Did you know that your gut has a mind of its own? The body not only holds us upright, but it is also our central intelligence agency. It is home to our enteric nervous system, also known as the “belly brain,” which makes up an incredible 75% of our immunity. It also manufactures its own hormones, including the mood-balancing neurotransmitter serotonin and natural painkillers. So how do we keep this system in optimal health? A yoga practice that releases physical and emotional tension in the abdominal area, increases “prana in the belly,” and promotes physical and emotional digestion.
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Step 1: Get to know your core
When we think of the core, what comes to mind? Usually the flat, muscular, six-pack abs that modern culture schools us to want. This uber-toned look, however, comes at a cost: the tightening of connective tissue in the abdomen mimics the stress response and hardens the abdominal organs, which can aggravate digestive issues, hormonal issues, and chronic stress. To cultivate prana in the belly, we want a combination of four elements: awareness, strength, flexibility, and the capacity to release.
Abdominal Awareness Exercise
To grow awareness in your abdomen, place your palms there, one on top of the other, and direct your breath to where your hands are. As you breathe, begin to let his area relax. Notice whether there is any tension in your upper abdomen, lower abdomen, or the space in between. Spend several minutes directing your breath here. This awareness-building tool works well as a prelude to your asana practice or any time during the day.
See also Forget Six-Pack Abs
Photograph by: istockphoto
Step 2: Release tension in the abdominals
Core Body on the Block
Place a block the long way (perpendicular) under your torso, from just above your pubic bone to just below your lower ribs (the block shouldn’t be pressing anywhere on bone; if it is, use a folded mat or a book instead). Lie over the block and support your head either on your elbows or on a second block. Breathe into your abdomen for several rounds of breath. Then, as you exhale, begin to engage mula bandha, your root lift (the tissue in your pelvic floor between the anal sphincter and urogenital muscles). Engage on the exhale, release a little on the inhale. If you wish, you can add in uddiyana bandha, your navel lift, by taking the deep abdominal muscles (from the lower end of the block to the upper end) and lifting them lengthwise up your body. Practice for several rounds of exhales. Follow with supported Bridge Pose on your back, with your knees bent and a block on the low end under your sitting bones.
CONTRAINDICATION If you are pregnant or have abdominal pain, lie on your back and use your hands on your abdomen for gentle pressure instead.
Step 3: Build a stronger, more flexible, and healthier core
To work on core body strength, try this variation of Plank Pose.
Start in Downward-Facing Dog, Keeping your palms on the mat, bring your feet into Side Plank position. On your next exhale, draw your shoulders over your wrists. Lift your throat so that your neck is in optimal alignment. Hold for several breaths, engaging your bandhas on the exhale. Return to Downward Dog and repeat on the other side.
Step 4: Rest and reset your core and enteric nervous system
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
To finish, come into Child’s Pose with your knees slightly wider than your hips and a block under your forehead. Slide your elbows toward you and turn your palms down, catching the front edge of the block with your thumbs and the side edges with your hands. Allow your abdomen to “hang” in this supported position. Breathe deeply for as long as you like.
See also 4 Restorative Poses to Soothe Stress
Go deeper with more core and gut work at YJ LIVE! in San Francisco
For a longer, even more beneficial sequence on gut health, join Bo Forbes for a session at the 2015 Yoga Journal LIVE! Event in San Francisco this weekend.
Gut Wisdom: Awakening the Wisdom of Our Enteric Nervous System is Saturday, January 17 — 3:30–5:30 pm. Continuing education credits are available for social workers and psychologists. PLUS Manduka, sponsor of this class, may be stopping by with a special surprise. Stay tuned!
Register for YJ LIVE! now using code “GUTWISDOM” for 15% off a last-minute pass.
About Bo Forbes
Bo Forbes is a clinical psychologist, a yoga teacher, and an integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology, behavioral medicine, sleep disorders, and stress management. She is the founder of Integrative Yoga Therapeutics, a system that specializes in the therapeutic application of yoga for anxiety, insomnia, depression, immune disorders, chronic pain, physical injuries, and athletic performance. Bo conducts teacher trainings and workshops internationally, writes frequently for Yoga Journal, Body + Soul, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and other leading magazines, and is on the advisory board of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. She is the author of Yoga for Emotional Balance: Simple Practices to Relieve Anxiety and Depression.