Good digestion is one of the cornerstones of health and well being. When our digestive system is functioning well, we absorb all the needed nutrients from our food, enjoy strong circulation, and have a natural immunity to illness. When we suffer from poor digestion, however, our body doesn’t absorb the nutrition it needs and we’re more vulnerable to disease.
In the healing science of Ayurveda, the metabolic power responsible for extracting nourishment and eliminating toxins is known as agni – a Sanskrit word that means fire. Agni is the etymological root of the English words ignition and ignite, and we can think of agni as our digestive fire. When our agni is robust, we can easily digest our food and daily experiences, absorbing whatever we need to produce healthy blood cells, muscle tissues, bones, and nerves. Strong agni is like a roaring blaze in a fireplace that can burn even a damp log into fine ash, while providing light and heat.
When our agni is weak and our metabolic processes are inefficient, we can’t properly digest even potentially nourishing substances, and our body starts to accumulate toxins. A weak fire generates an excessive amount of smoke, leaving behind charred pieces of wood that – to continue the analogy – is similar to the toxic residue that remains when our digestive power is poor. Accumulated toxins block the free flow of energy and information throughout our body, weakening our immune system and making us feel lethargic and tired. If agni’s transformative power is impaired, we also create tissues that are weak, fragile, and vulnerable to illness.
Ayurvedic medicine considers the build-up of toxic residue (known as ama) to be the underlying cause of all disease. A common example of this is the accumulation of saturated fat and cholesterol that is beyond the body’s capacity to metabolize. Over time, this leads to the blockage of the blood vessels and arteries and, ultimately, to heart attacks. People who have accumulated a great deal of ama tend to be susceptible to bacteria and viruses, get frequent colds and flu, and eventually can develop more serious illnesses.
From the perspective of Western science, agni’s digestive power can be compared to the millions of enzymes that are responsible for transforming biochemicals into more complex substances. If a specific enzyme is faulty or if the body can’t produce an adequate supply of it, the result is disorder or disease. For example, babies born with Tay-Sachs disease are unable to produce an enzyme necessary for breaking down fatty deposits in the brain and nerve cells. The cells soon become clogged and ultimately shut down the nervous system, leading to death. Similarly, someone with alcoholic pancreatitis isn’t able to digest food properly because of a lack of pancreatic enzymes. In both of these examples, an impaired metabolic power or weak agni is the major contributor.
While it’s easy to understand agni in terms of food, it’s important to remember that your mind and heart are continually digesting energy and information as well. right now your mental digestive powers are working to break down the ideas in this article into components your intellect can assimilate. Similarly, your emotional agni processes your experiences and feelings, including the beautiful smile of a loved one, the unexpected criticism at work, or the excitement of a new relationship.
If your emotional agni is strong, you are able to extract whatever is nourishing and eliminate the rest. The inability to metabolize emotions, on the other hand, produces just as much toxic residue as undigested food. In reality, pent-up anger, long-held sadness, and lingering guilt is more debilitating for most people than problems with physical digestion.
7 Lifestyle practices to strengthen your digestive fire
Given the crucial role of Agni, or digestion, to health and well being, how do we keep our inner fire burning brightly? here are seven effective practices that you can use to strengthen your digestion and enhance the flow of energy and information throughout your physiology.
1. Focus on conscious choice making
The first step is to believe at a fundamental level that we deserve nourishment and not toxicity. This is true on every level of our existence – environmental, physical, and emotional. We need to assess those aspects of our lives that are not providing the sustenance we deserve and take steps to change them. The messages from our body are gifts that can help us identify what needs to change in our life. Listening to our body – listening to our gut – allows us to tune into our innate intelligence, which guides us along the path of greater well being.
A simple way to make more healing choices is to ask yourself whether you would encourage someone you love unconditionally to have whatever experience you are considering.
Follow the example of a conscious, loving mother who only wants her child to eat nourishing food, engage in loving relationships, and avoid situations that create unnecessary distress.
