Improve Your Digestion—with “Fire.” ~ Yogi (Michael Boyle)

Via on Mar 21, 2011
Photo: Creativity 103

Agni! The Wonders of Digestion and How to Stoke the Fire.

There is much debate in spiritual, yogic and health circles about what type of diet is the “best” for one and for all. Whether to be vegetarian or not is perhaps the hottest topic within this genre. I’m not going to get into that here, but maybe we can agree on these 2 things:

  1. We can all benefit from considering the food we eat as something sacred, and from maintaining a sense of genuine gratitude for the gift of life and nourishment.
  2. No matter what we eat, life is better when we have strong digestion!

From the perspective of the natural wisdom of yogic “psychology,” powerful digestive fire enables us to not only get the essential nutrition we need for our physical health, but it is also directly correlated to our mental and spiritual wellbeing. If we can properly digest our food, then we can more easily “digest” the emotional difficulties that inevitably arise in our lives. Forgive my potty mouth, but who cannot recognize the experience that life is “smoother” when we take a good, satisfying dump every morning?

So, I don’t need to bore you by convincing you of the importance and multi-factorial benefit of strong digestion. It should be common sense.  Instead, I would rather share with you a practical principle of eating that should help you raise your digestive fire.

Think of the “fire” in your belly as a campfire. You want to build a fire that has a medium-paced, steady burn that throws off enough heat and light for people to stay warm and enjoy each other’s company with clarity of vision. But, if the fire gets too big then everyone gets too hot and bothered. If it gets too small everyone gets cold and no one can see clearly.

Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt

So, in your meals you need a combination of:

> Kindling (small pieces of wood that are good for starting the fire)—these can be a few slices of ginger (chili is too hot), pickled veggies (like daikon, etc), a small bit of stuff that is crunchy, light, dry, etc.

> Some bigger sized pieces of wood for the “meat” of the fire. Once you have the fire cooking you want to throw a few logs on that will burn steady and smooth—a moderate size piece of meat, fish, or some well-cooked veggies, etc.

> You also want some moisture in there so the fire doesn’t burn out of control – this can be your white rice, sauces, etc.

These principles should be kept in mind not only when ordering and cooking, but also when eating. Not only will you have the proper ingredients to create a good environment in your stomach for optimal digestion, but you also must eat them in the proper order and mix things around.

Photo: Erin Kohlenberg

-While you do want to start off with some kindling, you might want to save some to eat every few bites to keep the fire strong.  You don’t want a layer cake in your stomach where you eat all of one part of your meal, then another.

-Your body will more easily digest something that is in the form of a stew.  So, obviously, eating hearty stews is great.  For everything else, we can use water, sauces, and various ingredients to create these conditions internally, even if we eat a meal that does not look like a stew on the plate (from the ayurvedic perspective it is a common “health” mis-understanding that solids should be taken separately from liquids).

-Like a campfire, a good digestive fire needs SPACE.  It is easy to suffocate a fire… it needs air to breathe or it will go out. So, don’t eat to the point of being stuffed.  Leave some room in your stomach for things to turn and churn around.  A good principle I’ve learned about this one is one-third solid food, one-third liquid, and one-third air/space.

Finally, a suggestion that is really, really, really important for digestive power.  I emphasize it so strongly because there are many people who believe and practice differently.  But, from our view water/liquid should not be sipped all day long.

This is not the best way to stay hydrated, which is important. By sipping all day, we send a constant message to our system that it must go into digestive mode.  This is an incredible drain on our body.  Like everything else, our digestive system requires rest.  We can “put our fire out” by throwing too much water on it.

Photo: Peter Roberts

Therefore, we should take water/liquid as meals, in a few big gulps at one sitting (equaling the same amount of water that you need in a day, only spread into separate drinking occasions).  It is advised, depending on our digestive power, that we wait a few hours after a meal of solids to have a water meal, and then don’t eat anything again for about another hour after that so that you can digest your liquid.

Liquid does need to be digested, just like solid food, in order to hydrate and nourish us.  When we sip all day long, our liquids likely run right through us – providing a serious burden to our kidneys, which can have all sorts of negative health implications.  We have to give our digestive system good chunks of time when it has nothing to do.  Rest is an essential aspect of living.

