The last thing you probably feel like doing when you have tummy troubles is to twist yourself into a pretzel, but hitting the yoga mat may actually be the best thing for your digestion. Not only can certain yoga poses help to align the gastrointestinal tract and make it run more smoothly, but many stomach woes have mental and emotional causes—stress, anxiety, depression, etc.—and practicing yoga can help you achieve a better mind/body balance.
First Things First
Always warm up your body with some simple stretching before you begin any yoga practice. Not doing so can cause injury, especially in beginners and when doing spinal twists or inversions. Also, it’s not recommended that you try yoga immediately after eating a big meal; rather, yoga is best done on an empty stomach (about two hours after you’ve eaten). Try to start a regular practice with these poses, or incorporate them into your existing practice to help you feel more comfortable after meals.
The yoga practice, to be most effective, shouldn’t stay on your mat. The goal is to bring your yogic mindset to the table and to be present when you eat. Just as you would bring awareness to a pose, or an asana, eat consciously, pay attention to how certain foods and portions make you feel, and tune in to any outside stressors or distractions that may be affecting your digestion. Yoga will help to improve your posture as you go about your daily life, too, which will take pressure off your already-taxed digestive organs.
And, of course, consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise or if your stomach issues worsen or persist for longer than two weeks at a time.
Breathe In, Breathe Out
It’s as simple as that. Yogis use pranayama, or breathing exercises, to help them both activate their bodies and relax. Since many stomach pains (gas, bloating, indigestion, and heartburn) occur in part because air gets trapped in the digestive tract, practicing breathing can keep air flowing through your body more efficiently and smoothly.
Cat and Cow
Slow movement between these two poses makes a great warm-up for your practice and helps bring circulation to your abdominal organs. It also gently stretches the spine and helps relieve tension there that can disrupt good digestion. Breathe in as you press your shoulders back and lift your head up into cow pose, and exhale as you round your back into cat pose.
Spinal twists help to relieve stress from the entire torso, which will keep your digestive organs running without a hitch. They also help to massage the abdominal area, which prevents your gastrointestinal tract from being sluggish. For that reason, this pose is ideal therapy for constipation, gas, and bloating, but it’s not recommended if you suffer from diarrhea.
Bridge is another pose to stretch and stimulate the abdominal area. It brings your organs into alignment so that they can operate most efficiently. Bridge pose also stimulates the thyroid, an important gland for digestion and food metabolism.
One of the most widely recognized yoga poses, downward-facing dog is an all-over stretch that brings the body into alignment and relieves stress to aid with digestion. Since it inverts the torso, it’s not recommended for those suffering from nausea, heartburn, or indigestion; but downward-facing dog can help relax your gastrointestinal tract and become aware of your body as you’re eating.
Standing Forward Bend
Standing forward bend, also called big-toe pose, stimulates the liver and kidneys to help eliminate toxins that impede digestion. It also helps to calm the mind and relieve the stress that often contributes to stomach woes. Again, this is a pose that inverts your esophagus, so don’t try it with an upset stomach or if you have heartburn.
Extended triangle pose charges the whole body and brings it into alignment, spurring abdominal muscles and organs to perform well. It’s also a very focused pose that can calm the mind by shifting it away from stressful or anxious thoughts.
Inversions—like shoulder stand, headstand, and legs-up-the-wall pose—are the best yoga poses for digestion. It seems counterintuitive to turn your body upside down in order to move food downward through your gastrointestinal tract, but inversions stimulate the abdominal muscles and glands (thyroid and pituitary) you need to keep your digestive system working effectively. If you are inexperienced or have a neck injury, be sure that you support your head, neck, and spine in these poses since they require good balance to be performed safely.
The Mayo Clinic lists yoga as an alternative therapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and it is an effective and conservative therapy for a range of tummy troubles. It aids digestion on all fronts: by helping your organs operate more efficiently, reducing stress, and creating awareness of your body as you eat. So next time indigestion takes you off your feet, try getting on your mat for relief.