2. Practice eating with awareness
Eating with awareness is a powerful practice for living with awareness. When we are fully present while enjoying a meal, we naturally and efficiently extract the available nutrition while spontaneously avoiding consuming anything that is toxic. Our experience while we’re eating is just as important as the kinds of foods we’re consuming. If we’re having a fight with our spouse over the dinner table, our stomach cells are aware of the upset and send distressed chemical messages throughout the body, preventing complete digestion and creating toxic residue in our body.
To stoke our inner fire, we need to create a nurturing atmosphere for our meals, paying attention to all of the senses: taste, sound, sight, touch, and smell. here are a few tips for making your body happy while you eat:
Eat in a settled and quiet atmosphere. When you eat, your attention should be on the food, so that you can enjoy the delightful flavors and fully activate your digestive system. Don’t eat meals in front of the TV or computer or while you are driving.
Don’t eat when you’re upset. If you are feeling angry or distressed, your digestion will be weakened. Postpone your meal by going for a short walk or doing something you enjoy until you feel calm again.
Always sit down to eat. Even if you are just going to eat a few grapes or a cracker, take the time to sit down at a table. Pay attention to what you are doing and don’t rush.
Only eat when you’re hungry. Putting food in your body when you’re not really hungry dampens the digestive fire and creates toxic residue.
Avoid ice-cold food and drinks. Cold beverages and foods tend to freeze the digestive fire, preventing complete digestion and absorption of nutrients. This is especially true of ice-cold food and drinks. You may be in the habit of drinking ice water or other cold drinks, but if you eliminate them, within a few weeks you will find that your body feels much better and that you no longer miss them.
Sit quietly for a few minutes after your meal. This allows your body to settle effortlessly into its digestive rhythm.
3. Let go of clutter in every area of your life
On an emotional level, your inner digestive fire is weakened by having too much wood or “stuff” in your life. When you have too much debt, too many financial commitments, too many complicated, demanding relationships, and too much clutter in your living environment, it’s like throwing too much wood into a fire. It weakens or can even extinguish the flames.
Take care of your inner fire. Look at your choices and see if there is a way to simplify. Balance activity with rest by meditating and getting replenishing sleep each night. Consciously survey your life and ask yourself: What am I carrying with me from the past that is no longer serving me in the present, and what would I like to bring into my life that I have previously neglected? Making choices that awaken your digestive fire will serve you and those around you in all aspects of your life.
4. Meditate to release accumulated stress
Even when they realize it isn’t logical, many people spend a lot of time ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. Worrying about the future is like paying interest on a loan that you haven’t taken out – and it can create emotional toxicity or ama. The way out of this cycle is finding opportunities to enter into present-moment awareness
Meditation is one of the most effective technologies for quieting the mind and calming the chemistry that creates feelings of stress. A twice-daily practice of meditation is ideal. By meditating in the morning, you refresh your mind with the healing power of silence, and when you meditate in the evening, you can let go of the tensions of the day so that they can’t build up and weaken your inner digestive fire.
Tip: If you’re experiencing symptoms of digestive imbalance, such as heartburn, bloating, or discomfort, you can use your attention and intention to re-establish balance. After a quiet meditation, put your attention on your digestive system and visualize comfortable, effortless, smooth, balanced digestion. Eating and digesting are such primordial processes that simply remembering how natural they are can improve their function.
5. Give yourself a soothing oil massage
At least once a day, give yourself a body massage using oil suited for your personal dosha, or mind-body type. After the massage, lie down for five minutes. Bring your attention to your gut feelings and send your digestive system the intention to be soothed.
6. Cleanse and detoxify
No matter how consciously we live, modern life exposes us to a variety of toxins that deplete our digestive power – from pollutants in our food, water and air, to the more subtle toxicity of negative media and the hyper-stimulus of cell phones, Blackberries, and the Internet. To keep agni’s metabolic power strong, it’s important to get regular detoxification treatments. Consider giving yourself the gift of Panchakarma – a powerful Ayurvedic therapy that releases toxins from deep within the bodily tissues, clearing away physical and emotional residue and leaving you feeling renewed and rejuvenated.
7. Experience emotional release
We need to purify both emotional and physical toxins on a regular basis in order to experience true health and emotional freedom. One of the most powerful ways to release emotional upset is to go out of your mind. Instead of trying to figure out what the emotion is about, you can connect to the sensations in your body, which has a natural instinct to discharge pain and heal.
