What is the Digestive System?
Simply put, the digestive system is a process our body uses to break food down into small water-soluble molecules that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. It is important for the body to break down food so that vital nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates and proteins can be absorbed and used for energy, growth and repair. The digestive system consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, colon, rectum and anus.
Symptoms of digestive problems
Digestive problems vary from minor symptoms to major diseases. The most common digestive symptoms include:
- Low energy or fatigue
- Anxiety related to symptoms
- Weight management issues
More serious digestive problems and diseases range from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) all the way to cancer so it’s extremely important to take even the minor symptoms seriously as many times the minor symptoms are actually smoke signals alerting you to potential future fires within your body.
Digestive issues or disorders of any magnitude can negatively impact your life so It is vitally important to keep your digestive system in optimal condition.
Building and maintaining a strong digestive system by eating clean, nutrient-packed foods is the first place to start, but you can also use yoga as a powerful tool to build and maintain a healthy digestive system as well.
Yoga for Digestive Problems
Yoga can improve the digestive system and also decrease or even eliminate digestive issues by doing two major things in our bodies:
Stimulating Digestive Organs
When we apply pressure or compression to our digestive organs or stretch them, we improve circulation in the body. This brings an increased flow of fresh blood to the organs to enhance their natural function.
Soothing the Nervous System
Our brain and nervous system control 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.
When we feel stressed, our “rest and digest” responses are outweighed by the “flight or fight” responses which divert the body’s focus from the digestive processes onto the problem or stressor at hand.
Managing your stress levels and intentionally relaxing so your parasympathetic nervous system can take over and promote digestion is essential for digestive health. Yoga offers many relaxation practices including breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxing postures.
Yoga Poses for Improved Digestion
There are many yoga practices and postures that will boost your digestive system. Let’s cover the top three:
The single most powerful yoga poses for digestion are twists. Twisting yoga postures promote bowel regularity by aiding the small and large intestines in peristalsis. The twisting and squeezing of your digestive organs propels food and waste through the GI tract which also promotes detoxification as well.
The simplest twisting posture that can easily be incorporated into your daily routine, even if you don’t have time for a full yoga practice, is Simple Seated Twist. You can practice this pose anytime of the day but we recommend experimenting with twists after you eat to see if you feel a boost in your digestion. Here’s how to practice simple seated twists.
How to Practice Simple Seated Twist
Begin by sitting on a few blankets or cushions for this seated twist. Come to a cross-legged position. (Cross the legs at the ankles. Do not sit in lotus or half lotus. From an AYAMA™ perspective, lotus and half lotus will weaken most people’s muscular system.)
Take your hands to opposite shoulders, then lift your elbows and extend (arch) through your lumbar spine. Twist as far as you can to the left. Hold for six seconds, and repeat six times. Then repeat on the right side.
For detailed instructions on the top five twisting postures to practice daily read Yoga Twists: Twists Your Way to Enlightenment.
Forward folds are pretty straightforward and accessible poses for most people. It helps with digestion by compressing the digestive organs and stimulating circulation which encourages digestion.
How to Practice Standing Forward Fold
Start by standing hips-distance apart and slowly roll down folding at your hips. Keep your knees as bent as you need to and place your hands wherever you can behind your legs (anywhere except the knees). Pull your heart towards your thighs and breath for 10 breaths. Slowly release and roll up.
Cat-Cow is a yoga pose that most people know about even if they’ve never practiced yoga before and for good reason. This pose feels amazing for the body and is accessible to everyone. Even if you aren’t able to get on all fours, you can still practice sitting up in a chair. This moving posture has a double benefit for digestion by both stretching and strengthening the digestive organs.
How to Practice Cat-Cow
Start on all fours with your hands directly underneath your shoulders. Inhale and drop your belly while simultaneously lifting your tailbone and your gaze upward (cow pose). Then drop your head and neck down as you exhale and gently round your shoulders as you pull your stomach towards the sky, tuck your tailbone under, and let your head hang down (cat pose). Repeat five to 10 times, moving steadily from cow to cat on the inhale and exhale, respectively.
If you’d like to try a full yoga class for digestion, check out Yogi Aaron’s 25-minute Yoga for Digestion Practice.
Breathing For Improved Digestion
Yoga is not just about physically moving the body into postures and poses. Breathwork is an integral part of yoga and is highly beneficial for the digestive system.
So how can breathwork improve digestion? Take a full breath right now and notice where the breath travels. Right into your belly, the mecca of your digestive system. But let’s take a more scientific look as to how and why breathing affects digestion:
Here are three types of breathing techniques that will aid you in creating relaxation in the body, thus improving your digestive system:
Deep Belly Breathing
- Find a comfortable, quiet location and lie flat or in a reclined position.
- Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into your abdomen to push your hand up. Breathe only as deeply as feels comfortable. Your chest should remain still or move only slightly.
- Exhale through your mouth, making a quiet, relaxing whooshing sound as you gently blow out.
- Your abdomen should rise as you breathe in and fall as you breathe out.
- Try counting in for a count of 4 and extend your exhale counting to six.
- Repeat for 10 rounds or as long as you need to feel relaxed.
Anuloma Viloma (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
- Choose a meditation sitting pose. Keep your spine and neck straight and close your eyes.
- Clear your mind of everything outside of this moment.
- Start with your outer wrists resting on your knees.
- Using your right hand, fold your middle and index fingers toward your palm.
- Place your thumb on your right nostril and your ring finger on your left nostril.
- Close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril, slowly and deeply, until your lungs are full. Focus on your breathing.
- Next, release your thumb and close your left nostril with your ring finger.
- Exhale slowly through the right nostril.
- Now practice it in reverse, this time inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left.
- Repeat for 10 rounds or as long as you need to feel relaxed.
Kapalbhatti (Breath of Fire)
Breath of Fire is a more intense breathing practice that shouldn’t be done if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure, acid gastric issues, heart disease, or abdominal pain. You should also stop or slow down if you feel dizzy or anxious.
- Start this practice at a slow pace, and with time you can build some speed if it feels comfortable for you to do so.
- Sit comfortably in an upright posture and rest your hands on your lower belly. If you’re sitting in a chair, make sure to place both feet on the ground.
- Take a deep, cleansing breath before you begin, in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Inhale deeply through your nose, filling your belly with air about ¾ way full.
- In a quick motion, forcefully expel all the air from your lungs while drawing your navel in toward your spine. The primary movement is from your diaphragm.
- Allow your lungs to fill up naturally, with no effort as your belly expands.
- Perform this cycle 10 times, then allow your breathing to return to normal and observe the sensations in your body.
- Start with 10 forced exhales and repeat three times.
Whether you implement one or all of these digestion-boosting practices, we hope your biggest takeaway is to take good care of your digestive system. Our digestive system quite literally keeps us alive and the healthier it is, the lighter and more vibrant you will feel resulting in an overall improved quality of life.