We all know some of the signs of bad digestion: belly aches, feeling sick to your stomach, gurgling and boiling sounds calling out from your gut at exactly the wrong time.
But, what about these symptoms: foggy mind, running over and over something you “should’ve said,” inability to accept someone else’s point of view…
These experiences are all indicators of poor emotional and mental digestion. And they have their root in the gut, too. Strong emotional and mental digestion helps you gain wisdom, resolve conflicts, accept difference, and hold it together when things are falling apart.
According to Ayurveda, digestion is the work of fire element in the body (called agni in Sanskrit). This fire digests your food, provides you with warmth, and produces the glow of good health.
Properly nourished and with a balanced digestive fire, your body aligns itself with nature and self-adjusts to weather and the small shifts and ups and downs of daily life. In fact, sometimes just by improving digestion you can clear up some of the most stubborn symptoms without any further treatment.
Really, though, agni is the agent of all transformation. Agni provides your actual capacity to transform food — and situations, thoughts and emotions — that you take in so that it becomes nourishment. It is also our passion and enthusiasm for life. In a very real way, agni helps you digest your life.
Ayurveda and Digestion
Your main digestive fire lives in your navel center and it imparts its flame to every other transformation that happens in your body. You could imagine it like a village central fire from which each household lights its own hearth.
When your agni is strong it isn’t intimidated by the occasional greasy spoon diner breakfast.
At the same time, though, you could eat the most “perfectly” balanced, nutrient-dense wonder meal and still get a bellyache if your agni can’t break it all down into parts that your body can use. This is one of the reasons that Ayurveda doesn't really promote raw food diets. “More intact nutrients” doesn’t mean much if your body can’t make good use of them. (But that’s another post.)
If your agni is either too weak or too strong, it can cause problems in your body and mind over time. However, even healthy agni fluctuates somewhat over time, responding to changes in the environment. For example, in the summer agni tends to burn with less intensity than in the winter, when your body insulates its heat into the core to maintain the warmth of your organs.
Agni and Cooking
Put simply, digestion itself is actually a cooking process. Properly prepared food means less work for your body and better assimilation. But since cooking is really about transformation, it can mean a few different things. Of course, there’s cooking with fire or hot water (heated by fire), but techniques like pickling with salt, acid, or spices and fermentation also aid digestion when used in moderation.
The very best way to support your agni is to give it the proper time and space to do it’s job.
Here are some tips for supporting your agni:
- Wait at least 4 hours between meals (with no snacking in between).
- Drink very little liquid with meals — or even within 1 hour of eating. Small sips of warm soup or tea may aid digestion, but a big glass of icy drink will smother the flame of agni.
- Eat only during daylight hours. Give your body at least a full 12 hours of night to perform the more subtle aspects of digestion — clearing out your organs and allowing them to rest, assimilating new experiences and skills, and digesting emotions.
Try This Classic Ayurvedic Digestive Tea
- ¼ tsp. cumin seeds
- ¼ tsp. coriander seeds
- ½ tsp. fennel seeds
- 2 c. water
Sip a small cup of this tea with a meal or a larger one 1-2 hours after eating.
Improving your physical digestion will quickly help you clear your mind and open your heart more. It turns out the body, mind, and heart really are all connected.
When have you had a hard time digesting something emotionally or mentally? What helped you get through it? Share with us in the comments below!