DIGESTIVE STRENGTH AND THE IMPORTANCE OF AGNI
“The body is the outcome of food. Even so, disease is the outcome of food. The distinction between ease and disease arises on account of wholesome nutrition or the lack of it respectively. ” Charaka Samhita Sutrasthana 28:45
“It is obvious that that the body tissues cannot be nourished and developed when food is not properly digested by agni” Chikitsa Sthana 15:5
Ayurveda and Yoga both value the importance of a healthy digestive system. It is via the digestive system that food and herbs are assimilated into the body to nourish and heal the whole system. In this newsletter I want to discuss the Ayurvedic concept of the digestive system, the digestive fire (agni), and how to keep it health with correct dietary habits and effective yoga postures.
AGNI: Meaning fire, spark, digestive fire. ‘Ignite’ & ‘agni’ have the same linguistic root.
Qualities: Hot, Light, Dry, Sharp, Penetrating, Pungent, Luminous, Transforming.
Functions: Absorption, assimilation, metabolism, digestion, perception, taste, touch, hearing, vitality, clarity, alertness, regular appetite, combustion.
• It includes the digestive function, sense perception, cellular metabolism and mental assimilation. Mental assimilation and digestive assimilation are intrinsically linked. Eating lightly helps mental clarity just as too much mental activity reduces the efficiency of digestion.
• Agni gives ojas or immunity, a sparkle in the eyes and lusture to the skin.
a) When in balance agni encourages positivity, courage, cheerfulness, lucidity, intelligence.
b) When out of balance agni promotes negativity, fear, anger, confusion, depression.
The four types of agni
Ayurveda classifies four different states of agni that point to certain constitutional tendencies. We each have digestive tendencies that can be regulated with appropriate diet and herbs.
1. Visham agni: These people are prone to have an irregular appetite and digestive system with signs of variable hunger, bloating, indigestion, intestinal cramps, constipation, dry stool, borborygmus and gas. It is common in vata types who are easily disturbed by nervous tension.
Use sweet and pungent flavours in your diet. This means eating cooked food that is soft and easy to digest with mild spices such as fresh ginger, cumin and fennel. Taking Asafoetida formula (Hingashtaka) or Trikatu (Long pepper, Black pepper and Ginger) before you eat can help to balance erratic digestion. Large meals, eating when busy and to many raw foods should be avoided.
2. Tikshna agni: Intense hunger but with poor digestion is a pitta sign. Also thirst, parched mouth, dry throat, loose stool, low blood sugar levels and a burning sensation in intestines. This is common in pitta types who can be intense and irritable.
Use mild sour flavours to dilute the excess acid. This means taking diluted yoghurt with food to prevent some of the hot acid symptoms. People with this type of digestion should eat small and regular meals using complex carbohydrates to balance blood sugar levels. Include Shatavari (Asparagus racemosa), Guduchi (Tinosporia cordifolia) and Amalaki formula to balance pitta. Too many hot spices, fried foods, coffee and alcohol should be avoided.
3. Mandagni: This means slow digestion and is commonly a kapha sign. Also weak hunger, heavyness after a meal, tiredness after eating, sluggish bowels, bulky stool, feeling cold, sweet craving, stimulant craving.
Use pungent and bitter flavours. This means that meals should help to stimulate the digestive process by including light foods that are easy to digest with dry ginger, cinnamon and black pepper in the diet. Include Trikatu (Long pepper, Black pepper and Ginger) or Cinnamon to boost agni. Heavy substances such as wheat, dairy and excess sweets should be avoided.
4. Samagni: Balanced hunger and digestion; food is digested within 4 hours with no excess craving or lack of interest in food.
Use all 6 flavours and a balanced diet to maintain samagni. This is perfect digestion and should be sought by everyone. It is gained by following sensible eating habits and developing awareness so that you understand your body’s needs. A teacher of mine always told me “graze like a cow and let your spirit soar” or, to translate, “don’t eat too much ay any one time, follow the needs of your body and let your consciousness guide you.”
Effects of low digestive fire:
a) All forms of imbalanced agni create ama. This is undigested food that form toxins that act as poisons to the body. In chronic conditions ama can manifest as high cholesterol, blood disorders, fatigue syndromes, tumours, cysts, skin conditions.
b) Ama causes the doshas to accumulate at their site; kapha in stomach, pitta in the abdomen, vata in the colon.
c) If left untreated the accumulated doshas can become aggravated and start to overflow.
d) This overflowing is a very dangerous situation for the balance of health.
- Kapha can become mucus, coughs, asthma, diabetes, obesity.
- Pitta can become skin problems, heart problems, inflammatory problems.
- Vata can become bone problems, nervous conditions, degenerative conditions.
