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Gut Feelings

Applying Ayurvedic wisdom to your yoga practice can help relieve digestive problems.

By Barbara Kaplan Herring

Two years ago, Amy began experiencing painful acidity after eating. Any time she ate too much, dined late, or ingested rich or greasy foods, she felt a sharp, burning sensation between her ribs just below the breastbone. The heartburn brought on gas, cramps, and diarrhea. Heartburn is caused by stomach acids backing up into the lower esophagus, the tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach. Not wanting to rely on Tums or prescription medications, she decided to turn to yoga for help.

Amy's first step toward self-healing was to bring more mindfulness to her eating. To prevent the acid reflux, she avoided eating late. To avoid setting off digestive fires, she monitored her intake of greasy, pungent, and spicy foods. Since swallowing in big lumps can cause indigestion, she focused on chewing well in order to process food correctly. Amy also watched her intake of red wine and coffee, for those brought on burning pains and diarrhea (as acidic foods and beverages tend to do with pittas). Wine, she said, also dulled her awareness of being full, and she wanted to avoid overeating, a common pitta habit.

When people feel deficient or excessive in the third chakra, they often ingest substances such as sugar or coffee to manipulate their sense of power. The substances give a temporary reprieve, but in the long run render an even greater depletion, as they deprive the body of rest and well-being. Those with overactive third chakras, like Amy, may crave things that sedate, such as alcohol, tranquilizers, or overeating. Such behavior calms the hyperactive nervous system and creates a sense of relaxation—but only superficially, not in a way that promotes genuine health. For that, we're better off seeking the wisdom of yoga and Ayurveda.

The best poses for pittas with digestive problems are supported backbends on bolsters. Backbends cool the agni by lifting the diaphragm and extending the abdomen. Pittas usually protest that they are too busy to rest and do nothing. Yet cooling the mind and calming the body is what they need most for balance.

The pose Amy found most comfortable and enjoyable was Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), which she held for 20 minutes. She also did Supported Supta Sukhasana (Reclining Easy Cross-Legged Pose) for five minutes, and an upright variation of Parsvottanasana (Side Stretch Pose) facing a wall. With her hands on the wall at about shoulder height, Amy could lift her diaphragm and chest, increasing abdominal blood supply and reducing digestive acidity.

When suffering from acidity, pittas should avoid poses that compress the abdominal area, especially forward bends such as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). Pressure creates heat, and pittas need to cool their inner fire, not stoke it. Asanas such as Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I), Trikonasana (Triangle), and Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle) lift the diaphragm area and extend the esophagus and the top portion of the stomach. This reduces the reflux of gastric contents, cools the solar plexus, and arrests acidity. Standing poses also increase the blood supply to the abdominal organs and help tone them.

Inversions should not be done during the acute phase of acidity, because they can cause headaches and vomiting. However, when the digestive system feels just a little off, it is fine to practice Shoulderstand, for it's cooling. (Avoid Headstand at such times, however; it's too warming.) A regular practice of all the inversions during the dormant stage of acidity serves to tone the abdominal organs and promote overall health.

Over the last two years, Amy has worked hard. Her heartburn rarely reappears. She has come to love restorative poses and turns to them when she feels ill or finds her controlling impulse emerging. For instance, she recently told me that not long ago, when she drank a glass of orange juice just before meditating and her stomach began to burn soon after she sat and closed her eyes, she lay over her zafu into a backbend and felt better within minutes. She later realized that in those first few minutes of meditating, she had been diligently planning her day; after her "belly break," she felt more spacious and calm—and better able to simply follow her breath.

Amy now recognizes how reactive she used to be, especially with her children, and in these two years she has tried to be a more sensitive listener. She understands that she has a "hot" disposition, but she is learning to relax through pPranayama, meditation, and yoga, rather than seeking to control the world around her, as pittas are wont to do. In time, her practice should help her develop a deeper sense of her inner power, the sense that comes from feeling connected to one's self and to others. Then, instead of an overstoked internal furnace, she will feel a truer, more enduring vitality flowing effortlessly through her, like warmth from the sun.

Kapha: Slow But Steady

The general theme of the kapha body type is relaxed. Kaphas are slow to anger, slow to eat, and slow to act. Their sleep is long and sound. Heavy, solid, and strong, kaphas often have thick, oily, wavy hair and cool, damp skin. Although they are known to procrastinate and be obstinate, they can also be very tolerant, forgiving, and affectionate. With a tendency to be overweight, kaphas have sluggish digestion. They are prone to obesity, high cholesterol, and respiratory problems like allergies, congestion, and sinus disorders.

Carol, 42, is just over five feet tall with pale skin, thick black hair, and a great belly laugh. She struggles with her weight, slow metabolism, and sinus problems. Carol regularly vows to devote more time to her body and begins to exercise and do yoga. Then her work hours become longer, and her physical activity stops. Eventually, she feels like a "heavy little ball," and the process begins again.

