Getting Your Digestion Right With Yoga
Digestion is a daily importance for all humans. When a person experiences digestive issues for whatever reason, be it constipation/diarrhoea or even a long term health condition of the intestines such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBS) it can become very isolating and effect both mental health and the quality of life. A few years ago I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease – a form of IBD. I personally have found yoga an incredible way to help combat the effects of this condition. For me, any time spent on the mat practising either independently or as part of a class is time spent away from the stress of this disease. Often when a person is experiencing poor digestion it means that they are stressed. The mind and body are out of sync and one is causing the other stress. The abdominal area of the body is one of the hardest to truly relax as your core muscles are used for almost every movement to some extent. Yoga is the practice of uniting the mind, body and soul via various disciplines. There are several practices such as Shatkarma, Pranayama and Meditation that can help improve digestion when incorporated into your day to day life. Throughout this essay, I will explain how yoga can be used to do this with a particular focus on aiding an underactive intestine.
For most people in the 21st century, the most accessible part of yoga is the practice of the asanas. There are several yoga asanas that can be used to aid digestive issues. The following yoga poses or yoga postures are designed to strengthen the abdominals and digestive system. Precautions should be taken if someone is suffering from acute pain in the stomach. These postures also help to remove any energy blockages that may be causing digestive issues in the intestinal area.
SHAVA UDARAKARSHANASANA (universal spinal twist)
When someone is struggling with stomach pain / excessive flatulence the universal spinal twist can help to alleviate the problem as it allows the digestive tract to move and release any gas that may be trapped. To get into this posture, first, lie on your back in SAVASANA (corpse pose). Stretch your arms out to the side in line with your shoulders palms facing down. Inhale as you bend your right knee into your chest leaving the left leg lying straight. As you exhale drop your right knee over to your left side, try to keep your right shoulder connected with the mat. Use your left hand to press your right knee down to the floor if a deeper stretch is required. Gently turn your head in the opposite direction of the twist – in this case to the right. Remain in this stretch for at least 5 breaths to feel the full benefit of the asana. Keep your awareness on a steady breath and relaxation into the shoulders and back. To return to the starting position, bring your right leg back up to the centre line and turn your head back up to face the ceiling. Exhale as you lower your leg to the floor alongside the left leg, and bring the arms back to the sides and into alignment with the shoulders. Repeat on the left side. This asana massages and tones the internal abdominal organs including the bowel and stomach, relieving stress.
Twisting is vital to keeping not just the abdomen healthy but the whole body and mind. Spinal twists represent the untangling of knots and problems that we face during our lifetime, on a physical level regular twisting practice rejuvenates the abdominal area and relieves any disorders associated such as digestive problems.
PADAHASTASANA (forward fold/hand to foot pose)
This pose is particularly effective as it helps to sooth problems caused by constipation such as excessive gas and abdominal cramping. To start, come to a standing position on your mat. Begin with a straight spine pulling up through your back and depressing your shoulders. Hands beside the body and chin parallel to the floor. Ensure that weight is evenly spread on both feet with the medial arches of the feet touching and your big toes in line with each other. On an exhale – begin to bend forward slowly, in order to keep your back straight you can place your hands on your hips or keep them raised above your head palms facing in and shoulders beside ears. Rotate from the hips rather than the lumber to relieve strain from the lower back. With an anterior pelvic tilt keep bending until your chest is on your thighs. Depending on flexibility straighten the legs and place palms down on the floor. A block can be used for those with tight hamstrings. If you suffer from hyperextension of the knees micro bend to protect the posterior cruciate ligaments. There are a couple of variations to extend the posture – if flexibility will allow place palms underneath the soles of the feet so that the big toes are contacted with the inner side of the wrists. Alternatively inhale and grab the ankles, on the exhale bend the elbows outward to extend the stretch. It is crucial that the back remains straight and the abdomen remains on the thighs. The deeper the stretch achieved the greater the massage on the internal organs such as the small and large intestine. Other benefits of this asana include lengthening of the hamstrings. Hold this posture for as long as comfortable and gently come back up to standing taking care to maintain a straight spine with hands-on-hips or above the head. Return arms to sides. This posture alleviates flatulence, constipation and digestion – when incorporated into a regular routine it will help improve any common digestive issues a person may experience.
