The digestive system can make or break a day, a meal out, a date or a whole holiday! For those who suffer serious digestive issues, it can feel like a daily battle wiping out any sense of good health.
Often referred to as the body’s second brain, the gut is full of microbes – bacteria within our gastrointestinal tract that play a huge role not just for our digestive health, but in maintaining our overall wellbeing. The balance within the microcosm of the gut is affected very obviously by what we eat but also by how we exercise, what we drink, our stress levels and quality of sleep. When in balance, we can take our digestive function for granted – skipping lightly through our days as our body consumes and processes just what it needs. On bad or indulgent days however, the effects of overeating, eating poorly, or not properly digesting what we’ve consumed can really weigh us down – quite literally, physically and emotionally.
From a yogic viewpoint, our digestive constitution hinges on the concept of agni – the digestive fire that governs all transformative processes within us. It is the vehicle through which food becomes nutrition and acts as a processing plant to release what isn’t needed.
Agni is the gatekeeper of our good health. When balanced, agni prevents the over-accumulation of substances within us (physical, mental or emotional) that would otherwise act as blockages and create disease. When the digestive fire is robust, the digestive tract can process excesses, preventing them from traveling any further into our physical, mental and emotional body.
Poses that activate, stimulate and strengthen the physical region of the digestive organs and those that affect the central nervous system are go-to’s when we need some digestive assistance.
Try these poses to help regulate a happy, healthy digestive system.
A well-known sight to yogis and non-yoga practitioners alike, this familiar pose soothes the whole nervous system – a key component in our digestive function. The pose also strengthens and tones major muscle groups of the arms and thighs, and supports a flexible spine. As the head is low, it is an inversion – helping to revitalise the nervous system, and also circulatory and lymphatic flow.
What’s not to love?
- Sit down on the shins to start, reaching the palms out to the floor at shoulder width in front of you.
- Curl your toes under and lift the hips into the sky, straightening out your legs.
- From this inverted V shape, work on extending the legs – straightening them and resting the heels towards the floor.
This pose is a release of the spinal column, decompressing the spine and abdominal region after a night’s sleep or a day’s activity.
- Take the feet to hip width distance, and fold the upper body over the thighs.
- Bend the knees if there is any strain in the hamstrings or lower back, and hold onto opposite upper arm with the hands.
- Relax the weight of the head.
- Hold here for ten deep breaths, letting everything unravel.
This deep squat not only opens the hips, it uses the pull of gravity in the abdominal and pelvic region to alleviate gas and bloating. By keeping the spine erect, we’re also able to stretch out the side waist, giving the digestive organs more space.
- From your standing forward fold, turn the toes out slightly.
- Drop the hips towards the floor but keep balanced on the feet (or balls of the feet if the heels won’t stay grounded – use a rolled-up towel under the heels to aid your balance if needed).
- Hands can rest on the floor for balance, or bring the hands together, pushing the upper arms against the inner thighs for extra stimulation of the inner groin.
Seated Forward Bend
This seated forward bend activates, stimulates and stretches the whole spinal column and central nervous system – which in turn helps to stimulate and strengthen the digestive organs and tract. One to practice regularly, and often easier on the body in the afternoon rather than the morning when the back muscles and nerves have not yet had time to loosen from daily movement.
- Sit with the legs stretched out in front of the body.
- Keeping the knees and the back straight, fold from the hips, catching hold of the big toes, ankles, calf muscles or knees – depending on how far you can comfortably fold.
- Take the head down also to wherever you can.
- Take five-ten deep breaths here.
Half pigeon pose stretches the muscles and connective tissue of the pelvis and thighs. It also gently stimulates the abdominal area – bringing tone to the digestive region.
- Come to all fours with your hands below your shoulders, and knees beneath your hips.
- Bring your right knee to your right wrist, and let the top/outside of the right foot rest down onto floor, but up toward the left wrist. You’ve created a bit of a side V shape with your shin, knee and thigh bones here.
- Start to lower the pelvis toward the floor from here and slide your extended left leg toward the back of your mat. The top of your back foot presses into the floor.
- Be sure not to spill the pelvis to one side, and either stay upright resting on the hands beside your hips, or lower the upper body down towards the floor.
- Hold for one minute.
Lateral Half Butterfly
This deep side stretch decompresses the spine, allowing for a freer flowing spinal column and central nervous system – again, both of which impact the functioning of the digestive system. The side stretch quite obviously also creates space in the abdominal region, allowing things to free up and move about!
- From Half-Pigeon: come back up onto the hands, roll over to the right hip, keeping the knee bent and bring the left leg round in front.
- Create a V shape – right knee bent and sole of the foot facing the inner left thigh, whilst the left leg is extended and over to the left.
- Now extend the left arm along the left leg, reaching the hand towards the left foot.
- Raise the right arm overhead and reach towards the left foot.
- Hold for one minute, practicing an even, deep breath.
Repeat both Half Pigeon and Lateral Half Butterfly on the left side.
Half Folded Pose + Supine Twist
Half folded pose and supine twist apply gentle pressure to the digestive organs, notably the ascending and descending colon, helping to keep things moving! They both also stimulate the free flow of movement within the hips, pelvis and spine – all key areas if we want to unblock stagnation in the digestive organs.
- Laying on your back, extend your legs out flat onto the floor.
- Bending the right knee, bring the knee toward your chest and interlace your fingers behind the thigh.
- Hold this pose for one minute.
- Now catch hold of the outside of the right knee and thigh with the left hand and drop the right leg (knee still bent) over to the left to gently twist the spine and digestive organs.
- Allow the right arm to straighten out across the floor, relaxing the right shoulder down.
- Hold this pose also for one minute.
- Repeat both the half-folded pose and twist on the left side.
One best practiced if you have healthy, pain free knees – this intense stretch of the quads (thighs) as well as through the lower spine, targets the main energy line of the stomach, thereby aiding digestion. It can be a helpful pose to practice after eating a little too much, stimulating the digestive fire.
- Take a seat over the shins, now let the right foot rest alongside the buttock (top of the foot faces the floor).
- Extend the left leg in front of you, and begin to lean back over some supportive props – ideally use some firm cushions, over books or blocks if you need extra height, at a slight incline. This is strong on the thighs, and potentially also knees and lower back so progress slowly to protect joints.
- Hold on each side for one minute, before supporting yourself back up onto the hands and stretch the legs out once done.
Tamara Ogilvie is the Director of Yogala, and a practicing Yoga Teacher.
While you’re here, read about how this Yoga teacher detoxes every morning and the 10 hottest wellness trends for 2019.
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Fitness | body+soul