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If you’re feeling unbalanced, your belly could be to blame. We’ve all been there, having experienced an upset stomach, bloating, or other digestive disturbances, whether the result of traveling or overindulgent, less-than-mindful eating. When your stomach speaks, it’s time to stop and listen.
We’re often told to listen to our bodies and trust our guts, and that extends beyond the concepts of going with the flow or simply trusting intuition. As it turns out, there’s a reason the gut is sometimes referred to as the “second brain” of the body: science suggests that the gut microbiome is of significant importance to overall brain and body health.
Trillions of microorganisms such as yeast, viruses, and bacteria live within the gut microbiome, and many of the body’s processes begin in the digestive tract. Digestion, mood and immune function are among those influenced by what’s going on in these processes of the gut microbiome. Research has also linked goings on in the gut to having an influence on diseases including cancer, skin, endocrine, and autoimmune disorders.
Optimizing Gut Health
As with most things in life, achieving balance is essential for a healthy gut. Maintaining the right proportion of microorganisms in the digestive tract is also vital for both mental and physical health. There are approximately 300 to 500 different species of bacteria that live in the digestive tract. Some of these microorganisms are harmful to health, while others are necessary and beneficial. These types of “good” bacteria, also known as probiotics such as L. acidophilus, help create balance by stimulating the natural detoxification process of eliminating waste from the body and promoting healthier digestion.
A few lifestyle choices can improve gut health by boosting healthier gut flora:
- Taking supplements such as prebiotics and probiotics
- Eating less sugar
- Reducing the use of artificial sweeteners
- Avoiding overly processed foods
Regular exercise, movement and stress reduction are also key factors in improving gut health and your overall health. A consistent yoga practice offers movement and alleviates stress. Fortunately, there are specific poses we can practice to support for the immune system and promote healthier, more easeful digestion by stimulating the organs of elimination to function at their optimum level. In B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, there are an extensive array of asanas offered for various conditions including acidity, abdominal organs, colitis, constipation, flatulence, indigestion, plus caring for your intestines and kidneys.
Twisting poses, by “wringing out” toxicity and congestion from the body, are helpful in enhancing better digestive function and promoting waste elimination. Other poses can act as a massage for the internal organs of elimination such as the colon, liver, spleen and kidneys, along with the adrenal glands, allowing them to do their jobs of releasing waste from the body by stimulating them with movement. Additionally, stimulating circulation to specific areas can help alleviate bloating, gas, cramping, and other digestive issues. Finally, combining these poses with mindful, cleansing breath work will relax your body and the mind. Treat your stomach with TLC by practicing the following sequence, designed by yoga teacher Crystal Fenton.
Urdhva Mukha Pasasana (Thread the Needle Pose)
Begin in Tabletop Pose, on your hands and knees. Place one hand in the center of the mat, directly under your face. Extend your opposite arm up toward the ceiling, stacking your shoulders for one round of breath. Then wrap your extended arm under your body toward the opposite side, resting your shoulder and cheek on the mat or a yoga blanket. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Parivrtta Anjaneyasana (Revolved Crescent Lunge Pose)
Start in a low lunge with your left foot forward, knee bent directly above the ankle and your right foot angled slightly toward the long right side of the mat. Inhale, pressing your palms to the center of the chest. Exhale as you rotate your torso toward your bent front knee, joining your bottom elbow to your left knee. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Malasana (Garland Pose)
From Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your feet at least hip-width apart, bend your knees, lowering your body into a squat with your toes angled to the outer edges of the mat. Moving from your hips, fold forward, placing your hands on the mat in between your knees. Gently tuck your chin in toward your chest, allowing the crown of your head to relax toward the mat while lengthening your cervical spine. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
Sit on the ground with your legs elongated and extended forward. Press the soles of your feet against a block. Extend your arms up and, hinging at your hips, fold forward, reaching for your calves, ankles, feet, or the block for a deeper shoulder stretch. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana Variation
From Paschimottanasana, bend your right knee to bring your right leg into a Half Lotus position by wrapping your hands underneath your foot and ankle to encourage rotation of your hip. Draw your right foot in close to your navel, allowing your ankle and foot to rest on your left thigh, as close as possible in the crease of your left hip. If Half Lotus pose isn’t availabkle to you (very common!), you can place your top ankle on top of your bottom thigh. Hold your right foot in place with your left hand as you extend your right arm up. Fold forward and hold the inner edge of your left leg or foot with your right hand. Now that this foot is held in place, massaging your abdominal muscles and organs of elimination, you can extend your left arm forward to grab hold of the outer edge of your flexed left foot. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Begin in Paschimottanasana. Bend your right knee, placing the sole of your foot on the floor about a fist’s distance from your opposite thigh. Keep the foot of your extended left leg flexed. Inhale, reaching your right arm upward; on the exhale, fold forward, bringing your right arm inside your right knee. Flip the right arm so that your elbow bends, wrapping it around your right shin while still folding forward. Wrap your left arm behind your back and clasp your fingers together (or use a strap to grip with both hands). As you continue to breathe, visualize moving your torso forward toward the shin, keeping your spine long and hinging from your hips. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet grounded and hip width apart and parallel. Place your palms next to your hips. Press evenly into your feet and hands to lift your pelvis upward. Slide a block underneath your pelvis to support your sacrum if desired. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)
Lie on your back, stacking your bent knees bent over your ankles. Place your palms next to your ears with your elbows bent and fingers pointing toward your feet. Take an inhale, pressing evenly into your hands and feet to lift your body upward. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Spinal Twist)
Lie on your back, bending your knees in toward your chest. Place your arms in a cactus shape around your ears with the backs of your hands, forearms, and upper arms pressing down into the mat. Drop your bent knees to one side; rotate your head and neck to the opposite shoulder if it desired. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)
Lie down on your side, placing your glutes as close to the wall as possible. Shift to lie on your back, extending straight legs upward with the back of your legs supported by the wall. You could place a rolled up blanket on top of your feet and rest a yoga block your low belly for a deeper sense of groundedness. Hold for 5-10 minutes, or as long as desired.
Photos by Rebecca Ferrier Photography.