just about everyone can benefit from the overall sense of well-being imparted by the planet’s highest concentration of bromine in the atmosphere at the lowest point on earth.
Combine the physically curative nature of the Dead Sea region with the Judean Desert’s rich spiritual history of contemplative orders, and you have the ideal location for a week-long “holistic fasting retreat,” under the medical supervision and philosophical guidance of Dr. Gabriel Cousens, the founder of Tree of Life.
Health seekers from all over the world join Israelis twice a year to fast for sven days with the renowned holistic physician. And while Tree of Life’s primary headquarters and medical facility (officially, the Tree of Life Foundation and Rejuvenation Center) are situated in Arizona, the organization’s European headquarters — and indeed, the soul of the movement as a whole — are in Israel.
“Our semi-annual juice fasts, held each year in November and March, invariably sell out,” Agmon says. “Moreover, 35-40% of the nearly 100 participants in our detoxification program are ‘repeaters’ — some of whom are veterans of 8 or 9 of these transformative cleansing and renewal experiences.”
When “Life-Changing” is Not a Cliche
“I can honestly say that Gabriel saved my life,” says Pirhiya B. of Jerusalem. “Some years ago, after spending weeks in the hospital, partially in a coma, I knew I had to make drastic lifestyle changes: I was obese, and my diabetes was out of control.
“I heard about this 7-day fast just days before it was scheduled to begin. I called the office and explained my situation. Dr. Cousens told me I could come and bring him all my recent medical records — but he would not guarantee that he would accept me into the program until after he had examined me.
“He did allow me to participate, if I agreed to stop taking my prescription medications immediately. I did not hesitate — and thus began my journey to health. I lost 30 kilograms in my first six months, beginning with the extended fast, continuing as I adhered to his prescribed diet, and ending with a second fast.
“Needless to say, I have not been admitted to a hospital since.”
As Pirhiya shared her emotional story, her husband and son nodded in agreement. In the intervening years, the entire family — mother, father, son and daughter-in-law — have became Tree of Life regulars.
This is just one example of a number of families who come time and again to the fasts as enthusiastic units: Liora L. and her husband Aryeh — who also achieved dramatic weight loss, and significantly lowered his blood pressure without recourse to prescription drugs (blood pressure medications in particular, Dr. Cousens warns, tend to do more harm than good) — travel from the Galilee to serve as volunteers; Mitchell and Tracey C. once brought their two adult children with them all the way from California.
“Actually, all of us in Tree of Life are in essence a family,” says Agmon. “You can feel the camaraderie grow every time we get together; and the emotional support we offer one another — along with the interpersonal bonds that are formed in the healing environment we create — is yet another secret of our success, and of the joy that embraces our community.”
It may sound incongruous to associate the word “joy” with a week-long fast — but strange as it may seem, there is an aura of positive energy, as well as an atmosphere of overwhelming compassion, that embraces everyone in the program. And each and every person involved — including volunteers, kitchen staff, and all the bodyworkers and specialists who provide supplemental treatments — follow the protocols of the fast: drinking only the juices served, and abstaining from any and all solid food.
Isn’t a 7-Day Fast “Extreme”?
This is a question everyone who has ever even heard about the program — let alone contemplated undergoing it — has not only asked himself/herself, but also undoubtedly has been asked by others.
Any short answer to this question runs the risk of sounding glib or flippant; but it is still possible to deliver a concise answer — and that is an emphatic “No.”
One reason for such a categorical negative retort is actually quite simple: because frankly, hunger ceases to be a problem in just a couple of days; and apart from occasional pangs or cravings, for most of the week, hardly anyone even feels like eating a meal.
Another amazing thing: you’d think one would be feeling weak after not having eaten for days. Yet the opposite is the case: your body is strangely energized, able to take walks into stunning desert landscapes for hauntingly beautiful musical performances; slather on Dead Sea mud and take a swim in the mineral-rich waters; and even explore the ancient ruins of Qumran.
Admittedly, an unsupervised 7-day fast would not only be extreme, it would be unadvisable. For example, a water-only fast — which is apparently quite the rage in some places — is not only extreme, it could conceivably be reckless.
A Tree of Life juice fast, on the other hand, could easily be classified as a “gourmet” juice fast. A vegan/raw food chef flies in specially from Italy to supervise the preparation of the juices, which have to be formulated precisely in accordance with Gabriel’s instructions.
“The juices are made entirely from local organic produce, delivered fresh every couple of days,” Yoav explains. “The vegetables are blended into pulp, and then diluted with filtered water. Individuals can also add healthful condiments to taste; and critical supplements — enzymes and minerals — are taken as recommended.
“This is, after all, a juice fast — not a smoothie fast,” he adds. “The purpose of the fast is to eliminate toxins from the body — and that can only be achieved when the energy expended to digest solid food is diverted to the job of expelling toxins. In effect, the digestive system slows down to the minimum level of activity required to provide enough energy to accomplish the only tasks our bodies have to perform this week: attending the educational lectures; practicing yoga and pranayama (breathing techniques that also help the body function efficiently); and flushing out the accumulated toxins.
