Agni is one of the most powerful transformative principles of Ayurveda. It holds the secret to longevity, vitality, high prana or life force, good health, more energy, clarity of mind, and wellness. The principle of agni in Ayurveda answers your question about why your office bestie can eat anything they want without putting on any extra pounds while you gain three just glancing at the latest office birthday cake! It is because they have strong agni or very simply, strong digestive fire. This agni principle is very different from the concept of agni or fire mentioned as one of the five great elements of panchamahabhutas. And yet, it does draw from its quality of transformation, assimilation, and revival.
What does agni do?
The main function of agni pertains to digestion, absorption, assimilation, and conversion of food into energy. In other words, it is needed for the body to absorb complete nutrients from the food and give your body total nourishment. Here food is not just the stuff we eat, but even spiritual knowledge, wisdom, or information that we consume through our minds and senses can only be rekindled through agni. We rely on agni for vital physiological and mental functions from digesting food to managing emotions to experiencing the sensory world and managing life energy towards positivity and enthusiasm. Basically, if agni is weak, you will not have enough fuel to digest and metabolize what you eat to produce energy or to perceive properly.
You need agni for
- Vision and experiencing through the other senses
- Maintaining body temperature
- Glow in the skin
- Keeping prana or life force high that nurtures positive qualities like courage, clarity of mind, sharpness of intellect, logical thinking
- Managing life force in respiration and oxygenation of each cell in the body
- Monitor intercellular communication
- Vitality, strength, and limiting ama or toxin production in the body.
Agni and Four States of Metabolism
When doshas in our system are out of balance owing to a poor lifestyle, accumulation of stress, unhealthy diet that is not in alignment with your doshas, regular exposure to pollutants and stressors at work and home, repression of emotions can all lead to imbalances in doshas, that directly affect the state of agni in your body. Depending on our dosha constitution and the prevalent doshic imbalances, Agni can be found in any of these four states based on how strong or weak the agni principle is:
1. Sama agni or balanced metabolism: Agni is balanced. Know that you have hit the wellness jackpot if you have balanced agni or state of Sama Agni. When agni— the transformative and life-giving fire in your body—is in balance, you will experience health, better metabolism, a calm state of mind, clarity of thought, and a positive effusive personality. A person with Sama agni will be able to digest a lot of food seamlessly.
Their health will not be easily compromised by change of weather or seasons. They will have a body mind complex overflowing with tejas (essence of agni/pitta) which is responsible for enthusiasm, sense of right and wrong and sharp intelligence, ojas (vitality) and life force. Balance agni means they will experience more contentment and bliss in life, as well as bolstered immunity.
2. Vishama Agni (erratic metabolism): Agni is imbalanced and irregular. This is the state of agni influenced by excess of the Vata Dosha that combines air and space elements. The cold and mobile quality of excess vata can weaken the agni, or if it is already weak, completely douse its intensity. This is an unstable or irregular state of agni which can get too fiery or too weak. A person with Visham Agni will experience erratic appetite and may complain about indigestion,bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. They may have dry skin and a dry mouth. Joint and muscle disorders, as well as lower back problems may occur. Vishama agni may also result in layers of coating on the tongue, unhealthy food cravings, anxiety, and ama formation.
3. Tikshana Agni (Hyper metabolic state): Agni is overactive. Tikshna Agni denotes intensity of the fiery quality of agni. It is related to vitiated Pitta Dosha. Excess of Pitta can inflame and trigger hyper metabolism resulting in rapid and incomplete digestion. The excess oiliness of pitta can also weaken the agni. A person with Tikshna Agni may experience
- Abnormal hunger, eats a lot very often, has an intense craving for sweets
- Acidity, indigestion, gastritis, or heartburn
- A fever
- Dryness in lips and throat, and redness or discoloration of the tongue (usually, yellow/greenish)
- Low blood sugar
- Inflammations, liver pain and ulcers
- Skin problems like hot flashes, redness and hives.
- Intense anger and/or irritability, frustration; may be a control freak.
4. Manda Agni (Very slow metabolic state): Agni is weak. The heavy, cooling, dense quality of Kapha when in excess can dampen agni significantly to affect the metabolism, digestion, and prana or life force in general. Excessive pitta and pitta related stickiness or oiliness can also cause Manda Agni. Signs of Manda Agni include
- Lack of appetite
- Very frequent bouts of cold and congestion
- Mucous discharge
- Series of lifestyle disorders like hypertension, diabetes, weight gain and obesity
- Dampness on the skin
- Lethargy and lack of energy
- Too much sleep
- Wanting to possess
- Strong craving for hot spicy food
- Ama formation that causes white discoloration of the tongue.
