Its not surprising that my Ayurveda teacher, Dr. Vasant Lad, began our 6-week intensive talking about AGNI—digestive “fire.” Ayurveda teaches that all imbalance in the body starts in the digestive tract. Those low-level, chronic gut issues undermine our good health and over time, send imbalance into the deep tissues (organs) creating disease. Basically, everything we take into our organism we need to digest (and that includes the zillions of sense impressions we register daily–more on that next month.). With the holiday season and colds and flus in the air, I wanted to offer you some ways to support agni, this season so you and your family can stay healthy and bright.
Agni, the sanskrit word for “fire,” refers to all of the digestive juices in our stomach as well as the digestive enzymes from the liver and pancreas and the rest of the digestive tract. According to Ayurveda, there is agni in every cell in our body (think cellular metabolism) and in 40 main sites in the body. But the primary Agni, called “Jatara Agni” is in the stomach. If agni is strong we are physically radiant, with lustrous skin and eyes, good immunity, balanced temperature regulation, a clear mind and self-confidence. When agni is weak, there is indigestion: gas, bloating, excess acidity, poor assimilation, weak immunity, dull complexion and eyes, foggy thinking, fatigue—you get the drift.
We feel agni when we feel real hunger in the belly. Its important to be able to distinguish real hunger from emotional hunger. Real hunger is a sign of health and a signal that the body is ready to digest food. When we eat emotionally (at times when we’re not physically hungry), its equivalent to trying to cook something in a luke warm oven. The food won’t cook properly. Food put into a “cold” belly won’t digest well and the residue of that undigested food is AMA or toxicity (more on that another time).
Agni shows up differently in different people. Some people have uneven or variable agni—sometimes hungry, sometimes not. Sometimes they can digest their food well, and other times get gas, bloating and constipation. For this type, eating a little fresh sliced ginger 15 – 30 minutes before a meal, with a little salt and lime juice will support better digestion. Additionally, more warm food with plenty of oil will be helpful. As will the herbal blend triphala, taken with warm water at bedtime, available at most coops and other health stores.
Another type shows up with a raging appetite. These people can’t miss a meal without becoming angry and upset. Their agni may burn too hot leaving acid indigestion, loose stools or diarrhea. For this type, avoiding hot, spicy food, fatty, fried food and limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine will be helpful.
A third type has low agni, and may not feel that they can digest much at all. Even a little food or water feels like it just sits in the belly. They may burp or belch the after taste of the meal they just ate or feel tired after eating, like they need a nap. Elimination is slow and sluggish and may have mucous. For this type, more dry, light food, fewer carbohydrates (less rice and bread) and pungent spices will be a support. Also limiting or avoiding dairy often helps.
These agni-types show up in combination, so its not unusual to have one type of digestion, and another type of elimination—or for there to be a change with the seasons. However, most people will identify with one of these types more than the others.
Finally, a balanced type has regular hunger and elimination with no signs of indigestion after eating. Elimination is timely, feels complete, lacks offensive odor or straining, has the shape and consistency of a banana—some a little dryer, some a little looser—and tends to float without leaving a sticky residue on the toilet or on you. Sticky, foul smelling elimination is a sign of AMA—toxicity.
HOW TO EAT
With reverence for the gift of food in your life: offer a simple prayer for your meal that others may also have this gift in their lives.
Slowly and with attention: chew your food and enjoy your food.
In a relaxed environment and with pleasant company: take three deep breaths into your belly before eating. Digestion is a parasympathetic activity and only works well when we are relaxed.
Until satisfied but not stuffed: habitual overeating creates toxicity in the body. Learn to slow down and enjoy your food. Practice noticing when you start to feel full. Stop eating before you are overfull. If you are using food for emotional comfort, recognize that fact, and learn to find comfort in other ways that will actually support you.
WHEN TO EAT:
After your previous meal is digested: a light breakfast may be digested in 3 hours. a larger lunch will take 5 – 6 hours. Ditch snacking between meals.
When you’re hungry: emotional eating, or eating for reasons other than being hungry creates toxins in the body. When we’re hungry, that means we have our digestive juices are flowing and able to digest the food. When we put food into a “cold oven” it won’t be well processed, and the unprocessed remains from that food create toxicity in the body.
At regular times: When we eat at regular times, our body gets into a rhythm and will be ready for food at those times (assuming we didn’t overeat at the previous meal). Eating at regular times also relaxes the nervous system and will support you in eliminating snacking.
Eat your largest meal mid day: Agni follows the rhythm of the sun, which is highest and strongest midday. This is also when we have the most capacity to digest food. Have a nice hearty meal mid day.
Eat a smaller breakfast: enough to satisfy, but not too much to overwhelm your agni, which is like a new fire just stoked in the morning. Hot cereals and other grains or soups are a perfect fall and winter breakfast.
Eat an earlier, lighter dinner: This is key. Our digestive capacity is slowing down at night, so eat as close to sunset as possible—a smaller version of lunch. Soups are especially good. Avoid meat and other heavy food at night as you will not be able to digest it fully at that time which will create toxicity, interfere with sleep, and leave you heavy in the morning.**
WHAT TO EAT
Eat food you can digest—gas, bloating, acidity and slow sluggish digestion, constipation and loose stools are all signs of indigestion.
Eat freshly prepared food: Freshly prepared food is full of prana and nourishing. Cold, leftover food (anything over 24 hours) is difficult to digest and will create toxins in the body.
Eat whole foods: lots of veggies and whatever kind of protein or carbohydrates you enjoy and can digest
Eat warmer foods in the fall and winter. Reduce salads (unless room temperature) and a lot of raw foods.
Don’t let these lists overwhelm you. Simply begin with a practice that you feel drawn to now. After you get rounded in that practice, pick another one. The key is to notice the effects. Notice what happens when you follow these practices, and when you don’t, notice what happens then. The expansion of awareness is a great gift from learning to pay attention to your body.
If we habitually ignore Agni’s wisdom, Mother Nature will limit us in the form of indigestion and deeper illness. Untreated indigestion will eventually move into the deeper tissues of the body (hitting each of us in our personal “weak links”). Taking pharmaceutical drugs to deal with symptoms of indigestion will not resolve the underlying imbalance. Use them as a stop gap measure in times of acute imbalance, and then practice caring for agni.
Ayurveda is a path of balance and alignment with the truth of your own organism and the truth of all of life. Life is for living, so enjoy and celebrate, but practice moderation. Follow the 80/20 rule: Practice the good habits that work for you, 80% of the time. When it’s time to celebrate, enjoy fully! Then eat simply the following day and your body will bounce back.
If you learn to follow these principles of healthy eating, you will be rewarded with good digestion and elimination and stronger immunity which means fewer colds and flus. Your self-confidence will improve as your agni grows stronger. If you need to lose weight, it will happen more easily. You will feel better, look better and enjoy more mental clarity and illumination. These are the signs of good practice.
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