Yoga Poses to Improve Digestion
Digestive problems are no fun. Whether you’re feeling bloaty or queasy or just plain clogged up, the pain and discomfort of indigestion can really ruin your day.
While there are many over-the-counter and prescription remedies for indigestion and chronic conditions like irritable bowel disease, most people are reluctant to turn to pharmaceuticals – with all of their potential side effects - if an alternative exists.
Yoga, while not a miracle cure, is one such alternative. Poses which target the gut increase the flow of oxygenated blood to those organs, which both energizes the intestinal muscles and accelerates the absorption of nutrients and disposal of metabolic waste.
More than that, the mindfulness and focus involved in yoga can also relax your mind and body and help relieve stress. Since an increase in stress levels has been closely linked with an increase in gastroinstestinal distress – as anyone who’s felt nauseous in response to a stressful situation can attest – a reduction of stress also tends to lead to a reduction in the frequency and severity of digestive problems.
However, it's hard to know which yoga poses are best for relieving indigestion or bloating, and in what sequence they should be done. Fortunately, I've put together a sequence which not only focuses on increasing blood flow to the gut, but which is suitable for beginners to yoga practice.
Read on for the sequence, as well as a few pointers on how to get the most out of it.
A Note On Yoga Practice and Your Gut
With this sequence, it’s important to perform each side to side pose from right to left. This helps encourage intestinal motility by following the natural digestive path – food exits your small intestine and enters your colon in the lower right side of your abdominal cavity, follows your colon’s path up and across your abdomen, then heads down your left side. Therefore, doing your twists or side bends from right to left twists will help to urge everything along its proper path.
How To Get the Most Out of Your Yoga Practice
Before we begin, a few pointers on yoga practice:
- Move slowly.
- Breathe deeply.
- Link your breath with your movements.
- Never practice yoga on a full stomach.
- Always practice yoga on a padded no-slip surface. It’s easier on your knees and you’re less likely to fall over.
Yoga Sequence For Digestion
This is a sequence of eleven poses that are all oriented towards helping digestive problems such as bloating, constipation, or other mild stomach or intestinal upsets. If you’re suffering from the kind of diarrhea that requires you to stay within sprinting distance of a bathroom at all times, please get that under control before trying these poses.
For video demonstrations of any of these poses, please see the sidebar.
Practice this sequence twice a week. If your problems go away or diminish, don't stop practicing, since continued practice can help to prevent future flare ups.
Oh, and…there are some yoga sequences that you probably don’t want to do with other people around. This is one of them.
1. Mountain Pose
Note: With each of these poses, when I tell you to hold the pose, hold it for a cycle of five or six full, slow, deep breaths.
To begin, stand with your hands at your sides or clasped in front of your heart. Keep the inner sides of your big toes touching and your heels slightly apart. Keep your shoulders relaxed, spine elongated, pelvis tilted slightly forward to engage the abdominals, and the fronts of your thighs lifted and engaged.
Breathe deeply, allowing your rib cage and belly to expand freely with each long, slow inhale and fully emptying the breath with each exhale.
Hold the pose here for five or six breaths.
2. Standing Side Bend
From Mountain Pose, inhale, sweeping your arms out to the sides and then up. Reach up to the ceiling with your palms facing one another. Wiggle your toes a little and sway slightly from side to side until your feet feel grounded and your body feels evenly balanced.
Next, tighten through your core, all the way from your upper abdomen through your thighs. Reach up through your fingertips and then exhale. As you exhale, lean over to the right, still reaching. Keep your hips stable. Don’t twist at your shoulders or waist. Don’t lean forward or back. Lean sideways. Think of forming a ‘C’ shape. Reach and bend.
Reach as far to the side as you can comfortably reach without straining or falling out of the pose. Hold the pose.
Inhale as you return to center. Repeat on the left side. Then return to Mountain Pose.
3. Standing Forward Bend
From Mountain Pose, inhale and sweep your arms upwards again, reaching your fingertips towards the ceiling. Try not to let your shoulders bunch up around your ears, but down and relaxed. It helps to pinch your shoulder blades together to achieve this.
Next, exhale, sweeping forward and down into a graceful swan dive as you bring your fingertips down to the floor just in front of your toes.
If you can’t reach the floor, hang here. If you can reach the floor, good for you! Alternatively, you can hold the backs of your calves or hook your index and middle fingers around your big toes and use them to pull you deeper into the stretch.
From Standing Forward Bend, place your hands on the floor in front of you. Slowly and gently bend your legs to come down to your hands and knees.
Wiggle back and forth a little and settle into position until your knees are directly under your hips, hands are directly under your shoulders, and you feel strong and stable.
Begin with a neutral spine. Then, on your next inhale, lower your belly, arch your back, tilt your butt upwards, lift your chest and chin, and look up towards the ceiling. You’ll feel tension through your back and a stretch in your abdomen and chest. This is cow pose.
