“All disease begins in the gut. Bad digestion is the root of all evil” Hippocrates was onto something important when he said these words. The physiological state of the gut influences the psychological state of the mind and vice versa. Understanding and maintaining this gut-brain connection is crucial to optimal physical and mental health. Yoga and Ayurveda, by treating both the gut and the nervous system, promote all-round digestive health.
What is the gut-brain connection?
The gut-brain connection is established through a system of nerves and biochemical signals that travel through the bloodstream. The gut has 500 million neurons which are connected to the brain through the nervous system. Stressful psychological states send signals through the nervous system to the gut causing a variety of gastrointestinal problems such as stomach aches, diarrhea, constipation and irregular appetite.
In turn, poor gut health has the ability to influence our psychological state. The gut is responsible for producing many neurotransmitters including serotonin which control our emotional state. Poor gut health can therefore promote and maintain poor states of mental health.
Any system which promotes digestive health will have to tackle the gut as well as the nervous system. Yoga does both. We often believe that eating right is enough to maintain a healthy digestive system. However, if the body’s internal fire is weak and in a state of stress, it will be unable to properly metabolize its food. Even if your food is nutritious, poor metabolism means that the nutrition in your food may not be readily available to the body and will instead get converted to toxins. Yoga asana, pranayama as well as its lifestyle precepts can fan this digestive fire and ensure that the body can effectively synthesize its food and flush out toxins.
What are the 8 limbs of Yoga?
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali provides us with a blueprint of the yogic path. His analysis divides yoga into 8 limbs or Ashtanga. Some of these limbs are practiced simultaneously while others follow from each other successively. The eight limbs are as follows:
1. Yama: Ethical/moral restraints
2. Niyama: Positive traits to be cultivated
3. Asana: Posture
4. Pranayama: Regulation of breath/life-force
5. Pratyahara: Sense-withdrawal
6. Dharana: Concentration
7. Dhyana: Meditative absorption
8. Samadhi: Union or liberation
The first four limbs can work together to establish optimal digestive health.
How do the Yamas and Niyamas help with digestion?
The Yamas and Niyamas are tools to help us bring our life into harmony so that we can reap the benefits of daily yogic practice.Our relationship with food is often deeply caught up in cycles of sensual pleasure and gratification. If our relationship to food is imbalanced, then no amount of asana can help us achieve perfect digestive health. The Yama of non-clinging (aparigraha) when practiced along with the Niyamas of contentment (santosha) and Tapas (discipline) can provide a guide to establishing a healthy relationship with food. Non-clinging means that we do not cling to the things we possess and do not yearn for things we do not have. With food, this translates to releasing patterns of overindulgence in foods that are actively damaging our health and depleting our vitality. Santosha means learning how to control your reaction to external circumstances and gain the ability to cultivate contentment from within regardless of anything that happens in the external world. Tapas is the ability to commit yourself to a practice and show up for it everyday with trust and without expectations. The practice of Santosha and Tapas can help us find satisfaction with whatever we eat, to eat only that which feels good to the body and transition from patterns of instant gratification to habits that promote long-term health.
Asana for digestive health
In yoga asana, we often place our bodies in uncomfortable or painful positions. This triggers our body’s stress response or sympathetic nervous system. Our survival flight-or-fight instinct kicks in and we have the urge to panic and get out of the asana. But since we are doing yoga, we are asked to breathe deeply and focus on a single point. This gently draws the awareness away from the discomfort and helps us to calm down and surrender to the pose. At this point, the parasympathetic nervous system gets activated. Over time, regular silencing of the stress response and activation of the PNS reprograms our nervous system. It is this feature of yoga that makes it a potent medicine for stress and anxiety and makes yoga practitioners more tolerant toward pain. The PNS is also known as the rest and digest system. When it is activated, it allows proper circulation toward the gut and promotes well-being of the stomach and intestines while reducing stress in the body.
