Igniting True Health Through Digestion – Understanding Agni
The Prequel to Ama
by Maria Radloff
January 1, 2019
When people hear of ayurveda, often they think vata, pitta, kapha—three of ayurveda’s hippest buzz words, with nearly everyone seemingly having done a couple of quizzes to determine her/his dosha. Rarely has anyone taken an agni quiz, though, to determine the state of the digestive fire.
I would like to introduce a new buzz word, agni, and one that should trump any dosha quiz! When it is in its balanced state, life will naturally flow with health and happiness…no dosha knowledge needed! Balancing agni is the first step in addressing most imbalances, especially if a full panchakarma (cleansing/detox) is needed.
What is agni?
Agni is the Sanskrit code word for digestion, metabolism and transformation in both our minds and bodies. The main location of agni is in the small intestine, the powerhouse of the digestion of food. There are 12 additional agnis fueled by this master agni. Five of them are mahabhuta agnis. Each of the five great elements that constitute our physical body is involved by further breaking down digested food into its own element. These elements also embody the entire universe, comprised of earth, water, fire, air and space.
The other seven agnis reside in the bodily tissues. The chain of food digestion begins in our digestive tract. Once the food is absorbed from the intestines, it begins its journey through the seven tissues, each with its own little “fire processor.” If there is poor digestion in one of the proceeding tissues, it could hamper digestion in subsequent tissues. Think of it as one of those instances where it’s better to be at the front of the line, right?!
So we need a stable, powerful oven to convert our food at each of these important steps. What happens if it can’t fully convert something? That will be the topic of next month’s blog – ama is created. Ama is “unripened” or uncooked and it gets created when the fire isn’t working properly or when something is eaten that the body doesn’t recognize it as a nutrient. This stuff is put aside to be dealt with later, but if it builds up in the system, it can begin to clog up channels in our mind and body. It is the antithesis of agni and I will elaborate on that very soon!
There are four states of agni, and I’ll save the best for last.
Vishama agni is erratic. It is best friends with vata and it can run both high and low. And sometimes it can run perfectly normal! This can cause variability in the tissues, as their fires will be impacted by this medley of agni states. Balancing vata dosha can help balance vishama agni because they keep close company.
Tikshna agni hangs out with pitta and is very hot and sharp. Food tends to digest too quickly and that is how the word hangry came about. If insufficient food is eaten, tikshna agni can burn the digestive tract and tissues. If too much food is eaten, think of a full pot on the kitchen stove on top of a really hot flame that isn’t stirred. The bottom will cook too fast and the top won’t cook enough, so there will be improperly cooked food in the batch.
One thing to note is that while pitta and agni seem to be almost the same, with like characteristics, they are not. Agni is pure fire. Pitta is fire with a little controlling water to keep it balanced. The concept of pitta is greater than agni and could be thought of as the container in which agni exists. Balancing pitta can aid tikshna agni.
Manda agni is sluggish and causes all sorts of problems. It is besties with kapha and is considered to be a dimly lit fire. If we look at the qualities of agni we see light, clear, subtle, hot, sharp and dry. Kapha is the exact opposite…heavy, cloudy, gross, cold, dull and wet. So kapha easily extinguishes this valuable energy when it gets even slightly aggravated. You’ll also find that kapha shares these same qualities with ama.
Sama agni is the appealing agni we all should strive for. It is balanced and it can process just about anything! When food is eaten in the proper amounts, at the correct times, agni will burn bright and be consistently stable. It will fully digest food and all tissues will be nourished, all the way to the last little fire! There is a prize at the end of the digestive chain called ojas. If food can make it through all seven tissues, it will be transformed into the purest, most beautiful form of food you will ever experience.
Ojas is our vitality, strength and immunity…and for those of you thinking kapha got a raw deal being like ama, it also shares the same qualities with this divine substance. Good ojas equals good life span – it is our prime energy reserve and protects the body from depletion and stress.
How do I get one of those sama agnis?
First let’s look at how to eat. Most importantly is eating at the correct time of day. Have a routine, every single day, that includes 2-4 meals a day, based on your dosha. (Vata 3-4 meals, Pitta 3, Kapha 2-3.) Keep meals spaced 4-5 hours apart and avoid snacking in between, unless it is something easily digestible like fresh fruit, rice pudding or soup broth. And lastly, avoid eating three hours before going to bed.
