Agni means ‘fire’ – it’s literally the fire in your belly!
When we have good agni, we have optimal digestive powers. We have a good appetite, and when we eat the right foods for our dosha, ojas is created from the food. If we have too agni (as is the case of unbalanced Pittas), we have too much acid being produced which leads to over-acidity of the body and further complications from that, including stomach ulcers and heart attacks. If we have too little agni (as is the case of unbalanced Vatas and Kaphas), food is only partially digested and ama is produced in the body, essentially gunking everything up. This can lead to some serious health concerns, such as cancer and diabetes.
Western medicine often assumes our digestion is powerful enough for everything. All we need to do is to chuck the right foods and drinks down our system and it will take care of it effectively. It doesn’t take into account our individual levels of agni, that may be too high or too low.
I always used to wonder why I had no appetite and didn’t really enjoy food, as others did. Food would often cause funny pains or bloating. I practically lived on sweet foods as a child, as they are easier to digest. It seemed to be this way even as a baby, when I would cry all the time from colic. This was because my digestive powers were too low. I simply wasn’t digesting the foods I was eating. This showed in my body too. I never gained much weight, despite living on essentially junk food. My size didn’t increase much from when I was 14 onwards. I just seemed to stop growing.
If we have weak digestion, it is important to increase agni so that we don’t get sick. In general we can do this by adding digestive herbs and spices into our meals. Hing or Asafoetida, the ‘smelly-socks’ resin is supposed to be a powerful digestive if added (in tiny amounts!) to food. Ginger is also very good, as are cardamon, black pepper and cayenne pepper. Eating a thin slice of ginger with rock salt on it before every meal is meant to be very good for digestion. We can also ‘pre-digest’ our meals by always cooking them well, and preferably in the same pot so that they can homogenise. Adding lemon juice to a meal also helps pre-digest it. Eating fennel seeds after meals is supposed to prevent gas and fermentation.
I have found the smell of frying onions and garlic also activates my agni, making me feel hungry. It actually makes us salivate which reduces the digestive burden on the stomach. Try and eat foods that makes you salivate. Herbs and spices are also crucial for this. Foods that are bland with no seasonings are just not good for our digestion. It is interesting to note that wine is also supposed to increase agni, if drunk before a meal. Perhaps this is why French women don’t get fat!
It is also important to only eat when we are hungry. Hunger means that we are salivating and our stomachs are prepared for food coming down. If we eat when we are not hungry or upset, ama will be produced. That is why snacking in between meals is not recommended, as it kills the appetite. When I am not hungry, I usually wait an hour or two until I am.
This has flow on effects to immunity too. If we don’t digest the toxins and bacteria that go down our digestive systems with our food, they go into our system and make us sick. Apparently we also have agni in our cells to metabolise nutrients from food. We also have agni in our subtle bodies that ‘digest’ thoughts and feelings. The agni of the subtle body must be related to the material body. I used to wonder why I needed more time than most to ‘mull over’ my feelings and thoughts. Lower agni in the subtle body must be the cause of this.
For those Pittas, who have great appetites and strong agni, it is important to keep this agni in balance by following the Pitta guidelines. If too much acid is produced by the stomach, it can lead to diarrhea, hyperacidity, anger, and ultimately serious health conditions. It is important to keep agni cooler by eating and drinking cooler (but not cold) things, and staying away from acidic things such as alcohol and cigarettes.
So, as you can see, it is important to keep agni optimal to maintain health. Agni must be carefully maintained, like a fire in a fireplace. If it is too small, air and wood must be added to it to boost it up. If the fire is burning too fiercely, water can be added to cool it down. This is essentially what we are doing when we try to live and eat right for our individual doshas. If we look after our agni, it will lead to better health overall.