I want to answer questions that repeatedly come to me from students, provide a few poses and ideas about digestive health. But I also insist, insist insist at the beginning, that yoga is individual, just as your gut is.
I will keep the poses as general as I can, asking you to remember that what works for you may be different than what works for the next guy. We all have different bodies, different constitutions, different contexts. Understand that yogic knowledge should ultimately be self-knowledge; talk with your yoga teacher and your doctor both about your specific needs and concerns.
Digestive health informs every aspect of our emotional and physical well being. Many of the breathing and postural practices are directly aimed at the digestive tract.
Of course, in yogic thinking, digestion is both literal and more than literal: we ‘metabolize’ not only food, but water and air, experience, emotion, relationships, stress, joy and sadness. This tends to make things more abstract than our uber convenient, pre-packaged sensibilities would like; there isn’t necessarily one single answer to why your stomach hurts, but a multiplicity of moving parts. Frustrating, if you want a quick fix or one simple pose to do magic. But it is liberating if you begin to understand that mind and body are synergistic; you can heal and harm in both directions. By understanding and respecting the fact that your management of time, experience, relationships, and stress is directly affecting your digestion, you have a few tools. By learning to honor and listen to your body through asana you have a handful more. Understanding and watching what you eat and consume through your skin and mind, you have another few. Ultimately, this is a more powerful and autonomous way to live than is looking for a cure all.
How To Begin
If you suffer regular but not serious indigestion, picking up a regular yoga practice will be highly beneficial. If you are interested in losing or gaining weight, be aware that a more physical practice is necessary to ‘burn calories’, but a basic, restorative practice will improve your body’s rhythms, ability to digest and detoxify, improve mood, motivation, and energy levels. Much of our health, weight, and appetite is wedded to our levels of contentment, anxiety, and depression, which yoga immediately addresses. Frequently, digestive issues are symptoms of some other issue in the body or mind, various biochemical balances; yoga will help sort this out. Keep in mind, though, that digestive issues are real and often painful and distressing. They are not just in your mind. Start where you are, rather than trying to change your whole body in the next 30 days. Talk with a qualified teacher whom you trust about finding the right balance of ‘athleticism’ and ‘restorative’ practices and you’ll find the place for you.
If, however, you are new to yoga and suffer Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or other serious digestive problems, check with your doctor before starting a practice and let your yoga teacher know where you are. Yoga is highly beneficial for people who suffer from these chronic ailments, but if you are recovering from an obstruction or surgery, you should make sure your body is ready to practice. If you suffer from Irritable bowel syndrome you will find yoga, no matter what stage of digestive flare up, to be very beneficial.
To notice any benefits, you should practice at least 2-3 times a week. Yoga can be practiced every day. If getting to a studio or practice that often is difficult, ask the teacher you are most comfortable with for help with a sequence you can practice on your own.
Let me repeat: a gentle, restorative practice has innumerable benefits to our body’s natural tendency to heal, balancing internal rhythms, and finding a sense of control and well being. Such a practice is easily modified and entirely safe for even the injured or ill.
What Yoga Teaches, and how it differs from Western medicine
When I was in teacher training, we spent a lot of time memorizing the anatomical systems of the body and their components from a western medical and anatomical perspective. We memorized skeletal components. We traced the roadmap of the nervous system. We prodded the digestive and immuno and cardiovascular bits and pieces. We crammed, we quizzed. We had a fuax skeleton. After our initial ignorance and discomfort passed, we named him Greogory and put him into various postures. We blamed him when the coffee spilled. I sat up late at night, reviewing latinate words and looking at my own hand, foot, or knee for understanding before waking up early for class the next day. But after all the flashcards and the diagrams, we learned this:
Western anatomy understands things by cutting them apart. It describes location. It understands ‘health’ mostly by describing illness, after the fact, without understanding causes or prognosis over well. But the body’s very existence, and each flitting sensation, is a symphony of moving parts and interaction, not isolation. There is really no such thing as ‘the immune system’ or the ‘digestive tract’, because it all works in concert. Digestion is affected by the secretion of proteins, enzymes and hormones, which are part of the endocrine system and have central plexuses in the brain, organs, and spinal column. It is intimately related to our blood, which is tangled up with our lymph. The endocrine system is influenced by the nervous system of brain and nerves and reflexes. And the brain is influenced by the cardiovascular system, our breath and blood, while our blood and gasp is directly related to our muscle tissues and skeletal system, which is more or less healthy because of the nutrients and toxins we metabolize or don’t.