Next, don’t eat too little or too much. The perfect amount of food is one anjali, or the amount of food that can fit into both of your hands cupped together. When eating, try to fill the stomach half full of food, a quarter full of water, and a quarter left empty. By so doing, you’ll never experience that uncomfortable bloated feeling again, not to mention you’ll benefit from improved digestion and nutrition.
Now let’s chat about what to eat. Always try to eat organically and fresh. Avoid raw foods, processed foods, canned foods, frozen foods. It’s best to eat warm, soft, cooked foods. Whole grains, vegetables, wholesome dairy, legumes, oils, fruits, nuts & seeds, unprocessed sweeteners and spices—all are great foods to have available in the kitchen.
Don’t cook a week’s worth of food in one day and throw it in the freezer. Honestly, don’t eat anything out of the freezer. Remember agni is hot, so we want to avoid the cold quality.
Avoiding the cold quality applies to drinking as well. Avoid ice or cold drinks, especially with a meal. One of the best ways to stoke that fire is by sipping hot water throughout the day. Add a little ginger for those of you who want to attain Super-Achiever status. Don’t drink too much an hour before or after a meal.
Avoid having too much caffeine, especially first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. If possible, try to have a little coffee an hour after breakfast instead. If you need a little zing in your morning to wake up, try some pranayama instead of those devilishly addictive bean brews!
Try to eat when you aren’t feeling overly emotional. If you are stressed, angry or sad, try to process some of the emotions before sitting for a meal. Avoid watching tv, reading or other activities while eating. Make eating its own meditation, or a time to connect with friends and family, allowing some quiet time to focus on the food.
Start a meal by first offering food to somebody else. This could be your family, roommate, guest or even a pet if you live alone. Completely alone for a meal? Offer a prayer of gratitude to those who provided your meal – the farmers, the sun, the market, and especially the plants/animals themselves who sacrificed their lives for yours.
If you have low fire, you can turn it up before a meal by having a teaspoon of the following three ingredients: 1 thin slice of fresh ginger, a pinch of pink rock salt and the juice of 1/3 of a lime. Take this approximately 20 minutes before a meal. Chewing cardamom seeds is also a great way to prime the fire. You’ll need to spit out the fiber after chewing them, but the taste will be refreshing and great for breath!
Get a little exercise. Try walking before a meal.
Agni sara is a great practice to include with your yoga practice. If you’re not sure what that is, ask a qualified yoga teacher or I can show you! Kapalabhati, bhastrika, jathara parivartanasana, paschimottanasana, ardha matsyendrasana, utkatasana, parivrtta trikonasana and surya namaskara—all make great additions to a yoga practice if agni is a concern.
Occasional fasting is good for agni, although too much fasting is depleting and will dim your fire, so be careful with this one. Some kaphas can easily fast one meal a day, leaving them with just two meals. Pittas and vatas are more sensitive – pittas may burn and vatas may deplete, so fasting for these doshas may be a monodiet of kitcheri for a day.
After a meal you can sip CCF (Cumin, Coriander, Fennel tea) or chew roasted fennel seeds. You can also lie down on your left side for ten minutes.
And my favorite way to build agni? Working with spices! Why? Because it involves cooking at home, which ensures healthier foods, less leftover and tamasic, processed food, and a more ritualistic approach to nourishment. So please, please, please treat yourself to a shopping extravaganza to your favorite spice shop to load up on fresh spices! Awesomely effective spices to zest up your cooking and keep that little fire shining bright include: ginger, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, fennel, coriander, cumin, oregano, basil, and bay leaf. Salt is also fiery and good for digestion, although it should be used in moderation for pitta and kapha.
Feeling inspired yet? That inner fire starting to light up?
I hope so, because eating ayurvedically—or trying as best you can as you gain more knowledge and apply it in practice—can offer tremendous health benefits and happiness! Hopefully this has been an inspiring look at the foods, habits and routines that can have a profound effect on one’s life. While an ayurvedic approach can run contrary to some of the customs we have been raised on or are used to following, consider what I propose an inquiry into what else is possible in your life—an alternate path one can take toward achieving true health and happiness, well worth all the discipline and dedication required! So try it on. And take it slowly if need be. Proceed one step at a time. Nobody can change a lifetime of habits overnight, so gently ease into this inquiry, this lifestyle, and start playing with these ayurvedic suggestions.
Also know that your stories inspire me! Drop me a line and let me know what you try, what you like, and what you think works or doesn’t work for you.
Maria is an Ayurvedic Wellness Counselor and offers health consultations. If you want to learn about your dosha and how to live a happy, healthy…ayurvedic life, book an appointment.