Improving Digestion with Ayurveda | Banyan Botanicals

The Importance of Healthy Digestion

An Ayurvedic Guide to Understanding Agni

 

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The concept of agni, the Sanskrit word for "fire," is rather essential to the Ayurvedic tradition. Ayurveda views agni as the very source of life. It is said that a man is as old as his agni and that when agni is extinguished, we die.1 Perhaps even more significantly, Ayurveda teaches us that impaired agni is at the root of every imbalance and disease. So the importance of agni in Ayurveda simply cannot be understated. This resource is intended to give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of agni, while offering you some practical tools with which to tend to your own agni.

What is Agni?

Fire has been worshiped throughout human history. In fact, Indo-European languages often had two distinct words for it: one for an inanimate form of fire, one for an animate form.2 Interestingly, the English word "fire" was born out of the inanimate form.2 On the other hand, the Sanskrit word agni (pronounced uhg-nih) is one of the oldest known words for the living, breathing variety of fire. Agni is also the root from which a number of words evoking the dynamic nature of fire emerged: "ignis" (Latin), "ugnis" (Old Prussian), as well as "ignite" and "igneous" (English).1, 2 As its etymological history suggests, the deeper significance of the Sanskrit word agni is profound—sacred, even.

The Vedic culture revered fire for its light, its warmth, and its ability to cook food.3 But the Vedic understanding of agni extends well beyond "fire" in its physical form. Agni also names the fire element—one of the 5 building blocks from which everything in the universe is composed. And agni refers equally to the digestive fire, the fire of intelligence, and that which governs all transformative processes. It is the vehicle by which food becomes consciousness. In fact, agni serves as a bridge between the body, the mind, and the consciousness; it connects lower consciousness to higher consciousness; and it links the individual to the cosmos.1 In the interest of honoring the incredible living force that is agni, we will use the Sanskrit word throughout this resource (alongside English translations, where appropriate). 

Evidence of Agni’s Importance

In Ayurveda, agni is the source of awareness, nutrition, and intelligence. It drives all types of transformation, digests thoughts and emotions, and coordinates countless physiological processes—including the digestion, absorption, and assimilation of foods, sensations, and experiences into energy.1 Agni maintains the bodily tissues, overseeing their creation, renewal, as well as their breakdown and destruction.1 It gives our skin its luster, and our eyes their sparkle.1, 3 There are many manifestations of agni that affect the body and mind—from the fire of awareness, to the central digestive fire, from the capacity for discernment within each tissue, to that in individual cells—overseeing transformation at the microscopic level.

Ultimately, agni is the gatekeeper of good health; balanced agni throughout the system prevents the undue accumulation of vata, pitta, kapha, and ama (toxins). In the event that any of these substances do start to accumulate, a robust and healthy digestive fire will keep them in the digestive tract (where they can be easily eliminated), and prevent them from invading any tissues. If you are dying to know more about the myriad of physiological functions for which agni is responsible, please consider reading our article on The Importance of Agni.

General Support for Agni

There are many ways to strengthen and support agni, which is hot, sharp, dry, light, mobile, subtle, luminous, and clear.1, 3 In general, substances and experiences rich in these qualities will support agni, while those substances and experiences predominated by qualities that oppose agni will disturb it.

Every morsel of nourishment we ingest (physically and otherwise) is an offering to agni. This offering can be made with sacred intention or it can be made mindlessly. We can focus on foods and other forms of nourishment that honor and enhance the qualities of agni or we can ingest substances and experiences that dilute and smother the sacred fire. Either way, the health of agni throughout the system will be affected. Here are some practical tips for protecting your sacred fire.

 

Eat Well, and with Mindfulness

Food is one of the most obvious—and also one of the most potent—pathways through which to invoke balance in the metabolic fire. Overall, eating a diet of light, simple, easily digestible, and sattvic foods kindles agni and supports natural hunger, as does developing a habit of eating at regular times each day.4 Eating appropriate quantities of food at each meal (about two handfuls) also strengthens agni.4 However, it is equally important to allow the digestive fire to fully process one meal before we eat again, leaving at least three—but often four to six—hours between meals.1 Sipping small amounts of warm water or ginger tea with a meal will also support digestion.

