Yoga has been highly regarded for how it benefits the body and mind. What some don't know is that the benefits of yoga on the body go beyond fitness, or strengthening muscles and improving flexibility: Yoga can actually have a positive impact on your gut health and digestion.
In order to understand how this works, you have to be aware of how stress can impact digestion. Notice how you get butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous? There's a direct pathway from the brain to the gut—and it's called the vagus nerve. Researchers from Switzerland find that stimulating the vagus nerve in certain ways can beneficially impact some psychological conditions like anxiety and depression. One way to do this is by breathing deeply and slowly. And that's where yoga comes into play.
"Yoga is a powerful tool that can help affect components of the ANS [autonomic nervous system]," says Kelly Turner, a yoga teacher and the director of education for YogaSix. "If you're feeling stressed and anxious, taking several slow, deep, controlled breaths can help dial back that stress response." This, in turn, can help to reset the "rest and digest" function of the autonomic nervous system.
On the other hand, "when someone's in a state of high stress, they often feel their digestion [is] out of whack. Whether backed up or super loose, that is the SNS [sympathetic nervous system] fight-or-flight response in overdrive," Turner explains. "Yoga helps people transition back to a state of relaxation and ease, which often leads to positive changes in their digestion."
Studies show that one contributing factor to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome is stress. According to one Chinese study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology: "Stress-induced alterations in neuro-endocrine-immune pathways acts on the gut-brain axis and microbiota-gut-brain axis, and cause symptom flare-ups or exaggeration in IBS. IBS is a stress-sensitive disorder, therefore, the treatment of IBS should focus on managing stress and stress-induced responses."
Individuals with high anxiety and stress levels aren't the only ones who can benefit from yoga, though. The movement practice is also good for those who need to get stuff moving when they're feeling belly discomfort. "Certain yoga postures can gently compress and release the stomach and colon, including twists and forward folds," Turner adds. "This internal massage can help move things along, so to speak, which is why it's not uncommon to hear the occasional flatulence in a yoga class." That's right, it's natural and honestly expected for certain yoga poses to aid in the relief of bloating, gas, and/or constipation. Here are five yoga postures that often help stimulate the gut and relieve you of unpleasant tummy troubles.
How to do it: Start on all fours with your hands directly underneath your shoulders. Inhale and drop your belly while simultaneously lifting your tailbone and your gaze upward (cow pose). Then drop your head and neck down as you exhale and gently round your shoulders as you pull your stomach towards the sky, tuck your tailbone under, and let your head hang down (cat pose). Repeat five to 10 times, moving steadily from cow to cat on the inhale and exhale, respectively.
How to do it: Lie on your back and bring one knee up toward your chest. Then cross that knee in front of you and drop it onto the opposite side of your body. You can use the opposite side hand to press your knee or thigh gently to deepen the stretch, while keeping the other arm extended out to the side.
How to do it: Start in a plank position, making sure your hands are shoulder-distance apart. Send your hips up and back and let your heels sink as close to the floor as possible. (You should be making an upside-down triangle shape with the floor as the base). Push your shoulders away from your ears, let your head hang down, and breathe deeply to give your entire body a stretch.
Thread the Needle
How to do it: Start on all fours with hands directly underneath your shoulders and knees aligned directly under your hips. Inhale, and on the exhale slide your right arm through the opening between your left arm and thigh, keeping the right palm facing up to the ceiling. Let your right shoulder lower and drop to the floor and your right cheek rest on the floor. Your hips should not drop or shift—keep them up and as level as possible. Readjust to make sure your neck and head are not bearing all of the weight. Breathe deeply for several cycles, then repeat on the opposite side.
Half Lord of the Fishes (Seated Spinal Twist)
How to do it: Start by sitting on the floor with your legs bent (knees pointing up). Thread your right leg between your left heel and left butt cheek so the outside of the right leg is resting on the floor. Inch your left foot across toward your right hip even more (left knee should be pointing upward still). Inhale and as you exhale gently twist your upper body toward the inside of your left leg. You can place your left hand on the floor beside or behind you for support and cross your right elbow over your left knee to hold the twist position. Try not to let your left butt cheek lift up off the floor and keep your spine as tall and straight as you can. Hold and breathe deeply for several cycles, then repeat on the opposite side.
Something to note: Not everyone will see benefits from yoga, and if your symptoms persist, it may be time to see a gastroenterologist.
Mario Taño, MD, says that there are lifestyle concerns that need to be considered. "The average American eats anywhere from 3 to 4 grams of fiber a day, when we need 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day," he says, adding that we've become a population that doesn't like to drink enough water, which can also disrupt digestive flow.
"The GI tract has two key elements, the neurological and the vascular," explains Dr. Taño. "So if you have any neurological issues, it can cause your stomach to be sluggish. Another issue is with vascular conditions like in diabetes, or again, dehydration."