Bend and Twist: Yoga for Digestive Relief

Young attractive woman in bending Sukhasana pose, white studio
Photo: fizkes/iStock/Thinkstock

If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach, so stressed you might throw up, too depressed to eat, running to the bathroom a million times before catching a flight, or unable to “go” in unfamiliar places, then you have some idea about the mysterious connection between the mind and the gut. It is quite common for gastrointestinal diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis to be accompanied by psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression. The gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells that provide up-to-the-minute feedback regarding thoughts, emotions and the body’s overall well being. This is why some experts refer to the GI tract as our “second brain.” Even if you’re lucky enough to be free of digestive ailments, busy and food-filled times, such as the holidays, can leave us feeling bloated and sluggish.

Because yoga has the ability to restore both body and mind, it can provide digestive relief in two main ways.  First, moving through the asanas, or postures, of yoga stimulates blood flow, massages the digestive organs and can help relieve gas. Second, through the practice of meditation and pranayama, or regulation of the breath, a consistent yoga practice can provide both a profound relief of acute stress and an awareness of the sources of stress in one’s life for chronic management.

Yin and restorative yoga are two different but similar types of yoga that move at a slower pace and involve holding poses for longer periods of time, which can be especially soothing to a nervous system in overdrive. A traditional vinyasa yoga class will be more active. Just as there are various styles of yoga practice, a variety of meditation techniques exist.

Curious to try some yoga or meditation for yourself? Trying the flow below can help keep your digestive rhythms peaceful and smooth, but attending a yoga class with a certified instructor is always a good idea to ensure proper form.

Meditation

Start by finding a comfortable seat. Sitting on a cushion or blanket to keep the hips higher than the knees will prevent that nagging pins and needle sensation if your legs tend to fall asleep. Another trick here is to tip the pelvis and hip bones forward to keep the blood flowing adequately through the legs while seated. Place your hands on your knees or in your lap and sit up straight without being too rigid. Let your eyes fall closed and tune into the pattern of your breath. No need to change the breath, just observe with curiosity what is happening there. Is the breath shallow or long? Is the breath easily flowing from the nose through the lungs and into the abdomen or are your abdominal muscles tense? Scan the body from head to toe, consciously relaxing any areas of tension and sending breath to those areas.

Yoga Poses

Seated side bend. Sitting cross legged, lengthen the spine so the crown of the head reaches up toward the ceiling. Keeping shoulders relaxed, reach one arm up toward the ceiling, while the other finds the ground to your side. Reach up and over, to the side of your lower arm, allowing that arm to bend at elbow for a deeper stretch. Pressing the hip bone on the same side as your raised arm into the ground will further intensify the stretch.

Cat cow. Find a table-top position on hands and knees. Hands should be shoulder width apart, knees hip width apart. Elbows and wrists should be stacked under the shoulders, knees directly under the hips. Inhale to cow pose, taking the gaze up to the ceiling and swaying the back so the belly drops toward the ground while the sitting bones tilt up to the ceiling. As you exhale, come into cat pose by rounding the spine, looking down at the ground. Continue alternating between the two poses in sync with your own breath.

Forward fold. From a standing position, inhale the arms up overhead, looking up. Exhale to bow forward into a fold. Experiment with keeping legs bent to further access the hamstrings. You might grab opposite elbows and hang to release tension in the upper back or place the hands on the ground under the feet, palms facing up, to stretch the wrists.

Revolved triangle. While standing, step one leg back about a leg’s length. Keep both hip bones facing forward, then fold over the front leg, trying to keep the back flat and level. Having a block or stack of books to rest the hands on can be helpful so that the legs and back can remain straight and hips aligned. Place the hand opposite to the front leg down on the ground, reaching the other arm up to the sky. If it is comfortable for you, you also might take the gaze up to the outstretched arm.

Bow. Laying on your stomach, reach back with both arms to grasp the ankles. Empty the body of breath, then on your next inhale, press the ankles into the hands to rise. Each breath will gently rock the body, massaging the lower abdominals.

Knee to chest (wind-removing pose). Roll over to the back so you’re laying flat. Bring one knee at a time into the chest, holding with both arms. Next, bring both knees to chest. Rocking side-to-side will massage the low back and kidneys. Rolling in small circles in each direction to massage the sacrum is another option.

Legs up the wall. Savasana, or corpse pose, is a common final resting pose in yoga sequences, but legs up the wall is a fun and restorative alternative. Stay in the pose anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Don’t be alarmed if your toes start tingling!

Melissa Girgis on Instagram
Melissa Girgis
Melissa is a dietitian and registered yoga teacher. She strives to inspire healthy lifestyle habits that are sustainable and joyful. She reminds us of the importance of nourishing ourselves mentally, emotionally and spiritually and how our physical and mental health are intricately connected. Connect with her on Instagram.