The importance of digestion in Ayurveda cannot be overstated. Ayurveda considers good digestion to be the cornerstone of wellbeing. Likewise, poor digestion is deemed one of the major causes of all health imbalances. Furthermore, digestion, called agni in Ayurveda, is a nuanced subject. Strong agni, or digestion, is more than the absence of troublesome symptoms. In Ayurveda, health is about finding optimal, balanced digestion. The doshas, diet, lifestyle, climate, and a host of other factors can all contribute to the state of agni.
The Transforming Force
As mentioned above, strong, balanced agni is more than the absence of disease. In addition to being key for good health, Ayurveda views digestive fire as having a cosmic, metaphysical significance. As Ayurvedic author, teacher, and scholar Dr. David Frawley describes,
“There is a god or cosmic power that dwells within us, who determines how we function on a physical level…that god is our own digestive fire, called Agni in Ayurveda.” (1)
Whatever your theologic beliefs may be, it is clear that Ayurveda views digestion as highly significant—even symbolic. Agni is closely related to Pitta dosha, and one definition for Pitta is “that which digests.” So, agni is our digestion and our power of transformation. To turn food into fuel is indeed an act of transformation.
To further illustrate the importance of agni in Ayurveda, in the words of Dr. David Frawley,
“When agni is normal there is good digestion, circulation, and complexion…When agni is abnormal there is poor digestion, poor circulation, bad complexion…” (1)
And the list goes on!
Given the significance of digestion, how can you support your agni, and thus optimal health? To better understand this question, let’s take a look at how digestion can go awry and what to do about it.
When Agni Runs Too Hot
Think of your agni like a campfire. You want to tend it to keep it burning just right. When your digestive fire runs too hot, you will end up depleting yourself and burning up vital tissues, such as fat stores and even muscle tissue. Also, when agni runs too high over a period of time, you might observe dry skin and fatigue.
An overly hot digestive fire is most common for Pitta-dominant individuals. However, it can happen to anyone. If you are someone with a very strong appetite, and if you tend toward loose stools and feeling overheated, you may want to consider tips for cooling down your agni.
Here are some tips for cooling down an overly hot agni.
- Focus on cooling, Pitta-pacifying foods such as coconut, rice, leafy greens, mung dal, barley, apples, cucumber, dates, and fennel
- Cooling spices are very helpful such as coriander, cilantro, fennel, and cardamom
- Eat regular meals and be careful not to ignore hunger signs or skip meals.
When Agni Burns Too Low
The art of balancing agni in Ayurveda is really about hitting the sweet spot—not too hot and not too cool. While some people tend toward an overly hot agni, others tend to have a slow, sluggish digestion.
If you typically run on the cold side and have gas, bloating, or feel full even after small meals, your agni may need some stoking. People with a Kapha dosha constitution tend toward a slower digestion. Also, the same can be true for Vata dosha. However, with Vata dosha, you will often observe a variable appetite and agni; sometimes the appetite and digestion are strong and other times the agni is low and weak. Both low and varaible agni may result in gas, bloating, and constipation. A high agni usually leads to loose stools and frequent elimination.
Here are some tips for boosting a low-burning agni.
- Focus on warming foods that are not too heavy, such as cornmeal, buckwheat, radicchio, lentils, berries, cherries, and prunes.
- Warming spices help as well. Include turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, fenugreek, and cumin.
- Be careful to eat at regular meal times (not sporadically), but also follow the appetite and don’t overheat.
Mindful Eating Tips
In addition to the above guidance, mindful eating habits are foundational when it comes to managing any digestive imbalances. Here are a few Ayurvedic guidelines for mindful, healthy eating. These tips are useful whether your agni runs hot, cool, or somewhere in the middle.
- Eat in a calm, peaceful setting. Looking at nature, listening to soft or relaxing music, candlelight, and pleasant company support good digestion. Electronics, stress, and upset emotions will tend to interfere with optimal digestion.
- Aim to stop eating when you feel 75-80 % full. Also, only eat when you feel genuinely hungry.
- Chew every bite. Some people like to count how many times they chew their food before they swallow, aiming for a particular number. Personally, I like the practice of simply putting my utensil down between bites. For me, this seems to do the trick in helping me slow down so that I can properly chew, taste, and enjoy my food. Find the method that works for you!
- Avoid eating late at night and digest your prior meal before eating. Eating too frequently and eating late at night can definitely disrupt optimal digestion. Ideally, allow three hours between your last meal of the day and bedtime. This way your body can focus on cleanup and restoration overnight rather than digesting your last meal. Also, allowing 3-5 hours between meals will make for cleaner, more complete digestion.
Tending the Fire and Burning Bright
Like all things in Ayurveda, managing agni is individualized. I have sketched out some general guidelines in this post, but recommendations can be tailored from person to person. This all depends on the individual constitution, time of life, season, climate, dietary habits, and of course any imbalances.
One food that is very helpful for balancing agni is ghee or ghruta. Ghee is easy to digest, is nourishing, and helps to enkindle the agni without overheating. People of all constitutional types can cook with ghee. Plus, ghee has a high smoke point, so it is good even for even for high-heat cooking.
If the information in this article feels like a lot to work with, remember that you don’t need to take it all on at once. Choose one or two tips that resonate with you and start there. Remember, small changes can make a big difference!
(1) Frawley, D. (2000). Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
Greta Kent-Stoll is a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner (NAMA), as well as a writer, editor, and Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. Her Ayurveda practice is based in Asheville, North Carolina and she is the co-owner of Iyengar Yoga Asheville.