Yoga and the Digestive Fire

Swami Karma Karuna Saraswati, New Zealand

Fire is a force of nature. It is used for survival, however, if it is over-activated it can destroy and if it is under-activated it goes out. Often fire is associated with flames but this is only the most physical aspect of the fire element. In the yogic view, fire is a powerful and transformative energy existing in the macrocosmos and the micro-cosmos. The digestive system is the inner fire within the physical body that sustains digestion, energetic levels and is increasingly showing itself to be vital to overall mental and physical health.

The gut

Many Eastern systems such as Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine and yoga theory have considered the digestive system the centre of health for the whole body for thousands of years. Science is finally getting on the bandwagon with research supporting the importance of digestive health not only for physical but also mental well being. There are approximately 200 million neurons in the gut, which send signals to the brain, and the brain sends messages back out to other body organs. So what the gut tells the brain influences many other bodily systems.

The gut is often called the second brain. There is also a growing body of evidence showing that the strains of bacteria that are predominant in our gut influence mental and physical well being. It is now recognized that serotonin, one of our feel-good hormones, is primarily signalled and produced by the gut. Deficient serotonin can contribute to anxiety, stress, depression and rage. Factors such as stress, our external environment, what we eat and how we breathe all change the gut bacteria and thus our mental health and the cycles goes on.

Manipura and the gunas

From the yogic viewpoint, this area of the body is related to the manipura chakra or the solar plexus energy centre. The name solar plexus itself reflects the fact that the internal sun lives here. The Sanskrit word mani means ‘jewel’ and puri ‘city’ thus, manipura is described as the ‘city of jewels’. We know that jewels are luminous, full of wealth and power. This symbolizes the qualities of the digestive area. In the physical body the inner fire regulates the digestive area, energizing various activities of organs, systems and processes of life. It is highly important to the inner wealth of energy and nutrients.

When the inner fire is rajasic (over-activated) it can express itself as a competitive force, power oriented and with driving ambition. This can be seen in the modern corporate world, where a thirst for success and power override the environment and other humans. The fire energy can also get depleted quickly when over-activated resulting in exhaustion or illness. Stress is another expression of a rajasic manipura. It is meant for emergency situations, like running away from a lion, however, much of the time, it is triggered by one’s perceptions of pressure: financial, job or family challenges.

When the 'fight, flight, freeze' is activated, key physiological changes occur such as increased breath and heart rate, as well as shutting down digestion and reproduction. Many modern digestive challenges have their roots in long-term arousal of the stress response. Thus, it is very important to look at how we can turn on the ‘relax, rest and digest’ arm of the nervous system through enhancing our relaxation response and shifting our perspective towards life.

The tamasic (under-activated state) of manipura is one of powerlessness and lack of energy. People feel they have no control over the events of their life, and they lack the power to implement change. As manipura chakra is the storehouse of prana or fuel, if the storehouse is depleted, then physical health becomes poor, and depression and lack of zest for life can manifest. There may also be sluggish digestion and excess mucus in the body, also resulting in illness.

When the fire centre is balanced, the person will have a strong digestion, energy to accomplish anything (in a balanced way) and will feel healthy and vital. A person with a balanced fire chakra, will usually do actions that benefit humanity and for higher spiritual purposes. In order to create balance in the inner fire, yogic tools can be of incredible support. Certain hatha yoga practices can be used to either calm the nervous system and the inner fire or to activate it.

Yogic perspective and practices

Restorative yoga practices, diaphragmatic breathing and yoga nidra help to ignite the relaxation response, which supports strong digestion. Other postures act directly to strengthen and balance the internal fire by strengthening and activating the abdominal muscles and organs and activating or balancing the fire. The yoga practice of Salute to the Sun, surya namaskara, is another powerful practice to awaken the internal sun energy and leave one feeling relaxed and energized simultaneously.

Breathing practices are also important to support the digestive system. Diaphragmatic breathing is the fastest way to bring about the relaxation response. The breath is with us 24/7 and is the only autonomic response that is also under our conscious control. When we are conscious of the breath, it is a gift that allows us to manage our mind, emotions and change our physiology.

Other more classical breathing practices such as bhastrika pranayama are heating and activating and work by strengthening the internal fire. It increases the vital energy of the practitioner. Due to a rapid exchange of air in the lungs, more oxygen is available to the body to feed all the cells and carbon dioxide is pumped out, releasing toxins. The heating nature of the practice increases metabolism and burns up waste products, removing diseases caused by the imbalance of the water, earth and wind elements within the body.

Beyond the physical body, it is important to begin developing an awareness of our mental patterns and actions especially around stress and food. A meditation practice known as inner silence or antar mouna helps us to become an observer. How do we utilize our energy? Are we acting out of anger, from stress, from a selfish drive or out of insecurity? Do we eat to live or live to eat? This type of self-analysis can support a gradual process of transformation and lead to a more balanced use and management of our fire energy and a more healthy digestion. With the conscious use of the element fire in the micro and macrocosmos, we can transform our life to create greater health, life energy and a drive towards positive action to help others and ourselves. Ultimately, inner transformation leads to outer changes allowing the fire of life to burn in a balanced way.