Regardless of where you sentiments lie in the meat, or no meat controversy, I hope these universal principles will help us all to be more healthy and happy.  Then, with a greater ability to digest our emotional reactivity, perhaps we won’t care so much about arguing over this topic, which is one of the most common debates in spiritual, yoga and health-oriented circles.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Yogi (Michael Boyle) is co-founder of Energy of Mind: A Sauhu Therapy, which offers counseling through the lens of yoga, ayurveda, meditation, etc. all within the context of psychological insight and understanding. Yogi is a graduate of Trika Institute’s, seven year, “Tantrik Yoga Studies Program” as well as JFK’s masters psychology program. He is a student to Dharmanidhi Sarasvati (Adi YogaTrika Instutitute)to whom he credits for anything worthwhile that he has to share with clients and readers.  Yogi works with clients online, in Bangkok, and at his home, the rural yoga and meditation retreat center in Northeast Thailand, Kailash Akhara.

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19 Responses to “Improve Your Digestion—with “Fire.” ~ Yogi (Michael Boyle)”

  1. Hi, Michael. Found this article to be very interesting. Thank you.

    Could I ask, what ayurvedic tradition do these principles come from? Are they universally agreed on by ayurvedic practitioners, or are there different schools of thought on these things, even within ayurveda?

  2. Bob, there are likely a great deal of divergent opinions within ayurveda. On this particular issue, I am not sure. But, like the term Chrisianity, or Hinduism – there can be a great many differing interpretations within the field. The system I have been trained in is the "jungle" tradition of non-dual "tantrik" ayurveda. This system is closely in tune with the views, methods and fruits of classical tantrik yoga – stemming from the Mahasiddha Matsyendranatha, down the ages through Abhinavagupta and the Trika/Kaula lineages of non-dual Tantra – also, popularly known as "Kashmir Shaivism."

    Funny enough, we often read the same texts as some of the other schools of ayurveda, but we just see them differently. One of our most important principles is the awareness that VIEW informs METHOD which creates FRUIT. Thus, the view of a system is really the key factor in what results you will get out of it. Thus, we often see things quite differently than a lot of currently practiced ayurveda, which stems from dualistic spiritual views… In other words, many ayurvedic schools come from a philosophy where "parusha" and "prakriti" are considered as separate. In these schools of thought the purpose of life is to transcend prakriti (matter) by extricating the parusa (loosely = soul) in order to experience the mahaparusa (the great soul, or "heaven"). Ours is a view of "absolute monism" where all is considered inherently "one" already, though in different forms of conscious and/or unconscious manifestation – all as a play of the "One-Consciousness."

    This difference in view has huge, practical implications. For example, tantrik ayurveda is a path of "juicing up". We see all as god, so nothing is really "wrong" or needing to be transcended. We want to get so juicy and full of life that we expand our conscious-awareness to its unlimited potentials and recognize the inherent "one-ness" of all things. This is done by being so deeply HERE that we recognize ourselves as one with all. Whereas other views believe that matter (prakriti) is to be transcended because the desired experience is elsewhere from here. These practices often tend towards drying one out in order to enable one to escape the temptations of the flesh. If unbound by material desires then the parusha is free to "fly" into the heavenly realms of the the mahaparusha.

    From our view we see this as a troublesome dichtomy for many modern practitioners. Many, especially Americans, have a life-affirming view in that they seek to enjoy fine wines, nice dinners, getting dressed up, art, beauty, etc AND spirituality. BUT, they practice both yoga and ayurveda that comes from a view that is life-negating in the quest to transcend material reality.
    (to be continued next comment)

  3. (continued from previous comment)

    This breaks our tantrik hearts because these people are geared for the path of juicing up. Many even often think they are on this more imminent path and they can just choose to read the dualistic texts in the manner they sit fit. But, most of the yoga and ayurveda that came to America was brought by the only Indians that could afford to travel – the renunciate brahmins. Their views and practices are very effective and they really work at accomplishing their intended aims. We respect these traditions very much because they are good at what they do. We recognize that we want a different result, though. So, we practice in a tradition that has a different view that is compatible with the fruit we desire. We can't really read the texts how we want to – the systems are revealed and effective and the practices come from the view (view, method, fruit).

