Introduction: Yoga Practices to Support Digestion
Many practitioners report that yoga practiced for digestion has resolved longstanding general digestive problems, such as bloating, cramping, irregularities in elimination, and having a “sensitive stomach.” — Baxter Bell and Nina Zolotow
Digestive Health in General
The digestive process, a parasympathetic function, works best when we are relaxed. – Gary Kraftsow
- Digestive health is supported by overall well-being, of course. Mindful yoga practices support nervous system balance, stress reduction, pain management and more. Learn more: How Yoga Supports Health and Why Yoga Works.
- The digestive system works best when the nervous system is in a balanced state, which for most people means spending more time in rest and digest mode (as opposed to flight or fight mode). Yoga has a positive effect on the nervous system, thereby promoting proper digestive system functioning. By reducing stress and calming the nervous system, yoga helps to calm an irritated digestive system.
- Yoga can also teach students to listen to their body, helping them to gain the skills to more easily identify which foods or other factors aggravate their digestion.
- According to the Bihar School of Yoga, the solution to digestive problems lies in elevating the eating process from a mechanical habit to a conscious and pleasurable act, in which moderate quantities of simple pure food are eaten with full awareness… Even a small improvement in your diet combined with a yoga practice and some stress relief will likely improve your digestive problems.” (Yoga RX)
More Specific Effects
- Healthy Gut Bacteria – Stress management may also play a role in maintaining healthy gut bacteria, which influences the metabolism of certain nutrients in food, regulation of the immune system, and experiences of hunger, satiety and sleep.
- Organ Health – Asanas can benefit the digestive system by supporting good circulation to the digestive organs, strengthening the muscular support around the organs and stimulating good elimination. “Increased blood flow to the small (and large) intestine means stronger intestinal contractions, more digestive enzymes, and chyme moving along with a bit more vigor.” (Olga Kabel)
- Effective Esophagus Functioning – “Restorative poses where your head and chest are higher than your belly and standing yoga postures can improve the functioning of your esophagus, and stress management practices will help both you and your esophagus relax.” (Yoga for Healthy Aging)
- Symptom Relief & Prevention – For conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, a yoga practice can help to bring the digestive system back into balance during an acute flare up and can extend symptom-free periods. (Yoga for Healthy Aging)
- Shortened Recovery Time – Restorative practices, relaxation techniques and pranayama can help to shorten recovery times from flare ups and from surgery. (Yoga for Healthy Aging)
- In Yoga Poses to Boost Digestion, Kat Heagberg notes that while certain poses are touted for their digestion-boosting benefits, what’s most important is how we practice. She explains that yoga’s digestive benefits and its stress-relieving benefits are intricately related.
- Although external pressure does not activate the stretch receptors in the intestinal wall and will not promote peristalsis (movement of waste through the colon), Yoga Therapist Olga Kabel explains:
It seems possible that the external pressure from the abdominal compression might increase internal pressure (of the stool on the abdominal walls), which, in turn, can facilitate the peristaltic reflex. Maybe that’s why the most effective practice for constipation in viniyoga therapy is twisting and bending forward on hold after the exhalation. That way we create a slight abdominal compression via the abdominal contraction on the exhalation and then intensify that compression by twisting or bending forward. It also seems to work better if we move in and out of the pose, rather than holding the pose. — Olga Kabel
Kabel has been unable to find evidence to support the idea that we should first twist on the right side to facilitate the movement of waste along the colon. She suggests that this may be because movement of the stool in the colon cannot be reversed.