Agni, Tapas, and Soma
Understanding the role that agni, tapas, and soma each play in ayurvedic philosophy is key to understanding health and our inner selves and the three internal meditative limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.
Tapas is a Sanskrit word that means “to heat.” Tapas is at the core of the Niyamas, which are the five principles of self observance and internal disciplines outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
We can think of Tapas as the internal, motivating heat that sparks initiative and progression within us. It is the deep, inner drive that forces us to get up in the morning, and that brings us to the yoga mat every day. More than this, Tapas is the basis of all things in existence and is reflected through the most important aspects of Yoga including abhyasa (steady practice), svadhyaya (self reflection), and the three internal, meditative limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (dhyana, dharana, and Samadhi).
David Frawley states that “tapas is the creative principle of fire, which is the application of heat for growth, development and transformation, particularly the heat of an inner fire to help us grow in awareness. Tapas is said to be the very means of all creation starting at a cosmic level.”
You may be asking yourself, where does this inner heat come from…where does it originate? This is where Agni becomes important to understand. If Tapas is heat, Agni is the fire that allows us to process and withstand that heat. Agni is the internal fire that remains stoked by things like healthy living, along with abhyasa and svadhyaya. Agni is our ability to process our practices, and transform them into a higher awareness.
In Ayurveda, there are 40 main types of Agni within our bodies:
- Jatharagni: Digestive fire within the stomach
- 5 Bhutagnis: Elemental Agnis of the Liver
- 5 Indriya agnis: Sensory Agnis
- 15 Subdosha Agnis
- 7 Dhatu Agnis
- Pilu & Pithara Agni: Cellular Agnis
- Jathru Agni: Thyroid and Thymus Agnis
- Kloma Agni: Agni of the Pancreas
- Mala Agnis: Feces, Urine, and Sweat
In order for our bodies to function and process things to their fullest potential, these agni’s must remain stoked and healthy. Along with these Agni’s, there is also a mental Agni that feeds directly into the concept of Tapas and Soma. Our mental agni, just like the rest of the bodily agnis, is responsible for the processing and transformation of whatever is taken in – in this case, thoughts, emotions, and experiences. If we cannot digest and process what the body is consuming in all aspects, then even the thought of practice and transformation becomes impossible to grasp.
Tapas is not to be confused with pitta-driven self-restraint and severe discipline. Tapas is the continual progression of movement towards awareness. It is the ability to remain consistent in development, despite discomforts or “growing pains” that may arise.
Tapas is vital because it acts as the continuous driving force that allows for the bearing of fruits. It pushes you through discomfort, lethargy, apathy, and doubt, allowing you to reduce the vrittis (mind fluctuations) and develop refined Soma – the internal nectar and vitality (similar to Ojas) that brings pleasure and good feelings to your body and consciousness. Like Ojas, Soma corresponds to Kapha dosha, and has the elemental dispositions of water and earth. When considering the Gunas, Soma also has an oily quality about it.
David Frawley puts it into perspective by describing Soma as something that can “nourish and sustain fire. In this regard [Soma] has been compared to Ghee in texture. All objects that we see are like fuel for the flame of our awareness” (David Frawley, Soma in Yoga and Ayurveda: The power of Rejuvenation and immortality pg.65). Soma is the pleasure we find in all the tastes that we have in life, whether it be food, relationships, music, art, ideas, or practices. We get a clear idea of how Soma is developed from recognizing what our specific tastes are and what gives us pleasure in life.
Sun & Moon Energies
You can think of Agni and Soma as two sides of the same coin, similar to Yin and Yang, or the Sun and the Moon. Agni is the Sun aspect of the body, which radiates light and energy, while Soma is the Moon aspect, which reflects that light and brings rejuvenation and pleasure. Just as any dualistic partnership, both elements are found within each other, and rely on each other for their own existence. Without light, there is no reflection, and without reflection, how can there be light? The dance between Agni and Soma is infinite within our universe and is experienced in all physical and energetic sciences.
This can also be pictured as the relationship between the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. We need the Sun (Agni or Fire) to sustain life on Earth. From the Sun comes heat, which radiates into the Earth and gives nourishment to life and allows for transformation through chemical reactions, like we see in plants. As plants grow from the food they create with the Sun’s energy, they develop an essence (Soma). This Soma is a product of the plants relationship to the Moon, and the lunar cycles and the changes that come from these cycles. It is commonly known that the Moon is responsible for influencing wind, water, and the seasons. For example, take a look at the coffee bean. The Soma of the coffee bean is experienced through the taste, as well as the caffeine and its qualities. We recognize that coffee beans have different fragrances or tastes that result from a conglomerate of the different qualities of the elements that go into growing coffee – Altitude, soil, season, cross pollinations, rain, etc. We can attribute these elements to the influence of the Moon. The cycle of the Sun and the Moon is what really creates the conditions from which we can get all these unique variables that create Soma. The experience we have when we drink coffee is a direct relation to experiencing the coffee’s Soma.
One of the oldest origins and examples of Soma dates back thousands of years ago, when the great Rishis and Sages of the past made a hallucinogenic tea from the crushing of mushrooms. Some say that it is the result of the mental and spiritual fruits of this tea that the Vedas were formed. In this way, the Vedas are the manifestation of the mushroom’s Soma, as well as the Soma of the Rishi’s who ingested it.
We can relate the crushing of the mushrooms to the twisting and compression of the body in Asana. We do this to release the essence, or Soma, of the body. From this Soma comes Amrita, or the immortal elixir – the essence of which is repeated throughout Yogic philosophy and text in different ways (Samadhi, Kaivala, Nirvana).
“The elixir Soma was a drug with a strong psychoactive or hallucinogenic effect. After it was cleaned, cut up, and squeezed for its juice is a precise ritual, the Vedic priests would indulge in the drink. Entire chapters of the Vedic hymns…extol the power and the ecstasy brought on by imbibing the juices of the plant.” (Richard Freeman, The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind p. 23)
Extracting Soma is a subtle and harmonious science that, like all Ayurvedic and Yogic principles, requires awareness and balance. We start this process by recognizing the processing power of Agni, or Fire, within our bodies and minds. What is it that lights you up? What brings excitement and energy to your body, mind, and soul? We recognize good Agni as having a healthy appetite, good digestion (of food, information, emotions, external stimuli, etc.), and steady energy in the body and mind. Once we’ve developed healthy Agni, Tapas comes naturally. You cannot have a fire without heat, just as you cannot have a fire that doesn’t emit light. This light is what allows us to become aware of our inner selves.