Yoga for Digestion
Many people who practice yoga will tell you that it is not just a type of exercise, but is, more importantly, a way of life. Yoga is a unique practice that unites not only our mind to our body, but also aims to promote harmony to all aspects of our physical and emotional beings. The health benefits of yoga are innumerable, ranging from improving our physical attributes of strength, flexibility and posture, to increasing blood flow, and boosting immunity. Yoga is also very beneficial for digestion and gut disorders like IBS since it can help soothe the intestines.
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What is Yoga?
As one of the most popular workout regimens that individuals utilize to gain flexibility, strength and even lose weight, yoga is also often used to reduce stress and allow for maximal relaxation in your daily life. Derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” which means to connect, join or balance, yoga is often understood to be a spiritual discipline that brings a harmonious connection between the mind and body.
8 Major Styles of Yoga
- Anusara: This form of yoga is based on the Tantric philosophy that an intrinsic energy exists in every individual and organism in the world 1. This energy can also be thought of as a type of innate goodness or beauty that must be uplifted through empowering poses and practices.
- Ashtanga: This type of yoga is primarily focused on ensuring synchronicity with your breathing that is maintained throughout a series of postures. The end result of Ashtanga yoga is to generate an intense amount of internal heat that will produce sweat that detoxifies both your muscles and organs to improve circulation, strength and calmness of the mind 2.
- Bikram: Bikram yoga is pretty much a repetitive cycle of 26 poses that are designed to move fresh, oxygenated blood to every single cell, fiber and organ of the body. This style of yoga follows the 80-20 method of respiration, where you take a full breath, take a pose and exhale 20% of that breath forcefully through your nose 3.
- Hatha: “Hatha,” which can be translated to mean willful or forceful, this type of yoga is specifically targeted to achieve balance within the mind, body and spirit in preparation for meditation. This is achieved mainly through a series of asanas, or yoga postures, and pranayama, or breathing exercises 4.
- Hot Yoga: Hot yoga if very similar to Bikram, however, this style of yoga requires the room to be heated to challenge you both physically and mentally. Since the room is heated in hot yoga and you are exercising, you produce a profuse amount of sweat that represents a flushing of toxins out of your system.
- Iyengar: This style of yoga often incorporates the use of props that are meant to improve the alignment of your poses. While poses may be repeated in sequences, Iyengar yoga incorporates a great deal of diversity in its sequencing 6.
- Restorative: Restorative yoga utilizes blankets, blocks and bolsters to ensure that students are maintaining their positions without experiencing any pain, especially if they have nerve damage or related injuries that normally cause them pain.
- Vinyasa: A word meaning “to place in a special way,” Vinyasa yoga focuses on maintaining a fluidity of movements that are incorporated with consistent breathing throughout the yoga class.
General Health Benefits of Yoga
Thomas Merton, an American writer and theologian, once stated, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” We are all aware of the importance of maintaining balance in our life, whether that be measured between our work and personal life, our physical fitness and proper diet or anything else, balance seems to be the magic answer to almost anything.
Yoga is no different, as it is a form of exercise that is dedicated to strengthening the connection between our mind and body for the benefit of both our physical and emotional health. By achieving this balance, we are able to recognize that the health benefits of yoga are innumerable. The consistent practice of yoga can therefore be clearly seen in improving our physical appearance, but can also play a major role in improving our emotional and mental wellbeing as well.
Physically, yoga has been shown to improve the following physical characteristics6:
- Muscle Strength
- Muscle Tone
- Balanced Metabolism
- Weight Loss
- Heart Health
- Athletic Performance
- Injury Protection
The mental health benefits of yoga often involve the ability of this practice to reduce a person’s stress, which, as many people with digestive issues will understand, can play a significant role in your physical health. The practice of yoga often incorporates a lot of deep breaths and meditation, both of which play an important role in clearing the mind and improving stress-related imbalances.
