Some yogis practice for the occasional stretch or workout, maybe even a simple centering. However, for many of us, yoga is a lifestyle and a crucial a part of our routine, whether we practice every day or not.
The Bhagavad Gita calls yoga “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalem,” meaning perfection, or skill, or action. It is a focus on constant vigilance tailored towards awareness and efficiency.
A good lifestyle is one that enhances, and at its core is our diet. We say ‘you are what you eat.’ To keep a positive daily lifestyle we should be able to eat and digest comfortably. Ayurveda considers bad digestion to be the core cause of many health problems, and having healthy digestion is the key to a healthy life.1
Modern lifestyle diets, such as keto and paleo, have also concluded that many of our society’s health problems can be solved in our guts.
Yoga has been shown to have a statistically significant improvement for people with digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastrointestinal reflux disease. It has been linked to improvements of dietary function and prevention of disorders, by massaging, stimulating, and detoxifying the body.2
A solid practice isn’t limited to increasing strength and flexibility. Instead, it also:
• Improves respiratory and cardiovascular function
• Increases intestinal peristalsis and bowel movements
• Reduces stress and depression, and improves sleep patterns.
The full-body fitness we gain from our practice leads to positive gains in general health and mindfulness. All of this can directly influence our digestive health.
The third chakra, Manipura, is known as the seat of digestion and is associated with the pancreas. It is best stimulated through Hatha yoga. However, many other asanas can target the abdominals to massage and strengthen muscles and twist and detoxify organs. The most famous asana for digestion is hero pose, also known as rock pose because it’s said that when practicing it you can digest rocks.
Both Hatha yoga and asanas improve the oxygenation and circulation of blood to our digestive systems. Yoga increases the production of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which increases the efficiency at which oxygen is absorbed and delivered to our digestive organs.3
A regular practice influences not only our bodies, but our minds, and a lifestyle filled with too much stress, work, and little sleep can cause our digestive system to malfunction and create even more stress.
When we experience stress, our bodies react with a fight or flight response, which reduces our ability to digest properly.4 It is important to counterbalance stress with proper relaxation and exercise to promote a positive mental balance and efficient digestion.
Yoga is now considered an accepted form of alternative medicine by institutions such as NIH. Research into the effects of yoga on digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome has been promising but lacks enough variety of analysis and a sufficient amount of randomized controlled studies to be conclusive about a direct application to specific disorders.5
That said, there are many ways we can use yoga to improve our general digestion and relieve more advanced symptoms through Hatha and other asanas.
Hatha and Pranayama
One of the first things that baby yogis hear in class is ‘remember to breathe.’ Proper breathing is the most important technique in all of yoga and goes hand in hand with mindfulness. Likewise, it’s a major factor in combating digestive issues.
Hatha yoga is one of the best tools a yogi has to prevent and relieve general digestive issues. It benefits our digestive system by decreasing stress, increasing blood oxygenation, and strengthening the diaphragm, which subsequently massages our digestive organs.
Proper breathing techniques have also been shown to ease our bodies into a more efficient and fulfilling sleep. We find it easier to fall asleep, sleep through the night, and feel more energized after we wake up.7
It’s important to note that you should never practice difficult Hatha techniques after eating or while pregnant. Try not to have anything in your stomach at all.
Be doubly careful if you’re having digestive issues and avoid stressful poses entirely if you have an ulcer or a hernia.
1. Upward Flying Abdominal Lock (Uddiyana Bandha)
- Relieves constipation and general digestion.
- Stretches and strengthens the diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
- Massages the abdominal intestines.
- Improves oxygen absorption and abdominal circulation.
2. Wash the Digestive Fire Action (Agnisara Kriya)
Agnisara is very similar to Uddiyana, and you should practice Uddiyana for a bit before you attempt it.
- Boosts metabolism
- Massages abdominal organs
- Improves oxygen absorption and abdominal circulation.