Carol was one of my first yoga students 11 years ago. I gave her weekly privates in her apartment. In retrospect, the private sessions were the best yoga years for Carol. She never canceled a meeting, we went at a pace that was just right for her, and we got to know each other more intimately, joking and sharing about our families and weekend plans. Two years later, when she joined one of my public classes and ended our privates, her attendance became very irregular, and she confided how her self-esteem plummeted when she compared herself to other students whose bodies seemed so capable and slim. I always reassured Carol, for, in fact, she was doing very well. (Many kaphas feel as Carol did—which might explain why most yoga classes are dominated by pittas and vatas. Kaphas often prefer to move at their own tempo and may feel self-conscious about their bodies in group-exercise situations. My kapha students tell me it can easily be more enticing to stay at work or rest at home and read.) A few years ago, Carol called me to begin two months of privates. She wanted weekly help because she was feeling particularly stuck and full in her body, and she was also constipated and bloated.

In Ayurveda, kaphas are considered to be cold, heavy, and wet. Because of low agni, they have very slow digestion. Kaphas need sweaty cardiovascular exercise and abdominal toning to eliminate toxins and dampness throughout the body. The fiery third chakra represents our "get up and go"; a healthy chakra burns up inertia. I gave Carol a yoga practice emphasizing twists, abdominal toning, Sun Salutations, and standing poses, which she practiced almost every day. After a month, she felt toned and less prone to hemorrhoids, and as her metabolism improved, she even dropped a few pounds.

Pat Layton, the director of the San Francisco Iyengar Institute and an Ayurvedic counselor, notes, "The ancient yogis believed, 'As above, so below.' Agni was worshipped in the sun, and our portion of the cosmic sun was the third chakra, the fire inside of us. The yogis believed that good digestion is a key to radiant health." It's not surprising, then, that the traditional Sun Salutation was composed of 12 positions in which the stomach was alternately expanded or compressed-balanced, rhythmic movement similar to peristalsis. The forward bends (such as Uttanasana and Downward-Facing Dog) create heat, which kaphas need. The backbending positions (Tadasana backbend; lunging and extending the arms up; and Cobra) are cooling. I encouraged Carol to practice the Sun Salute six to 12 times each morning, letting the vinyasa become fast and sweaty. By practicing in the morning, Carol jump-started her metabolism and kicked it into gear for the day.

We also practiced twists, including a chair twist and stomach strengtheners like Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Upward Extended Foot Pose) and a variation of Navasana (Boat Pose). Over time, we practiced all of the standing poses (with perspiring encouraged) and used ropes to move rapidly between Upward-Facing Dog and Downward-Facing Dog. Inversions help kaphas increase their digestive fire. We emphasized Setu Bandha (Bridge), Halasana (Plow), and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), because their chin locks stimulate the thyroid and parathyroid glands, which govern healthy metabolism. In addition, Carol practiced rapid diaphragmatic breathing (kapalabhati), bellows breathing (bhastrika), and an upward abdominal lock (uddiyana bandha)—excellent pranayama techniques that massage the intestines, relieve constipation, and eliminate toxins in the digestive tract. And as an adjunct to her practice, Carol rested on her left side for at least five minutes after eating dinner. According to Pat Layton (who encourages all doshas, but especially kaphas, to do this after meals), "This opens the right nostril, the side of the body that represents heat. The increased fire improves digestion."

Carol felt most alive when her belly was heated and toned. "My increased stomach strength made me stand taller and feel less round," she says. "It supported my back and my sense of balance." She came to realize that rich foods and dairy products not only slowed her digestion, but also affected her thinking and overall ability to function well.

Today, Carol's job continues to place overwhelming demands on her time, making it difficult for her to keep up her practice. This shouldn't be surprising, not just for Carol but for anyone: Establishing and maintaining balance—whether in Tree Pose or in one's digestive system—requires constant attention and commitment. But Carol has made real progress, both in her yoga and in her attitude about herself. "It's perfectly fine with me that I don't advance quickly in yoga," she says. "I'd be much worse off today without it."

Barbara Kaplan Herring has practiced yoga and meditation since 1978. For more information about her classes in Berkeley and El Cerrito, California, e-mail her at harmonyyogastudio@comcast.net

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Reader Comments

lisa

Great Article!! Enjoyed reading it, I love your intuitive approach to yoga and insights on exercises for different doshas.

C.Smit

Lovely article! The persons make it clear that these are genuine problems described here.
Lots to learn from tips I will surely follow.

Mer

Also I would like to inquire about whom to contact regarding a story I think should be written and investigated. It has to do with probiotics. I think consumers have the idea of probiotics and good bacteria strains ALL wrong. NOBODY understand that if it is NOT taken on an empty stomach it does not work!! SO DO THE STRAINS IN YOGURT, KEFER, COTTAGE CHEESE, ETC... REALLY WORK????????????? no
I dont think it matters how many strains are in the food.....they get killed right when they hit the acid in your stomach or by fiber you are eating with it..............I dont think ANYONE realizes this.

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