In Ayurveda, digestion is everything.
When we nourish our body properly it aligns with nature and we become naturally content and satisfied. Fire element in the body is called agni in Sanskrit. It is this fire that digests our food, provides us with warmth and produces the glow of good health.Agni is the agent of transformation.
It is your actual capacity to transform the food—and situations, thoughts and emotions—that you take in so that it becomes nourishment. It is also your passion and enthusiasm for life. In a very real way, agni helps you “take a bite out of life.”
Agni resides anywhere in your body where transformation takes place, but the main digestive fire in the navel center determines the health of the agni everywhere else in your body.
The strength of this fire depends upon all of the five elements in proper balance. It needs a container created by earth, fuel provided by water, flame manifested by fire, friction produced by the movement of wind, and hosting by space.
When agni is healthy and the other elements are in proper balance so that they don’t extinguish agni, you can even make “bad” food choices occasionally without paying for it too harshly. On the other hand, you could eat the most nutrient-dense food and not thrive, if your agni can’t break the nutrients down into usable pieces. For this reason that Ayurveda doesn’t promote raw food diets. Raw foods haven’t undergone the transformation that makes nutrients more available.
If your agni is either too weak or too strong it will cause problems in the body and mind. Healthy agni fluctuates somewhat over time, responding to changes in its environment.
Agni and Dosha
Pitta dosha and agni have many gunas (qualities) in common. For this reason people with a pitta constitution often have a strong (sharp) appetite and a strong digestive capacity. However, pitta dosha and agni are not identical and this difference makes it possible to have excess pitta and poor digestion.
Agni: hot, light, dry, sharp
Pitta: hot, light, oily, sharp, spreading
If a person has too much oiliness in their system—for example, excess secretion of bile—the digestive ability will be smothered.
The agni of a person with a vata constitution tends to be strongly influenced by the irregular quality of vata dosha. Sometimes hunger and digestion are strong, and other times they are weak. There may also be a lot of movement in the intestines and dryness can lead to constipation.
Vata: cold, dry, light, rough (irregular), moving, subtle
For someone who is kapha predominant, agni is usually slow and regular, but can also be dull and heavy. Food can feel like it takes a very long time to pass through the digestive system and hunger may never be very strong. Heavy food adds to the already heavy quality of kapha and slows down digestion even further.
Kapha: cold, heavy, wet, hard, smooth, dull (slow), oily
Agni and Food Preparation
Essentially, digestion is a cooking process, so properly prepared food means less work for the body and better assimilation. Cooking with fire is, of course, recommended, but techniques like pickling with salt, acid or spices and fermentation are often used as well.
However, it is important not to overuse these techniques, because they carry fire element into the body. The agents used in these processes (salt, vinegar, alcohol, citrus, pungent spices, etc.) can increase heat in the body and should be used in moderation by someone with a lot of fire in their constitution.
The very best way to support your agni is to give it the proper time and space to do it’s job. This means:
- Always waiting at least 4 hours between meals (with no snacking in between).
- Very little liquid should be taken with meals—or even within 2 hours of eating.
- Eating should only happen during daylight hours.
- Food should only be taken when there is real hunger. If you don’t know what real hunger feels like, you should experiment a little bit with it (those with irregular or excess agni may often experience “false hunger”).
- Meal frequency and size should be adjusted based on your level of activity on a given day.
- People with clearly slow agni may choose to fast or to eat very lightly one day a week so that undigested food which is clogging the system may be digested.
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