I am a total pyro. I’m mesmerized by flames, and notorious amongst friends and family for being the insatiable feeder of the fire. At a lake shore cabin, I built and enormous bonfire while everyone was boating. From their spot on the lake, the boaters were shocked and concerned at the sheer size of the flames. Incantations, wild swooping, use of all the wood in the vicinity. Fire evokes a certain mood.
In ayurveda, a healthy digestive fire, called agni, is considered to be of paramount importance. The term “agni” is a concept related to all the transformations that body and soul do as we go about living life. Agni extracts nutrients and drives the removal of waste from the foods we eat. It also allows us to process all of our life experiences. This transformative power of consciousness is also known as tejas.
Agni keeps the train rolling: nutrition used, waste out. An efficient machine.
Supposedly, no disease can manifest itself without a disturbance in agni. Weak agni is said to be the root cause of ALL disease. Conversely, strong agni allows us to digest nutrients and produce ojas. Ojas are what give us our physical health as well as our zest for life. If agni is kept strong and in balance, diseases will not develop. We will be able to manage whatever comes in to be utilized, digested and eliminated.
I burn my journals upon completion. The burning symbolizes a new beginning. Fire is one of the five elements that are central to ayurveda. Just like the element water, where we can stare mesmerized at the waves, fire feels primal.
Agni is in Charge
Agni governs all digestive processes: food, thoughts, emotions, motivation level, and immunity. It is the “creative fire of transformation behind all life”. Agni allows us to process not only our food, but also our experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Agni helps us prevent build-up of (toxic) waste, or ama. For example, say we go through something that leaves us feeling sadness or fear. We need to process what we went through in order to move on. With too many unprocessed experiences, ama can build up. Unhealthy/old/fast food can also lead to ama build up. Too much ama will eventually lead to illness, from a stuffy nose all the way up to very serious diseases.
It’s not as much WHAT we eat, but how effectively our bodies can process it. If a person has strong agni, they will be able to digest anything. This is the person with an iron gut. But when agni isn’t working so great, toxins (ama) start to build up in our system. The toxins then weaken the digestive fire even more, agni is weakened, and a vicious cycle ensues.
What Weakens Agni?
- Extreme fasting
- Eating too soon after last meal – before the food is digested
- Irregular eating habits
- Imbalanced dosha(s)
- Unhealthy food choices
- Too much or too little exercise
- Excessive heat or cold
- Trauma – physical and/or emotional
- Excessive worry/anxiety
Signs of Impaired Agni:
- Bad taste in the mouth
- Strong body odor
- Low energy
- Heaviness, lethargy
- Coating on tongue
- Erratic/unresolved emotions
- Fear, anxiety, depression or anger
- Difficulty concentrating/Mental fogginess
- Memory issues
- Eating too much/too little
- Constipation or diarrhea
Agni is improved by:
- Regular meals
- Sipping hot water or ginger tea between meals
- Largest meal at Noon, when agni is strongest
- Eating smaller meals
- Skipping a meal when not hungry (except watch out for sudden hanger when unable to gain access to any food – this one is probably left to the robustly healthy)
- Going 12 hours a day without eating. Such as 7PM-7AM
- Skipping the cold beverages
The seat of Agni is the Solar Plexus. My yoga teacher says we need to activate our solar plexus every day. This will help us to be effective in the world. The solar plexus is where the agni ignites, so light it! Abdominal exercises, aerobic exercise, and breathing techniques all work to stoke the fire in the belly.
There are three types of impaired agni that correspond with the Doshas.
There are three main ways that an agni imbalance can manifest in our bodies. These imbalances are directly related to the doshas. That is why it’s so important that we know our doshic make-up. There are a million quizzes to be found online to determine our dominant dosha(s). The different types of impaired agni correspond to our unique doshic combination as well as to environmental and lifestyle factors. Knowing why our agni may not be operating at full capacity allows us to make the necessary adjustments.
Vishama Agni is Vata Agni
This is the agni of irregular metabolism. Vata has qualities that help agni – light, dry and subtle, all conducive to fire. But the cold and windy aspect of vata aren’t as good for agni. It works like the wind on a campfire – quickly intensifying the flame, snuffing it around, or blowing it out completely.
Vishama digestion is erratic and can change instantly. This type of agni disturbance is happening when we have gas, bloating, constipation (or diarrhea alternating with constipation), and/or insomnia. The tongue can get dry, hairy(!), or develop teeth marks along the sides. Or the back of the tongue might have a brown or black coating (tongue diagnosis is big here in ayurveda). Vishama digestion can lead to fear, insecurity, and anxiety.
Tikshna Agni is Pitta Agni
Usually, it’s pitta that gives our agni the spark and the flame for digestion. The pitta qualities of light, hot, sharp, penetrating, and spreading all support agni. But if pitta has taken over, Tikshna agni comes with a pitta imbalance. It is agni inflamed. Hyper-metabolism. Nutrients whip by without a chance for absorption.
Tikshna agni will cause a big appetite. It will be impossible to skip meals (not that you necessarily should). There may be some indigestion, dry mouth and dry throat. Drops in blood sugar might occur, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and any inflammatory condition (like some aches and pains flaring up). Tikshna agni can aggravate any type of skin condition that a person might be prone to. Acne, rosacia, psoriasis etc. The tongue might look red at the margins and be tender (like after eating a bunch of Cap’n Crunch – ouch). Or, the tongue might be green/yellow in the middle.
Manda Agni is Kapha Agni
Kapha is the mother-buffer that keeps baby from getting engulfed in the flames. It takes ‘ol intense pitta down a notch. Too much kapha, though, can put out the fire. Manda agni is underactive digestion. Dull, slow, lethargic, sleepy, cold, clammy, weak.
Manda agni slows down metabolism, and leads to a heavy feeling after eating. Manda agni may result in colds, allergies, lymph cloggage and edema (puffiness in the face, extremities, feet). It can cause high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and weight gain. In the brain it can cause lethargy, boredom, the need to sleep a lot, perhaps some depression. Manda agni looks white on the tongue.
Agni is a key element in how healthy our bodies are, because it is in charge of deciding how fuel is used, and processing everything so that we can live in freedom and happiness. If our agni is in a weakened state, we can work on balancing our doshas as well as using some of the ideas presented above to kick agni into high gear. The tools to get digestive fires burning are simple. Adding a few to a daily sadhana (practice/routine) can be a do-able step. In making a personal plan, think about care for doshic imbalances that exist, and then layer on some agni igniters, such as yoga involving the solar plexus (abs).
When I lost my mom, my agni basically sputtered out and died. And then it would rally and go wild, sending me running for a bathroom. I spent a few years in a state of fluctuation. Trying to digest ice cream, which my brain wanted but my gut took as a full-on assault, was impossible. I needed to process the loss (and I was too young and inexperienced to intentionally make that happen; I sought escape instead). Until I did so, my poor body paid.
Best of luck; the struggle is real. Keep focusing on the victories.