Do you ever feel bloated, or have had that feeling when you have eaten too much rich food and you feel like your stomach is going to explode? I am sure despite best efforts to practice mindful eating, most of us have experienced this in some point in our lives. This month at La Crisalida Retreats, we are thinking about digestive health from a range of approaches and this article explores yoga and digestion.
Whilst you might have heard some people say it is best to practice yoga a while after eating, there are however some practices you can do immediately after eating. An example is included below. There are many other links between yoga and digestion and I will explore some of these, before going on to give you 5 key poses to help with digestive health.
There are many physical ways yoga aids digestion. However, I think some of the most important ways are through developing awareness and learning how to fully relax. When we are relaxed it is sometimes said we are in the ‘rest and digest’ function of our nervous system. The opposite occurs when we are are stressed: blood and energy move away from the digestive organs to the large muscle groups to get ready to ‘fight or flight’. Of course digestion still takes place when we are stressed, however stress can lead to things such as a build up of stomach acids leading to indigestion. Stress and a sedentary lifestyle can also result in a slowing down of digestion leading to constipation. Yoga and relaxation can move us more towards this state which we explore this in this month´s sister article, effects of stress on your digestive system and how to relax it, which also includes a relaxing tummy massage.
Yoga is a practice aimed towards developing greater self-awareness. This can help us learn to be more mindful of how different foods, or eating patterns affect us. If we practice yoga regularly we often start to notice what it is like to ‘feel good’ in our bodies. When we have experienced this we can become more aware of the decisions that will make us feel bad, whether this is eating too much, too little, or the wrong types of food.
Other non-physical ways yoga can help us improve our digestion are through improving sleep and will-power.
Physical ways in which Yoga and Digestion works
There are many yoga asanas (positions) that can help aid digestion. For example, yoga twists and other dynamic poses that compress, stretch and twist the abdominal area can improve circulation, which may also improve organ functionality. Various movements and stretches of the abdominal area help with elimination by improving intestinal peristalsis – the movements in the gut that help keep things regular.
Yoga also has lots of poses that strengthen and stretch the abdominal area. This can help to tone the abdominal muscles, which can help to contain the digestive organs. Having a strong abdominal area may also assist in movement of material through the system.
Now we have covered a little bit about how yoga and digestion work. I will now introduce five key poses that can be practised to help improve digestion.
1. Hero’s Pose
The first pose Virasana (or simple kneeling) is one of the few poses that we can do straight after eating. It is said that this pose helps digestion by gently stretching the spine, and helping the breath to relax.
To do this pose simply sit kneeling on your heels. If you have any knee troubles you can always modify this pose by using some blocks or a bolster under your hips, or popping some thin material behind the kneecap. I would then recommend focusing on relaxing the belly with the breath. If you have had a particularly heavy meal you might want to explore some simple neck stretches and gentle wrist and shoulder circles.
It is said that this pose helps to relieve constipation and indigestion. The way this is supposed to work is that in this position the blood flow to the thighs and legs is restricted. This increases blood flow to your pelvic area and stomach, which helps to improve digestion.
If you want to add on to this pose, I would recommend putting the arms into Cow-Faced Arms (Gormukasana). This arm position helps to gently stretch and lengthen the stomach muscles.
To do this position you may need a yoga belt, or a normal scarf or belt. Stay kneeling (if comfortable), or sit in normal cross legs. Lift your right arm overhead, palm turned inwards. Then use your left hand on the right elbow to help move the right hand down the back. Next stretch the left hand out to the left, thumb turned down, then reach the hand behind you to catch the right hand behind your back. If you cannot catch the right hand comfortably, use the belt to connect both the hands. Stay in this position for 5 to 10 breaths. Come out slowly. Next repeat to the second side.
2. Seated Cat and Cow
The next set of poses brings gentle movement to the torso, which helps to gently stimulate the digestive system. To do this pose sit cross legged (or with your feet on the floor and knees up). Take your hands to the knees (or the shins if the soles of the feet are on the floor).
As you inhale lift the chest and gently arch the spine, lengthening the front of the body. As you exhale bring the belly button towards the spine and gently round the back looking down at your belly button. Continue alternating between these two movements taking between five and fifteen of each movement. When you have finished sit with the spine straight and take a few breaths to notice how you feel and how your belly feels.
3. Simple twist using a wall
Twists are said to be very beneficial for digestion as they are said to stoke the digestive fire, known as the agni. It is also said that they help to move waste matter through the colon. If you are working with twists for digestion is it recommended that you always start twisting to the right as this widens the ascending colon, and helps move matter up and across the transverse colon. The following twist to the left helps move the waste matter down the descending colon.
To do this pose sit cross-legged or a comfortable seated position about one arms distance away from the wall with your back to the wall. You could sit on a blanket or a block. Next twist slowly to the right taking your right hand to the wall behind you and your left hand over your knee. Depending on your position you may need to adjust the distance of the torso from the wall. It is best if the torso is straight and not leaning too far forward or too far back, and the shoulders are in a comfortable position.
Once you have adjusted your position (if necessary) then bring your right hand back to the wall and the left hand over the knee. Use the right fingers against the wall to gently increase the twist. You can use the left hand to press against the right knee to gently increase the twist. Be careful to listen to your body and not put any undue strain on it. Stay here ten to fifteen breaths. When you are ready slowly turn back to the front. Take a few breaths here with the spine in neutral. When you are ready change the cross of the legs and then twist to the other side. After doing an even number of breaths on each side, come to a neutral position. To finish, lie down in Corpse Pose and take a few breaths to relax the shoulders and arms and notice how you feel.
4. Wind releasing pose, Apanasana
Apanasana, which is also known as the Wind Releasing Pose, is a great position for digestion. To do this pose first lie down on your back. Next hug your left knee into the chest. As you inhale you can move the knee slightly further away from you, keeping your hands on the knee but straightening your elbows. As you inhale take the knee towards you and bend your elbows out to the side. Repeat 5 times, then relax your left leg on the floor and take a few breaths. Next, take your right knee into the chest and repeat the movements with the right knee. When you have completed both sides take some time to rest in Corpse Pose. If you have a bad back you can keep the bottom leg bent with the sole of the foot on the floor as this deceases the stretch on the back.
5. Reclined Bound Angle Pose with belly breathing
The final pose, which is one of my favourite poses, is reclined bound angle pose. This pose helps with digestion by focusing on relaxing the belly. Deep belly breathing can act like an internal massage of the digestive tract, including the stomach area, intestines, liver, and pancreas.
To do this pose simply lie on your back and bring the soles of your feet together and allow your knees to drop out to the sides. Take your hands to your belly and focus on your breath and relaxing your belly. If you would like to take a longer version of this pose you can refer to last months article on Restorative Yoga, which is also great for digestive health!
I hope you have enjoyed this month’s yoga article and have seen that there are many ways that yoga and digestion can work together. If you want to learn more about yoga, come try it here at La Crisalida Yoga Retreats.