According to ayurveda, physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being depend on strong, balanced digestion. This intricate understanding of digestive power, known as the science of agni, constitutes the core of ayurvedic study and practice. Agni is a Sanskrit word that means “fire.” Its complete meaning is vast—both practical and profound. Ayurveda tells us that because digestion is so important, it is worth cultivating some awareness of its dynamics. We especially want to know how we can support and balance this process as much as possible.

Agni: Digestion of Food and Life

We can think of agni as the inner intelligence within us that, when functioning optimally, knows exactly what to do with whatever we give it. The fascinating thing about digestion, according to ayurveda, is that the same energy that operates at a physical level to break down our food also helps us at a non-physical level to process our life—everything we see, hear, feel, think, and experience has to be digested.

When agni is balanced and strong we are healthy: we have good-quality bodily tissues and our physiology functions optimally.

When agni is balanced and strong we are healthy: we have good-quality bodily tissues and our physiology functions optimally. We experience mental clarity as well as strong immunity, vitality, and energy. Ancient ayurvedic texts would go so far as to say that longevity, intelligence, confidence, zest for life, courage, and even glowing skin are all the result of healthy digestion. Balanced agni supports our mind and emotions and our ability to move forward in life with ease, effectively processing everything we take in. When agni is out of balance, we struggle digestively—we get stuck, or we power through life too quickly.

Agni also has a profound spiritual dimension. The idea of sacred fire goes all the way back to the Vedas, ancient texts of the yoga tradition. Sacred fire, whether external or within us, is a manifestation of the Divine and a way to communicate with the Divine. When we contemplate and nurture our inner fire, we become more aware of and connected to a higher reality of divine consciousness within us.

Agni and Physical Digestion

Let’s look more closely at agni’s role in physical digestion. Take a moment to think about what happens when we eat a meal: From the moment our food touches our tongue, an intricate process of digestion and transformation begins to unfold. Our food is broken down, nutrients are extracted and absorbed, and waste matter is collected and eventually eliminated. We don’t even have to think about it—it just happens. In fact, we rarely do think about it at all unless there is a problem.

What does healthy digestion feel like? Simply put, it means feeling good before we eat, while we are eating, and after we eat. It also means that we have daily effective bowel movements with ease, preferably in the morning, when cleansing is most important.

How is unhealthy digestion experienced? Digestive problems are extremely common in our modern world, as evidenced by a plethora of over-the-counter and prescription medications designed to help relieve our often painful symptoms. We all know the feeling of poor digestion: feeling heavy, gassy, or bloated. We might experience sharp pains in the stomach, sometimes accompanied by a burning sensation. All of these symptoms are signs that the intelligence of our digestive power is not functioning optimally—our agni is out of balance. Let’s look at the main types of imbalance and how we can apply the practice of agni sara (essence of fire) to address each of them.

Agni Sara Tips to Balance Digestion

There are three main types of digestive imbalance:

  • Too fast and sharp
    • Intense appetite but pain and discomfort upon eating
    • Loose stools or diarrhea
    • General feeling of irritation and agitation
  • Too slow and dull
    • Lack of appetite, and food feels like it sits heavily in the stomach
    • Constipation that can last
    • General feeling of heaviness and sluggishness
  • Back and forth—sometimes fast and sharp, and sometimes slow and dull
    • Varied appetite
    • Loose stools or diarrhea alternating with constipation
    • General feeling of lack of balance
    • Most common digestive imbalance

The practice of agni sara is a powerful tool, not only for building agni, but also for balancing our specific digestive imbalance. Here’s a summary of the basics of agni sara practice:

  • With the exhalation, engage and lift the pelvic floor (root), then squeeze the abdomen.
  • With the inhalation, release the abdominal squeeze, then release the lift in the pelvic floor.

How can we adapt agni sara to balance the different types of digestive imbalance?

  • Agni sara for digestion that is too fast and sharp—to calm the fire down:
    • Focus on deep, smooth breathing.
    • Connect movement to breath.
    • Focus more on the release than the engagement, releasing tension and constriction.
    • Make the abdominal squeeze gentle, incorporating the sides of the abdomen as well.
    • Focus on a feeling of containment at the root (pelvic floor).
    • Do fewer repetitions.
  • Agni sara for digestion that is too slow and dull—to stoke and build the fire:
    • Focus on deep, smooth breathing.
    • Connect movement to breath.
    • Focus more on the engagement than the release.
    • You can work more strongly.
    • Do more repetitions.
  • Agni sara for digestion that is back and forth—sometimes fast and sharp and sometimes slow and dull—to balance and stabilize the fire:
    • Focus on deep, smooth breathing.
    • Connect movement to breath.
    • As you exhale, focus on engaging through the entire pelvis: pelvic floor (root), lower abdomen, and glutes.
    • Focus equally on the release with the inhalation.
    • Make the abdominal squeeze gentle.
    • Do a medium amount of repetitions.

Practicing agni sara with a specific focus on the unique state of your agni will help to give you valuable insight into your own relationship with this digestive power and will help you experience that power in your life in a more balanced way.

Ultimately, healthy digestion is about the ability to move forward in life, no matter what happens.

According to ayurveda, when we improve our physical digestion, we also improve our non-physical digestion. It is a natural result. This makes sense when we think about how we feel when our stomach hurts: it feels hard to engage with the world with zest and enthusiasm. But when we have digestive ease, we feel ready and excited to take on the day. Ultimately, healthy digestion is about the ability to move forward in life, no matter what happens—to move forward at just the right pace, not too quickly and not too slowly.

In the next article in this series, we will explore how dietary practices that support and balance agni can help us resolve digestive problems as well as expand the variety of foods we can easily digest.

More in this Series

Strengthening Agni: The Power of Digestion