Yoga for improved digestion

For most people, December is a time to truly indulge their loved ones and themselves! Having just finished 30 days on the 'Whole 30' plan of unprocessed food, no sugar, dairy, wheat, alcohol etc etc etc... I must say I feel amazing for it, but I realise these restrictions probably aren't a realistic (or fun) option for the holidays. However, you can enjoy rich food and drink and minimise the hangover/foodover, by following these tips below:

Twists

There are so many opportunities to twist in your asana practice. These can be deep or gentle, all are incredibly nourishing and beneficial for the digestive system. Deeper twists are probably better prior to eating, whereas softer, supine twists are more effective for the later stages of digestion. Here are two of my favourite twists (one deep, one gentle) that you can practice on their own, or as part of your own sequence.

Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes pose)

  • From a seated position with legs extended, bend your right knee and place your right foot outside the left thigh.

  • Twist the torso to the right, using the left hand to hug your right thigh in, and the right hand to support a straight spine

  • Though this is a deep twist, try to breathe deeply to energise digestive fire

  • Untwist and pause to allow the increase in blood flow to the gut, before repeating on the other side

Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine twist)

  • From a supine (lying on your back) position, draw your right knee bent into your chest.

  • With your left hand supporting it, start to guide the right knee to the right, either supporting with your hand or a bolster/pillow under the knee

  • Breathe here, possibly switching the gaze to the left, if comfortable for the neck, before repeating on the other side

Shoulder stand

I find shoulder stand to be one of the most therapeutic poses there is, with benefits ranging from calming anxiety, to boosting circulation, to aiding restful sleep; there really is a hell of a lot to be got out of putting your feet up! When it comes to our digestion, shoulder stand works in a multitude of ways to bring it into balance. One of the most significant benefits of shoulder stand is the effect on our thyroid gland, which controls our metabolic function and how we digest proteins. Next time you're in this pose, notice that gentle pressure you feel to the throat, that's a direct massage and therefore stimulation to your thyroid gland. Other digestive benefits include: a literal shake up of the gut! When the torso is flipped upside down, consider it a spring clean of your small and large intestine, so anything that's been 'stuck' for a while will get a chance to shift, this in turn will likely reduce bloating in the mid-section. Another benefit is the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. When we feel stressed, our heart's work super hard to manage things like shallow or quick breathing, and all of a sudden, blood flow to the gut is no longer a priority. By putting the heart above the head in shoulder stand, we are giving it a rest, so blood flow to the gut can be restored. It makes sense therefore that this pose is often referred to as putting us in a state of 'rest and digest'.

Shoulder stand how-to

  • Lay on your back and roll the legs over the head towards plough pose so that you can place the hands on the back and walk them up the spine

  • Take care to have the hands either side, rather than on the spine, to avoid undue pressure

  • Light support: Bind a strap around upper arms to keep the elbows from sliding out, creating a stronger foundation for the pose

  • Medium support: Place a bolster under the hips and lift the legs

  • Full support: Position yourself near a wall and rest your legs up against it (Viparita Karani)

Pranayama (just breathe!)

Prana is a Sanskrit word that more or less translates to mean 'vital life force' or 'life force energy'. Over time, prana flow in the body becomes blocked, causing disease, depression, and in this case, digestive issues. Pranayama practiced with asana provides us with the tools to unblock this vital flow. This can be done as simply as counted inhales and exhales, counting to 4 on the inhale and 6 on the exhale, eventually working up to a count of 7/11. Breathing wholly and deeply has been proven to stimulate the secretion of saliva - more saliva equals more digestive enzymes. You don't need to do any specific tricky pranayama exercises (unless desired!), just practice deep, slow mindful breathing, especially before and when consuming meals.

I hope you find some of these simple tips useful, feel free to leave your experiences in the comments below!