Some of us may have too much acid in our stomach. This is affecting our mood, which affects our secretion of hormones, which affects the build up of new cells in the muscles and skin, which may mean we hold ourselves or move differently, which affects our muscles and our bone structure, which in turn affects our body’s internal understanding of what needs to be produced and expelled, which results in more acid or far too little. Which ends in sleep patterns and energy levels, optimism and pessimism, craving and apathy. The cycles are endless as the cosmos. This also means you can begin, anywhere.
In terms of asana and posture, the quickest overview to digestion and yoga is this: yoga postures and breath work massage the internal organs and the nerves associated with hunger and satiation; yoga strengthens the muscles of the pelvic floor and deep core; it alternately constricts and invigorates the flow of blood to specific areas of the body, which works to tone the fabric of the various body tissues as it maximizes the absorption of nutrients and facilitates elimination of toxins.
More basic, still: the best yoga pose for digestive health, the best possible detox diet you can go on, is any pose, any yoga class. Just begin. Here’s how it works.
Yoga pays attention to the breath.
The breath is a doorway between thought and the body.
As you become more and more aware of the subtleties of the breath, you will become more and more sensitive and knowledgeable about the workings of your insides, heart to bone to itch. As you develop the skill of listening, inside, you will begin to hear and understand the cues and impulses.
When you learn to tap into the cues of your body, you will begin to hear what it really needs. You’ll begin to immediately feel the effects of what you put into your body, how your thoughts affect your physical self, and how your physical condition is manifested into what you previously understood as ‘truth’ , independent mind, or the way things are. Yoga directly influences our ability to navigate the four core drives to hunger, fatigue, sex, and danger, which changes the very core of who we are.
By learning to pay attention to the breath you step beyond the mind, down into the body. Your body’s natural tendency is to clean and heal and grow stronger. When you can hear and accept these messages, your behaviors begin to change. You’ll have skills for self healing, and digestive disorders will become more manageable and less disruptive.
You do not need to understand it, describe it, or will it to happen. You simply need to start a yoga practice and stay with it.
Do any yoga pose. Any.
Consider how frequently we hear poses described as being ‘for the upper arms’ or ‘for balance’. Yet there is no single pose that is only for hip opening, improving balance, or toning your ‘core’. Tree pose is called a balance pose, for example. But it directly affects certain nerves in our feet, hips, and the hypothalamus and pineal glands. It strengthens bone health, prevents osteoporosis, skeleton wide and develops stability and optimal flexibility in the foot, ankle, knee, and hip – which directly changes the biochemical tone of the fascia across the rest of the body. It opens the hips, which nurtures most of our digestive tract and nervous system. It releases the secondary muscles of respiration and frees up the area around the lungs for optimal breathing, while simultaneously steadying blood pressure and exercising the heart. It is known to improve concentration, focus, and light up ‘gray areas’ of the brain that are somehow associated with subconscious, sleep patterns, and personality. It is rumored to improve eyesight and relieve depression.
With all of that (and more, and more…), it is impossible for me to say that tree pose is just about ‘balance’.
And it is impossible to say there are three top poses for your digestion.
Every single pose will help. Begin, anywhere.
Tree pose, and yoga, are about balance. Yoga is balance, flexibility, and strength, surely. But not in any narrow way. Yogic balance is a highly personalized alchemy of motivation and serenity, mind and body, self and world. Flexibility is in the mind and heart and ability, not just in the hips. And strength is different for everyone, and for each individual in different moments.
I have watched students rebuild and recover their strength after amputations and chemotherapy. I’ve watched morbidly obese persons begin to recover. I have seen persons with debilitating anxieties and depressions find an emotional balance that is stunning.
But I’ve also seen terribly thin teenage girls demand a ‘power yoga’ class and skip lunch, seen strong young men couple their yoga class with other exercise that must have been burning their bodies alive, inside out.
I once had a girl rush into the yoga studio and ask in hot, whispery tones if yoga would get her into a size six in three months.
I don’t know, I said. I can’t promise that.
I can promise it will give you the body you were born to have, in all its power and beauty. I don’t know if that is a size six, or not.
There is a danger to using asana or detox or dieting to harm ourselves, just as there is a danger to believing your body should be on the same diet as your neighbors, or that your body should magically resemble the plasticized and bleached and photoshopped versions we see in advertisements and media.
The only answer yoga will ever give you is your own life. It can make it better. It can. It will, if you are willing to accept your life, your body, and not someone else’s. Your body is a path of transformation. It is, says yoga, the only path there is and the best shot you’ve got.
How yoga benefits digestive health
Yoga has demonstrable effects in alleviating and preventing digestive distress. Yoga is perhaps most helpful for its ability to reduce the stress, anxiety, and the pain of chronic illness. Regular practice will indisputably improve your physical and mental fitness, promote relaxation, and give you a sense of control over your health and well-being. As with other stress management techniques, the more you practice, the more powerful the change. Yoga gives relief from symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and pain. Yoga is also tremendously beneficial for preventing or minimizing menstrual cramps, which often exacerbate digestive distress.