- Take a few deep breaths, sit quietly, and feel the sensations in your body. You might feel tightness in your chest, stiffness in your shoulders, or some other manifestation of the upsetting emotion.
- Feel the sensation without judging it. Just be with it.
- Allow any feelings, thoughts or energies that arise. You may hear the voices of anxiety, anger, fear, or regret. Let the voices say what they want to say. Listen with compassion and understanding.
- Feel the energy of the emotion dispersing as much as it can, without demanding a complete release. know that body will let go of as much stored emotion as it is able to.
- In a few hours or the next day, repeat the process. You will gradually release the toxicity of stored emotions and open your heart to the present moment.
Every emotion has a beginning and an end. Like an ocean wave, even the most painful feeling crests and dissipates. In confusion, however, people often block the natural flow of emotions by clinging to resentment, hurt, hostility, regret, or grievance. As the ancient seers observed, while pain is unavoidable, suffering – which is simply pain that we hold on to – is optional.
Khichri is a wonderfully balancing meal that is suitable for all dosha types. It is light, easy to digest, and very nourishing. Serves 4 to 6
- 1/3 cup split mung dal (mung beans)
- 2/3 cup basmati rice (or other grain, quinoa or barley)
- 3 to 4 cups of water
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger or 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- ½ teaspoon roasted, whole cumin seeds
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 to 2 cups of seasonal vegetables such as kale, chard, spinach, peas, seaweeds, or mushrooms
- 1 teaspoon olive oil or hemp seed oil
Place the mung dal, rice, and water in a medium stockpot. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and then simmer. Add all the herbs. The best practice is to cook it on a very low heat while covered. Stir often so the mung beans do not burn. Add water as necessary. When mung dal and rice are tender, add vegetables of your choice.
Spinach and Lentil Soup
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 cup chopped leeks or onions
- 1 cup celery, cut into ¼-inch slices
- 2 cloves garlic, pressed, or ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon fresh minced ginger
- 1 pinch red chili flakes
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon Bragg Liquid Aminos or tamari
- 1 cup diced carrots
- ½ cup bulgur wheat, optional
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- 1 cup brown lentils, sorted, rinsed, and drained
- 5 to 6 cups vegetable stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 4 cups coarsely chopped fresh spinach
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1 cup diced tomatoes
Heat a soup pot, add the oil, and then add the leeks, celery, garlic, ginger, red chili flakes, black pepper and rosemary. Add the Aminos and carrots. Sauté for 3 minutes, then add the bulgur (if using), sautéing until golden brown. Add the cumin and allspice, stirring frequently. Add the lentils, 5 cups vegetable stock, and the bay leaves. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat and continue to simmer until the lentils are tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Add more stock as necessary. Add the tomato paste and the spinach, and simmer another 5 minutes or until the spinach is wilted. remove the bay leaves before serving. Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with the fresh parsley and diced tomatoes.
- 1 cup toasted sesame seeds
- ½ cup golden raisins or regular raisins
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger powder
- 2 inches fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1½ teaspoons ground cardamom
- 2½ tablespoons ghee (Clarified butter) or organic sunflower oil or flax oil
Place all ingredients in a food processor and mix together until well incorporated. roll into one-inch balls. Store in an airtight container and keep refrigerated.
A great way to fire up the digestive system is with a ginger elixir. Take one ounce of fresh ginger elixir before lunch and dinner to kindle your digestive fire.
- 1 cup fresh ginger juice (from fresh ginger root)
- 1 cup lemon juice
- 1 cup water, purified
- ¾ cup honey, preferably organic
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
Cut a three or four-inch piece of unpeeled fresh ginger into ½ inch pieces. Using a powerful juicer, push the ginger through the juicer and juice enough fresh ginger root to make one cup. In a citrus juicer, juice four to six fresh lemons to make one cup freshly squeezed lemon juice. With a wire whisk, mix the water, black pepper, and honey into the ginger and lemon juice. Whisk until well blended.
Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a modern-day health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego and serves as a senior scientist with the Gallup Organization. chopra.com