As the rust-colored leaves fall from the trees and autumn chills ride along the breeze, we look to fire to warm us. Whether it’s sitting around a roaring bonfire or cozying up to the fireplace in our beloved dens, we gather around warmth. Fire awakens our hearts, enlivens our spirits, and feeds our bellies. The sacred fire that feeds us is digestion.
According to Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science and called the “science of life,” the act of digestion in our bodies is a fire. This fire is called agni. Agni is a transformational fire that absorbs, utilizes, and digests what we feed our bodies.
Maintaining healthy agni is a balancing act. Just like sitting in front of a bonfire, you don’t want it blazing so brightly that it’s too unwieldy to sit by, but you don’t want the fire so small that no warmth is produced. The goal is to build, stoke, and care for the fire so that it becomes a balanced flame that is just right for you.
Digestion works in the same way as the bonfire. In the summer, that wild bonfire is likely to burn bright by playing off the sun and warm weather, so to stay balanced and have good agni, it’s natural to feed ourselves cooling, crisp foods. In Ayurveda, the concept of balancing opposites is the key to good agni. So, as the months turn chilly, we will want to feed our bellies with warm, nurturing, moist foods and spices. Herbs and spices are similar to the fire tenderers—the key person in charge of maintaining the balance of the fire.
“Agni is present not only in human beings, but in all nature. It has a special abode in plants, which contain the agni of photosynthesis,” says Drs. David Frawley and Vasant Lad in their book The Yoga of Herbs, An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine. “Plants contain agni, through which they digest sunlight and produce life. Herbs can transmit their agni to us, their capacity to digest and transform, and this may augment our own power of digestion, or give us the capacity to digest substances we normally cannot. The agni of plants can feed our agni. Through this interconnection, we join ourselves with the cosmic agni, the creative force of life and healing.”
Let’s talk a little about three belly warming herbs that can help build and maintain agni.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae)
“Everything good is found in ginger,” says an old Indian proverb.
And, in ancient India ginger was called vishwabhesaj, “the universal medicine.” Ginger aids in the release of gas in the intestines, it stimulates perspiration and heat in the body, and it stimulates the body’s physiological processes. During chilly nights, ginger is the perfect herbal ally to keep our agni smoldering and balanced.
Ginger infused as a tea, or eaten as thin slices with pinches of rock salt and lime, are cure-all medicines for digestive issues and indigestion, according to Katie Silcox in her book Happy Healthy Sexy: Ayurveda Wisdom for Modern Women.
You can even grow ginger at home in your garden or in containers to have on hand as a constant staple in your herbal medicine cabinet. All you have to do is purchase some organic ginger root (a rhizome) from your local grocery store and sit it in the sun for a few days. The root will start to sprout yellow nubs or horns and that’s a good time to plant it in moist, well-draining soil. It will prefer partial sunlight and warm temperatures, so it’s great to grow in your kitchen or other warm rooms. Mature ginger will be ready to harvest in about 10 to 12 months.
Astragalus (Astragalus propinquus, Fabaceae)
Astragalus shines its medicinal magic in our digestive and immune systems. It originates from northern China and the root is mostly used as medicine.
The root is either shredded or powdered, but more commonly comes in flattened strips, like a tongue depressor. And, it connects with us most powerfully through infusion in broths and soups. The sweet and hearty taste pairs nicely with most veggie stocks.
Astragalus is an herb that is best taken over a period of time; it’s an immunomodulator. Lorna Mauney-Brodek, teaching through the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, describes astragalus as mending your boxing gloves before you have a fight so that you are ready to fight back when something attacks.
According to Joe Hollis, Founder of a botanical garden in North Carolina called Mountain Gardens, astragalus is an important tonic root and an immune system “defense energy” stimulant; it’s used for fatigue, poor appetite, spontaneous sweating due to deficiency, and recuperation.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae)
If your towels, aprons, and hands have been stained glorious golden hues, then you know the magic of Queen Turmeric! She’s renowned for her anti-inflammatory and digestive powers.
“Turmeric gives the energy of the Divine Mother and grants prosperity,” say Drs. Frawley and Lad. “It is effective for cleansing the chakras, purifying the channels of the subtle body.”
Turmeric’s herbal actions are numerous; it’s anti-inflammatory, stimulant, carminative, alterative, vulnerary, and antibacterial. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. “Curcumin is the substance that is responsible for the biological activity of turmeric,” says Lisa Gallant in her article “Turmeric: ‘The Golden Goddess’” posted through the California College of Ayurveda. “Combined with black pepper, curcumin becomes 2,000 times more potent.” Turmeric and curcumin have been linked to cancer recovery and prevention.
These are three herbal allies that I’ve become good friends with and they are just waiting to work with you. I wish you warm bellies and strong agni during these colder months, and always!
By: Sarah Elam
Sarah is a Reiki Master/Teacher, Taoist Yoga teacher, Psychic, and Herbalism Student at the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. On her path as a Healer, she is studying Earth medicine, as well as offering energy healing and psychic insights to create a balanced and whole yin and yang practice. Connect with Sarah on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. ♡