Before we get into the details of the digestive system, let’s start by taking a moment for this breathing exercise. Wherever you are, take a 3-minute pause.
Inhale deeply, thinking about expanding your breath all the way across the base of your ribcage.
Then, as if in slow motion, draw your breath up, imagining it touching each rung of your ribcage all the way to the collarbone.
Slowly, matching the duration of your long, languid inhale, exhale as slowly and purposefully. Repeat for 3 minutes. Then let the breath settle to a natural rhythm for a few moments.
How yoga can help your digestive system
When it comes to using yoga to aid and maintain a healthy digestive system, we have to look at our parasympathetic nervous system. Often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system, this division of the nervous system is responsible for digestion, elimination, salivation and increasing intestinal and gland activity when our bodies are at rest.
Think about what happens to your appetite when you’re nervous, stressed, unhappy or tense. All of these feelings are part of the opposite side of the nervous system – our sympathetic nervous responses, which govern our ‘fight or flight’ mode and control our body during threat situations.
We need these feelings for survival, but when we’re experiencing them, our eating, digestion and elimination often take a backseat, leaving our digestive health unbalanced and unhappy.
Recognising these feelings and how they are making our bodies react is the first step to easing our digestion during these times. Once we’re aware of them happening, we can introduce routines to overcome their negative effects.
The practice of yoga can be hugely beneficial in taking care of our digestive systems. It teaches us to cultivate steady breathing through series of postures, which activates that digestion-boosting parasympathetic nervous system.
Think back to that breathing exercise you did at the beginning of the article. Did you notice any difference in how you felt before and after? Were you perhaps more relaxed? Light-headed? Did you struggle with breathing slowly? Did you feel calmer? How you breathe can tell you a lot about which side of the nervous system you’re currently stimulating.
When you’re in a yoga class, go through the same process. Take note if you’re struggling or have lost control of your steady breathing – if this is the case, then you’ve lost sight of your aim. Dial your practice back so that you’re in a position where your breathing is slow and steady again.
There are also some specific yoga postures that can aid digestion, manage pain and increase energy levels. The main principles around this are postures that use compression and stretching to massage the organs, stimulating our system with a fresh supply of blood and nutrients to the cells, which aids the process of nourishment and healthy circulation.
But you don’t have to be on the mat to create a balanced parasympathetic nervous system. The main thing is to move and behave in a way that soothes and calms you. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, stimulating those fight or flight responses, the best thing you can do is to make yourself extremely comfortable – either sitting up or lying down – and allow the whole body to rest.
If lying, it can be lovely to place a pillow or yoga bolster under your knees to do this, with blankets and perhaps an eye pillow. If you prefer sitting, use cushions or blankets to find a comfortable position.
Close your eyes, tune into your breath and practice that slow, controlled breathing. Now, just like we began, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale…
5 yoga poses to help your digestive system
Mornings are the best time for this kind of yoga, massaging and stimulating the organs that are used in digestion. You can practice most of the following postures from bed, so it is easy to add this routine in before you’ve even had to leave the comfort of your duvet.
Remember to move at a suitable pace for you, and to keep that breathing in check as you go. Read on to find out which yoga poses are good for digestion…
Cat and cow pose
Cat pose (pictured at the top of the page) is a great one for waking up the spine and stimulating the organs. Start on all-fours, with your hands below shoulders and knees below hips.
Lift the tailbone, draw your shoulders back and lift your gaze into cow pose (pictured above). Then tuck in the tailbone, let the head drop, round the spine and draw the navel in to compress the organs. Repeat as desired.
From all-fours, stretch your arms forward in front of you and let your chest rest downwards. Hold for as long as desired. This is great for relieving discomfort, especially if you’re feeling bloated or overly-full.
Massage and stimulate your digestive organs by using the floor. Lie down on your belly and bend the legs at the knees. Reach back with your arms and grab the ankles.
Instead of lifting up, allow your ankles to head backwards, as if stretching the front of your shoulders, and allow your chest to come off the floor. Holding this pose, use your breath to gently rock the body back and forth. Another type of motion while you’re here is to lift and drop the navel off the floor. Repeat as much as is comfortable.
The action of ‘wringing’ with twists aids the elimination of stuck intestinal toxins, and will relieve discomfort from bloating and constipation. Come to a seated position, with any kind of leg variation, and draw yourself tall on an inhale.
Twist gently to one side as you exhale. Repeat on the other side, being sure not to force your twist too far.
Twists can also be done lying down if you prefer, simply taking one leg over to the other side of the body, and turning your face to the opposite side to also get a lovely full spinal twist.
Have you noticed the feeling of lethargy when having difficulty digesting a large meal? Or perhaps when eating something that you are intolerant to? When this happens, our bodies use more energy to try to process and digest, causing us to feel tired and sluggish.
For an energy boost, try a standing forward fold. With your feet more or less hip-width apart and with soft knees, fold forward from the waist and simply allow the top half of the body to hang.
This will give the digestive organs an easy massage and encourage blood flow to the brain for some instant invigoration.
Listen to our podcast with Charlene Lim
We caught up with Charlene Lim on the In The Moment Magazine podcast to talk about how to find your yoga confidence.
Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Acast or online below.