Good Gut Feeling: Digestive Health
by Justine Glenton
An Ashtanga & Zen Yoga Teacher
Keeping a healthy gut is vital to our quality of well-being and yoga is a perfect practice to maintain and assist this area in our body. The relationship between stress and the stomach is a complicated one, but most people notice some change in their bowel habits when they are under stress. Practicing yoga, meditation, prayer, or any other form of stress reduction can greatly benefit the gut.
Abdominal breathing in particular has proven helpful in IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) sufferers and deep inhalations and exhalations may benefit those who breathe shallowly when stressed or swallow air while eating or talking, trapping air in the stomach.
IBS sufferers often battle bowel habits that are painful and unpredictable. During a flare-up, concentrate on postures that provide a soothing effect: forward bends and simple abdominal twists like Jathara Parivrtti (a revolved twist)
and Apanasana (a knee-to-chest pose), which may help soothe a hyperactive bowel or stimulate a sluggish one. For constipation, you can stimulate digestion by working the abdomen more strongly in: Uttanasana - Standing forward bend or Parivrtta Trikonasana - revolved triangle pose: just move into the postures with the belly held in after releasing an exhalation. See below for pose illustrations.
But yoga is just one component to fighting IBS. When symptoms recur, experts have found that IBS responds best to a care plan that incorporates anxiety relief, exercise, and a diet that eliminates aggravating foods and includes nutritional or herbal supplements.
On a more subtle system level: let’s take that simple expression: I have a gut feeling ....Believe it or not these seemingly illogical expressions have become part of the English language because they are unconscious recognitions of a deeper knowledge within all of us. A knowledge of a subtle energy system of Chakras and Channels and the way that they work to produce many of the odd sensations and intuitions that all of us experience from time to time. In fact while many of us in the West find the concept of the chakras a foreign idea, in reality we deal with them almost every day.
Knowledge of the Chakras is most comprehensively found in the ancient Eastern science of yoga. This system was first formalised by the physician-sage Patanjali about 3,000 years ago. Patanjali described a subtle energetic system within each of us which is comprised of 7 vital energy centres and 3 interconnecting, parallel channels. These centres each govern specific aspects of our physical, psychological and spiritual being. Their state of balance is the key to the health of the various body systems that they govern. In other words, imbalance, damage or blockage of these centres will lead to problems in the physical, psychological or spiritual aspect of our being that the affected centre deals with.
So what has this got to do with "gut feelings" - the language of the unconscious?
The third centre in our subtle system is called "nabhi" or "Manipur" chakra. Its physical location is at about the level of the navel. It looks after several important aspects of our being. Physically, it deals with our organs of digestion (such as the stomach and intestines), psychologically it deals with our sense of satisfaction and spiritually it deals both with our "prosperity", "generosity" as well as with our "dharma" or our innate sense of right and wrong.
Often that “Gut Feeling” is us being sensitive to the state of the Nabhi chakra. Remember the last time you had a good meal, leaned back in your chair and patted your stomach in satisfaction? Or saw something appetising in a delicatessen and put your hand to your stomach in anticipation. You're actually touching your Nabhi chakra because that is the centre that, amongst other things deals with satisfaction, particularly in relation to food.
Ever bought something that was a really good bargain? That good feeling is the Nabhi Chakra generating positive energy. On the other hand, have you ever bought something and realised it was a bad purchase? That sinking feeling in your stomach is your nabhi registering its dissatisfaction with your purchase.
Similarly, have you ever thought about doing something but deep down in your belly somewhere it didn't feel like the right thing to do? That again is our Nabhi telling us what's right and wrong.
"Manipura" is the Sanskrit name for the 3rd chakra. This word means "lustrous gem." The 3rd chakra is located in the area of the solar plexus, navel and digestive system. It is associated with power, self-esteem and vitality. It is the seat of the intellect.
Glands/organs associated with the 3rd chakra: Pancreas, organs of digestion (small intestine). When the 3rd chakra is imbalanced, there may be digestive problems.
The element for the 3rd chakra is fire. When there is too much heat in this part of the body, there can be digestive problems. All of the "it is" diseases begin in this chakra when the fire gets out of control.
Bikram yoga (hot yoga) stimulates the 3rd chakra. Be sure that this chakra needs stimulation before participating in Bikram yoga.
The colours for the 3rd chakra are yellow and gold.
The emotion for the 3rd chakra is anger.
Jathara Parivrtti Savasana - corpse pose
The sense for the 3rd chakra is sight and cognitive thinking. Remember, the intellect lies here. Sometimes people refer to a "gut feeling" when they are trying to figure something out.
When the 3rd chakra is excessive, anger, hatred, too much attention to power, status and recognition can be present. In yoga, passive backbends are good for calming an excessive 3rd chakra.
When it is deficient, one can have digestive problems, eating disorders, low self-esteem and a feeling of powerlessness. In yoga, do Sun Salutations, half boat pose, warrior and twists to energise the 3rd chakra.
Good yoga practice should make you feel positive, full of energy and pain-free. (Your joints, tendons and ligaments should feel strong, not compromised or strained. Good yoga practice should allow you to breathe in every pose. You should not be struggling. Good yoga practice means you listen to your body and back off when your gut feeling tells you you’ve had enough. After all, yoga is about staying in tune with yourself and your body.
To keep your gut happy and healthy:
1. Move. A sedentary lifestyle shuts down digestion. - YOGA is a great option!
2. Fibre. Food that comes in a package or is in any way processed is essentially pre-digested. Real whole foods like vegetables, fruit, grains and nuts literally give your gut something to work with, while even relatively healthy snacks like fitness bars and juice drinks can put it to sleep. Keep your gut awake with whole foods.
3. Water. If you throw back a ton of fibre and don’t add enough water you are destined for a traffic jam. Don’t forget to keep up water intake along with all those healthy grains and veggies.
4. Detox. Alcohol throws its own wrench into your digestive socket, either sending your gut into overdrive or shutting it down, depending on your personal constitution. At least 3 days a week without even one drink will really help keep your system on track.
5. Probiotics. Good flora and fauna are essential. The latest scientific research is proving the power of probiotics by showing how the right bugs can help or even cure diseases like irritable bowel disease and ulcerative colitis. Even if you don’t have something as serious, get your hands on a regular regimen of yogurt, Kombucha teas, juice-based drinks like Good Belly, and/or the probiotic pills. In my view, always go cold – the refrigerated options are alive, in a good way.
6. Relax. This is perhaps the most important. Your gut literally is a second brain -- 95% of the serotonin in your body is housed in your intestinal tract’s own separate neurological system, which evolved to keep humanity focused on the key to survival today – food – in the interest of making it to tomorrow’s ultimate goal – procreation. Ever notice that tension and anxiety manifest in your digestive system before anywhere else? Even if you just take 5 minutes to sit in in a quiet place and breathe into your soft belly with your eyes closed, you could see dramatic results in the happiness quotient of your gut.