September 15

Eating for Yoga and for Health, Part II – Agni


 September 15

In the previous post, we examined the general principles of diet for yoga and health. Before we delve into the what to and what not to eat, we must study something more upstream – our relationship with food. The basic principle that differs between the yogic way of eating and all other “diets” is how the yogi relates to food.

The way we relate to food depends on many factors – our culture, our upbringing, our socioeconomic status, and the society we live in. Like substance addictions (alcohol, drugs, tobacco), we can (and often do) use food to overcome, mask, turn away from or substitute for perceived lack of self-worth, love, peace and wholeness. Thus, there is the category of “comfort food” that seems to fill some empty place within, temporarily taking away a deeper pain. The key word here, of course, is “temporary”, for the unresolved pain is bound to raise its head again and again until it is faced, accepted and assimilated. To understand the connection between relating to food and to life, it helps to borrow from the wisdom of Ayurveda.

One of the fundamental concepts of Ayurveda is that of “Agni”. Agni is the fire of digestion, but not that of food alone. It is the principle that pervades all aspects of the body and mind and the physical, subtle and causal bodies. At the physical level, it aids digestion of ingested food, and comprises of the marvelous cascade of digestive enzymes and juices produced in the mouth (saliva), stomach (gastric juice) and intestines (bile and pancreatic juices) that progressively break down food into smaller and smaller components that can finally be carried by the circulatory system to every last cell of the body. At the cellular level, agni takes the form of that principle that governs the actions of the subcellular structures and the pathways of cellular metabolism, converting the gross components of nutrients to their subtle essences of prana (energy), ojas (the subtle substance that provides immunity) and tejas (the substance that enables cellular membranes to function well and drives cellular metabolism). At the subtle level, agni is that principle that enables the digestion and assimilation of information, learning, thought processes, memory, sensory impressions and emotions. Here, agni is that which enables the wholesome processing of emotions, leading to forgiveness and letting go. At the causal level, agni as consciousness determines clinging to ego (ignorance) or transcendence (liberation).

Dysfunctional agni can result in corresponding dysfunction at all three levels of being. At the level of the body, this means dysfunctional metabolism leading to disease, obesity, anorexia, eating disorders and shortened life span. At the subtle level, inadequate agni leads to the tamasic state of inertia, laziness, dark moods, thoughts and tendencies, greed, cunning, hatred, sloppiness and an overall distorted perception of life. An overactive agni leads to the rajasic state of mental (and physical) hyperactivity, inability to sit still, lack of concentration, aggression, competitiveness, rivalry, hostility, anger, outbursts of rage and violence, lack of regard for others and a host of mental disorders pertaining to an overactive mind. A balanced agni leads to the sattvic state of contentment, mental quiet, peace, happiness, equanimity and compassion. Dysfunctional agni in the form of underactivity (tamas) or overactivity (rajas) further enmesh us into ignorance at the causal level, taking us further and further away from liberation.

The understanding of the principle of agni can help us understand the importance of examining how we relate to food. When used to mask deeper pain, food becomes the enslaving master of our senses and our lives. The inability to digest and release pain (due to agni imbalance) remains the root cause behind our lifestyle choices. We can go on specific diets, undergo bariatric surgery, restrict calories or food groups through mental dialogue, or exercise obsessively to counter its effects; yet, the pain lurks in the background, ready to rear its head at the first given opportunity. Sooner or later, the pain wins and the benefits gained through “hard work” dissipate with a vengeance. When eating to mask deeper issues, food can provide comfort while eating and shortly thereafter, but like all substance addictions, this type of eating is accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy a few minutes or hours later. The vicious cycle of eating-feeling poorly-eating thus propagates itself in a spiral, a pattern I see on a daily basis in my medical practice. This spiral is the result of waging hateful wars on our bodies, wars that never fulfill our wish for good health or to feel better about ourselves. Self-loathing about our weight, disabilities, family, upbringing, and perceived shortcomings only leads to the ravages of these futile wars in the form of greater pain and suffering. We assume that it will be easier to accept ourselves after we lose the weight and have our lives together. Such a future time never arrives, because the fundamental problem of self-loathing has not been addressed. On the other hand, as soon as we begin to accept (and further, love) ourselves just the way we are, we have set the motion for agni to return to balance. Our lives begin to magically transform on their own, driven by this self-acceptance.

The first step to returning to harmony is to recognize the pain that drives our nonserving patterns. Psychotherapy can be useful in many cases to help uncover and decisively let go of these patterns. For many, meditation and allied practices can help with this step. Systematic and dedicated cultivation of inner silence through meditation brings agni into balance from the inside out. The second all-important step is to examine how we view food. If viewed as fuel and not as reward or punishment, the entire food-choice dynamic begins to shift favorably, particularly when inner pain is acknowledged and addressed. Gradually, food loses its enslaving power over us as we begin to gently favor how we feel when we choose wisely. It might take great effort in the beginning to not fall back into the vicious cycle of eating-feeling poorly, but with every single meal or morsel that is chosen to favor feeling well with no guilt or self-beating later, we begin to break up the old pattern and pave the way to greater health and inner stability. With simultaneous healing of the subtle dysfunctional inner process that was previously driving our outer actions, a new self-propagated process begins to take shape – wise choices promote greater well-being and this well-being promotes further wise choices. The inner and outer begin to come into harmony, the ultimate goal for a yogi.

For a yogi, food is fuel for the body and mind to function optimally, with no added emotional attributes to cover-up deep-seated issues. Food is chosen based on its properties to promote a sattvic state, such that it is easier to delve deep within and part the veils that conceal one’s true nature. Seen as yet another doorway to enter into the divinity of inner being, food loses its enticing or repelling power for the yogi just as the temporary joys of material possessions and worldly accomplishments pale in comparison to his/her discovery of the “peace that passeth all understanding”. Further, as these choices arise from a deeper stillness that connects all beings, the yogi quietly and unassumingly aligns with preservation and honoring of the planet’s resources.

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