“A plain water fast does not supply enough of the right nutrients to fuel these jobs,” Agmon continues, “while thick smoothies will overload and tax the digestive system to the point where the benefit of the elimination of existing toxins will be canceled out by the addition of more food bulk that will end up needing to be excreted.
“The perfect balance of the right consistency of juices and condiments — served four times a day, with a choice of green vegetable or more brightly colored fruit juices, and also offered as a warm broth in the evenings — has been tested and tweaked by Gabriel over the years, to the point where we now know that the fast produces not only the desired health benefits, it also results in feelings of satiety. The ability to drink as many glasses of juice as desired, plus unlimited amounts of a variety of healthful teas throughout the day, keeps hunger at bay, and helps in the continuous flushing of waste through the kidneys.
“Finally, daily consultations with facilitators and Gabriel closely monitor the progress of each and every participant; consequently, the chances of a ‘healing crisis’ — illness that can result from a sudden overload of too many toxins being released into the system at any one time — are minimized. Hence the reputation Tree of Life has been able to cultivate as the safest and most effective juice fast detox experience available anywhere.”
Admittedly, it is hard for anyone who has not experienced the inexplicable lack of hunger personally to be expected necessarily to take someone else’s word for it. (And I confess that if I had not already heard this claim from so many people, I might not have had the guts to go through with this experiment myself, even in pursuit of this story.)
Ultimately, a decision to participate should come after carefully studying the Tree of Life website (http://treeoflifeisrael.com) — and throughly checking out Dr. Cousens’ credentials. Gabriel Cousens, now 72, received his MD from New York City’s prestigious Columbia University, and then went to India to earn his Diplomate in Ayurveda. Incorporating the principles of this millennia-old medical system, and adapting the procedures of the renowned Buchinger Clinic in Germany — which has prescribed and conducted a million therapeutic fasts — he has spent years researching the science and physiology of ridding the body of stored toxins. Then, conducting his own extensive lab tests at his Arizona facility, he honed and refined an optimal fasting protocol for achieving acceptable levels of detoxification in the amount of time the ordinary individual can afford to be absent from work and other obligations of daily life.
The Art and Science of the 7-Day Detox
It is one thing to claim anecdotally that Dr. Cousens’ 7-day juice fast works — and quite another to prove it empirically by subjecting it to rigorous scientific scrutiny.
“It is no secret that Israel abounds in retreats that offer — and extol the virtues of — three-day fasts,” says Olga Kull, the Tree of Life naturopath who serves as Gabriel’s medical assistant in Israel. “Moreover, there are plenty of people who will swear they benefited greatly from just those three days.
“And who says they are wrong?” she concedes. “Who wouldn’t feel better — and lighter — after taking a three-day break from eating a typical diet of three full meals a day of frequently unhealthy processed foods?
“The problem,” she goes on to explain, “is that this is not — nor can it be — detoxification. Quite simply, a three-day fast, while possibly psychologically satisfying, is physiologically irrelevant: the human body is just not physically capable of ridding itself of its stored, disease-inducing toxins in the space of just one weekend.”
“The proper formula and duration for a successful detox outcome, it turns out, extends for a period of nine days: a day of arrival, registration and introduction; seven days of fasting; and one day of easing back into eating solid food.
According to Dr. Cousens, here is a day-by-day breakdown of what can be expected during a Tree of Life juice fast (not counting the day of arrival and orientation, including a festive “last meal” of colorful salads and tasty crackers):
Day 1 (of actually not eating): Physiologically, the fast is not considered to have begun, since the digestive system is still working on the vestiges of the previous evening’s meal.
Day 2: The body recognizes a fast has begun. As everyone knows, cells in our bodies die every day and are replaced by new ones. Today, the pace of apoptosis — this process of cellular death and renewal — begins to accelerate, ever so slightly.
Day 3: The first day of actual detoxing. Toxins stored in our tissues are starting to be released, waiting to be excreted, as well as flushed out via the lymphatic system, as well as with the help of colonic irrigation. (This is a problematic day for some; the toxins floating around in the body can cause some discomfort, like headaches or mild flu-like symptoms.)
Day 4: Detoxing continues; in addition to possible continuing physical symptoms, there could be fluctuations in emotional feelings. [Personal note: I had the kind of aches that sometimes accompany a slight fever — plus some feelings of sadness.]
Day 5: Most people begin to feel better. [In my case, it took into the late afternoon. But one less welcome side effect was a sudden, brief return of my appetite for solid food.]
Day 6: What Gabriel calls the day of “mystic death and rebirth,” characterized by an overall sensation of feeling lighter. The mind grows quieter, as the toxins leave not only the bowels, but also the brain. [Personally, I felt a satisfying emptiness; and it was my first full day without experiencing a single hunger pang. Emotionally, it was a day of ups and downs.]
