The cornerstone of health in Ayurveda comes back to the simple concept of agni, our digestive fire. Likewise, the seed of disease comes back to the concept of āma, toxins. Balanced agni is the key to proper digestion, assimilation of nutrients, sustained energy, healthy aging, and maintaining homeostasis. Quality agni can prevent, āma from forming and burn existing impurities that are stagnated within the body and mind.
What is agni?
Agni is the digestive fire responsible for breaking down food matter and transforming it into nutrients to fuel the body and mind. There are 40 different types of agni recognized in Ayurveda, but the central digestive fire that lives in the gut, Jāṭharāgni, is our principle focus in daily digestion.
There are four states of agni, which indicate the quality and quantity of the digestive fire. The first state is Viṣamāgni, irregular digestive fire, which is typical to Vata dosha and denotes a fluctuating state, like a candle in the wind. Next is Tīkṣnāgni, the sharp, hot digestive fire which is characteristic of Pitta dosha and is like a raging forest fire that consumes and destroys everything, turning it into ash. Next is Mandāgni, the sluggish, slow digestive fire that is typical of Kapha dosha and is like a candle wick drowning in wax, so saturated that the flame can barely stay lit. Finally, is Samāgni, a balanced digestive fire leading to health which appears as a bright ghee candle in a draft-free room. The candle has a steady, luminous, upward flame that burns for a long duration of hours.
What is āma?
Āma, also known as toxins, is undigested food-matter caused by weak digestive fire. Anything we eat or consume through our five senses that is not utilized as energy nor eliminated as waste turns into āma. Raw and uncooked by agni, āma inhibits the flow of our life-force, stunting our connection with the greater whole of the universe.
Āma begins its journey of accumulation in the gastrointestinal tract, hence the emphasis on digestion, diet, and simple foods in Ayurveda. When āma lingers for a long time in the central GI tract and the doshic “home sites,” (the stomach, small intestine, and colon) it will start to spread to the superficial and deep tissues and plant the seeds of disease formation. Āma blocks nutrient and energy supply to the channels leading to depletion and eventually the damage and destruction of healthy tissue.
General signs and symptoms of āma are clogged channels, weakness, a feeling of heaviness, gas, lethargy, indigestion, congestion, and a lack of elimination of the three bodily wastes (urine, feces, sweat) (Va. Su. 13)
Excessive accumulation of dosha is another cause of āma. When we allow Vikruti dosha(s) to increase over time, the accumulation can lead to the disturbance of other doshas, creating a systemic imbalance. Each dosha expresses āma in various forms. Vata āma presents itself as exhaustion, stiffness, and excruciating pain. Pitta āma presents itself as foul smells, acidity, and burning sensations (heartburn). Kapha āma presents itself as sticky, stringy mucus, congestion, and lack of appetite. It is quite common nowadays to have two or all doshas simultaneously accumulated, leading to complex and deep-seated imbalances.
The interplay between agni and āma
The relationship between agni and āma is intertwined. When agni is low, there will be a tendency to accumulate āma. When agni is too high, healthy tissue can be burnt up and destroyed. Irregular agni and lifestyle habits inhibits our fire from burning steadily, thus āma can accumulate, dry up, and become lodged in our channels. Thus, agni must be balanced to obtain optimal health. Using awareness, we can observe our agni before, during, and after mealtimes to check in with our current digestive capacity. “Belly hunger” indicates that agni is lit, and that our meal is more likely to transform into sustainable energy. “Tongue hunger” and emotional eating to satisfy the cravings of the senses means that agni is low and that the sustenance will likely convert into āma.
High quality agni is so important that even if we eat the healthiest, freshest, most organic, nutrient-rich foods, they can convert into poison and āma if agni is impaired. On the other hand, a person with strong agni who ingests less pure sustenance can extract whatever nectar lies therein.
Āma exists on a physical, emotional, and mental level, therefore, strong agni can lead to proper digestion of food, emotions, and sensory experience. In the subtle body, poor agni can lead to clinging to distress, over-attachment, negative thoughts and feelings, anxiety, and an inability to let go of crystallized emotions. Strong agni creates a mind and emotional field that is steady, pleasant, observant, in control of the senses, and capable of transforming information into wisdom.
Ways to ignite agni and burn āma
The first step in treatment to any disease in Ayurveda is to remove the cause. Thus, our first step in defeating āma is to avoid behaviors and substances that lead to āma. Habits like eating late at night, eating before our previous meal has been digested, overeating, sleeping after eating, drinking large amounts of liquids directly before and after meals, eating packaged, processed foods, incompatible food combining, consuming cold/iced drinks, snacking, and eating when emotionally disturbed are all customs that will lead to accumulation of āma. With a little self-discipline, we can train ourselves to avoid these habits. After all, prevention is easier than a cure.
Most of us, at any given point, already have some level of āma already present in our digestive tract and tissues. Therefore, we can use simple methods of “dīpana” (igniting agni) and “pāchana” (burning āma) to help. Simple āma palliating measures can include sipping hot water throughout the day, drinking CCF and ginger tea, cooking warm, fresh, simple meals prepared with seasonal, local, dosha appropriate ingredients and spices, eating our largest meal in the middle of the day, ensuring that we have “stomach hunger” before indulging in a meal, partaking in daily exercise, and prāṇāyāma. Other pertinent steps to keeping āma at bay are participating in daily excretion of the three malas (bodily waste products), which include urination, feces, and sweat. Daily elimination of all three wastes releases āma that has been processed by the body and allows the space for agni to burn.
On the opposite extreme of the spectrum, a completely “nirāma” (toxin-free) condition can make the body vulnerable to environmental pathogens if we are not careful about our whereabouts and food sources. This is why immediately after cleansing or Panchakarma, one should avoid travel and eating at restaurants. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that even āma can serve a purpose of protection in the right circumstance. For individuals who are very elderly, weak, or acutely ill, the small amount of nourishment provided by āma, although toxic, is superior to stripping away that āma and totally depleting a person. Cleansing or purging in such conditions can increase weakness, fatigue, and vulnerability. In such cases, it is best to focus on gently strengthening agni enough to be able to assimilate any nutrients being consumed.
My dear teacher says that “a person is as old as their agni,” meaning that a robust agni can minimize āma and lead to longevity. Healthy agni and minimal āma facilitates navigating our daily goals and activities with efficiency and a cheerful demeanor. By enkindling this sacred fire in the belly, it promotes the luminescence of pure fire of the heart, allowing us to ripen as humans and cultivate the ultimate goal of life, unbound love. Slowly, the ama-formed encasements of the heart will this be disintegrated, and we can glow with peace, tranquility, and pure joy.