3. Skull Shining Breath (Kapalabhati)
Kapalabhati follows the same general principle of forceful and deliberate movements of your chest and stomach along with breathing, but much faster paced and explosive.
- Improves oxygen absorption and circulation.
- Strengthens the digestive organs.
Asanas can strengthen the abdominal wall, stretch and target abdominal organs, and wring out trapped toxins in the intestines (and probably more). They relieve specific symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea (or all of the above).
Even though we’re done with Hatha, breathing is still a key component of yoga that is even more important for our digestion. Proper breathing will increase the extent of the massaging of the abdominal organs and muscles – especially the intestines – and encourage your body to move just a little bit farther while doing twists.
There are so many types of asanas that hit the abdomen in slightly different ways. Therefore it’s wise to mix them up, particularly twists to truly feel the cleanse happening.
1. Cat-Cow (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana)
Provides an organ massage by compressing and lengthening the stomach and intestines.
2. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Helps ease indigestion
3. Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) and Revolved Triangle Pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana)
• Stretches and puts pressure on the colon while encouraging toxins to move more quickly, or in general, through your body.
• Stimulates blood flow to your abdomen
• Be careful, this pose is great for IBS, but can sometimes exacerbate current symptoms
4. Forward Fold (Paschimottasana)
Massages intestines while lengthening and stretching the back
5. Child’s Resting Pose (Bālāsana) and Extended Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishosana)
Relaxes your mind as well as your insides, to help prevent ulcers and heartburn and reduce gas and general pain.
6. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) and Fish Pose
Refreshing for the digestive organs.
7. Wind Release Pose (Pavamuktasana), Half Wind Release Pose (Ardha Pawamuktasana), and Supine Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
- Compresses the colon, differently on both sides and stimulates the abdomen.
- Helps with general discomfort, bloating, and cramping.
8. Camel Pose (Ustrasana) and Reclining Superhero (Supta Virasana)
- Stretches the abdomen and opens the torso to help with constipation. Remember, the ideal posture for moving our bowels is to lean back, so poses such as camel can promote movement through your digestive tract.
- Opens your heart (and heartburn)
9. Lord of the Half Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana) and Standing Spinal Twist (Katichakrasana)
- Wrings out and detoxifies your guts.
10. Plow Pose (Halasana)
- Stretches your abdominal organs and can help relieve constipation.
11. Locust (Salabhasana) and Cobra (Bhujangasana)
- Relieves bloating and swelling of your abdominal organs while exercising your bladder. Great for your core in general
12. Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- Extending your legs and arms allows blood and oxygen to flow freely while opening up space in the abdomen.
13. Knees-to-Chest Pose (Apanasana)
- Works on cramps, digestion, and generally massages your abdomen with the movement of your thighs.
There are a few higher level poses that are not only great for your digestion but great exercise in general. Navy seal trainers often refer to advanced pushups as the perfect workout because they exercise your whole body from head to toe, and these poses have similar advantages.
If you can do any of these, you should – carefully – integrate them into your routine. But if you’re worried about it or practicing alone, it’s probably best to stay away.
1. Crane or Crow Pose (Bakasana)
Great for digestion and heartburn because it exercises the abdominal muscles and increases circulation.
2. Peacock (Mayurasana)
Expert yogis say this is one of the best poses for digestion if you can do it.
3. Headstand (Salamba Sirasana)
A lot of yogis say that you should find yourself upside down at least once in every practice. Inverting yourself helps reverse your circulation, hormonal production, and other bodily processes. Some even claim it can reverse aging.
Whether you’re doing Hatha, restorative, Iyengar, or vinyasa, yoga can have a general benefit on your digestive health. It invigorates your abdominal organs, improves your mood and sleep habits, and facilitates the quick movement of toxins through your body.
As with any style, the keys to ensuring you have an efficient practice are breathing and mindfulness of the technique.
You can find a great example of a full, maybe too full, routine targeting digestive health in this article.