Ann-See Yeoh outlines a yoga approach to digestive health and how it can be useful to your clients.
Have you ever ‘choked’ under pressure, made a ‘gut-wrenching’ decision or felt ‘butterflies in your stomach’? Most of us will have experienced these feelings and undoubtedly will have used those phrases, and that is how inextricably linked our gut, stress and language are.
Over recent years, the topic of digestive or gut health has been visible on mainstream media, more so than in the past. Microbes, our immune system and the ongoing wellness boom have raised the public’s attention on the gut and the trillion of bacteria that are resident in our digestive system. There is even a sub-category of products in the wellness industry for gut health, with kombucha, probiotics and other consumables even appearing on the television programme Dragon’s Den in the United Kingdom.
So, I am not going to take you through the anatomy and physiology of the digestive system, nor am I going to list the key yoga poses that can aid with digestion. What I am going to do is take you on a journey towards understanding a yoga approach to digestive health and how it can play a useful part with your clients.
Ready to learn more about digestive health?
Our bodies are an integral part of the beautiful intelligence of nature. The gut not only includes the stomach, large and small intestines, but also 100 trillion micro-organisms that digest our food, regulate our hormones, detoxify our system and produce key nutrients. Currently, it is thought that 70% of your immune system is found in the gut. New evidence suggests that the health of our digestive system can affect our mental health and wellbeing and following a healthy diet appears to reduce depressive symptoms. The gut is also home to 80% of the body’s serotonin, which regulates mood, sleep and appetite. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, and exercise and movement have been shown to increase levels of serotonin in the brain. Because of this, it is crucial that our clients appreciate the importance of their diet and what they can do to help with digestion and absorption of nutrients.
One of the intentions of yoga practice is to increase Agni (which is the Sanskrit word for ‘fire’) and it is used in Ayurvedic medicine to refer to digestive processes in the body. Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest medical systems and relies on a natural and holistic approach to physical, mental and emotional health. There is the belief that everything in life is connected. As such, general health and wellness rely on achieving balance and harmony. When a person is imbalanced or stressed, they are likely to develop disease.
With this model, what you eat is not the only factor of healthy digestion; how you move can impact on digestion too. Agni is the driving force for longevity, complexion, strength, health, enthusiasm, muscle-mass, lustre, immunity, energy and more. Agni is at the root cause of all. This ‘fire’ consumes food and fashions it into the elements that make up our body, mind and spirit. Essentially, a healthy digestive system is integral to living a balanced and wholesome life. The gut plays an important role in a variety of functions throughout the body. When it is undernourished and out of balance, the gut can contribute to a number of health conditions.
While many people turn to digestive enzymes for gut issues, from a yoga perspective, it is more effective and helpful to strengthen Agni.
There are three main ways to achieve this:
- Remove the cause of digestive weakness.
- Improve the diet.
- Use herbs and other natural remedies.
For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on how yoga can positively influence the first one.
So, what are the potential causes of digestive weakness? Aside from certain foods to which an individual may be intolerant, stress and poor muscle tone through the digestive tract can wreak havoc on the digestive process.
The enteric nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system and is primarily connected with the gastrointestinal tract (GIT). It responds to stress by inducing the fight or flight response and responds to relaxation by inducing our ‘rest and digest’ response. The stress response causes a decrease in muscular activity in the digestive tract and less secretion of glandular fluids for digestion. In essence, under stress, there is less digestive activity in thegut, as historically we would have been in actual danger and had to fight or run away, but these days stress is part of our daily lives in a much different way. This decreased activity in the gut decreases the absorption of vitamins and nutrients, and compromises our immune response as 70% of our immune system lives in the GIT tract. In addition, saliva contains IgA, which is a crucial antibody and lysozyme for defence against ingested bacteria and stress reduces salivary function. So, this can create an environment that is favourable for bacteria to move further down the digestive tract and contribute to low immunity and increased risk of illness.
How can yoga help your digestive health?
This is where yoga can help. Yoga practice consists of not only the physical practice of yoga poses, but also conscious breath work and meditation. The main nerve of the ‘rest and digest’ and enteric nervous system is the vagus nerve. It runs through most of the gut, and diaphragmatic breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve and lower the stress response. Deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing, where you visualise filling up the lower part of your lungs just above your belly button like a balloon and then exhaling slowly, will stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing also improves heart-rate variability (HRV), which is an indication of emotional arousal.
Encouraging your participants to practice diaphragmatic breathing daily as part of a yoga practice can only be beneficial for their overall wellbeing, including digestive. In addition, taking a deep breath any time they feel stressed, anxious or frustrated can also help.
From a physical viewpoint, the particular movement of a yoga practice can help support and strengthen a weakened gastrointestinal tract. Oftentimes, you will see twisting poses recommended but what is needed is twisting, followed by forward bends. Yoga poses affect the soft tissues of the body. The movement of a physical yoga practice helps massage the vital organs, stimulate the digestive muscles and increase peristalsis. Twisting poses specifically help with this. Improved peristalsis, together with the conscious breathing during the practice additionally as deep breathing after class, lead to better cell oxygenation and nutrient absorption. Then, forward-bending poses can be introduced to help excrete waste products thoroughly. In essence, all of the tools of yoga work together to calm the stress response, rebalance the autonomic nervous system and enable the healing functions of the parasympathetic nervous system to occur.
From a yoga therapy perspective, it is worth noting that differences in digestive ill health will usually require a different physical approach (i.e., constipation vs diarrhea – with diarrhea, the system needs to slow down, while constipation requires an energetic boost).
One other aspect of yoga practice that is worth mentioning is how yoga can, through its introverted nature, encourage participants to be more self-reflecting, thereby improving their levels of self-awareness. A heightened level of self-awareness will lead to more mindful eating habits. Eating for health and wellbeing is a mindset. When it is seen as sacred, then the body, mind and spirit may come into balance.
So, in summary, here are the key points to note that will benefit most participants for improved digestive health:
- Get grounded by incorporating yoga poses that require lying on the ground.
- Explore yoga poses and practices that calm as well as stimulate.
- Teach diaphragmatic breathing and an exhalation that is longer than the inhalation to calm the nervous system down.
- Introduce simple meditation at the end of class, as this can help with managing stress and anxiety levels.
- Cultivate self-awareness with clients during class, as this can translate into their daily life and mindful eating.
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Ann-See Yeoh is a mind-body fitness specialist with over 30 years’ experience in the fitness industry. She has her feet firmly in yoga, her heart in group fitness and her hands in business. She is a multi-passionate business owner. She is co-owner of Yoga Chew Valley, a bijoux yoga studio in the south-west of England, as well as being a business and lifestyle coach for mind-body fitness professionals. Her global reach is further extended as a proud network marketer, and the delivery of her MY KIND OF YOGA™ teacher training, Les Mills BODYBALANCE® and Advanced training courses, and retreats around the world.