Yoga stabilizes digestion by working with the nerves (such as the large Vagus nerve) associated with hunger, satiation, and metabolic processes. It balances the hormonal levels of those proteins and enzymes associated with digestion, absorption, and the breakdown and expelling of toxins, as well as strengthening the muscles associated with the digestive process and the organs along the digestive tract. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system, while soothing and regulating the sympathetic (fight or flight) system.
Asanas systematically compress certain areas of the body, restricting blood flow to the area. When released, a flush of highly oxygenated blood enters the area. This rich blood source is responsible for the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to each individual cell and organ in the body. It also draws impurities, build up, and toxins from the body’s tissues, redistributing to the lymphatic system and eliminative system as waste or breaking substances down for use.
Breath work, or pranayama, assists in directing our breath to very specific parts of our body. Breath alone has healing properties and we forget all too often to breath with regularity and mindfulness. Simply forcing ourselves to breath into our bellies during certain yoga poses sends breath and healing to the digestive area. Regular focused breathing can also open up blocked areas of energy in the body – blocked, resisted, or pent energy (prana or chi) in the stomach/intestines is often the cause of digestive problems.
Inflammation, swelling, dehydration, and retention are all important concepts in yoga, both in terms of diet, immunity, and physical activity. Most imbalances – whether emotional, energetic, or physical – manifest on some level as inflammation. Typically, inflammation (with swelling, pain, distress, bloating, dysplasic cell structure, weakened tissue tone) in one area of the body throws other areas of the body out of balance as well. For example, we may retain, swell up, or bloat in our digestive tract but end up dehydrated in our muscle fibers. Yoga’s balance addresses these issues both in terms of relief and prevention.
Constipation versus Diarrhea with Yoga Poses
It is important to note that there are different poses that are good for constipation/diarrhea.
All poses listed here are beneficial for constipation as they will help to get the stagnation of energy moving down in what is known as ‘apana vayu’. Master yogis suggest that if you suffer from constipation and do a daily forward folding practice for a week, you will see an immediate and marked increase in bowel activity.
They are each beneficial for diarrhea as well, as they promote consistancy, ease, and regularity. But if you are in an active state of diarrhea, it is best not to practice intense forward folds (such as seated forward folds.) These poses will increase the downward flow of energy which might increase the flow of bowel activity.
Extreme twisting poses should also be practiced with some caution in those who suffer acute IBD or a history of bowel obstruction.
Twisting or compressing to the left first and then to right will slow the movement of bowels out the intestine whereas twisting to the right first and then the left will increase the movement of the bowels. This can be charted by the squeezing motion of the colon and correlating it with the movement of materials through the bowel.
Overall though, note that the benefits of ANY yoga practice for someone who suffers from digestive concerns would far outweigh the risks. A practice will calm an over-active sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can have resounding beneficial affects on auto-immune and inflammatory diseases.
Diet is part of a yogic lifestyle, and the science of ayurveda is the medicinal/dietic branch of yogic practice. Whole books have been written on the subject. For most of us, too much info or expectations of radical change to our eating will do more harm then good. Further, yoga emphasizes individuality: there is no miracle herb or superfruit that will work for everyone and address every issue.
There are, though, very simple practices you can work on adding to your life. Think of it as a process, rather than a deprivation. Try to enjoy your food. You’ll begin to learn, with yoga, what cravings and habits actually are and how to work with them in ways that nuture you rather than limit you or keep you stuck.
Four suggestions that require no expensive purchases, official diet, or major changes:
*alkalinity and pro-biotics, vs. processed foods (1 and 2). Our bodies are alive. Most processed food is not. Trying to ‘digest’ much of our supermarket, convient foods is like planting a plastic bag in a forest and expecting it to biodegrade and bloom. Try to avoid processed (in a box or a can, refined flours and sugars) foods and add living foods. Drink a cup of hot water with the juice of half a lemon every day (or cucumber slices, lime, or a tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar) stimulates digestion and keeps the living biology of our GI track in tact. You can take this much, much further along the lines of supplements, raw foods, yogurts with probiotics and kombucha type teas, but you do not have to. Just drink a cup of hot water with lemon, every morning.
* Green, leafy vegetables (#3). Eat them. The greener, the better. Again, you do not need to go vegan or learn how to cook all over again. Just increase your veggies. Significantly.