TRIKONASANA Variation 4 (Reverse Triangle Pose)
Whilst practising asanas can help physicians to strengthen the body when performed correctly and with spiritual awareness, they can also unblock corresponding chakras. The chakra that influences the digestive system is MANIPURA (solar plexus chakra). The word chakra translates as wheel or disc. When a chakra becomes unbalanced or blocked it can cause problems relating to the area in which it resides. For example, someone with digestive issues probably has some blockage in their MANIPURA located just above the navel. This chakra helps to overcome nervous tension caused by stress, rebalancing it will majorly enhance a persons body health and general enthusiasm for life. TRIKONASANA variation 4 helps to unblock the Manipura, therefore, helping to alleviate problems with digestion.
To perform reverse triangle pose stand straight with your feet more than a shoulder-width distance between them. Turn your right foot out, keeping the heel in line with the left foot at a right angle. Stand with a straight spine. Turn your body to face the right foot, move the left foot into a 45-degree angle. Exhale and bend at the waist to a 90-degree angle with a flat back and straight legs. Keeping the right hand on the right hip and the left hand outstretched towards the right foot. Keep bending from the waist until your left hand can press down on your right metatarsals or if flexibility will allow placing your left palm next to the outside of your right foot on the floor. For those with short hamstrings, a block can be used to modify the pose. Inhale as you extend your right arm up towards the ceiling and turn your gaze to your top palm. Pull in your core muscles for stability and try to rotate your right hip back and your left hip forward. Open your chest in the direction of your right leg, rotating your right shoulder back as far as your body will allow- however, ensure that both shoulders are stacked on top of each other in alignment, the arms should create a vertical straight line towards the sky. Relax and breathe into the pose for at least 5 breaths to feel the full benefit. Gently bend the right knee and push up to standing, keeping arms outstretched at shoulder height and rotate your body and neck back round to face the side of your mat. Turn your right foot 90 degrees in towards the side of your mat. Turn your left foot out 45 degrees to the side of your mat so that it becomes parallel to your right foot. From this wide standing stance, you are now able to begin the pose on the left side.
Regular asana practice of the above-mentioned postures can help you improve digestive problems such as constipation, excessive flatulence and indigestion.
For those suffering from a long term digestive disease such as Crohns or Colitis, consultation with a medical professional should be taken before beginning asana practice to ensure full benefit. Asanas that should be avoided by those with active Crohns/Colitis or stomach ulcers involve backbends such as the wheel or bridge and any pose in which the stomach is stretched as the internal lining can become irritated and make any existing problems worse. For those of you who are suffering from IBS, you may find these yoga asanas for IBS symptom relief helpful too.
The word PRANA translates as ‘vital energy’, prana is a force that is present in all beings. YAMA means ‘to control’, therefore the literal translation is ‘controlling energy’ which we can do via breathing. When pranayama is practised with awareness it can prepare the body for meditation and asana and prepare the mind for deeper spiritual understanding.
The abdominal breathing technique is the perfect starting point for someone suffering from digestive issues. Abdominal breathing focuses on filling the diaphragm with breath creating a deeper inhalation. As we inhale into our abdomen the diaphragm moves downward, upon exhalation it moves upwards and the contents of the abdomen move inward. This massages the stomach and intestines, helping to alleviate digestive issues such as constipation. Abdominal breathing is also known as the diaphragmatic breath.
To practice abdominal breathing first lie in savasana. Close your eyes and relax. Place your right hand on your belly just above your navel. Take the left hand and rest upon the middle of your chest. Inhale through your nostrils and concentrate on filling your abdomen with your breath, as you do so your right hand will be lifted gently as the air fills the diaphragm. Exhale via the nostrils and feel all of the air empty out of you under your right hand, exhaling as deep as comfortable for you. The breath should be easy and natural and with practice will become deeper and longer. There are several benefits to this type of breathing such as stress relief, lowering blood pressure and relaxing the heart. Abdominal breathing should be utilised whilst sleeping, meditating and in any daily form of relaxation such as sitting or eating.
