Yoga for Gut Health
If you know me, you know I’m a huge proponent of yoga for overall health. Want to build strong bones and muscles? Yoga. Want to increase flexibility? Yoga. Want to build stamina and better lung function? Yoga. Want to reduce stress? Yoga. Want to increase circulation? Yoga. And hey, why not detox and improve your gut health with yoga? You can do that too. There is a style of yoga for everyone and just about everything that ails you. Today I’m going to cover the aspects of yoga that will help you address gut issues.
Yoga and the Gut
If you are not familiar with the different styles of yoga, choosing a style to start with can be very confusing and intimidating. If you are looking to start gently with poses that are conducive to stimulating digestion and the digestive organs, I would recommend the Western version of Hatha yoga, Yin yoga or Restorative yoga. Start slow and relaxed. There are many poses, like forward bends and twists that focus on digestion and circulation, two things that can assist with the digestive system.
We discussed how peristalsis is required for proper digestion. Peristalsis is the involuntary churning of the gastrointestinal muscles, the process that moves food through the digestive system. Twists especially encourage peristalsis as well as massage the internal organs involved in the digestive process like the liver, gallbladder, spleen and pancreas. Deep breathing also assists with digestion by increasing oxygen and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, rest and digest.
If you already have a regular yoga practice, be sure to incorporate forward folds and back bends, seated twists and revolved poses and never leave out savasansa, as it allows for blood flow to the organs at the end of all the massaging.
If you are looking to dip your toe in the water but you don’t know where to start, there are a few things to consider. If you’re like me, I get excited starting something new if it means I get to create a ritual around the activity (or buy some cool stuff). So let’s cover some areas where you can really make yoga your time for tending to yourself.
Create your Space
An important aspect of yoga is being present. That means focusing on your breath and body, and reducing stress and distraction from the outside world. This is aided when you create an environment conducive to relaxation. Here are some tips for creating your yogic space:
- Choose a hard floor – laying your yoga mat down on a pile carpet creates lumps and will be very destabilizing when you are in a balance pose like a lunge, tree pose or really any standing pose other than mountain or forward fold. You don’t want anything other than your own body competing with your ability to balance. Additionally, fighting against your footing will take you out of alignment and strain your muscles and tendons more than necessary. Don’t make things harder on yourself.
- Clutter-free zone – you can’t reduce stress if you are in a cluttered environment. Clutter creates anxiety. You need to be turning your thoughts and focus inward on your body and how you are feeling during yoga. Having “stuff” around you distracts you from this focus. Have one clean, clear space where you can roll out your mat and feel peaceful and relaxed. Make it a priority to keep that room clean and organized at all times so your mind doesn’t wander to the clutter and anxiety created by a crowded or disorganized space. Your environment directly affects your state of mind.
- Choose your lighting – this is enhanced by time of day as well as your ability to control how dark or light the room is during your yoga practice. I prefer daylight, but that’s not always possible; especially if I’m practicing at 5:00 in the morning in the winter. If the lighting in your room is too bright, consider bringing in a lamp that provides less light.
- Be comfortable – if you’re too hot or too cold you will be focused on that instead of your breath and movement. If the cold basement is where you have to be, make sure you are dressed warm enough but without being restricted in your movement.
- Sound – do you want absolute quiet or some calming background music? If you are following along to a DVD, there may be music incorporated. If you are looking for music, I use an app called Calm Radio. I actually listen to it during work to help keep me calm and relaxed even on the craziest days.
- Smell – one thing that can help you relax is to diffuse lavender during your yoga practice.
Here is a list necessities and helpful tools/gear to ensure you have the support you need for poses that may be difficult at first:
- Loose fitting clothing, but not so loose (baggy) that your shirt flies up over your head when you bend forward. Your clothing should not restrict your movement or your ability to exchange the carbon dioxide in your lungs for oxygen.
- Eco-friendly, toxin-free mat. You will be very close to your mat at times, breathing in whatever went into the mat. Choose a mat that is free of toxins like PVC, chloride and latex.
- Home-made yoga mat spray. You can get a small (2-4 oz.) amber or blue glass spray bottle and mix up your own mat cleaner. Fill 3/4 of the way with distilled water, 1/4 of the way with vinegar or witch hazel, add a few drops of tea tree oil and 10 drops of lavender. You can switch out the lavender for something else you like, but keep the tea tree for it’s antibacterial properties.
- Blocks are helpful when you need support in a pose. I recommend having two.
- 8-foot strap. These are harder to find than a 6-foot strap, but I find having the extra two feet comes in handy for some poses.
- Bolsters are good for putting under your knees, supporting your lower back when you are in an inversion like having your legs up, or even sitting in yoga pose if your hips are a bit stiff and not yet flexible. You only need one, unless you really want to have different sizes. I have a full and half bolster. They’re also great for meditation.
- A blanket to cover yourself during savasana (corpse pose) helps if you are in a cool room and tend to be cold. You don’t want to be shivering when you are supposed to be completely relaxed.
Here is a list of my favorite poses for encouraging digestion. Whenever I feel digestively sluggish I choose a yoga sequence that includes a good mix of these poses:
- Mountain pose – always a good start to your practice to get you grounded and encourage circulation through proper posture.
- Forward fold
- Half forward fold
- Downward facing dog
- Upward facing dog
- Sphinx pose
- Seated forward fold
- Seated spinal twist
- Reclined twist
- Triangle pose (it’s a standing twist)
There are other, more difficult poses, but these are simple enough that anyone can do them. Always end your practice with savasana. This is simply lying flat with your legs as wide as the mat, arms away from your side and allowing yourself to sink into the floor. Eyes closed, tongue off of the roof of your mouth, head centered and neck relaxed. It’s a final, quiet, meditative state allowing your body to absorb the benefits of your yoga practice.
If you have never tried yoga, be sure to take a beginning class to learn proper alignment and form. Using improper form and alignment can result in injury, which would otherwise be very rare for those in good health. If you suffer from any illness or injury of the spine or musculoskeletal system, you should check with your doctor before embarking on any new form of exercise.
Here are some examples of the poses. Enjoy and namaste.
Yours in Wellness,
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