* Oral aloe vera. The medicinal properties of aloe are old hat in our superficial culture by now. But independent studies have shown ingesting aloe brings tremendous relief to digestive disorders and works to heal damaged tissues, just as it does sunburn. You can buy aloe vera juice – in many different flavors, qualities, and price ranges – at various Whole Foods type groceries, online, and through health stores. A ‘dose’ is generally less than a shot glass and virtually tasteless. Add it to tea, a smoothie, or just sip it down after you brush your teeth.
*Supplements. There are many herbs, spices, and teas that are traditionally used to ease digestive distress and prevent digestive problems. Pick one. Read a bit on line or visit a health food store; your symptoms and concerns are unique, and you can find a supplement that addresses your concerns.
* extra credit:cut down on the dairy. It is tremendously hard on our digestive systems. I’m not saying cut it out entirely, just practice cutting back.
Poses – generally speaking, first. (I’ll post a few sequences in upcoming weeks, as well as breakdowns and modifications of each of these poses.)
all standing poses are recommended for digestive health. You can’t go very wrong, here. In particular:
- Trikonasana and Parvritta Trikonasana (Triangle and Revolve Triangle)
- Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle)
- Warrior 1, 2 + 3
- Half Moon Pose- Balancing Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasan, both the standing and the balance)as well as Crescent Moon (Anjanyasana)
- Camel (Ustrasana)
- Most other standing and balancing leg postures are beneficial and not harmful for digestive ailments.
Yoga becomes more complicated when getting into inversions, arm balances and back-bends. However, these postures are essential for inner well being, overall health and healthy digestion. While it may seem counter intuitive to stand on your head when suffering from a stomach ache or gas, these poses in yoga are very helpful.
Inversions are a helpful way to ease up the stress of digestion by reversing the impact of gravity on the intestines. Inversions are also very helpful for constipation. Inversions are defined as any pose where the legs are above the heart. It is best if inversions are held for a length of time- at least for a few minutes and up to 15 minutes. Inversions that are recommended for indigestion, but you should learn the poses under the guidance of a qualified teacher. A good teacher can also help you learn the modifications of each pose, so you can begin where you are and work your way into the full expression as you are ready.
- Sirsasana- Head stand
- Sarvangasana + all its variations- Shoulder stand
All forward folds offer relief of flare ups and discomfort in addition to strengthening the digestive process. (Be aware, however, that they may stimulate elimination and might be skipped if you have diarrea, and should be approached gently post surgery).
- Uttanasana(Standing forward fold)
- Paschimottansana (Seated forward fold)
- Marichyasana 1 (Seated forward fold with bent leg)
- Janu Sirsasana (Seated forward fold with leg in tree)
Twists stimulate, massage, and ease the digestive tract and stimulate detoxification on a cellular as well as an organic level. Twists can get quite complex and advanced, but the benefits can be had in the very first stages of the pose. Remember that alignment is where the benefits of yoga are, not ‘advanced’ poses. For those who want to focus on digestive health, holding twists for longer periods of time is recommended.
- Marichyasana 2- 4 (seated twist)
- Supta matsyandrasana (reclined twist)
- supta Jathara Parivartanasana (reclined revolved abdominal twist)
- garudasana (eagle)
Poses for the pelvic floor/lower back/lower abdomen
- Malasana (squat or garland pose)
- Utkatasana (chair, awkward, or powerful pose)
- Pavanmukatasana or Apanasana (wind removing pose/knees into chest)
- Baddhakonasana (bound angle)
- Virasana (hero’s pose)
- Upavistakonasana (wide legged straddle)
- ananda balasana (happy baby pose)
- learn the bandas with your yoga instructor, and practice engaging them during poses
SPECIFIC SYMPTOM RELIEF
- danurasana (bow)
- shalabasana (locust)
- matsyanadrasana (fish)
- apanasana/pavanmukatasna (wind removing pose)
- paschimottonasana (back side stretching pose /seated forward fold)
- uttanasana (forward fold)
- cat cow
- halasana (plow)
- malasana (garland or squat)
- mandukasana (frog)
- bujangasana (cobra)
- supta baddhakonasana (reclined bound angle pose)
- viparita dandasana (legs up the wall pose)
- supta padangusthasana (reclining hand to big toe pose)
- prasarita padahastasana (wide legged forward fold)
- apanasana (wind removing pose)
- sasangasana (rabbit pose)
- balasana (child’s pose)
- adho muka savanasana (downward facing dog)
- gentle inversion poses (including down dog and standing forward fold)
- gentle inversion poses (including down dog and standing forward fold)
- virasana (hero pose)
- upavistha konasana (wide legged seated fold)
- learn the bandas with the help of a qualified yoga teacher
- standing poses focusing on pelvic floor
- salamba savasana (supported corpse pose)
- supported twists, child, bound angle poses
- reclining twists
- supported bridge