THE DIGESTIVE FIRE: Agni
“ The digestive fire in the intestines (jataragni) is the root of all the digestive fires in the body. As it causes the increase or decrease of the elemental and tissue digestive fires it should be treated with great care.’ Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita
Ayurveda considers that health of the digestive system is at the centre of optimum health. If you can absorb and assimilate life’s experiences, whether physical or emotional, then you are healthy. This means that you can manage life’s challenges and will not be held back by past ‘meals’ or experiences. An undigested meal leaves discomfort as can an undigested experience. Ayurveda teaches you the way to enhance your digestion and digest all your experiences!
The ancient Indian Vedic culture revered agni or fire. It gave them light, warmth and cooked their food. Agnideva is the Fire god who acts as a messenger between the mortal world and the heavens. In Vedic rituals humans offer oblations to the sacred fire. The fire takes a portion for himself and then vaporises the rest for the benefit of the gods. The gods imbibe this nutritious fragrance and in return give life-giving waters and favourable environmental conditions from which crops flourish and humans can feed themselves. This benevolent cycle continues as long as both parties are happy.
It is a metaphor of our own digestive system. We eat and ‘offer’ food into the fire of our bellies. Agni digests this food and the control centres in the brain are nourished by these fragrant ‘vapours’. This nourishment releases the nervous impulses which release enzymes and hormones. This stimulates systemic metabolic activity so that the whole body-mind complex functions efficiently.
Agni is seen as the metaphor for all metabolic functions in the body. It includes the digestive function, sense perception, cellular metabolism and mental assimilation.
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. Note the link between mental well-being and digestive health (and vica versa).
• It gives immunity, a sparkle in the eyes and lustre to the skin.
When agni is balanced it causes emotions that are beneficial to health: courage, cheerfulness, lucid, intelligence.
When agni is out of balance it causes emotions that are destructive to health: fear, anger, confusion, idiocy.
Effects of low digestive fire:
a) All forms of imbalanced agni create undigested residues (ama) that form toxins.
b) The dosha accumulate at their site- kapha (K) in the stomach, pitta (P) in the abdomen, vata (V) in the colon. This starts the cycle of imbalance and must be avoided if you want to stay healthy.
c) If this is left untreated the accumulated dosha can become disturbed.
d) This results in the dosha overflowing- a very dangerous situation.
- K can become mucus, coughs, asthma, diabetes, obesity.
- P can become skin problems, heart problems, inflammatory problems.
- V can become bone problems, nervous conditions, degenerative conditions
Toxins (ama) become present in all chronic conditions- high cholesterol, blood disorders, fatigue syndromes, tumours, cysts, skin conditions, allergies, cancers.
The thirteen digestive fires
a) The central digestive fire (jatharagni): This is located from the mouth to the anus and is present throughout the gastro-intestinal tract. Its main function is to help digest complex foods to a simple form known as ‘ahara rasa’, the food essence. It is of four types; visham- irregular, tikshana-intense, manda- sluggish and sama- balanced (see below)
b) Five elemental fires (bhutagni): These are the metabolic fires which digest the ‘elements’. They act on the food essence to release the five elements contained in food; Space, Air, Fire, Water, Earth. The bhutagni exist in the liver.
c) Seven tissue fires (dhatu agni): These are specific ‘enzymes’ that help to transform the unstable tissue portion that helps to build the tissues. These are the seven tissues of the body that give it material structure; skin, blood, muscle, adipose tissue, bones, nerve tissue, reproductive tissue.
The four types of agni
Ayurveda classifies four different states of agni that point to certain constitutional tendencies.
1. Visham agni: This is 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.
Use sweet and pungent flavours. Include Asafoetida formula (hingashtaka), Trikatu and Ginger before you eat.
2. Tikshna agni: Intense hunger but with poor digestion is a pitta sign. Also thirst, parched mouth, dry throat, loose stool and a burning sensation in intestines.
Use mild sour flavours to dilute excess acid. Include Shatavari (Asparagus racemosa), Guduchi (Tinosporia cordifolia) and Amalaki formula to balance pitta.
3. Mandagni: Weak hunger is a kapha sign. Also slow digestion, heavyness after a meal, sluggish bowels, bulky stool, feeling cold, sweet craving, stimulant craving.
Use pungent and bitter flavours. Include Trikatu, Ginger and Cinnamon.
4. Samagni: Balanced hunger and digestion; food is digested within 4 hours with no excess craving or lack of interest. Use Triphala to maintain a healthy digestive system
Use all 6 flavours and a balanced diet to maintain balanced digestion.
Therapeutic treatment for balancing agni:
The best advice is to follow the body. Try to eat when hungry, gently stoking the digestive fire with small meals and trying not to smother it with foods that are excessively cold, heavy or wet. Do not aggravate it with excess spicy, oily or fried foods.
A few Ayurvedic dietary rules:
• Leave 4-6 hours between meals with no snacking.
• The sign that the previous meal is digested is when the breath is fresh.
• Eating in between meals weakens the agni.
• Eating foods with cold, wet and heavy qualities weakens the agni.
• Drink hot water to stimulate agni.
• Treat agni with ocassional fasts; use a mono-diet (eg rice, kicharee), hot lemon water and a seasonal cleanse to keep digestion healthy.
• Agni is increased by pungent, sour and salty flavours and so start a meal with these flavours.
• A low dosage of bitter taste taken before a meal increases the secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
• Agni stimulating and increasing herbs are Ginger, Black pepper, Cayenne pepper, Cinnamon, Long pepper (Piper longum), Guduchi (Tinosporia cordifolia), Kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata). Use a small dose (1-2g) before meals to enkindle the digestive fire.
• Agni tonic herbs that build enduring digestive strength are Pushkaramoola (Inula racemosa), Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), Musta (Cyperus rotundus).
• Yoga exercises to balance agni: Stimulating the fire practice (Agnisara kriya), abdominal massage (nauli), lighting the skull breath (kapalabhati), bellows breath (bhastrika), peacock (mayurasana), forward bend back stretching pose (paschimottanasana), fish pose (matsyendrasana), the sun salutation (surya namaskar).