Medically and scientifically speaking, this will be the day that the body tests negative for indicans, the chemicals that can be classified as the “toxins” we have just purged.
Day 7: Virtually everyone feels good. With the purging of toxins, endorphins are released, inducing in some people mildly euphoric feelings. Plus, our addictions to certain problematic foods — especially sugar, the hardest one of all to break, but also wheat and and gluten (which contain opioids), and dairy products (which contain caseo-morphines) — have lost their hold on us. [I personally felt better than I had in months.]
Day 8: The sense of well-being continues to improve. By this day, positive epigenetic shifts have started to take place, as more and more healthy new cells replace the ones that have died. [Others report to me that I am looking particularly well, with a distinctly healthy glow visible on my face and shining in my eyes.]
Day 9: We break the fast in the morning, and lunch is served before the group disperses. All meals consist only of raw food, primarily salads. No-one over-indulges. As Dr. Cousens admonishes, “Any fool can fast; it takes a wise man to know how to come off it.”
The Tree of Life Guide to Nutrition — and Longevity
It is only natural that the focus of this article has been on the mechanics of the intriguing phenomenon that is the Tree of Life juice fast. But the week-long experience is much more than merely a detox procedure: it is perhaps better described as an intensive encounter with a master teacher and healer. And while space here does not permit conveying all — or even most — of the lessons learned in Gabriel’s daily lectures, it is important to mention at least the key ones that can most beneficially impact one’s health.
In the tradition of allopathic (Western) medicine, physicians take the famous Hippocratic oath — but medical schools usually ignore one of his most important teachings: “Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food.”
In its most basic form, this dietary prescription can be ascribed to the Bible, says Dr, Cousens, who is also an ordained rabbi.
“It’s all right there, in Genesis 1:29,” he teaches: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth, and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.’
“This, in a nutshell, is the ideal diet given to man in the divine scheme of things. In today’s terms, it translates to a vegan diet, consisting primarily of ‘live (also known as raw) food.’
Of course, as Dr. Cousens constantly reminds us, we are now far removed, in more ways than one, from the idyllic life envisioned in the Garden of Eden. “Pollution, radiation, pesticides and the depletion of basic minerals in our soil — all of these negative developments have adversely impacted even the so-called healthy foods that are the basis of a vegan diet,” he laments. “Which is why even those of us who adhere strictly to our recommended live food diet, need to detox once in a while.”
He recommends an extended fast twice a year. While seven days is the Tree of Life standard, some people are advised to fast longer. And even though Dr. Cousens concedes that five days might be an acceptable minimum for detoxing, he contends there is a very good reason Tree of Life schedules seven days.
“It is important that participants experience the final two days of feeling so much better than when they arrived,” Dr. Cousens emphasizes. “This serves as positive reinforcement to make the lifestyle changes required for better health and longevity.”
The program is also structured to last nine days in order to maximize the effect of the input of the retreat’s other elements.
“We offer several tracks alongside the cornerstone fast,” Agmon elaborates. “There is a major spiritual component, consistent with Gabriel’s philosophy that a successful, effective retreat engages and treats the body, mind and soul. The daily talks and Q&A sessions educate the mind, while the morning and afternoon meditation sessions enrich the spirit. Our tachyon energy cocoon room promotes healthful relaxation.
“There is also a significant cultural track: we invite artists to perform at concerts that are held nearly every night. Our dance party on Friday night was a chance for everyone to let their hair down and have great fun.
“Similarly, our outing to the Qumran caves and the Dead Sea provides visitors to Israel a chance to be tourists, and it is another way we build community.”
Indeed, the sense of community that coalesces around the fast pervades every aspect of the retreat. The Israelis have a great deal of respect and affection for the visitors representing so many foreign countries who come regardless of media portrayals of security unrest. These visitors, meanwhile, find themselves interacting with a microcosm of Israeli society: religious and secular; Jewish and non-Jewish; Ashkenazim and Sephardim; and representatives of every socio-economic class. All participate in holding hands while reciting the brakhot (blessings) before drinking juice, as well as in kabbalat Shabbat, kiddush and havdala prayers.
Saadia P., a retiree from Beersheba, is a case in point. Born in Yemen, he speaks frankly about the dark chapter in Israeli history when his own baby brother was one of the children stolen from his parents, handed over to Ashkenazi adoptive parents, and never seen by his biological parents again. Yet, he is all smiles, dispensing and receiving hugs all day long. He does not appear to have any pressing health problem, yet he scrimps and saves from his modest pension to attend every couple of years and bask in the fellowship. “This is the best present I can give myself,” he says.
“The all-inclusive embrace of this support system is both the by-product of, and the catalyst for, the unique dynamic we all experience here,” Agmon concludes. “It is the fulfillment of probably Gabriel’s most important commandment: ‘Love yourself enough to want to heal yourself.’”