Ayurveda Basics: Agni, the Digestive Fire

In Ayurveda, the concept of agni, or the digestive fire, is a key factor in understanding our physiological makeup, or our prakruti and vikruti.  Ayurveda has three doshas, or core energies: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.  Some consider agni to be the fourth dosha.

Ayurveda teaches us that everything which we take in must be digested, from food to beverages, to information, to all the stimuli in our environment. Conversations, whether pleasant or unpleasant, need to be processed and find a placed to be stored and assimilated in our bodies and minds.  Everything from your Facebook feed, your texts, etc., need to find a storehouse in your brain, even if it is the “delete” bin.  Negative emotions can aggravate the fire of the mind, which in turn vitiates our digestive fire, as both are interwoven.

It is also widely thought that if agni is strong, then one is free from disease.  My Ayurvedic teacher, Dr. Lad, would comment, “If you don’t have good agni, then you are in agony.” (This also pointed out how the word agni (ug-nee) is often mispronounced in the West.)

Four Types of Agni

There are four classifications of agni. They are correlated with the doshas.

  1. Vishama agni is associated with Vata dosha.  It is irregular, erratic. It runs high; it runs low.  There is a variable  pattern.  Hunger comes and goes.This is caused by an imbalanced lifestyle. The individual eats at odd hours of the day, and there are no consistent mealtimes throughout the week. Meals may be skipped or eaten “on the run”.  The types of food eaten span a broad spectrum.This is caused by the mobile and light qualities of Vata.  The dry quality of Vata is also an impediment to proper digestion.Vishama agni can be accompanied by gas, distention, bloating, and constipation.
  2. Tikshna agni is a very sharp, active digestive fire.  It accompanies high Pitta dosha.  Those with elevated Pitta dosha have a voracious appetite. They get angry and irritated if they do not eat on time. The frustration may be taken out on their dining companion or the server at the restaurant.  They can eat large portions.Tikshna agni runs high during Pitta times, particularly 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. These people also have the ability to get hungry late at night.Tikshna agni can lead to diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, and acid indigestion  This makes the person even more irritable. The hot, sharp, sour and oily qualities of Pitta factor into creating tikshna agni.
  3. Manda agni is a low digestive fire.  Digestion is dull and sluggish. The individual does not have much of an appetite, but gains weight easily without eating large quantities.  Drinking too much water leads to swelling or edema. The slow metabolism can lead to hypothyroidism and even obesity.The slow, heavy qualities of Kapha create manda agni.  The person may get tired and lethargic easily and not be motivated to exercise.Those with manda agni can also be prone to constipation, as the food has not processed properly.Ayurveda offers herbal supplements to calm and regulate vishama agni due to Vata, to cool aggravated tikshna agni due to Pitta, and to energize manda agni due to Kapha.
  4. The desirable agni is known as sama agni.  It is balanced metabolism.  Food is easily digested, without any adverse side effects. The person can eat all types of food at almost any hour and not feel that it is undigested the next day.Sama agni usually accompanies a very balanced state of doshas and someone who is free from any major diseases. It is rare to find in our overworked, overextended lives.

Tips to Balance Agni

Ayurveda teaches us of the six different tastes which are necessary in our diet:

  1. sweet (madhura rasa)
  2. sour (amla rasa)
  3. salty (lavana rasa)
  4. bitter (tikta rasa),
  5. pungent (katu rasa)
  6. astringent (kashaya rasa).

It teaches us proper food combining and how to eat for our current vikruti, or imbalance.

To balance agni, the digestive fire, we must bear in mind that it takes grains six hours to digest, while it takes fruits one hour to digest.

Eating right before we go to sleep will certainly vitiate our agni.  Drinking too much with our meals, or directly before or after our meals, will also imbalance agni, the digestive fire.  Cold food and beverages impair circulation and proper assimilation of nutrients, thus causing agni work even harder. Chewing your food properly and mindfully also will aid digestion.

Agni the deva, or god, is also mentioned in Vedic astrology, or Jyotish.  He is one of the two main deities of the constellation Krittika, which is at the end of Aries, and the beginning of Taurus.

Agni has two heads and seven tongues, but it is said that he is never satisfied.  He is also the celestial messenger between heaven and earth.

Fires are used in Vedic rituals, known as havens or yajnas.  Agni conveys our prayers from the worldly realm to the higher realms.  There are many hymns to Agni in the Rg Veda, one of the four most ancient books of Vedic wisdom.

Agni is the God of transformation. The job of agni, the digestive fire, is to take what we put into our bodies and our consciousness and to transform into another form which can be used for our betterment.

Next time you eat, pay attention to your agni, the digestive fire, and the effects on you afterwards. A personalized Ayurvedic consultation can help you balance your agni easefully.

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Madhavi Rathod is a graduate and former employee of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, NM, the premier educational facility for Ayurvedic Medicine in the U.S.  She has worked closely with Dr. Vasant Lad, the President of the Ayurvedic Institute. Madhavi has also studied Vedic rituals with Maya Tiwari at the Wise Earth School. She is also a trained Vedic astrologer. Madhavi incorporates these sister sciences to provide people with a comprehensive healing plan for their lives. She is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Vedic astrologer and combines these sister sciences to help individuals achieve their optimal well-being. She resides in Northern California.

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