In yoga’s corresponding ancient natural health system, Ayurveda, agni is the fire within us – the energy responsible for digestion and metabolic processes.
Eastern holistic medical principles can be a little difficult to grasp when we live in Western society, but ideas such as the concept of agni have been formulated as a science in India over thousands of years, and we are only just beginning to explore them through modern research.
What is agni?
In Ayurveda, food is considered to be responsible for all vital functions in our body. When we eat food, our body needs to break it down to digest it, absorb it and then distribute it throughout the body. Agni is responsible for all of this.
If a person’s agni is functioning as it should, it’s said they will live a long, happy and healthy life. If agni is disturbed, so is the metabolism which can lead to illness or disease. When agni stops, so does life. This goes on the principle that we are not what we eat, we are what we digest.
In modern medicine, this can be linked to the function of our cells and potentially even the breakdown to atoms.
How does it affect our health?
Yoga often explores the idea of balance across all areas of life, and this is no different. It can help to think about agni like throwing wood onto a fire. If we dampen our digestive fire by eating too much food that our body can’t tolerate (i.e. overeating), the nutrients from that food can’t be fully absorbed by our body. Sluggish digestion also means that food may not break down or exit the body fast enough, creating toxins (called ama) that may be absorbed by the body.
Too little agni can lead to a weak appetite, constipation or nutrient absorption issues. Too much agni can result in a strong appetite or inflammatory conditions such as IBS, PCOS, eczema, heartburn or acid reflux. Either may lead to difficulty thinking and concentrating, bloating or other digestive issues.
There are three key constitutions in Ayurveda – Vata, Pitta, and Kapha – and each person is typically either one or a combination of two of them. Your natural agni levels can vary depending on your constitution, so you then need to eat and exercise according to your constitution to help balance your agni.
For example, Pitta constitution already has a lot of fire/heat, so to balance out agni and reduce risk of inflammatory conditions, you would eat foods and perform yoga practices that have a cooling effect (such as peppermint tea, and doing Yin or restorative yoga). Kapha, on the otherhand, tends to have slower digestion, so people with this constitution need to eat foods that have heating qualities such as spices, chilli and warm foods along with yoga practices that heat up the body to ‘stoke’ the agni, such as Sun Salutations.
What poses build and balance agni?
Food quality, type and quantity form much of the treatment process around balancing agni. However, getting the body moving with activities such as yoga can contribute towards it too.
- Poses involving core strength and activation such as Kumbhakasana (Plank) and Bitilasana (Cat/Cow), and Apanasana.
- Twisting poses which gently massage and stimulate the digestive organs such as Jathara Parivartanasana (Universal Twist) and Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes)
- Poses that release tension around the digestive organs/belly such as side stretches
- Asana sequences that get the blood circulation going which can affect supply to the digestive organs, such as Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations)
- Agrawal, A., Yadav, C. R., & Meena, M.S. (2010). Physiological Aspects Of Agni. AYU: An International Quarterly Journal Of Research In Ayurveda. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3221079)