I’ve struggled with my digestive system since I was a kid. Belly aches and pains were commonplace for much of my life. Because of this, I used to think of my digestive tract as my weak spot, but now I’ve come to see it as a useful barometer that tells me where I need to direct my attention. We can learn a lot listening to our gastrointestinal tract! I know I’m not digesting my food well if I don’t hear the process of digesting, or when my stomach and respiratory diaphragm feel tight and contracted.
After decades of experimenting with my diet, herbs, supplements, postures, breathing exercises, and meditation, as well as years of working with my private yoga therapy clients on improving their digestion, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important aspect of digestion is rooted in the nervous system.
CHECK YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM
The human body is pretty incredible. The complexity of different body systems, like the nervous system and the digestive system, and how they communicate, is still being discovered. Every time I learn something new, I’m awestruck.
The human body doesn’t have the capacity to focus optimal attention and energy on all of its system processes simultaneously, so it has to choose, based on the circumstances. For example, when we’re sleeping, our body is working on the cleansing and repair of tissues significantly more than during the daytime. Similarly, when we’re eating food, our body is somewhat focused on digestion (at least that’s what we hope is happening!) When we look at the relationship between the nervous system and the digestive system, we come to this basic conclusion: when we are stressed out, we aren’t able to digest food. Our bodies just aren’t built that way. So, the most basic way to support your body’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients is to promote relaxation and a synchronous shift away from the stress state. When we’re relaxed and present, we digest everything more thoroughly, including not only our food, but also our experiences and emotions.
There’s a lot to say about different stress responses and the varied yoga tools that work to activate or calm the nervous system. I write and teach about this all of the time! My aim here is to offer you a few easy postures and a breathing exercise, all of which promote diaphragmatic/belly breath. Breathing in this manner is one of the fastest ways to a calm nervous system and encourage healthy digestion.
There are two basic ways the body can breathe. Because the body has to make space for the lungs to inflate, it either has to contract the respiratory diaphragm downward and toward the abdomen (diaphragmatic respiration,) or lift the ribcage (thoracic respiration.) When we breathe with the diaphragm, the nervous system relaxes. Conversely, when we breathe by lifting the ribcage, the nervous system becomes stressed. Unfortunately, many of us haven’t been taught how to breathe optimally. So, out of misunderstanding, habit and the high level of stress in our modern-day lives (and skinny jeans, among other contributors to poor respiratory habits), many people tend to breath thoracically.
Breathing with the diaphragm can be felt in the belly. While the lungs don’t extend into the abdomen, we can breathe down and into the bottom tips of the lungs. With this action, the belly subtly rounds, like a balloon, the side waist expands, and the pelvic floor relaxes. Though the rib cage will lift slightly as the mid- and upper-lungs inflate, the secondary respiratory muscles (the scalene and pectoralis minor muscles), which lift the ribcage, are pretty quiet. Inviting the belly to fully release with the inhale breath is the first step in learning how to breathe with your diaphragm.
The following are steps for breathing with the diaphragm:
- Exhale everything out.
- Inhale into the bottom tips of the lungs as your belly rounds, side waist expands, and lower back broadens.
- Continue inhaling into the mid-lungs so the rib cage expands to the sides, forward, and back.
- Exhale and gently squeeze the low belly towards the spine to complete the exhale breath.
- For even more support in calming the nervous system, lengthen the exhale breath so that it’s a couple of counts longer than the inhale breath.
This is my personal, go-to posture when I’m stressed, anxious, can’t sleep, or want to get my body into the right gear for digestion. It somewhat contains the ribcage and simultaneously forces the body to use the diaphragm to draw-in air (diaphragmatic breath). This position also easily allows for application of slight pressure on the upper abdomen, below the sternum and above the navel, an option that helps stoke the digestive fire and directs energy to the stomach.
- Lay down on your front side, with your legs straight, hip width or wider.
- Stack your hands and point your elbows out to the sides. Rest your forehead on your hands.
- If you experience discomfort in your low back, place a folded blanket underneath your belly.
- Breathe for a couple minutes or more.
This is similar to down dog, only your hands are on the wall. It’s a great position to take as a mid-day stretch for the body and to nudge the nervous system back into gear when there’s distraction or stress.
- Place your hands about shoulder width or wider in front of you flat on a wall.
- Walk your feet back, reach your hips back and lower your torso towards the ground. You may adjust the height and width of the hands as needed.
- Soften the knees and draw your low belly towards your back so you aren’t swaying in the back.
- Reach the crown of your head towards the wall, and reach back through your tail. If the neck is sore, let your head hang wherever gravity takes it.
- Take 5 breaths or more.
This is a quick and easy pose to take at the office– you can even get your office mates to join in! It’s a great pose for those who spend a lot of time at a desk, driving, or walking, and, like all the postures listed here, it relaxes the nervous system and cultivates concentration, patience, and ease.
- Stand in front of a chair (one w/o wheels, or positioned next to a wall or desk so it can’t move.)
- Soften your knees and place your hands on either side of the seat of the chair.
- Walk your feet back, reach your hips back, and lower your torso towards the floor.
- Keep the knees soft and draw your low belly towards your back so you aren’t swaying in the back.
- Continue to reach your hips back so you’re not pressing much weight into your hands.
- Take 5 breaths or more.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat,” but I would take this idea a step further and say: We are more than what we eat, we are what we absorb! Okay … we’re actually so much more than that, but let’s be real people: We all spend a lot of money and time on obtaining, preparing, and eating food. Let’s do our best to help our bodies find the peace needed to digest and absorb all of the goodies from the food on our plates, so we can continue to build healthy, resilient bodies and minds, for ourselves, and our communities.