(photo: pyre, Varanasi Ghats, India)
Do you know what agni is? You should; it’s really, really important:
Agni is central in both yoga and Ayurveda. Agni translates from Sanskrit as fire.
Fire, in both yoga and Ayurveda systems is considered the vehicle of transformation. In Ayurveda, fire is the element that transforms our food into fuel. It’s called jathara agni. In fact, according to Ayurveda, most disease originates in the gut due to some kind of imbalance in our jathara agni, or our metabolic fire.
A few years back the gut was being called the “second brain” because scientists where discovering just how connected the mind and digestive system are. Now with even more scientific advances in our understanding of the gut, it’s being called the "first brain."
The gut is the home of our immune system and it regulates mood and hormonal functions. A lack of certain gut bacteria can lead to depression and other mood disorders. We used to think the mind signaled the gut, but now we know the gut signals the mind!
There are 4 types of jathara agni that describe how our agni is functioning and they are tied to the three doshas -- vata, pitta and kapha:
- Visham agni is variable agni. Sometimes digestion and appetite are strong and at other times weak. This is a function of vata dosha (air & space). There is inconsistency and irregularity in both digestion and elimination.
- Tiksha agni is too hot. This is tied to pitta dosha (fire & water). Imagine a really hot fire blazing powerfully. Put some logs on top and they are incinerated very fast, no time to slow burn and absorb nutrients.
- Mand agni is a low digestive fire. This is tied to kapha dosha (earth & water). The agni isn’t very strong so everything is slowed down and sluggish. It’s easy to gain weight and there is stagnation within the system.
- Sama agni is balanced digestive fire. This fire is just right. One gets hungry, eats just enough, and is satiated. The body is able to digest and absorb nutrients without disturbance or problematic symptoms like gas, bloating, acid or constipation.
How is your digestion? Here are some clear signs your digestive fire is off: irregular appetite, irregular elimination, constipation, loose stools, gas, heartburn, abdominal discomfort, coated tongue, lack of appetite. Learning to adjust diet and intake habits to balance your digestion will have a big effect on your health, immunity and energy levels.
If Ayurveda is interested in agni because it’s directly related to our physical health, yoga emphasizes agni because it relates to our spiritual health. Our spiritual fire is called bhuta agni and it relates to the 5 elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. We want a strong spiritual fire to help us get through the big challenges in life. Everyone faces challenges, some more than others. Life isn’t an easy or straight path. When our spiritual fire is strong and balanced, we turn these challenges into important life lessons that help us grow.
Bhuta agni transforms us and makes us better people. Instead of repeating the same old patterns over and over again, we can learn the lesson and move forward better from the experience. Instead of being at the mercy of turbulence or difficulty, we use it to thrive. We use it to be stronger. We use it to empower not weaken ourselves. We continue to grow, expand and become wiser and more skillful at life.
Signs your spiritual fire is weak include: repeating the same mistakes, finding yourself in a new situation but with the same reoccurring problem, feeling stuck, feeling powerless or unable to move forward, feeling like the victim of your circumstances, feeling unmotivated about your own life, lacking self-trust.
Just as Ayurveda provides specific ways to increase or balance your digestive fire, yoga offers advanced practices to increase your spiritual fire. Advanced yogic ractices like nauli, agni sara, uddiyana bandha and more. These special techniques aren’t often taught in public classes as they require preparation and deep personal understanding and context. They are better taught one on one with an experienced teacher who can assess ability and preparedness; seek a teacher who offers a whole practice covering the body, breath, mind and diet.
May your Agni be strong and balanced!
About Nikki Estrada
Nikki Estrada has been in the yoga scene for more than twenty years. She leads workshops, teacher training and immersions nationwide. Nikki began her formal training in India, focusing on Ashtanga, a very physically challenging style of yoga. She is currently a senior yoga teacher and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nikki's Vinyasa-based classes are a synthesis of her years of yogic and Ayurveda study and personal experience, with an emphasis on spirituality, intelligent alignment, meditation, and living life more joyfully. Her videos can be found on www.yogainternational.com. More information about Nikki can be found at www.nikkiestradayoga.com She resides in northern California with her husband and two daughters.