Ayurveda basics: agni, your digestive fire

In ayurveda, when we evaluate someone’s health, one of the first things we do is look at the level their digestive fire. The agni represents the fire element and involves everything related to transformation. The main functions of agni are digestion, absorption and transformation of food and sensations into energy, since everything we ingest is to obtain energy. If a person’s agni is strong and warm, he or she enjoys good health and mental and physical strength. On the other hand, when agni is out of balance, the opposite happens. Agni is energy and manifests itself as body temperature, digestive enzymes, amino acids and all metabolic activities.

For example, bad breath or strong body odors indicate problems with one’s agni. We can use all the perfume we want, the body has its natural scent governed by the digestive fire since agni maintains the natural balance between the doshas Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. You might have noticed that when you are sick you suffer from bad breath, a white-coated tongue and transpiration that has a strong smell.

The concept of digestion according to the Ayurvedic point of view is similar to the preparation of meals. You need an oven or stove, a pot, oil, air, food and someone to manage all the tools. The oven or stove would be the small intestine and the fire would be jāthara agni, translated as king of all agnis, that is, the main agni of the 13 existing ones. The stomach is our pot and the oil would be the food that we digested the previous day to provide energy to the intestinal walls that discharge the digestive enzymes. These are the same enzymes that promote and regulate the fire of agni. Air is the electrical energy necessary to conduct heat, while water represents the mucous secretions of the stomach. And, finally, there must be a person who oversees this whole process, also represented by prāna, the vital energy that makes all activities possible from beginning to end.

All foods contain prāna to a certain degree and the body can only assimilate it through digestion. Food needs to be transformed into substances that nourish the body tissues through absorption. This can only be done, in large part, by cooking. If you eat raw rice, prāna is not active and our system will not be able to digest it. A cow can digest raw rice because it has a very powerful agni. Our human agni is very different.  Then there are some foods such as lettuce, parsley and sprouts that have the prāna already prepared to be digested by the body, so we can eat them raw. But grains, legumes and most vegetables need to be cooked so prāna is available to the body. There are multiple enzymes responsible for this transformation and Ayurveda uses the term agni to describe these enzymes and metabolic processes. Without agni it would be impossible to digest food and emotions; toxin accumulation would take place in the body, which eventually leads to disease. A balanced agni provides optimal digestion: not too slow, nor too fast.

We expect the following when we have a balanced agni:

  • feeling of lightness
  • physical and mental energy
  • correct formation of our body tissues
  • clear and luminous skin
  • daily bowel movements at the same time every day
  • regenerative sleep and waking up easily
  • regular appetite and neutral taste in the mouth
  • good circulation and skin tone
  • pleasant body odor and breath

An abnormal agni can lead to poor circulation, laziness, intestinal gas, bloating, constipation, fatigue, poor appetite or excess appetite, gastritis and inflammation of the tissues. We have already spoken about three doshas Vata, Pitta and Kapha in other posts. Each of these humors has its tendencies when it comes to agni. Next, I explain the four varieties of agni depending on the alterations of dosha.

Sama agni (regular metabolism).When doshas are in balance according to the natural constitution (prakruti) of the person, agni is stable. A person with a balanced agni can eat practically anything without suffering from indigestion or discomfort, including unhealthy foods such as fried and processed foods. People with sama agni enjoy mental clarity, calmness and an elevated self-consciousness.

Vishama agni (irregular metabolism). Vata represents all that is change. Aggravated Vata indicates an agni that undergoes drastic changes, provoking an irregular appetite, a variable digestion, abdominal distension, indigestion, gas, cramps and constipation. Even a small amount of food can cause intestinal gas. Sometimes the person may suffer from diarrhea as a consequence. Eventually this can lead to dry skin, joint problems, sciatica, back pain, insomnia, insecurity, fear and other neurological and mental problems. The cold quality of Vata slows down agni and metabolism. Symptoms such as dry mouth, spasms and other Vata type of illnesses arise due to an irregular agni. The person usually craves fried, hot and spicy foods.

Tikshna agni (acute agni). Due to the hot, sharp and sharp properties of Pitta dosha, agni can become intense when Pitta dosha rises. As this leads to hypermetabolism, the person will want to eat large amounts of food frequently, then suffer from dry lips, palate and throat, stomach pain, hot flashes and acid indigestion. The heat, liquid and acid qualities of Pitta can lead to gastritis, hypoglycemia, colitis, dysentery, as well as liver pain, nausea, vomiting and inflammatory problems. This type of agni can lead to anger, hatred and envy. People with tikshna agni have a desire for sweet foods. According to Ayurveda, most of Pitta dosha’s problems come from tikshna agni.

Manda agni (low agni). The water and soil characteristics of Kapha dosha represent heaviness, slowness and cold, contrary to the properties of agni. As a result, an excess of Kapha can lead to a slow metabolism. A person with agni may be able to live normally without eating for a few days, only drinking water and still gain weight.  On the other hand, this person would have a hard time digesting a plate of normal and healthy food and even without eating he or she feels heaviness in the stomach paired with cold, congestion and cough. This leads to symptoms and diseases such as excess saliva, loss of appetite, allergies, nausea, edema, obesity and diabetes. Those who suffer from manda agni sleep in excess and have cold and damp skin. Mentally they suffer from attachment, greed and possessiveness. There is a desire for hot, sharp, dry and spicy foods. Almost all problems of Kapha dosha are due to a slow agni.

When I create nutrition & detox programs at G&Y, I first of all analyse the state of agni to determine which tools we need to balance it. It is important to introduce compatible lifestyle habits according to your Ayurvedic constitution, a diet with dishes that consist of all 6 flavors (sweet, salty, acid, spicy, bitter and astringent), apart from good routines in harmony with your direct environment, the area in which you live, the season and your circumstances, because a nutrition plan & lifestyle program for a person who works in changing shifts will not be the same as the one of a person who works from Monday to Friday from 9am to 6pm.

If you want to learn more about your agni and the methods and tools that will lead you towards a healthy and balanced life, feel free to contact me so we can see what Ayurveda can do for you.

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