Digesti(om): Yoga for Digestion / by Anita Cheung

Note: This post was originally written in December 2013 for My Edible Advice. For Part 2 of the series, click here (link). 


For most of us, we’ve heard about the relaxation benefits of yoga and deep breathing. However, have you ever considered how you can take your yoga practice off the mat, to the dinner table, and beyond? In this two part series, we discuss how yoga can help improve digestion.

 

The mindfulness principle practiced in yoga is absolutely crucial for healthy digestion.  The body’s autonomic nervous system (the unconscious part of us that regulates the body’s functions) can be divided into sympathetic and parasympathetic.

Sympathetic is often referred to as “fight or flight” and parasympathetic as “rest and digest”. With that said, many of us are overstimulated in everyday life and are in a constant state of stress and “fight or flight”. With our sympathetic nervous systems in high gear, it is no wonder that we often run into digestive issues. When we are in “fight or flight” mode, blood in the body does not go to the digestive system. Instead, it is sent to the major muscle groups to help us get through our stressful situations. While this is helpful in certain situations; when we are eating, we want to allow the body to devote most of its energy and attention to digestion. The first thing to do when looking to improve digestive health is to learn to eat mindfully. This means losing the cellphone, newspaper, TV and computer screen.

Most yoga classes begin with a meditation. Students are encouraged to sense all that there is to sense in the present moment and focus on their breath. Similarly, this same idea can be practiced during meals. Take note of all the sights, sounds, scents, and flavours associated with the food and your environment to really allow the body to feel at ease. You can even practice some deep breathing exercises before your meal to prepare you for mindful eating. Additionally, certain digestion woes may be tied to mental and emotional health. Deep breathing not only encourages mindfulness, it can also alleviate stress and anxiety leading to a happier, healthier digestive system and a happier, healthier you.

 

Breathing Exercises:

1. Counting your breath.

This is an easy way to draw attention to the breath, focusing on evening out the inhalation with the exhalation.

How to: Close your eyes and draw your attention to your breath. Take a deep inhale through your nose for three counts, and exhale through your nose for three counts. Take the entire duration of the counts to inhale and to exhale. Once you feel comfortable with this, begin to lengthen the breath by holding the inhalation for three counts,  and holding the exhalation for three counts.

  •  Example: Inhale-2-3-Hold-2-3-Exhale-2-3-Hold-2-3-Inhale… etc

As you progress with this practice, you can lengthen the breath even further by extending your counts to eventually reach 4, 6, or 8 count breaths.

 

2. Alternative Nostril Breathing.

It is believed that the right nostril is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and the left nostril is associated with the sympathetic system.  (This is why yoga classes usually have you “rolling over to the right side of the body” after savasana à to compress the right side of the body and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system for further relaxaton.) Through Alternative Nostril breathing, you start to balance out both sides of the nervous system and both sides of the body.

How to:  Close your eyes. Begin with a deep inhalation through your nose and a long, full exhalation. With your right hand, place your thumb gently on top of your nose hovering overtop of the right nostril and your ring finger over your left nostril. It should look as if you are about to pinch your nose with the two fingers. (If you are left handed, place your ring finger over your right nostril and thumb over the left.) Gently compress the right nostril as you take a deep inhale through your left nostril to the count of three. Hold the inhalation for three counts. Release the right nostril and compress the left nostril as you exhale through your right nostril to the count of three. Hold the exhalation for three counts. Inhale through the right nostril for three counts. Hold the breath for three counts. Release the left nostril and compress the right nostril as you exhale through the left nostril to the count of three. Hold the exhalation for three counts. Inhale through the left nostril… etc. Repeat five-ten times. 

Note: Just like with counting the breath, you can begin to lengthen the breath to 4, 6, and/ or 8 counts once you feel comfortable. Please note that if you are sick or have a  stuffed nose,  this exercise may not be ideal. Additionally, please do not hold your breath if you feel any sensations of anxiety. Simply take out the breath retention at the end of each inhale and each exhale. 

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