Jathara agni (the central digestive fire) resides primarily in the stomach, but it feeds and nourishes agni throughout the body. So when we are truly present with the food we eat—when we give our full attention to the act of being nourished—agni is strengthened everywhere in the body.4 Eating only when hungry also supports agni.4 Genuine hunger is characterized by a sense of lightness, a pleasant anticipation of food, and is satisfied by eating. False hunger can be caused by boredom, emotional upset, exhaustion, and other disturbances, but it is usually resolved with a short rest, a walk, or some warm water.4

Avoid Agni Inhibitors

Cold drinks extinguish the heat of the digestive fire, so Ayurveda generally recommends avoiding them.4 Similarly, drinking too much fluid (especially in conjunction with or immediately after food) dilutes agni and can inhibit digestion.4 Excessive sleep, overeating, emotional eating, and leftovers all tend to dampen the subtle nature of agni, while foods like cheese, meat, and mushrooms dull its sharpness.4 Heavy foods and cloudy weather can easily disrupt the light, clear nature of agni.4 Too much caffeine can also upset the balance of the digestive fire.4 And if we eat when emotionally disturbed, when bored, when thirsty (instead of hungry), and when the mind is dull and cloudy, agni is bound to suffer.4

Kindle Agni Before Eating

There are many simple ways to kindle agni immediately before we eat so that the digestive fire can effectively process our foods and burn any previously accumulated toxins. One option is to take a short walk just prior to eating. This practice can also help to clarify whether hunger is genuine or not. Emotional cravings will dissipate after a walk while true hunger will be enhanced.4 Another simple agni kindling technique is to drink more water at appropriate times. Try drinking a cup or two of warm water upon waking, and a large glass (about two cups) of warm or room temperature water 20–30 minutes before your meals. These tactics not only help to cleanse and hydrate the tissues, they also awaken the digestive capacity and can dramatically improve digestion.5 If you need to support a particular dosha, Vata Digest, Pitta Digest, and Kapha Digest can help to strengthen the digestive fire by balancing whichever dosha is most affecting your agni. If you are unsure of which formula would be right for you, please refer to our article on identifying different digestive imbalances.

Support Digestion After Eating

When you have finished eating, it is important to take a full, deep breath before getting up and moving on to your next activity. This helps the body to register satisfaction and retains a helpful level of mindfulness as you transition away from eating. Some people also benefit from the probiotic effect of enjoying a small cup of lassi after a meal. Lassi is made with one part fresh, homemade yogurt blended with four parts water, and you can add a pinch of cumin powder and salt to aid digestion.4 If meals tend to make you sleepy, a very short walk after a meal can be highly beneficial.4 Or, if you tend to routinely overextend yourself, try lying on your left side for 5–15 minutes after lunch.4 This position activates the solar energy channel, which is linked to agni, so it is not only relaxing and rejuvenating, but also very supportive of good digestion.

Undertake a Dietary Cleanse Periodically

A cleanse is a powerful way to kindle and reset agni. Ayurveda honors the body’s natural intelligence. Doing a cleanse gives the physiology a chance to detox, repair, and rejuvenate the tissues while supporting agni throughout the body. There are many options when it comes to cleansing. For some, a weekly half or full day water-only fast works well. For others, that’s simply too provoking and eating a mono diet for one day each week is a better choice. This could be a simple fruit or juice cleanse, or a more nourishing day of kitchari. Which option is appropriate for you depends on your constitution and your current state of balance. Still others elect to do a deeper, seasonal cleanse or panchakarma, Ayurveda’s signature cleanse, once or twice a year. A trained Ayurvedic practitioner can guide you in choosing a cleansing routine appropriate for you—body, mind, and spirit. In truth, any of these cleansing regimens are best done under the guidance of a qualified practitioner.

Engage in Appropriate Exercise

One of the most important ways we can kindle and protect agni is with proper exercise. Ayurveda offers the unique perspective that the type, duration, and intensity of exercise that is most balancing for each of us depends largely on our prakriti (constitution) and vikriti (current state of balance). If you do not know yours, our Ayurvedic Profile™ quiz is designed to help you identify your constitution and your current state. You’ll also find more in depth information on how to recognize and respond to specific digestive imbalances in our resource on the Four Varieties of Agni. If you already have an idea which of your doshas requires the most attention at the moment, know that:

 

Fresh Air & Pranayama

Just as fire is fed by fresh air, agni is kindled when we breathe deeply and relax our bodies. This might be something as simple as going for a walk or a hike in nature. Or, if you’re open to a more specific practice, consider refreshing the deep tissues with a few minutes of pranayama (yogic breathing exercises). Dr. Vasant Lad teaches a well rounded, agni kindling series in his Pranayama for Self-Healing DVD. If you are fairly clear about which dosha(s) need the most support in your system, try:

If you are not sure which doshas are affecting your agni, our resource on the Four Varieties of Agni helps to sort out the different types of imbalances and offers practical recommendations (including specific pranayamas) for each one.

