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How Yoga Can Improve Digestion – 5 Yoga Poses for Better Digestion

Digestive problems can cause many unpleasant (and sometimes embarrassing) symptoms. A healthy digestive system is important to our quality of life, and there are many things we can do to support digestive function.

Digestion is the process by which your body processes the foods we eat, absorbs nutrients from the foods, and eliminates waste. The foods we eat are a key factor in this process, although they are not the only influence. A balanced diet suited to your individual body will promote nutrient absorption, support a healthy gut micro-biome and encourage efficient waste elimination. We can also influence the digestive system by stimulating activity in the digestive organs, and by soothing the nervous system into a digestion-promoting state.

Yoga for digestion can be beneficial alone or in combination with other treatments. If you experience ongoing distressing digestive issues, it would be sensible to speak to a health professional for personalized advice.

Digestion explained

Digestion is the process our body uses to break food down into small water-soluble molecules that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. The substances we absorb from our food include vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates and proteins. These are used by our body for energy, growth and repair. They are the building blocks for hormones and neurotransmitters as well as fuel for cellular activity.

The process of digestion starts at the mouth, with food being broken down by chewing and by the digestive enzymes in saliva. Saliva also helps to soften the food for its transit through the pharynx and oesophagus to the stomach.

Digestive System

Human digestive system

The stomach is a muscular bag where foods are further broken down by mechanical action. Foods in the stomach are also exposed to acids produced by the stomach lining, which helps to break down certain types of food.

From the stomach, food is squeezed into the small intestine. There, digestive enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the liver and gall bladder neutralize the stomach acid and continue to break down the food. As the food passes through the lower end of the small intestine, the nutrients are absorbed through the lining of the intestine and into a fine mesh of tiny blood vessels.

What’s left of the food passes into the large intestine, also called the bowel, where only water is absorbed from it. Too much water left in the stools means diarrhoea; too little means constipation. The longer it takes for food to pass through the bowel, the more water will be removed. If transit is too slow, constipation and painfully hard stools are a likely result. If transit is too fast, diarrhea is likely.

Throughout the digestive system there are also millions of bacteria and other microorganisms which help with the digestive process. When out of balance, some microorganisms can also contribute to digestive problems.

Problems arising from the digestive system range from a little embarrassing gas to distressing symptoms including:

  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Anxiety related to symptoms
  • Weight management issues

How Yoga Helps Digestion

There are five components to yoga’s influence on digestion.

  1. Physical stimulation of the organs
  2. Release of the pressure of gravity via inversions
  3. Stimulation of the Manipura Chakra
  4. Promotion of “rest and digest mode” via the Parasympathetic Nervous System
  5. Enhancement of food choices through yoga philosophy

Stimulating the digestive organs

Yoga asana practice can be used to stimulate the function of digestive organs by compression and movement of the organ and surrounding tissues. The pressure applied might directly stimulate the organ, or it might stimulate blood flow to the area to support increased function.

  • Some yoga asana (poses) apply pressure or compression on the organs; others apply a stretch. These changes in pressure improve circulation, bringing an increased flow of fresh blood to the organs to enhance their natural function.
  • The stretching, compression and changes of position also work to move food efficiently through the digestive tract. Twisting poses are often used with this intent, moving food along to relieve constipation.
  • Exercise and stretching can help relax and revitalize the surrounding tissues of the torso, easing tense muscles and disrupting the cycle of pain causing tension, which then causes more pain.
  • Movement of the diaphragm during breathing exercises also helps massage and mobilize the digestive organs.

Inversions for digestion

The use of inversions to promote digestive health relates to the influence of gravity. There are two factors to consider.

  • The bowel is at the base of the torso, and may be subject to compression by the weight of other organs when in an upright position
  • The waste must move against gravity to pass along some parts of the bowel.

When in an inverted position, the weight from other organs is removed from the bowel. This change may allow waste products to move more freely along the tract.

The path of the bowel runs up one side of the lower abdomen, across the torso, and down the other side of the lower abdomen. When upright, one side of this path is assisted by gravity but the other side must work against gravity. When inverted, the section that normally works against gravity will instead be assisted by gravity. This temporary change may improve overall transition of waste products through the bowel.

Yoga inversions for digestion include the poses that invert the torso rather than just the legs. This includes Headstand and Shoulderstand.

Headstand – Shirshasana

Headstand (Shirshasana)

Manipura Chakra and digestion

Yoga scriptures explain that our physical body is intricately entwined with our energy body or astral body. We experience our greatest health and wellbeing when energy flows in a balanced way through each of the seven major chakras. If the energy flow is either blocked or overactive at a certain point, it can create disharmony and physical health issues. Yoga asanas and breathing exercises expand and balance the flow of energy, also called prana, through the chakras.

The chakra related to digestion is the Manipura Chakra, often referred to as the Solar Plexus Chakra. It’s located between the belly button and bottom of the rib cage. The Manipura Chakra is related to the fire element in your body, and is associated with the digestive organs including the stomach, gallbladder, liver, spleen, and small intestine. It’s also associated with the pancreas, a gland that produces hormones related to digestion, and enzymes that break down sugars, fats, and starches in the small intestine.

