Meet Agni: The Fire in your Belly

Last month I paid tribute to love that infuses life and oil and fat which provide a sense of love, contentment and warmth. What I deceitfully failed to mention is that oil is nothing if you don’t have the means to digest it. You can’t fry an egg on a cold skillet. Or, as Bruce Springsteen put it so famously in Dancing in the Dark, “You can’t light a fire/ You can’t light a fire without a spark.” That spark is agni, the fire in you that is responsible and necessary for digestion, transformation and metabolism.

“Strength, health, longevity and vital breath are dependent upon the power of digestion including metabolism.”

                                                                         -Caraka Samhita, Vol. I

In Ayurveda,  digestive power is named after the Hindu fire god, Agni, and we all have a little piece of Agni within. It is our agni that takes the other (food) and makes it into something useful…energy and nourishment. It is the agni in our minds that comprehends new information, discerns, and extracts that which is useful. Agni on a cellular level guides metabolism.

The key is to cultivate the right degree of burn and to receive the proper fuel at the proper time. When agni runs too high, you literally burn up and burn out. Conversely, a weak agni leads to sluggishness and toxicity.

Having grown up in a home that was heated by a wood stove, I know well the importance of stoking the fire without smothering it. That same exact principle can be applied to the fire in your gut…and in your mind at that! If you starve the fire, it will eventually weaken and die out. If you overload the fire, the logs will no more than smolder. However, a steady feed of fuel in just the right quantity keeps the fire burning bright. Wood is transformed to heat and the fire remains intact.

I will allow you to draw the obvious connection to your digestive process. Like all of Ayurveda, treatment is highly individualized. Some people need to build a stronger agni; some need to cool it down. However, here are a few general ways to balance your digestive fire:

-Fennel, cumin, coriander tea (see recipe below). This is great for pretty much everyone. It will gently detox your system, kindle the agni, but will not overheat you.

-Avoid cold drinks–no ice! This is true especially at meal times. It is best to drink half a cup of warm water or hot tea with meals.

-Ginger, lime juice, and rock salt before meals. If your appetite needs a kick start, thinly slice fresh ginger root and dress it with a squeeze of lime and a pinch of salt. Chew on the ginger slices before meals.

-Eat without distraction in calm setting. Avoid working and multi-tasking while eating. Relaxing while you eat puts your nervous system in ‘rest and digest’ mode and you will assimilate your food better.

-Chew, chew, chew and eat until you are 75% full. 75% is not an exact measurement, but more of a felt sense. It is a state of being satisfied but not stuffed.

Fennel, Cumin, Coriander Tea from Dr. Scott Blossom

1 quart of water

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

Simmer all ingredients for 15 minutes, strain, and drink warm or room temperature.

Love, Fat and Happiness

“Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour.”

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

Ayurveda and yoga share a unique understanding of our basic anatomy and physiology in that the human body (and all things in nature) consists of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether. These five elements combine to form what is known as the doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha–commonly understood to be one’s constitutional type.

Going into greater detail, our body can also be dissected into layers, the dhatus, or tissues of the body. Through proper nourishment, digestion, and elimination we are able to build and maintain healthy tissues. Interestingly enough, each of these tissues has a subtle purpose. For instance, it is our rakta (blood) that gives us invigoration, our mamsa (muscle) that assists in protection and a healthy ability to exert will, and our medas (fat tissue) that provides a sense of contentment and love.

Snehana, the word for oil therapy in Ayurveda, contains the root sneha, meaning love, affection, AND unctuousness. “Well nourished flesh feeds fat, whose function is ‘sneha,’ which literally means unctuousness.” ~Robert Svoboda. Svoboda goes on… “Fat, and to some extent flesh as well, provide us with that sublime satisfaction that a sound sleeper receives from a warm quilt on a cold night.” (Prakriti, Your Ayurvedic Constitution).

If healthy medas leads to a sense of love and contentment, does this mean that thin people can’t be happy? Well, not exactly. Like all good things in life, it’s about quality over quantity and striking the constitutionally correct balance. Insufficient medas leads to emotional coldness and dissatisfaction, whereas overabundant medas leads to complacency. However, correct balance is a highly subjective matter and varies from person to person. Regardless, nourishing your body with high quality oils both inside and out is one key to developing healthy medas and thus a sense of self-love, as well as protection from the harsher forces of the external world.

I often get questions about which oils are best–for cooking and for external application. And of course, the answer is that it depends…on you, the season, the temperature, your present situation…

These are a few ways to enjoy sublime snehana this season:

  • Make ghee! Ghee is tridoshic, meaning it is appropriate for all constitutional types. See easy recipe:
  • Apply a fine layer of oil to your skin before bathing: sesame, coconut, almond, or mustard depending on you.
  • Especially good for allergy season: oil your nostrils daily with sesame oil or a special nasya oil:
  • Receive Abhyanga (massage with hefty amounts of oil) or Shirodhara (an oil therapy that pacifies the nervous system).

Here’s to love, fat, contentmet and keeping your body a well-oiled machine!