On your next exhale, arch your back again, only this time tilt your pelvis in towards your rib cage, drop your head, and let the curve of your spine point towards the ceiling instead of the floor. Think of a cat stretching after a long nap, or that you’re holding up the roof of a tunnel as a train passes beneath you. Press the heels of your hands into the floor and feel the stretch all along your back.
Repeat six times, inhaling each time you move into cow pose and exhaling as you move into cat.
Return to neutral spine. Inhale and step backwards into a plank position, forming a straight line from your heels to the back of your head. Exhale and then smoothly and slowly bend your arms and lower yourself until your chest, hips and the fronts of your legs are pressed against the floor. Once you’re all the way down, point your toes so that the fronts of your feet are pressed against the floor, too.
Now inhale, straighten your arms and lift your torso up while keeping your hips in contact with the ground. Keep your shoulders down and chest open. The tendency here is to hunch your shoulders up around chin level. Try to avoid that.
Hold in this position for several breaths, then release everything back down to the floor.
6. Child Pose
From the floor, push your hips back and straighten your arms until your butt is resting on or between your heels and your arms are stretched out in front of you. This is a great stretch to relieve tension in your lower back, which you’ll have some of after Cobra Pose.
Stay here until you feel the tension leave your low back.
7. Staff Pose
From Child Pose, sit up until you’re sitting on or between your heels. Shift your weight back and bring your legs forward. Straighten your legs. You should now be sitting with your legs straight out in front of you.
Next, bring your palms down to the floor on either side of your hips. Flex your feet so that your toes are pointing towards the ceiling. Tighten through the fronts of your legs and your groin. Straighten and elongate your spine and sit. Strive for a perfect L-shape, with no slumping through your shoulders, back, or middle.
Hold the pose here. Breathe slowly and deeply.
8. Head To Knee Forward Bend
From Staff Pose, fold your right leg inward so that the sole of your right foot is pressed against the inner thigh of the left leg.
Inhale and reach up towards the ceiling. On exhale, fold forward over your straight left leg, bringing your forehead down towards your left knee.
Here you want to try to reach forward more than down. The goal is to be able to grab your foot, but if you can’t, it’s okay if you need to hold on to your calf or thigh. Do whatever lets you feel the stretch without hurting. If you like, you can loop a towel around your foot and hold on to that.
Keep your core tight. Balance the tension between the pull on your foot or leg and the backwards pull of your spine.
Hold here, then release and repeat on the opposite side, this time folding your left leg and keeping your right leg straight.
Release and return to Staff Pose for one full breath.
9. Wind Releasing Pose
Yes, this pose is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s one of the reasons you should probably do this sequence without an audience.
From Staff Pose, recline onto your back. Then reach out, take hold of your right shin or knee, and pull your right knee in towards your chest as you exhale. At the same time, curl inwards through your chest and abdomen and bring your forehead in towards your knee. You may not be able to touch knee to forehead. That’s all right. Just bring them as close together as possible.
Hold, release, and repeat on the left side. Return to a reclining position.
10. Lying Spinal Twist
On the next exhale, bring your right knee to your chest again, only this time, bring your left hand to the outside of your right thigh, just above the knee. Get a good grip on your leg.
Inhale and stretch your right arm out so that your palm is against the floor and your arm forms a straight line from your shoulder. At the same time, rotate through the hips, bringing your right knee down towards the ground on your left side. You may not be able to get it all the way down. That’s okay. Rest your left elbow against the floor, lengthen through the spine, and use your left hand to gently pull your knee down as far as is comfortable.
Hold the pose here, being mindful to go a little further into the stretch each time you exhale and then to relax the stretch slightly each time you inhale.
Repeat on the left side, and then release everything back down to the floor.
11. Corpse Pose
Lay back. Close your eyes. Let the rhythm of your breathing return to whatever it wants to be naturally. Let your feet fall open and away from each other. Rest your hands on the floor, palms up. Let your body go heavy and just “sink” into the floor.
This is your final pose, and your chance to relax, clear your thoughts, and settle into your body. Notice any new sensations. Focus on your pulse for a moment. Feel it throb in your toes, in your feet, in your ankles and calves, all the way up to your head. Then forget it.
If a troubling thought turns up, let it turn up. Think of each thought as a feather that’s come to rest in the palm of your hand. Look at it. Acknowledge it. Then, just as if the thought were a feather, offer it up to the wind and let the wind blow it away again.
Relax here for however long you need to, but carry a little piece of this moment with you wherever you go, whatever you do for the rest of the day.
Namaste to my friends out there in the internet, and I hope this practice made you feel a little better in body and mind.
 Mertz, Howard. “Stress and the Gut”. UNC Center for Function GI & Motility Disorders, Vanderbilt University, North Carolina.