How is your digestion? Is it something you think about every day? Do you notice your digestive health change depending upon what you eat, or how you feel emotionally? Yoga and Ayurveda have long known that our entire state of wellbeing is dependent upon the health of our agni or ‘digestive fire’. Read books like Yoga For The Digestive System and you’ll discover the abundance of wisdom yogis have on the digestive system…
When digestion is working well, we work well too. When there’s something a little ‘off’ however, this can have a real impact on the mind and body. Whilst it can feel overwhelming when you start to explore the various probiotics, pills and potions out there that can aid digestive health, there are some simple, time-tested and gentle ways to start balancing your digestive health so you can feel better sooner.
Why is Digestion Important?
The gastrointestinal tract includes the mouth, throat, stomach, small and large intestines, and channels of elimination – that’s a pretty large part of the body! Not only does the digestive system run through much of the body, it’s also strongly linked to the liver, which in turn is one of the organs we need to keep healthy in order to feel good. Roughly 70% of the immune system is in the gut, as well as 80-90% of serotonin, which is a vital neurotransmitter that governs sleep, appetite and mood. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression, and the root cause is all too often digestive problems. Digestion is also important because it’s not just about ‘burning through’ the foods we eat, but absorbing the nutrients from them, and ridding ourselves of the waste too. You can eat all the organic superfoods you like, but if you can’t digest them properly, they’re literally heading straight into the toilet!
The Four Digestive Types
Yoga and Ayurveda recognise four types of digestive health, which makes working with our digestion a little easier to navigate. The Sanskrit word referring to digestion is agni, meaning ‘fire’. A fire that burns strongly but doesn’t get out of hand is what we want to work towards. Observe the following types and consider which matches your type the most:
This type of digestion is characterised by too much heat, too much acidity, burning, and things moving way too fast… If you have Tiksha Agni, it’s likely you’re always hungry, and get ‘hangry’ if you don’t eat regularly. You might over-eat, have sugar cravings, experience acid reflux and diarrhoea. Whilst most people think boosting metabolism and digestive fire is a good thing, a fire burning too brightly causes the body to ‘burn out’, and nutrients are probably moving too fast through the body to be properly absorbed. This can all lead to over-acidity, heartburn, malnutrition, hot flushes, liver pain, and inflammatory issues. Consuming too many hot and spicy foods, vinegars, acidic foods, caffeine, sugar, alcohol or allergens can all trigger Tikshna agni, as can experiencing lots of ‘hot’ emotions like anger and stress.
This type of digestion is very irregular. Some days you’ll be ravenous, whilst others you’ll feel a distinct lack of appetite. You might regularly forget to eat, or have a very irregular eating schedule. Vishama Agni usually presents as bloating and gas, on-and-off constipation, cravings and aversions to food, and mood swings. The body loves rhythm and routine, and when we ‘starve’ it of this regularity in eating, we wreak havoc on blood sugar levels, which can contribute to type 2 diabetes. Eating at irregular times, consuming foods that cause gas, excessive caffeine, going for too long without a meal or over-eating, as well as consuming foods you have a sensitivity to can all cause Vishama Agni. This type of digestion is also very strongly linked to emotional disturbances such as anxiety and stress, fear and feeling ‘ungrounded’.
This digestive type is slow and sluggish, experiencing frequent ‘heaviness’ and loss of appetite. Whilst those with manda agni may crave sugars and fatty foods, their digestive fire is weak, which means those foods are digested very slowly, causing a build-up of toxins and ama (referring literally to ‘undigested food’) in the body. Those with Manda Agni may experience constipation, bloating, indigestion, and weight gain, as well as high blood sugar (another precursor to type 2 diabetes). Feeling tired and low is also linked to Manda Agni. Consuming too much heavy, cold, oily and sugary foods can contribute to sluggish digestion, as can a sedentary lifestyle.
Sama means ‘equal’, ‘centred’ or ‘balanced’, and this is the type of digestion we have when we’re feeling our best. When you’re experiencing Sama Agni, it’s likely you’re energised, able to digest all your meals well, feel hungry before meals and listen to your fullness signals. With Sama Agni, your mood is more balanced, the immune system is strong, and your sleep is more likely to be optimal. This type of digestion is found when we consume foods our unique body types can handle well (some bodies love more fat, whilst others run better on more carbohydrates – pay attention to what yours loves), eat seasonally, have a mindfulness practice that keeps us mentally calm, get plenty of exercise, and eat regularly. Check below for a few key tips on balancing your agni.
- Practice Chandra Bhedana (left nostril breathing)
- Practice restorative yoga – especially gentle backbends with the use of a bolster, which can help calm and relax the stomach.
- Consume cooling foods like cucumber, seasonal fruits, leafy greens, coconut, and herbs like coriander, mint and basil. A tonic made from one handful of black grapes, a pinch of cardamom, and cool coconut milk or water can do wonders for acid reflux and an over-heated digestive system. Pukka’s Relax tea is great for calming the digestive system too.
- Eat Regularly
- Cultivate a practice that helps you feel calm and relaxed. This could be guided meditation, yoga nidra, a meditation practice using mala beads, or anything that helps you feel serene.
- Develop a steady meal time routine and stick to it.
- Cultivate rhythm and routine in everyday life. Try to wake up and go to sleep at the same times each day.
- Practice Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing)
- Ensure you’re feeling calm and relaxed before you eat a meal.
- Eat in relaxing surroundings.
- Drink A tea like Pavillion’s Digestive Ease after a big meal.
- Eat breakfast – this can help you feel calm and grounded, and enkindles your digestive fire.
- Consume warm, nourishing foods like soups, curry, bone broth and porridge, as well as sweet foods like dates, and warming spices like cinnamon, ginger and black pepper.
- Start moving more in a way you really enjoy. This could be dancing, running, a dynamic yoga practice, or anything that gets your heart beating.
- Practice Surya Bhedana (right nostril breathing)
- Balance your blood sugar by eliminating refined sugar and processed foods.
- Consume your biggest meal at midday, and a smaller evening meal.
- Practice journaling, as a full mind very often leads to a ‘full’ digestive system and constipation. Simply set a timer for ten minutes and write whatever comes to mind.
- Wear comfortable clothing you can really breathe and move well in (restrictive clothing can cause digestive issues) – the new Eco Reclaim range is so comfortable and breathable you’ll be able to head straight from the yoga mat to the dinner table!
- Consume light meals and warming, stimulating spices like ginger, cayenne, black pepper and ajowan.
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