It’s early morning, and the nutty aroma of hot cereal wafts through Ayurvedic doctor David Frawley’s kitchen in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he’s director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies. He drinks a cup of soothing chai, then enjoys a traditional Indian breakfast of upper, or toasted farina. Cooked with vibrant orange carrots and bright green peas, the cereal is flavored with ghee (clarified butter) and spices like cumin, ginger, and turmeric.
“This kind of breakfast keeps my mind clear and gives me an even release of energy,” he says. But before Frawley eats his breakfast, he typically follows various morning rituals to stimulate his agni (digestive fires): rinsing his sinuses with a neti pot, scraping his tongue to remove ama or toxic buildup, practicing Pranayama (yogic breathwork) and a few gentle yoga postures, and drinking spiced breakfast tea. According to Ayurveda (India’s 5,000-year-old approach to health), agni is the metabolic energy that helps the body assimilate nutrients, eliminate what it doesn’t need, generate warmth, and transform physical matter into the subtler forms of energy that the body requires for vitality.
At the start of the day, sometime between 6:00 and 10:00 a.m., agni is quite low, and it’s not easy for most bodies to digest a big breakfast. Ayurvedic practitioners recommend an easily digestible meal that nourishes the body by giving it the fuel it needs, without overwhelming it.
“If you eat breakfast according to Ayurvedic principles, you will have more energy throughout the day,” says Marc Halpern, founder and director of the California College of Ayurveda, located in Grass Valley, California. “As a result, you’ll be more productive at work and have healthier relationships.”
Think of it this way: Your metabolism is like a wood-burning furnace that needs careful tending so it can heat the house (your whole body) and support all of the activities going on inside. In the morning, there may be warm embers left over from the previous day, but to have a healthy fire, you need to gently rekindle the flame.
Haphazardly throwing a lot of fuel (like a rich piece of quiche) into your digestive furnace upon awakening could suffocate the embers. And filling it with quick-burning food (like a sweet pastry) will make it burn furiously for a bit, but then the flames will die out. Without a strong fire, your body might make it through the day, but it’s likely to surge and crash, or to tap into its precious fuel reserves, which can leave you feeling, well, burned out.
“If agni is healthy, you have tremendous energy throughout the day,” says Ayurvedic physician Vasant Lad, founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “But if agni is not healthy, you cannot go so fast. The energy is agni, and agni is energy. “
So, in addition to self-care morning rituals that aim to ignite agni, Frawley follows some basic Ayurvedic dietary guidelines to ensure that his first meal of the day gently stokes his fires throughout the morning. This means eating warm, well-spiced, easy-to-digest foods, with an emphasis on hot cereals and cooked fruits, rather than cold cereals and raw fruits or heavy meals like the classic American bacon and fried eggs with toast and a plate of hash browns. The Ayurvedic approach both feeds the body and helps the mind achieve a sharp but calm sense of focus.
Our tendency to go for sugary cold cereals or a pastry eaten in haste before work doesn’t do much for creating sustained, even energy. “These foods are of very low quality,” Halpern says. “They provide quick energy, but it will not last.” And cold, uncooked milk and refined sugar are considered to have “cooling” properties, acting like buckets of water thrown over the embers of your digestive fires.
Ayurvedic theory suggests that slowly building digestive heat will help you feel balanced all morning and prepare your body to digest a complex meal by lunchtime. “Agni’s strength follows the path of the sun,” says Faith Stone, former head cook at the Shoshoni Yoga Retreat in Rollinsville, Colorado, and co-author of the cookbook Yoga Kitchen.
“In the morning, it’s still heating up. At noon, when the sun is highest, is when agni is the strongest. In the evening, it’s cooling down. A hot breakfast as the first meal of the day decreases the disturbance of waking from deep sleep and respects the quieted agni and the newly awakened digestive system.” Cooking your breakfast, says Stone, spares your agni some of the work of breaking down the food.
A balancing morning meal might consist of stewed apples, pears, and dates, stirred into hot cereal cooked with some warming spices. “Warming spices are those that stoke agni and make it stronger,” Halpern says. “They increase metabolism.” Examples are allspice, basil, black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, fresh ginger, green chili, mustard, nutmeg, rock salt, rosemary, and turmeric. (On the flip side, says Halpern, spices like coriander, fennel, and mint can mildly cool down agni.)
Spices are adjusted according to the dominant dosha (life energy) in your prakriti (constitution), says Stone. Ayurveda takes a highly individualized approach to eating, so it can be helpful to take into account your dominant dosha and modify your meal accordingly. (To learn about your constitution, take our Dosha Quiz.)
For slow-moving kapha, Stone suggests adding warming spices such as chili or hinge (asafetida) to get you going; for airy vata, she recommends cumin seeds with grounding foods like cooked milk and yogurt; and for fiery pitta, she offers oatmeal with cardamom.
It’s easy to make a balancing breakfast by simply cooking grains with spices and adding cooked fruits or veggies. A staple in some yoga centers is a porridge made of millet or oats, boiled with chopped onions, tomatoes, dates, green chilies, and fresh ginger, plus shredded coconut, ghee, cumin, and fenugreek.
For something simpler, try the Coconut Oatmeal Porridge. Or consider a more unusual breakfast of mashed sweet potatoes with cinnamon or a soup of lentils, winter squash, and cumin. And though it might take some getting used to, especially if your current breakfast is something you throw in the toaster and eat in the car on the way to work, try starting your day with well-cooked vegetables like carrots, peas, or broccoli as an accompaniment to a spiced hot cereal like Cream of Wheat.
Though lighter fare is generally on the Ayurvedic breakfast menu, it’s important to gauge how much energy you’ll truly need. “If you will be doing more physical labor, you’ll need more of a strong breakfast,” Frawley says. “If you are going to sit in an office in front of a computer, a heavy breakfast will set you back.”
To give your agni a proper start to the day, try a few Ayurvedic morning practices 30 minutes before your meal: Drink an herbal tea made of cinnamon, clove, ginger, and black pepper; do a few minutes of invigorating pranayama; get your body moving with a bit of yoga or walking. Not only will these simple acts start to move toxins out of your body and activate your agni, they’ll also awaken your hunger. “If you’re hungry, your digestive fire is active,” says Halpern. This is your body’s way of telling you it’s ready to eat.
With your appetite awakened and digestive fires strong, it’s time to say grace, which serves the dual purpose of focusing your attention on the food in front of you and relaxing the body, Halpern says. “A relaxed body digests food better than one that is tense and distracted.” Another tip for supporting healthy agni in the morning is to refrain from drinking anything during the meal, which is thought to douse your internal fires.
Most important, eat slowly and savor the wonderful breakfast before you. Enjoy each delicious bite, knowing there’s no better way to fire up your body’s furnace and start the day right.
Nora Isaacs is a freelance writer in San Francisco.