Types of Agni
Based on its location and primary function, there are thirteen types of agnis, and three of them—Jatharagni(one), Bhutagni, and Dhatu Agni—are the more important ones.
Jatharagni or the digestive fire as is commonly called, is located in the stomach and duodenum and helps produce acid needed for the process of digestion and cleansing. This is the most significant of all the agni types. It is responsible for digesting food, assimilating the nutrients and providing the body with nourishment. It is located in the stomach region but it powers the agni centers all through the body.
Bhutagni is the agni principle present in each of the five essential elements. Based on the elements, these agnis are
- Parthiva agni (related to earth)
- Apya agni (related to water)
- Tejas agni (related to fire)
- Vayavya agni (related to air)
- Nabhasha agni (related to ether)
Dhatu Agni or the agni principle present in the seven main tissues or Dhatus in the body including
- Rasa (plasma) and the related agni is called Rasagni
- Rakta (blood) and the related agni is called Raktagni.
- Mamsa (muscle) has Mamsagni
- Meda (fat) has Medagni
- Asthi (bones) has Asthyagni
- Majja (bonemarrow) has Majjagni
- Sukra (reproductive tissue) has Sukragni
It is also important to know that there are agni centers inside each cell of the body that make cellular metabolism possible.
Ways to Balance Agni
Use herbs and spices. Apart from increasing the release of digestive enzymes needed to digest your food and making it easier to digest, using spices like black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cumin and licorice in your food can also help rev up the digestive agni. These herbs essentially reduce the strain on agni by what experts call helping to pre-digest food.
Consuming freshly cut ginger or apple cider vinegar with lemon juice before having your meals can also support agni function. Fennel seeds are yet another powerful carminative to rely on for reducing the effect of excess Vata on proper function of digestive fire. Hing or popularly known as stinking gum or asafetida is used along with other herbs to make hingavashtak, a potent medicine for reducing flatulence, and improving digestion and absorption of nutrients in the body. The stimulating and warm property in hing helps to rekindle digestive fire.
Avoid very oily, spicy, or hot food. Having very oily, spicy, or hot food can further aggravate pitta, leading to hyperacidity or ulcers in the stomach lining. Make sure your food has more bitter, sweet, and astringent tastes. This helps curb the excesses of the digestive fire.
Drink digestive teas and juices. Mint is a great friend in managing excess agni. You can also try green or dandelion tea to balance agni.
Eat light and easily digestible food. Having more Sattvic, light, colorful yet digestible meals can strengthen your digestive fire. The harder your food is to digest, the more agni is used up in the process. An overworked digestive system for long periods of time can eventually weaken agni.
Eat mindfully. Eating each morsel of food mindfully releases digestive enzymes that help smoother and faster digestion of food without putting too much pressure on the digestive fire. Also paying total attention to the act of eating energizes the agni centers across the body.
Do not overeat. Eating smaller portions of food, just enough to fill the stomach and leave about one third space for air is an ideal amount of food to strengthen agni, according to Ayurvedic experts.
Avoid foods and beverages that dampen agni. These include cold drinks, caffeine, or heavy foods like meats, store-bought cheese or mushrooms. They can weaken agni.
Do not drink water immediately after meals. Having water immediately after meals can completely dampen the digestive fire, making it that much harder for you to digest your food with compromised agni.
Digestive detoxes and purges. Holistic digestive detoxes, or cleanses, reset the body and mind, purge the body of ama or toxins accumulated over time, repair damage, and fire up the agni once again. Purgation therapies like Virechna involve specific diet which is light and super easy to digest, along with Abhyanga—warm oil massages—that facilitate the process of elimination of waste. Detoxifying your digestive system is a must because ama or toxins are the antithesis of agni. The lesser the toxins in your body, the better agni will function. More ama accumulated in your system can hamper the intensity of agni and slow down metabolism.
At home, you can choose to have just fruits and fruit juices for a meal once a week, or have khichdi (preparation made using rice and lentils), which is watery and very light on your stomach. Fasting once a week, based on your unique dosha constitution, gives your digestive system much needed rest and rekindles agni.
Pranayamas or deep breathing. Much like in a bonfire where you blow into the fire to rekindle it when it is dying out, supplying more oxygen to the body has the same effect on our digestive fire. Pranayamas like alternate nostril breathing, Sheetali (cooling breath), or Bhastrika (bellows breath) can help in correcting specific dosha imbalances in your system which have led to a disturbed agni.
Now that you know how critical the principle of agni happens to be for your overall well-being, take this time to investigate how strong or weak the agni impulses are in your body and what you can do about it.