According to ayurveda, everyone has within the body a subtle fire of digestion, called agni, which processes not only physical material (food, toxins, bacteria), but also mental material (sensations, experiences, and thoughts).
Those whose agni is balanced have great immunity, are never sick, can eat any food without indigestion, have good skin color, a sweet personality, excellent memory, and quick reasoning.
Those whose agni is imbalanced are prone to all the opposite conditions: low energy, poor digestion, clouded thinking, and sickness. It is said that both health and disease start in the digestive tract, and that impaired agni is the first stage of all imbalances/diseases.
Agni literally means “fire” and it is thought to have the same qualities as fire: hot, sharp, light, dry, mobile, subtle, and clear. Fire is the universal medium of transformation, be it transformation on the macrocosmic level of the sun as it bakes riverbank mud into hard clay, or transformation on the microcosmic level as when stomach enzymes break down a sandwich molecule. It is the dry and sharp qualities of fire that carry out cutting actions, breaking down food into smaller and smaller pieces (think of how a flame quickly “eats” up a piece of paper). The hot quality of fire brings about cooking, the transforming of raw, astringent food into sweet, nourishing sustenance. The clear and subtle qualities of fire make it possible for us to comprehend the five senses and discern between food and toxin. Agni is an energetic principle that doesn’t translate directly as a single physiological process. To experience the sensation of strong agni, try the Ginger Slice recipe given later in this article.
Agni and ama are engaged in a constant battle, back and forth: when agni is high, it burns up ama, and when ama is high, it suffocates agni.
Captain Agni has a sinister counterpart, the infamous Ama, toxic mucus that accumulates in the body. It results from food and experiences that have entered the body but have not been completely digested. Agni and ama are engaged in a constant battle, back and forth: when agni is high, it burns up ama, and when ama is high, it suffocates agni.
Sometimes agni itself is responsible for the body’s maladies. Ayurveda tells us that a person can have one of four states of agni: too weak, irregular, too strong, or balanced. The ideal is to have balanced agni—not too strong, not too weak, but just right. Balanced agni serves as a sort of autopilot, processing food, thought, and microorganisms without our being aware of it.
Agni that is too weak may cause low appetite, slow digestion, toxic buildup, and sickness. But agni that is too strong will start to burn up the body’s own tissues after it has destroyed ama. This is called “agony.” Related symptoms (there are several other causes of these) can be weight loss, hair loss, irritated intestinal tract, burning eyes, hypoglycemia, and anemia. If these manifest, agni must be decreased.
Irregular agni can cause one to have little appetite or to be very hungry, but to digest whatever is consumed poorly. Or it can cause one to have good digestion at one time, but weak digestion at another. For those with irregular agni, bringing regularity and rhythm into their daily routine and diet will help. We must decide which type of agni we have, then bring it to balance to enjoy smooth health and a clear mind.
The causes of imbalanced agni are: eating too much, cold food or drinks, old or processed food, poor food combinations, exposure to cold and wind, excessive activity, worry, and stress. Hence, exposure to anything with these qualities—cold, dull, wet, sticky, cloudy, dense, and heavy—can cause agni to be imbalanced.
To increase agni, avoid the above. Eat cooked food and include the digestive tastes of sour, salty, and pungent in your meals.
Because every food has different qualities, it will have a different effect on one’s agni. Foods with sour, salty, or pungent tastes are said to be made, in part, of the fire element, and thus kindle agni. Examples are citrus, salt, and pungent peppers. Foods with sweet, bitter, or astringent tastes, having no fire element, cool down agni. Examples are sugar, bitter dandelion leaf, and astringent apple.
Foods having light qualities are easily digested by agni, but they don’t contribute tissue mass to the body. Examples are salad greens, most fruit, and some grains, such as corn and millet. Foods having heavy qualities reduce one’s agni and do contribute tissue mass. Examples are dates, dairy, wheat, meat, and oils.
We have the privilege of choosing how we wish to make use of our agni and deciding which foods or in what situations we will use it. Having balanced agni requires tending, just as a campfire does on a rainy night. By tending the fire of agni, we gain radiance, luster, and brilliance!
We have the privilege of choosing how we wish to make use of our agni and deciding which foods or in what situations we will use it.
Here are five recipes for balancing agni.
1. Bring all of the following ingredients to a boil:
1 qt. water
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1⁄2 c. minced ginger root
2 Tbs. Sucanat or other sweetener
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 tsp. rock salt
2. Boil for 20 minutes.
3. Take the pot off the burner, cool for a few minutes, and then add the juice of 1⁄2 lime. Do not boil the lime juice.
4. Strain out the ginger.
This tea can be kept in a thermos. If you have a cold, it can help disperse mucus congestion.
1⁄4 c. cumin seeds
1⁄4 c. coriander seeds
1⁄4 c. fennel seeds
2. In a dry iron skillet or frying pan, roast the cumin seeds on medium-low heat, until they smell slightly nutty and sweet and have a light brown color.
3. Pour them in a bowl and repeat the roasting process with the coriander seeds and then with the fennel seeds.
Don’t let the seeds get black and bitter-smelling. When cool, they can be stored in a dry, airtight container for weeks. A half-teaspoonful after each meal is nice to balance the taste buds and help digestion. These are the seeds served in Indian restaurants.
Peel a little bit of ginger root, and take a slice off about as thick and as wide as a silver dollar. Holding this like an open-faced sandwich, sprinkle a pinch of rock salt on top, and then a few drops of lime juice. Chew and swallow.
Yowsers! Immediate stimulation of digestion! So do this only before you are going to eat your meal. And don’t do it if you already have strong agni.
2 c. cornmeal
2 Tbs. ghee (or clarified butter)
2 tsp. diced fresh rosemary leaves or 1 tsp. dried rosemary powder
1 tsp. crushed peppercorns
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. salt
6 c. water
paprika, as garnish
2. In a dry skillet, roast the cornmeal over medium-low heat until it is fragrant. Pour into a bowl.
3. Now add the ghee and rosemary to the pan and heat on low until the rosemary smells fragrant. Then add the peppercorns, cumin, and salt. A minute later, add the cornmeal and stir it into the ghee mixture. Sauté on low heat for 5 minutes.
4. Then add the water, 1⁄4 cup at a time, while stirring the mixture into a smooth consistency. Cook on medium-low, covered, for another 15 minutes.
5. Garnish each serving with a sprinkle of paprika. Serves 6.
Mix the following ingredients together in a serving bowl and serve as a drink:
2 c. coconut milk
2 Tbs. maple syrup
2 Tbs. rose water
2 pinches saffron threads, crumbled up
This is a nice treat for someone who is feeling faint from hunger. Serves 6.
The coconut milk can be store-bought (out of a can), or you can mix 3 parts coconut flesh with 1 part water in a blender, until creamy.