Follow a Consistent Daily Routine

Ayurveda places a great deal of emphasis on maintaining an appropriate daily routine. This practice is surprisingly supportive of agni. A routine helps to reduce stress and creates a sense of regularity throughout the day, which bolsters natural hunger at regular intervals, and prepares the agni to receive food at consistent times. Embracing a daily routine can also help to maintain a balanced mental state and is considered an important aspect of self-care in Ayurveda.

If you are new to the idea of a routine, you’ll find more extensive support in our resource on Creating an Ayurvedic Daily Routine. If you’d like to start with something simple, aim to go to bed at about the same time each night, wake up at about the same time each morning, and eat your meals at about the same time each day.

Take Triphala

This traditional Ayurvedic formula is comprised of three fruits, and balances vata, pitta, and kapha. It is revered for its unique ability to gently cleanse and detoxify the digestive tract, while replenishing, nourishing, and rejuvenating the tissues. In this way, Triphala tends to support agni throughout the body. About half an hour before bed, you can either take two Triphala Tablets with a glass of warm water or, if you prefer a powder, steep ½ teaspoon of Triphala Powder in a cup of freshly boiled water for 10 minutes, cool and drink.

Meditate to Reduce Stress

Stress can have a very detrimental impact on our overall heath, and is particularly disruptive to the digestive process. Meditation is a beautiful subtle therapy that not only encourages stress reduction, but that also supports the proper digestion of thoughts and emotions, encourages a healthier mental and emotional state, and helps us to develop more productive responses to stressful situations. If you are new to meditation, Dr. Lad’s Empty Bowl Meditation is a simple, but beautiful practice, suitable to most anyone.

Extending Reverence to Agni

Agni is essential to our wellbeing; in fact, maintaining balanced agni may just be the secret to achieving optimal health and longevity. So it goes without saying that agni is incredibly deserving of our respect, attention, understanding, reverence, and care. We hope that this resource has served as a compelling introduction to the central role that agni plays in our health. As we have seen, it not only governs the digestive process, but also directs critical physiological functions throughout the body, and plays an important role in mental and emotional health. If you are still hungry for more information, please consider exploring these complementary resources:

  • The Importance of Agni
    This article explores the specific functions of agni, as well as the signs and symptoms of both healthy and impaired agni.
  • The Four Varieties of Agni
    This resource specifically compares balanced agni to the different types of imbalances that can disrupt it, and offers appropriate therapies for each type of imbalance.
  • Ama: the Antithesis of Agni
    This piece introduces the toxic, undigested material called ama, whose qualities directly oppose those of agni. Ama in the body can either be the cause or the result of impaired agni—and in either case, threatens our health.
  • Ayurvedic Guide to Healthy Elimination
    This resource provides a comprehensive look at healthy elimination through the lens of Ayurveda; it highlights the importance of healthy bowel habits and stools, offers some general tips for supporting proper elimination, and links to more specific articles on vata type elimination, pitta type elimination, and kapha type elimination.

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References:

1 Lad, Vasant. Textbook of Ayurveda Vol I: Fundamental Principles of Ayurveda. Albuquerque: The Ayurvedic Press, 2002. Print. 81-84, 89, 256.

2 “Fire Worship.” Wikipedia. Web. 19 May. 2014.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_worship

3 Pole, Sebastian. Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice. London: Churchill Livingston, 2006. Print. 43.

4 Lad, Vasant. Textbook of Ayurveda Vol III: General Principles of Management and Treatment. Albuquerque: The Ayurvedic Press, 2012. Print. 64-69, 134-135, 140.

5 Douillard, John. Fan Your Digestive Fire: Just Add Water. LifeSpa, 18 Apr. 2014. Web. 8 May 2014.