If the Manipura energy centre is blocked or out of alignment, digestive effects can include constipation, irritable bowel symptoms, poor absorption of nutrients, stomach ulcers and colonic issues.

Some of the poses used to balance the Manipura Chakra include

For more information on other effects of the Manipura Chakra and how to enhance them, visit Healing Powers of the Solar Plexus Chakra.

The nervous system

Our brain and nervous system control not only the movements we choose to make, but also the internal processes we don’t consciously control. The part of the nervous system most relevant to improving digestion is the parasympathetic nervous system. This network of nerves regulates the “rest and digest” responses such as reducing heart rate and blood pressure, and promoting digestion.

The parasympathetic nervous system directs blood flow to the digestive system to help digest and absorb food. It increases pancreatic activity to support digestion, and stimulates the intestinal walls to contract and push food along the digestive tract. It also allows you to more easily relax the muscles that control defaecation, allowing more comfortable and quicker bowel movements.

When we are threatened or stressed, the “rest and digest” responses are outweighed by the “flight or fight” responses which reduce all the digestive processes to prepare you for urgent action. This state is also important to our overall health, and we naturally switch between these states many times each day. For some people, stress and “flight or fight” becomes the predominate state and their body has trouble switching back to the more restful mode.

For digestive health, it’s important to ensure you regularly take steps to manage your stress levels and intentionally relax so your parasympathetic nervous system can take over and promote digestion. Yoga offers many relaxation practices including breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxing postures.

Sthira Sukham Asanam

Sthira Sukham Asanam is the concept that a yoga posture should be steady and comfortable. This means that both your body and your mind should be relaxed while holding the pose. Modern yoga is not always practiced with this concept in mind, as classes may have many different goals. Yoga classes that raise your heart rate and create physical and mental challenge are not likely to benefit digestion.

Digestion will benefit most from yoga practices that include regular relaxation postures, and include other asanas that you can hold in a steady and comfortable state. This may mean shortening the hold time for new, complex or challenging poses.

Yoga Philosophy and Ayurveda

The philosophy of yoga also addresses a very important digestive issue – food choices. Through the Yama and Niyama (our character and habits) we are encouraged to make choices that are good for our health and wellbeing. Just as doctors, nutritionists and international healthy eating guidelines advise, we should eat moderately and choose foods rich in nutrients. 

Yoga and Ayurveda are complementary disciplines. Sometimes called Ayurvedic Medicine, Ayurveda is a holistic health system that originated in India thousands of years ago. Based on balancing the primal elements of the body, Ayurvedic practices aim to maintain health and prevent illness.

In Ayurveda, the digestive system is seen as vital to our well-being. Inefficient digestion is recognized as a cause of many physical health issues, and Ayurveda offers dietary practices to relieve and prevent these issues. We suggest Ayurveda as a useful addition to yoga practice for digestion. You can find an introduction to Ayurveda on our blog.

5 Yoga Poses for Digestion

1. Headstand

Headstand – this inversion, also called Shirshasana, activates the parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode (as long as the pose is comfortable and not stressful for you). It promotes digestion and hormonal balance and releases the gravitational compression of the colon.

2. Plough Pose

Plough Pose - Halasana

Plough Pose (Halasana)

Plough Pose – another inversion option, Halasana also activates the rest and digest mode and releases the pressure of gravity on the colon. It also creates compression to massage the visceral organs. When the compression is released, the organs will be flooded with fresh blood.

3. Frog Pose

Frog Pose - Mandukasana

Frog Pose (Mandukasana)

Frog Pose – also known as Mandukasana, this pose uses compression to stimulate the digestive system. It is practiced by kneeling, sitting on the heels, and placing the clenched fists where the abdomen meets the thighs. Move into the pose by breathing in to open the chest, breathing out, and folding forward to rest the forehead on the floor.

4. Classical Cobra Pose

Cobra Pose - Bhujangasana

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

Classical Cobra Pose – Bhujangasana is an effective pose to stimulate the digestive system both by pressure on the abdominal organs, and by stimulating the Manipura Chakra to balance the functions of the digestive organs. It may stimulate the contractions of the intestines and therefore relieve constipation.

5. Half Spinal Twist

Half Spinal Twist - Ardha Matsyendrasana

Half Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)

Half Spinal Twist – also called Ardha Matsyendrasana, this is another pose that combines stimulation of the Manipura Chakra with massage and compression of the digestive tract and organs. Many people feel comfortable holding this pose for several breaths, or for a couple of minutes, making it particularly effective as a steady and comfortable pose to fulfill the concept of Sthira Sukham Asanam.

Conclusion

A holistic approach to health allows us to see that all areas of our health are related. Our digestive health influences and is influenced by our physical, mental and emotional health. Our daily habits contribute to our holistic health. Some of the habits particularly entwined with digestive health include our dietary, exercise and stress management habits.

Yoga, and also the allied health science of Ayurveda, can influence our digestive health by all of these pathways. Yoga for digestion can also help balance our astral or energy body to prevent physical issues arising. Adding some of these poses to your regular yoga practice will help balance your digestive system for better health and less digestive issues.

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