Yoga supports digestion in the same way it supports every other system of the body—by helping us get more centered and relaxed. That make a big difference in terms of digestion, because how stressed we are—before, during, and after a meal—plays a huge part in how well we process our food.
Tension, anger, and anxiety activate the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system, which is designed to react to dangerous situations by diverting blood away from the digestive organs and into the muscles, thus inhibiting digestive functioning. When we slow down and relax, we move into the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system, also known as the relaxation response, in which the body is primed to efficiently process our food.
“We tend to focus on how certain poses can impact certain conditions or organs, but if we focus instead on creating balance in the nervous system, I believe that could have a positive effect on all of the body’s systems, including digestion,” says Mary Northey, Dean of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy.
We can find that balance through a variety of practices, and one might feel more comfortable or natural than another. “For some of us, it’s movement; for others, the breath, or imagery, or meditation,” Mary says. “Through inquiry and assessment, we can find what works best for each individual.”
Here are four of her favorite practices for promoting healthy digestion.
Mudra: Apana Vayu and Pushan
Mudras are gestures used to direct the flow of energy within the body, and when energy is flowing freely, every aspect of functioning is optimized—including digestion. Mary suggests a mudra that works with apana vayu. The vayus (literally “winds”) are the five movements or functions of prana, and apana vayu governs downward and outward motion in the body and mind—such as elimination or letting go of thoughts or memories.
To perform Apana Vayu mudra, fold the index finger and touch the tip to the base of the thumb. The tips of the thumb, middle finger, and ring finger touch, while the little finger remains straight and pointing outward. “You can add the mudra to a pose to help enhance awareness and energy around letting go of what needs to move through, either physically and emotionally,” Mary says.
Joseph Le Page, founder of Integrative Yoga Therapy, also recommends Pushan mudra to provide relief for digestive conditions. With the left hand, touch the tip of the thumb to the tips of the middle and ring fingers, while extending the little and index fingers straight out. With the right hand, touch the tip of the thumb to the tips of the index and middle fingers, while extending the little and ring fingers straight out. Rest the backs of the hands on the thighs or knees. You might want to repeat a mantra such as, “As my entire being is nourished completely, I experience optimal health and vitality.”
Posture: Supine Knee to Chest, with a Twist
Twists are often recommended to support digestion; while Mary says she hasn’t yet seen any hard evidence for this, it makes anatomical sense. “Poses that twist the spine may stimulate organs of digestion,” she says. “Movement in general can be beneficial to peristalsis. Before recommending any twisting of the spine, I would interview and assess to be sure these are appropriate.”
One of her favorite postures for better digestion is Supine Knee to Chest—similar to Wind-Releasing Pose but with both knees held to the chest instead of one at a time. Then she adds a gentle twist with the knees bent, first to one side and then the other.
Here’s how: Lie on your back, bend both knees, and bring your thighs into your belly, using your hands to gently pull your knees toward you. On an exhale, bring your knees over to one side, turning your head in the other direction. Inhale and bring your knees back to your belly; repeat on the other side.
Pranayama/Meditation: Breath Awareness
Practicing breath awareness for a few minutes before digging into your meal is a simple, powerful way to promote better digestion. If you wish, try lengthening the exhale until it’s a few counts longer than the inhalation, which encourages the relaxation response.
“Being aware of the breath and the sensations in the body will help you become present before you take that first bite of food,” Mary says. “When you’re in the moment, you not only savor and assimilate your food better, but you’re also aware of when you’re full.”
Yamas and Niyamas: Ahimsa
Mary suggests practicing ahimsa toward our bodies—she thinks of this yama (one of yoga’s ethical guidelines for life off the mat) as kindness, not just nonviolence. In terms of digestion, that means being kind to your body—tuning in not only to what foods it needs for sustenance, but also what type of environment is ideal for taking in nourishment.
“For me, practicing ahimsa at mealtimes means that when I eat, I just eat,” Mary says. “I don’t read the news or look at my phone. My focus is on the food and everything that contributed to me enjoying this wonderful meal.”