By Caitlin Rose
200hr E-RYT & Ayurvedic Counselor
Agni is our ability to digest- not just food and water, but everything that we take in (Ahara). From food and drinks, to sensory impressions, conversations and emotions. Ayurveda emphasizes the role of Agni on a physical level and shows us how to balance our digestive fire as a means of physical health. It believes that all disease and imbalance is a product of an impaired Agni and we must put a lifetime of care into nurturing our Agni. Ayurveda explains that, “we are [not] what we eat, but what we are able to digest!” When our Agni is functioning optimally, we are able to take what we need efficiently and integrate it for utilization (assimilation) and properly discern that which we do not need and remove it (elimination). While the concept and role of Angi is vast, for todays purpose we will address Jatharagni- our digestive fire or our ability to digest food.
Ayurveda is as complex as any science or medical modality, but can appear more daunting as many of the words are not in English and many of the concepts are not tangible, or so it may seem. When we begin to really dissect the science of Ayurveda, we begin to realize that most all concepts, terms and systems are within every medical system, we just call them different names and explain their function differently. Jatharagni, our ability to digest and assimilate nutrients from our food is the same function as our digestive enzymes. So weather it serves the mind better to discuss digestive enzymes or Jatharagni, know that they are one in the same. Now that we have clarified how our perception is hindering our ability to comprehend, let’s discuss the role Jatharagni plays in maintaining our health.
Digestive enzymes are present throughout our entire digestive system, from our mouth through the small intestine. The enzymes in the mouth and stomach help to break down the different particles of our food (protein, carbohydrates or fats). The enzymes that are released in the duodenum along with the small intestine are more specific for discerning that which is assimilated into the body (or used for energy) or passed along into the colon for elimination. Despite the strength of an enzyme, they are quite sensitive and can be disabled or weakened by an excess or lack of acidity (high or low pH). This is the same as saying the our Agni is to too high or too low. If the enzyme or Agni function is disabled or hindered, this is the beginning of a ripple effect of disfunction throughout the body. This disfunction leads to Ama (undigested matter) throughout the body, starting in the small intestine. Ama (what closely relates to inflammation) is the root cause of suffering, disfunction and disease in the body and the mind.
Therefore, we must ask ourselves, how are my enzymes? How do I know if they are functioning optimally or if they are in a state of disfunction? Some glaring signs of disfunction are food allergies, bloating, gas and low energy. Ayurvedic wellness begins with addressing or accessing the state of ones Agni, recognizing that we are all born with a different makeup of digestive enzymes and from there we all alter them differently through our diet and lifestyles. This is why Ayurveda is unique, it recognizes that not everyone has the same enzymatic makeup and therefore should not all be treated the same way in regards to cultivating a functioning Agni or establishing a healthy diet. When the digestive enzymes are weakened from a poor diet, consisting of inorganic and processed matter, the undigested matter in our small intestine begins to accumulate. Unfortunately, this accumulation of undigested food over time hinders the absorption of vital nutrients and begins to rot. Rotting food in the intestinal tract puts an extra burden on the immune system, circulatory system and digestive organs. Undigested food in the intestinal tract is one of the major causes of degenerative diseases in the developed world.
In Ayurveda, the amount of undigested food that accumulates is directly related to the quality of the enzyme function (or strength of the digestive fire- Agni) - if one is high, the other will be low. According to Ayurveda when our Agni is healthy, we will experience proper and regular elimination, stable health, steady weight, normal blood pressure, good immunity, sound sleep, high energy, a calm mind and strong vitality. This is why Ayurveda says that you are not what you eat, but what you are able to digest.
If you believe that you are experiencing an enzyme disfunction, you probably are. The good news is that changing the way you eat along with a few lifestyle changes can start to reverse some of the accumulation of toxins that you have built up. One of the best things that you can do for yourself is to implement a week long cleanse to clear the body of accumulated toxins, reset your digestive enzymes, or ability to metabolize your food, and start living more Ayurvedically.
If we are able to recognize that the goal is to have a highly functioning Agni, or enzymatic system, then we realize that we need to neutralize the acidity in our digestive system. This is done by following an alkaline diet consisting of whole plant based foods, dominant in fresh fruits and vegetables, while omitting all non organic, processed, acidic foods. Herbs are some of the best ways to restore proper function to our digestive enzymes. Some of the best herbs for enzymatic rejuvenation include cardamom, cumin, fennel, coriander, black pepper, dried ginger and fenugreek. When our Agni is functioning optimally all metabolic activities will follow. It is important to recognize that many aspects of our life outside of our diet also effect the pH of our digestive system. Lifestyle practices such as yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques and rest all play a part of cultivating a functioning metabolic system.