Regular yoga asana will also make you acutely aware of your body and its functioning. Your yoga asana practice can become a laboratory where you can observe how your food and lifestyle is affecting your body. For instance, if you drink alcohol or eat a lot of chips the night before your practice, you are going to feel it on the mat. A strong asana practice can thus effortlessly give rise to a healthy lifestyle simply by making you immediately aware of what feels good to the body and what doesn’t.
Yoga sequence for digestion
Here is a list of poses that you can practice if you are suffering from any digestive issue or simply want to boost your digestive fire. Male sure to practice these poses on an empty stomach while engaging the bandhas (internal locks) to derive maximum benefit for digestion.
Pavanamuktasana (Wind-relieving pose):
Benefits: Treats constipation, indigestion, diarrhea and acidity
To Practice: Lie on your back. Pull your knees in and hug them to your chest. Stay here for a few minutes. You can also rock gently from side to side. This pose is a great way to start and end your asana practice.
Ardha Matsyendrasana (Sitting half spinal twist)
Benefits: promotes peristalsis, relieves constipation, boosts metabolism, cleanses internal organs
To Practice: In a seated position, cross your right leg over your left, with the right foot planted firmly on the floor and the left foot near the right buttock. Try to get your left armpit as close to the right knee as possible by gently twisting the torso to bring your head to face the back of the mat. Try to bring your right hand from behind to meet the left wrist. Stay here for a few long deep breaths,
Navasana (Boat pose)
Benefits: Stimulates the kidneys, thyroid and prostate glands, and intestines, boosts metabolism, awakens an internal fire
To Practice: In a seated position, lift your legs straight up in front of you with the knees and heels together. Maintain a straight back and do not lean backwards too much. If this is difficult, bend the knees to bring the shins parallel to the floor.
Dhanurasana (Bow Pose):
Benefits: relieves constipation, boosts appetite, improves blood flow to the gut
To Practice: Lie on your stomach. Bend the knee and grab the ankles. Gently lift the head, chest and thighs off the mat. Try to lift the upper body and the lower body equally. Stay here for a few deep long breaths.
Viprita Karni (Legs up the wall pose):
Benefits: alleviates nausea, indigestions, diarrhea, and gas
To Practice: Lie on your back with your buttocks touching the wall. Extend your legs straight up the wall at 90 degrees to your upper body. Stay here for 15 to 20 minutes to gain maximum benefit.
Pranayama for good digestion
Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath)
Ujjayi Pranayama involves contracting your throat while breathing to make a gentle snoring sound mimicking the sound of the ocean. This breath will release stress, anxiety while detoxifying the organs and promoting smooth flow of food through the stomach and intestines. Sit in a comfortable seated position with your legs crossed and spine completely straight. Inhale deeply visualizing a small marble lodged in the back of your throat and exhale through your mouth. Halfway through your exhalation, close your mouth and finish through your nose. You will notice a slight contraction accompanied by a sound. Once you are comfortable with this contraction, breathe in and out only through your nose. Start by practicing for 5-10 minutes and then gradually increase the duration.
Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull-shining Breathing Technique)
Kapalabhati Pranayama is a technique involving mild, short inhales and sharp, forceful exhales with a keen focus on the abdomen. This practice will promote deep relaxation, boost digestive fire and improve mental and emotional clarity. Find a comfortable seated position, with crossed legs and a straight spine. Bring your palms to rest on your knees and relax the muscles in your face and neck. Begin to take quick inhalations followed by forceful exhalations. You should hear a sharp sound on every exhale. Contract your abdominal region on every exhale without any change in the chest and shoulders. You will soon feel a slight warmth in the abdominal region. After a few rounds of this, exhale everything out, keep your abdominal muscles tightly engaged and hold your breath out for a few seconds. Relax your face muscles and bring your awareness to your forehead. After a few seconds take a deep inhale. Repeat this process 3 times.
Yoga is a system of promoting health rather than curing disease. If you integrate yogic practice in all areas of your life, you will nourish your body and mind simultaneously by understanding the deep connection that exists between the two. If you’d like to integrate a yoga flow for digestion into your daily life, check out our free Youtube class.