Additional mental health benefits of yoga can be demonstrated by improvements in an individual’s:
- Sense of belonging
- Life satisfaction
How Yoga Helps Digestion
The many poses that are incorporated in a given yoga class often focus on the body’s soft tissues. When you are in these poses, the organs of the digestive system often become compressed, thereby allowing stale and waste-bearing fluids that are left in these organs to pour out in the same manner in which liquids leave a sponge when you squeeze it. As you incorporate deep breathing during these poses, not only are toxins eliminated, but the rush of oxygen into the cells of your body allows the organs of your digestive system to be better able to absorb nutrients as these poses are released.
Similarly, the same way in which yoga is known to improve the strength and tone of the muscles in our arms, legs, back and abdomen, yoga also stimulates the muscles that promote peristalsis, which is the movement of the intestinal muscles that push food contents forward.
Yoga for Digestion: One way in which you can incorporate yoga into your daily meals is to first come to the table relaxed, aware and breathing deeply. As you eat, constantly remind yourself of your body, how you are breathing and what you are thinking. Stay mindful of the posture you have while eating – do not cross your legs, as this can prevent fluids from properly moving into your abdomen. Enjoy the taste of every bite and feel the texture of every aspect of your meal. Once you finish eating, maintain this full awareness of the digestive process you have just completed and how these nutrients will continue to move throughout your digestive system.
Yoga Poses & Posture for Digestion
These are a few of the best yoga poses you can incorporate into your daily life to help your digestion, ease gas and constipation, and allow your body to function properly. Not to mention the stress relieving and emotional benefits of calming exercise. Yoga has shown to be helpful to everyone, but even more soothing for people with digestive illnesses like IBS.
Knees to Chest
Lay flat on the floor facing the ceiling. Gently bring your knees into your chest, with your hands on the back of the thighs or in front of your shins. With each exhalation, continue to pull your knees closer to your chest, focusing on maintaining your breath each time. Hold this position for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
From all fours, bring your hands directly beneath your shoulders, and your knees parallel to your hips. As you inhale deeply, drop your belly down and lift your lower back upwards, creating a slight arch in your lower back. As you exhale, tuck your tailbone under your hips and round your back, pressing into the mat. Repeat these movements with each breath, 10-20 times.
Downward Facing Dog
With your body folded frontward and hands on the ground, otherwise known as the table position, walk your hands frontward until they are stretched far past your shoulders. Spread your fingers and palms wide. Press your chest back towards the front of your thighs, while keeping your shoulder blades back. Breathe and hold this position for 1-3 minutes.
Bring your body into a standing position with your upper body folded down to create an L shape to your body. As you exhale, continue to fold forward and bring your hands to rest on the front of your thighs. With each inhalation, lift your arms and abdomen to reach back to the flat back position. Repeat this combination of movements 2-5 times with a prolonged forward fold movement lasting 30 seconds to 1 minute each time.
Sit in a cross-legged position. As you inhale, lengthen your spine. With each following inhalation, reach your arms across your body, where your right hand is placed on your left knee, and your left hand placed directly behind you. Slowly breath through this position for 30 seconds to two minutes, and repeat the twist onto the left side.
With your stomach on the floor, let the hip bones relax onto the yoga mat. As you inhale, lift your chest and legs a few inches away from the floor. As you continue to breath deeply, you perform a self-massage to the intestines as the body gently rocks with each breath. Hold this pose for 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes.
Wide Knee Childs Pose
With your knees and shins on the mat, open the knees towards the edges of the mat with your toes touching. As you exhale, bring your lower back towards your heels and your forehead onto the floor. Rest in this position for 2 minutes and breathe.
With your back laying flat on the floor, cross your right leg in a bent position to the opposite side, holding your knee to the ground with your left hand. Hold this position for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then switch legs, breathing deeply throughout this pose.
Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero)
From standing on your knees, bring the buttocks to sit on your feet. Bring your hands behind your body to lend support to your body as you gently lower the spine to rest either on the floor or a block/bolster. As you continue to lower your spine, breathe deeply for 1 to 3 minutes. Your arms should support you as you enter and leave the pose.