The third of the elements (pancabhuta) to manifest is fire, that which gives heat, warmth and light! At the centre of our solar system sits the Sun: a concentrated ball of fire, radiating its energy out into the solar system, spreading warmth and light as far as the earth, our home. It is this light and warmth that makes life possible on earth, that allows plants to thrive and therefore giving life to all other creatures dependent on these plants, ourselves included. This is one reason why the Sun features so highly in the teachings of yoga: we are all dependent on it!
So how does this energy that powers our solar system manifest within us? How do heat, warmth and light power our systems? Perhaps the most crucial manifestation of fire within us is that which we find in the digestive system. Agni, the god of fire, resides in us to facilitate digestion, the process by which we are nourished and also cleansed! For another very important aspect of fire is purification. As fire is used to separate gold from its ore so our digestion can extract the essential nutrients from our food, leaving the waste to be eliminated at the end of the process. As an interesting aside, the first word of the R.g Veda is agni. This most ancient and important text references it as a key energy by honouring it in the Agni Hotra ritual.
If it is working properly, this form of inner fire is known as samagni, a balanced, controlled and functioning digestive system. This idea appears in the earliest (Vedic) teachings on yoga for well-being as one of the qualities needed for svastha (complete systemic health) and the importance of good, healthy digestion and [bold] elimination echoes throughout the teachings of yoga.
Agni in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Such references come in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, chapter 2.27 describing Matsyendrasana (seated spinal twist), “This Matsyendrasana, (which increases appetite by) fanning the gastric fire, it is a weapon which destroys all the terrible diseases of the body;” and in chapter 2.29,”This most excellent of all Asana, Pascimottanasana, ………. stimulates the gastric fire, makes the loins lean and removes all the diseases of men.” And finally, chapter 2.31, “The Mayurasana cures quickly all diseases … and overcomes the imbalance of the humours (namely vata, pitta and kapha). It reduces to ashes (i.e. enables digestion of) all food indiscriminately taken, kindles the gastric fire …” Three references in one chapter to the power and importance of the gastric fire to both digestion and to purification and, therefore, to health!
Manifestations of Inner Fire
Another manifestation of the inner fire is sight: the ability to see and see clearly. This makes sense if we remember how the Sun radiates its light throughout our solar system so that all is revealed as the earth revolves through its twenty-four hour cycle and nowhere is left in darkness! A metaphor for a clear and illuminated mind that sees everything clearly, gradually revealing every aspect of our selves. The brightness in our eyes is a sign of a healthy inner fire as well as allowing us to see all clearly. A strong voice is another sign that the system is robust and healthy; the samagni gives power to the voice by combining with prana (the breath) to give a warmth and resonance to the voice. If you have ever been fortunate enough to hear Sir chanting (even recorded chants) you will recognise this quality. His eyes also had a deep, rich brightness like coals that glow in the fire.
The qualities of fire can also be seen as represented in the body as pitta – one of the tridosa in Ayurveda, (i.e. pitta: fire and air, kapha: water and earth, and vata: space and air) and in the mind as the triguna (rajas: movement/activity, kapha: tamas, and sattva: pitta). Therefore, it is clear, fire is not only the energy of purification but also that of transformation, thus bringing clarity as well as purity. This is indicated by the fact that sattva is linked with pitta/fire, that which purifies and cleanses!
A Balanced Constitution
Health, in terms of the tridosa, is understood as samadosa (a balanced constitution). What is crucial is that the fire is contained appropriately such that it can function without causing collateral damage. Examples of this would be conditions such as gastritis or duodenal ulcers where the fire begins to digest the body’s own tissues. This is dependent on the correct balance of all five elements in the body: earth as structure, water to attenuate the power of fire, air to allow the fire to burn and space in which these processes can occur.
The final thing to remember about fire is that it cannot be polluted or adulterated, unlike the other four elements. As stated earlier, fire is that which purifies and transforms! It can be said that these are really the main aims of yoga, to cleanse and purify the system, especially the mind, so that we can reveal/perceive that which is most pure within us: the spirit! Thus we can see that maintaining a healthy inner fire (agni) is an essential part of yoga – at the level of the body to facilitate adequate nutrition and to cleanse the body of impurities, and at the level of the mind to give both clarity (light) and purity!