The root cause of all problems lies in two places - stress and poor digestion. In fact, the two are also connected. Stress affects our digestive system and an unhealthy gut leads to a world of disorders and diseases. Ayurveda puts immense emphasis on keeping our digestive fire (Agni) strong to keep the system stimulated and healthy. This helps the food that we eat get metabolized efficiently. Otherwise, irrespective of how healthy our diet may be, our system will struggle to assimilate and absorb nutrients.
Understanding the digestive process
Digestion typically refers to the breakdown of food to provide your body with nutrients and expel waste products. Agni helps us digest what we eat and balances metabolism. Ayurveda says it is the source of nutrition, awareness and intelligence. One could say the digestive fire is in fact, the gatekeeper of good health. When agni is low, digestion is slow and weak. Less energy is produced and this results in more toxins in the body. This immediately affects the body and mind. The hormonal system is thrown out of balance and the nervous system is a wreck. This is where Yoga comes into the picture. It stimulates and ignites the digestive fire, improving gut health.
How does Yoga improve gut health
Yoga has a very positive impact on your gut health and digestion. Let’s understand how stress impacts digestion. There is a direct passage between the brain and the gut. It is the longest Cranial nerve that runs from the abdomen to the brain called the Vagus Nerve. Known as the gut-brain axis, this is a communication system of nerves and biochemical signals that travel in the blood, connecting the digestive system to the brain. So when you are stressed or anxious, your brain and your gut are immediately aware of this. This is why your gut can directly react to psychological and physical stress with conditions such as stomach aches, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and changes in appetite and digestion.
Yoga reduces stress
Researchers from Switzerland found that stimulating the vagus nerve in certain ways can beneficially impact some psychological conditions like anxiety and depression. Studies also show that one contributing factor to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome is stress. That’s where yoga comes into the picture. Yoga practices help you breathe mindfully, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulating the vagus nerve. Cortisol (stress hormone) levels decrease. Breathing practices and Yoga Nidra induce the relaxation response that allows you to breathe deeply.
Yoga balances the nervous system
Yoga practices are a powerful and effective way to affect and impact the autonomic nervous system. When you are under high stress, you’ll notice your digestion is out of sync. This is because the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, and you are in a state of fight or flight. Yoga helps bring back this balance by activating the state of relaxation and ease, which often leads to positive changes in their digestion. Many practices bring about a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. You can try this - any time you are feeling stressed or anxious, take slow, deep breaths. Or try Ujjayi (Oceans breathing) and you’ll immediately notice your stress reducing. This is because of the activation of the rest and digestion function, the parasympathetic nervous system.
Yoga and the digestive system
Stimulating the digestive fire, yoga practices are a great way to work on the digestive system. Asana movements can gently compress and release the stomach and colon, as well as encourage your liver and kidneys’ detoxification processes. Twists and forward folds are very impactful for this. This provides a massage for the internal organs and helps break down food and move it along the digestive tract. It improves oxygen and blood supply to the organs, nourishing and improving functioning. Yoga postures provide relief from bloating, gas, and/or constipation. Many breathing practices and deep breathing also helps relax the gut and balance the system.
Furthermore, Yoga practices make you mindful, balanced and stress-free, allowing you to make better food choices, and thus, consume a healthy diet which is good for the gut.
Yoga for Gut Health
There is growing importance being given to gut health and the reliance on natural ways to keep it healthy and strong. Yoga factors into this as an effective and sustainable practice. As a way of life, yoga makes you mindful, keeps stress at bay and keeps your system balanced. Yoga postures, cleansing techniques, breathwork, meditation and relaxation are the most effective practices for good gut health.
Regular movement through asanas encourages a balanced digestive system, regular bowel movements and a healthy gut. Here are a few yoga poses particularly useful for gut health.
Seated forward fold or Paschimottanasana
The seated forward fold compresses the digestive organs and stimulates circulation, encouraging digestion. It massages all the digestive organs, improving their health. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxes the system.
Half lord of the fishes pose or Ardha Matysendrasana
The twisting motion of this posture promotes bowel movement by aiding the small and large intestine. This movement pushes food and waste down the gastro-intestinal tract. It also helps alleviate bloating.
Yogic squat or Malasana
This posture helps to bring everything into alignment for proper digestion and excretion. It helps with bowel movement and is good for the abdominal muscles. Many variations like walking in Malasana, pressing one towards the opposite foot (such that the thigh is pressing against the abdomen) further help in aiding digestion and massaging the abdomen.
Wind relieving pose of Pawanamuktasana
This is a relaxing, gentle movement that massages the back and the abdomen. It’s useful when suffering from constipation. It gently massages the large intestine, promoting bowel movement.
Bow pose or Dhanurasana
Resembling a bow, this posture works greatly on the liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach and intestines. It massages and strengthens all the digestive organs, improving blood circulation and oxygen supply. It aids in the digestive process as well as alleviates constipation.
Apart from this, there are many postures like the child’s pose, corpse pose, cat-cow pose, crocodile pose, etc. which help relieve stress, improve circulation and aid in digestion.
Cleansing Practices for Gut Health
Agni Sar (Igniting the digestive fire)
The name of this practice itself tells us a lot. This cleansing technique stimulates the digestive fire, massages the internal organs, improves blood circulation and oxygen supply, and cleanses the system of toxins. When practiced regularly, it helps remove sluggishness of organs like the liver.
Kapal Bhati (Frontal lobe cleansing)
This is another effective cleansing technique which cleanses the system of toxins, restores balance, releases stress and stimulates the digestive organs. It also improves oxygen supply by pushing out carbon dioxide.
Laghoo Shankhaprakshalana (Colon cleansing)
This is the smaller version of colon cleansing which can be practiced at home. There are often particles of food that get stuck to the inside of the intestinal lining and lead to a build up of toxins and unclean gut. This cleansing technique pushes out the leftover particles, completely cleansing the system. This complete cleanse leads to a clean, smooth and balanced digestive system and process.
Breathwork or Pranayama for Gut Health
As we’ve seen earlier in the article, when stress is at bay, gut health is good. Breathing practices like alternate nostril breathing release toxins and balance the nervous system. Oceans breathing (Ujjayi), humming bee breathing (Brahmari), cooling breathwork like Chandra bhedi relax and rejuvenate the system and activate the relaxation process. Deep breathing, abdominal breathing and full Yogic breathing strengthen the abdomen and abdominal muscles. These practices also increase oxygen flow which helps provide the necessary resources and energy to perform healthy digestion. For example, when stressed, your breathing gets shallow while deep breathing allows for proper movement in your digestive tract.
Meditation and Relaxation for Gut Health
Similarly, developing the practice of meditation and Yoga Nidra will also contribute towards releasing stress and balancing the nervous system. These practices strengthen the mind, work on the subconscious and induce a deep sense of peace and tranquility. They go a long way in contributing towards mindfulness and being aware of what is happening within the body and mind.
Don’t underestimate the effects of an unhealthy gut. It might start as a few days of bloating or indigestion, but in the long run it can lead to more severe conditions. Keep stress at bay, commit to a regular yoga practice and give your body the much-needed care.