KAPALBHATI is a breathing technique that reverses the natural breathing rhythm. It can tone the digestive organs making them stronger and decreasing the likelihood of encountering any digestive problems.
To begin, sit in a comfortable meditation asana such as SUKHASANA (easy pose) or PADMASANA (lotus pose). Rest your hands on your knees and assume either the chin or jnana mudra. Close your eyes. Using both nostrils, exhale forcefully using your abdominal muscles to push out the breath. The following inhalation should be a natural reaction and take no effort. The inhalation is passive in KAPALBHATI. Repeat this for 10 breathes in quick succession, then return to a natural breath inhaling and exhaling for equal length until the breath stabilises. Repeat this process 5 times. As you progress, increase the number of breaths from 10 to 20 to 30 etc each time.
Ayurveda is the basic science of yoga. It literally translates as ‘Life’ ‘Science’ or ‘Science of life’.
The abdominal portion of the body is closely related to PITTA which is the DOSHA relating to fire. A person with a digestive problem/inflammation of the digestive tract could have an imbalance in their body meaning they have too much PITTA within their self at the time of those issues. There are different asanas and foods that one can eat to help regulate the order of doshas in a person. If we assume that a digestive issue is being caused by excess PITTA, the person suffering should practice asanas relating to KAPHA. Daily checks in the morning when you initially wake up can help to monitor any digestive issues you may be facing. Check your tongue after waking, if there is a thick white layer on the surface of your tongue it indicates that you are holding onto toxins in the body and are probably constipated. Use a tongue scraper, ideally made of copper, to remove the layer.
If you’d like to see more about Ayurveda, read this blog about Ayurvedic Morning Routines.
DIET / WATER INTAKE
In order to maintain a healthy digestive tract, close attention should be paid to food and water and also how you eat and drink it. Food intake is different for everyone depending on the balance of doshas in the body however there are some universal rules that everyone can follow to help keep the digestive tract healthy and functioning well.
Water should not be freezing cold when drunk because it will shock the body and slow the energy within the body meaning that processes such as digestion cannot be fulfilled properly. A warm drink in the morning is recommended as well as after eating. Water should also never be drunk whilst standing and should always be sipped never chugged even when thirsty. This is because the body needs time to absorb the water properly in the large intestine in order to complete digestion and other functions. You must ensure that you drink enough water to keep digestion moving as constipation can be caused by a lack of water intake.
When practising yoga asanas, your diet should be Rajasvik in order to fuel your body properly. A vegetarian diet is easier on your digestive system and therefore will lead to less digestive problems.
Whilst eating food, ensure that you chew your food until it is properly broken up before swallowing – this will take some of the strain off of your stomach and other abdominal organs. It is sensible to drink some water 5-10 mins prior to eating so that saliva can be produced efficiently. Always thank the earth and anyone who has helped in bringing this meal to your table before eating, it will help you to connect to your present moment and also make you feel gratitude for the nourishment that your body is about to receive. Never eat whilst walking or running, ensure that you are relaxed whilst eating in order to reduce the stress on your digestive system. If these simple steps are followed when eating and drinking, daily digestive issues such as constipation and indigestion will be improved greatly.
Overall, it is very clear that when practised with awareness – yoga asanas can be used to greatly improve digestive issues. Although it may only seem like a simple thing, having a healthy bowel can seriously enhance the quality of a person life. I myself am so grateful for the spiritual awareness that yoga has given me which in turn helps me to cope with my Inflammatory Bowel Disease on a psychological level, and also for the fact that it keeps my body healthy and strong enough to do all the things I want to do. By incorporating the above-mentioned asanas, pranayamas and meditation technique into your daily routine – as well as actively becoming mindful with diet and water, it is clear that yoga can indeed help to improve digestive issues such as constipation, flatulence and indigestion.