A key piece of Ayurveda is an important little thing called agni. Ninety percent of all disease is caused by malfunctioning agni! First, you have to know what agni is and how it works. Second, you need to know how to keep agni strong. Let’s talk about both! Here we go, en fuego!
What is agni?
Agni is a little fire that burns behind our belly button. We all have it. Agni’s job is to digest and use the food we eat and turn it into energy. It also takes the non-useable stuff and turns it into waste, like sweat and poop. It’s like metabolism in a way, some people have stronger agni and some people have weaker agni.
Several things happen when agni functions properly. We are at a comfortable weight, our tongue is pink, we feel light and full of energy, waking up is easy, we are hungry before meals, we have clarity and focus, we have clear burps, and we poop at least once a day. All these are signs that we are digesting our food well! If we are doing all of these, we can kiss most disease or imbalance goodbye!
How does it work?
Agni (the little fire) rises and sets with the sun (the giant fire). When the sun gets stronger and higher, so does agni. In the morning, when the sun is at the horizon, agni is just waking up after a good night’s rest (agni yawns and stretches it’s wee arms). Agni at this time is small, like a matchstick flame. What happens if you put a log on a matchstick flame? Right. You’d put it out. The same thing happens if our breakfast is too big. If we pile eggs, bacon, toast, a blueberry muffin, coffee, and orange juice on our tiny match stick flame, we will smother the fire.
Well, we don’t want to put the fire out, we want it to grow! Instead of a big lumpy breakfast, we need to give agni a little kindling. Kindling for agni is a small, warm, light breakfast so agni can grow bigger, just like starting a camp fire. Once agni has digested that nice little breakfast, it will be calling for more, probably around 10:00 or 10:30 a.m. (raise your hands if you get snacky around this time!).
The goal is to have a nice raging fire by noon, because at noon, all three fires in nature are in alignment: the sun, pitta energy, and our agni. This means we can digest a LOT right now. This is the BEST time to eat our biggest meal because this is the strongest agni will be all day, and it has the rest of the day to work on digestion.
By dinner time, agni has gotten much smaller because, a) it worked so hard on lunch and, b) the sun is going down and, c) it’s preparing to fast for the night. Therefore, dinner needs to be light and small in portion because there is not much agni left in ourselves or in nature.
The mistake many of us make is that we eat a small frizzy salad-ey cold lunch, which leaves us starving by the end of the day, so we eat a huge dinner. But remember, at dinner time there is not much agni left. If we have a huge dinner, we give agni more work than it had all day. What happens is then agni says what we all say when we are tired and faced with a lot of work: “Forget this, I’m going to put it aside for later.” *yawn!* And, goes to sleep.
But…that food is still there in the morning because agni didn’t finish it. Now, if we put a big ole breakfast on top of that, it creates a food back up and makes agni’s job even harder. Fast forward and you can see why there would be food on top of food on top of food. Overtime, this is the main reason for weight gain, or why we feel groggy upon waking, and this is what creates toxins. Old food-stuffs hanging around creates imbalance and breeds disease. If our body is a freeway, major clogs happening in the digestive tract cause back ups for the rest of the entire body.
What can I do to keep agni strong?
- Eat ayurvedically-sized meals: a small breakfast, a big lunch, and a small dinner.
- Honor your hunger. If you are hungry, eat. Your body (and agni) is ready for more. If you are not hungry, don’t eat. Your body is still trying to digest old food.
- If your burps still taste like your last meal (gross, I know, but you can handle it), don’t eat. If you have clear burps, agni has processed the previous meal and you can eat.
- Sweating/exercise brings heat to the entire body, releases toxins and strengthens agni (that’s why people who exercise a lot are hungrier).
- Try kapalabhati pranayama, a form of deep breathing.
- Don’t eat late at night when agni is sleeping. If you have a weird schedule that day, have a glass of milk or a piece of fruit instead.
- When agni is small (early morning or evening), avoid cold, goopy foods like yogurt, ice cream, or icy smoothies. You’ll put agni out.
- Never drink ice water (an Ayurvedic no-no). Our bodies are 98 degrees and ice water makes our insides *freeze!* and *constrict!* brr…and flow can’t happen. Agni also gets dampened.
- Sip a little water during meals. Water puts out fire, so a little is good but not too much.