Palliation (shamana)- the best way to enkindle the digestion
Ayurveda includes a very insightful process for healing the digestive system and removing disease.
1. Dipana; enkindling the digestive fire by using pungent, hot, drying herbs to stimulate the agni. This means taking some Trikatu (Long pepper, Black pepper and Ginger) before a meal to encourage healthy digestion.
2. Pachana; digesting ama toxins and undigested residues. This means taking toxin digesting herbs after you eat to ‘keep the fire burning.’ Trikatu, Ginger or aromatic seeds such as Cardamom or fennel are good examples.
3. Vrat or kshud nigraha ; fasting. This should always be done according to your constitution; examples might be a mono-kicharee diet for vata types and busy people, a fresh juice fast for pitta types and a hot water fast for kapha types.
4. Trshna or trut nigraha; fasting from water. This is only appropriate for people with water metabolism problems, usually in kapha problems.
5. Vyayama; exercise and yoga.
6. Atapa; lightening, drying and reducing the doshas by sitting in the sun and raising the metabolism.
7. Maruta; lightening and drying the body by sitting in the wind and by breathing practices. This especially includes pranayama practices so that the increased airflow and oxygen levels dries damp toxins and revitalises the whole system.
Ayurvedic healthy eating habits
These simple suggestions help to encourage a strong and efficient digestive system that is at the heart of good health:
• Eat according to your constitution (vata foods for vata)
• Eat fresh food that is organically grown.
• Eat satvic foods; light, fresh, rejuvenative.
• Minimize the use of leftovers, canned, frozen or preserved foods.
• Do not eat lots of raw and cooked food together.
• Do not eat contraindicated foods: Dairy and fruit; melon after other food; fruits with other food; fish and milk; eggs with milk; lemons with milk or yoghurt; yoghurt after dark; equal parts of ghee and honey (3:1 by weight); cooked honey.
• Eat seasonal foods.
• Avoid excessive fasting or excessive eating. The recommendation is to eat until you are 50% full, have 25% liquids and leave the remaining space for prana to circulate.
• Only eat when hungry and drink when thirsty.
• When you travel adjust your diet slowly as the change in water, food and climate can all adversely affect your digestion.
• Antidote extreme qualities of food with digestive spices.
Yogic practices to strengthen agni
Generally speaking all twists, forward bends, sideways bends and postures that put physical pressure on the abdomen benefit the digestive system. Relaxation also has very therapeutic effects as digestion only really works when we are calm and the parasympathetic nervous system is predominant. When we are ‘on alert’ busying around and the sympathetic nervous system is running then digestion can literally stop.
• Be careful if you have high or low blood pressure, heart problems with all digestive stimulating postures.
• Leave at least four hours from your last meal before doing these practices.
Here are some practices that you may find useful to include in your daily practice:
Agnisara kriya: Increasing the digestive fire practice.
This is a simple and effective practice that helps to clear low digestive fire, gas, constipation as well as massaging the digestive organs and stimulating the appetite.
Sit in Vajrasana with your knees far apart.
Place the hands on your knees and, keeping the arms straight, lean forwards.
Open your mouth and stick your tongue out.
Breathe in and out of your mouth like a panting dog. Simultaneously expand and contract your whole abdomen.
Imagine that there is a balloon that is inflating and deflating within your belly and that each breath is fanning the digestive flames.
Do this up to 25 times for five rounds.
Nauli: Abdominal churning
This practice takes a while to learn but is extremely important for cleaning the intestines and stimulating the digestive system. It is the most powerful of the agni enkindling practices. The liver, pancreas, stomach, small and large intestines all receive a wonderful massage encouraging them to regulate their function.
You should only learn it under the guidance of a practitioner.
Matsyendrasana: The spinal twist pose (half)
Along with all its benefits for benefiting the spine this is a great posture for digestive problems. Its stretching and massaging of the abdomen make it useful for clearing gas and increasing peristalsis. Its specific ability to tone the pancreas and liver make it a useful adjunct to helping diabetes and liver problems.
Mayurasana: The peacock or Hamsasana; The swan
These postures put a lot of pressure on the upper part of the abdomen which has a very stimulating effect on the whole digestive process. They can be a bit tricky to do (especially due to female anatomy) but do give a very deep massage to the epigastrium.
Pranayama: Breathing practices
All breathing practices help digestion. Some, such as kapalabhatii and bhastrika work by stimulating the whole system, otheres, such as nadi shodhana and brahmari work by relaxing any tension and freeing digestion from the trappings of stress.
Combining simple Ayurvdic techniques and regular yoga practice can help to treat all sorts of digestive problems. The trappings of modern living along with varied diets can all too easily destabilise the digestion. A disturbed digestion can also upset your yoga practice. Try using some of these recommendations and feel your system set free!
Enjoy these cleansing and strengthening practices