The earliest preceptors of Ayurveda gave utmost importance to agni, the agent of all digestion and metabolism in the body. As long as agni is in balance one lives a long healthy life. Conversely, its disturbance results in disease. Finally, when agni is extinguished one dies. Thus, agni is the very basis of life, according to Charaka Samhita, an early text on Ayurveda.
Clearly, any plan for preventive health must include ways to keep agni in balance.
What is agni?
Agni means fire, but in the body it is not a fire burning with a flame. Rather, agni represents all the physiological entities that cause digestion and metabolism, and produce heat.
The venerable sage Punarvasu Atreya, whose teachings are documented in Charaka Samhita, calls agni the basis of life and consciousness. The main digestive agni stokes other dependent agnis, and collectively they are the agents of metabolism in the body.
Nourishment of the body starts with the food we eat. But only when that food is properly digested can it help build bodily tissues, and therein lies the role of agni. A balanced agni properly digests ingested food, which is transformed serially into seven dhatus that replenish and grow the tissues of the body. This builds strength and fortitude. The essence of these seven dhatus is ojas, a refined product that boosts immunity. The biological transformations mediated by agni produce heat, which maintains the body temperature, and gives luster to the skin.
Agni cannot be examined directly, but its status can be inferred from its ability to digest food.
How does agni go out of balance?
Improper eating habits can disturb agni. For example, fasting or overeating can upset digestion. Combining foods that are incompatible, irregularity of meals, eating before the previous meal is digested, or drinking too much water after a meal may also disturb the digestive process. Foods that are too heavy, too cold, or too dry are hard to digest. Spoiled food also upsets digestion. Habitual suppression of normal bodily urges like hunger, thirst, defecation, and urination can also disrupt agni. While recuperating from an illness one should be aware that our digestive ability may be impaired. Untimely seasonal variations can also impair agni. Inversion of sleeping habits (staying awake at night or taking daytime naps) upsets the normal rhythm of hunger. If we eat while we are overcome by emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, greed, or grief the food may not be properly digested.
That’s a long list of causes, but don’t feel overwhelmed by it. With a little bit of awareness and good habits you can keep your agni in good condition. Here are a couple of tips:
•Avoid snacking for two hours before or after a meal. Don’t drink water or other liquids for one hour before or after a meal.
•If you don’t feel hungry, skip a meal, or wait for your appetite to build before you eat.
The rhizome of the ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) has excellent appetizing and digestive properties. It has a pungent taste and heating effect on the body. The fresh rhizome or its dry powder are both used, and have somewhat different properties. Here are some remedies excerpted from Chakradatta and Bhavaprakasha in which ginger is used to stimulate agni.
•Grate or slice a teaspoon of fresh ginger. Sprinkle a pinch of rock salt, and chew on it 15 minutes before a meal. This cleanses the tongue and throat and improves appetite.
•Pour boiling water over a half teaspoon of dry ginger powder in a cup. Let it steep for 5 minutes. The powder will settle at the bottom. Drink this infusion first thing in the morning to stimulate appetite.
•For indigestion take two cups of water in a pan and add two teaspoons each of coarse powders of dry ginger and coriander. Bring to a boil and then simmer uncovered for 20 minutes or till one-quarter of the water remains. Filter and drink this decoction.
Soon you will feel the natural rhythm of agni returning.
Tune in to yourself
In the modern age we are often out of touch with ourselves. We get so preoccupied with work, family, entertainment, or the latest electronic gadgets that we don’t pause to observe what’s happening within. Am I feeling hungry? Do I feel satiated after a meal? Or drowsy? A couple of hours later, do I still feel a sense of heaviness? Are there any unusual burps? Hmm.
Make a mental note of what you feel. You may have been unaware of occasional bouts of indigestion, or tend to ignore them. By shifting your awareness inward you will begin to observe clues of your digestive function.
How do you know whether your previous meal is digested? Simple. Look for these symptoms of proper digestion excerpted here from the 16th-century handbook Bhavaprakasha:
•Burps that have no taste or smell of undigested food
•Feeling of lightness of body
•Proper elimination of stool and urine
•Return of hunger and thirst
If you observe the opposite of these symptoms, your digestion may have become sluggish. Be vigilant and take corrective steps.
Remedies for indigestion
Here are some simple remedies:
•If there is a feeling of heaviness, loss of appetite, or burps with a taste of previously eaten food, the best remedy is fasting. Skip a meal or wait until you feel hungry. Then partake of light meals until normal appetite is restored.
•If you get sour burps a couple of hours after a meal, it indicates a type of indigestion caused by excessive pitta called vidagdhajirna. The best remedy then is to drink a glass of water. The water calms pitta and helps the food move down the digestive tract.
•If you feel a burning sensation in your throat, chest, or abdomen after a meal, it may be relieved by licking a paste made by grinding five black raisins, one teaspoon of haritaki powder, and one teaspoon of raw cane sugar with one teaspoon of raw honey. Organic haritaki powder is available on Amazon.
•If there is colic pain accompanied by sluggish elimination of feces, urine, and gas, it is due to obstruction of the normal downward movement of vata. This type of indigestion is called vishtabdhajirna. Here the best remedy is hot fomentation. You can do that by keeping a hot water bag on your abdomen.
If indigestion becomes chronic, a vicious cycle develops wherein the impaired agni causes indigestion, then the partially digested food produces ama, a morbid substance that further depresses agni. Then these remedies may not suffice to break the vicious cycle. See your doctor for a treatment regimen.
According to Ayurveda, most diseases are caused by a slowdown of agni’s function. Thus, by preserving the vitality of agni we can prevent most illnesses.n
Ashok Jethanandani, B.A.M.S. and Silvia Müller, B.A.M.S. were classmates at the Gujarat Ayurved University, Jamnagar. Jethanandani now practices ayurveda in San Jose. The concepts presented here are based on the classical texts of ayurveda. Illustrations are original works by Silvia Müller. www.classical-ayurveda.com.