    My guru's guru, Paramahamsa Satyananda Saraswati, calls it spiritual schizophrenia when someone practices one view (transcendence) and lives another (imminence). From our lens, neither way is better or worse, but they ARE different. They are both effective. Therefore, in our opinion, we should choose to practice in the view we believe to fit with our desires in life rather than transposing our wishes onto a different view. This is one of the most common reasons why many modern yogis still suffer mental health problems. Inner division, push-me/pull-me, shoulds and shouldn'ts. This is all crazy making and we see it all the time.

    The ayurveda we practice is the stuff that was, and still is, practiced in the villages and jungles of India where things are very imminent, very real and very powerful. The view we have is for lay people – householders that want to penetrate the beauty of life so thoroughly that they come into a state of non-separation through expansion. This is the shakti tradition of seeing god as woman, mother, lover, etc – worshiping imminence and life. This is the authentic practice of tantra, which has its own views of ayurveda and is ultimately life-affirming.

    Again, the part that is hard to see for us, as people seriously invested in the welfare of others, is when very sincere and conscientous people think they are practicing a view that is in keeping with everything I have said about tantrik ayurveda, but is unknowinngly stemming from a different kind of root. That root has real-life effect/implications. Thus, we often see the "angry yogi" syndrome where one represses all sorts of natural desires in an attempt to fit into the view of the tradition they practice in.

    On the other hand, we also see the total hedonism of those who also think they are doing "tantra", but are really only justifying their gluttony. That's not what we're doing either.

    Thanks for asking.
    -yogi

    • Michael. This is a fascinating reply that I encourage you to turn into a future blog. Great stuff.

      Do you know Ramesh? He's one of our other writers who has written extensively about tantra, with many of the same points you're making here. His blogs have been among the most consistently popular every on Elephant, so what you're writing about in this long reply is clearly of great interest to Elephant readers. You can review Ramesh's extensive output at http://www.elephantjournal.com/author/ramesh-bjon… and I'm going to direct him here to read this reply as well. I know he'll be interested.

      Bob W.
      Yoga Editor

  4. Kristen says:

    Dear Michael,

    Thank you so much for this article. As a sufferer from digestive problems, I have tried everything to help cure my digestive issues which originally started when I was on a raw vegan diet a few years back. Things have improved a bit but I still suffer many digestive issues. I was really happy to read this article and to learn simple tips to help digestion!

    All the best,
    Kristen

  5. AMO says:

    Cool information. Thanks. As ever, people go straight to the extremes in the discussion. Modern Western Cultures embrace extremism in all it's ugly forms.

    I am fascinated by the raw foods movement. While I know not all "raw" foods are "uncooked" I think it reasonable to point out that the folks who live in the Blue Zones – the areas on the planet where people live long healthy lives of well being with little or no medical intervention – do NOT eat all their food raw, or even most of it. They do eat raw fruits and vegetables certainly, but they also eat what I've heard called "slow food" – food that they grow, harvest, hunt/fish/gather and prepare as a community. The eat together. They clean up together. They stay healthy together. In my view raw foods are extreme. Humans have lived long and prospered on this planet BECAUSE we cook our food. It's why our teeth are they way they are. The people I know who eat raw don't do any of the above behaviors, especially the cooking and eating with a family/community part. They also tend to not be able to travel because raw food is hard to find on the road. If they experience times when they can't eat raw they find that their bodies have "forgotten" how to digest other types of foods and they get very sick. They don't get sick because cooked food is bad for people. They get sick because the body needs a balanced and varied diet to keep enzymes in production and chemical balances in place. Eat variety. Eat close to source. Eat with your tribe. Love your body and your community and your planet. These are the steps to health…

  6. Mark says:

    I've never heard this view on liquid intake before and find it very interesting. I developed a habit of sipping water all day when I was undergoing some treatments a few years ago and continued this after the treatments thinking it was probably good for me (keeping me hydrated as you referenced). I have noticed that it just tends to run through the body though so I plan to adjust intake per your recommendation and see what happens for awhile. Great post, thanks…Mark

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