Upset tummy? Try yoga for digestive relief
What else can yoga do for you? If you’ve overeaten or are facing digestive discomfort, fifteen minutes or so of yoga can make all the difference, according to Zayna Gold, creator of Healing Through Movement and a Boston-based yoga instructor. Here are just a few of the poses she recommends for settling your tummy, flattening out bloat, and easing stomach pains.
Don’t worry; these moves are very gentle and will work with the lightest of touches on calming your insides (both literal and metaphorical!). “You will feel less stress when your nervous system is relaxed. The health benefits will spread to the rest of your body and ease your digestion,” says Gold. Plus, the less you train your body to rely on over-the-counter meds like Pepto Bismol and Tums, the better! The natural, effective way is always preferable for long-term benefits.
Practicing Apanasana, knees-to-chest pose, is a gentle way to restore proper flow and function to the organs of your torso. As you release excess pressure from your digestive organs and low back, your mind will begin to release its pressures and tensions, as well. It’s a simple way to encourage your body, mind, and spirit to remain pure and balanced throughout your day, as well as gives relief from excess digestive air, indigestion, bloating, flatulence, acidity, and constipation. Suffering from irritable bowel syndrome? This is the pose for you.
Plus, this pose helps to keep your low back limber. It is often used as a soothing counter-pose to backbends and spinal twists. Because your body is compact in the pose, your thoughts are more easily drawn inward, which is useful for calming the mind and rebalancing your energy.
However, make sure not to practice this pose if you are recovering from abdominal surgery or a hernia. Also avoid this pose if you have a spinal, knee, or hip injury. If you have a neck injury, do not lift your head.
Try It Out:
Begin by lying on your back, with your legs and arms extended.
As you exhale, draw both of your knees to your chest. Clasp your hands around them. If it is possible for you, wrap your forearms over your shins and clasp each elbow with the opposite hand.
Keep your back flat on the mat. Release your shoulder blades down toward your waist. Broaden across your collar bones.
Draw your tailbone and sacrum down toward the mat, lengthening your spine even more.
If it is comfortable for you to do so, softly rock backward and forward or side-to-side for a gentle spinal massage.
Tuck your chin slightly and gaze down the center line of your body.
Hold for up to one minute. Keep your breath smooth and even.
With an exhalation, release and extend both legs along the floor and rest. Repeat up to six times.
Bridge Pose is a chest, heart, and shoulders opener and works to stretch the spine, the back of the neck, the thighs, and the hip flexors (front hip joints). Because your heart is higher than your head in this pose, it is considered a mild inversion (less strenuous than other inversions, such as Headstand) and holds all the benefits of inversions, like relief from stress, fatigue, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, and mild depression. Get ready to have your mind be calmed and your blood pressure treated, and if you have asthma, it’s great for increasing lung capacity by opening the chest.
Why is Bridge Pose so great for digestion? It also stimulates the abdominal organs and thyroid glands, which improves digestion and helps to regulate metabolism. Because it revitalizes the legs and stretches the shoulders, it can be a particularly rejuvenating pose for those who spend the day sitting in front of a computer or driving.
Practicing Bridge Pose can be a potent lesson in learning to slow down and listen to your body. Your spine, shoulders, and thighs will tell you how far to take the pose. The less you push, the more the pose will open up. Turn your awareness inward and notice how your body releases its grip when you don’t force it. Let your Bridge be a connection between your body, mind, and spirit.
Try It Out:
Lie supine on the floor, and if necessary, place a thickly folded blanket under your shoulders to protect your neck. Bend your knees and set your feet on the floor, heels as close to the sitting bones as possible.
Exhale and, pressing your inner feet and arms actively into the floor, push your tailbone upward toward the pubis, firming (but not hardening) the buttocks, and lift the buttocks off the floor. Keep your thighs and inner feet parallel. Clasp the hands below your pelvis and extend through the arms to help you stay on the tops of your shoulders.
Lift your buttocks until the thighs are about parallel to the floor. Keep your knees directly over the heels, but push them forward, away from the hips, and lengthen the tailbone toward the backs of the knees. Lift the pubis toward the navel.
Lift your chin slightly away from the sternum and, firming the shoulder blades against your back, press the top of the sternum toward the chin. Firm the outer arms, broaden the shoulder blades, and try to lift the space between them at the base of the neck (where it’s resting on the blanket) up into the torso.
Stay in the pose anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute. Release with an exhalation, rolling the spine slowly down onto the floor.
Seated Forward Bend
Seated forward bend, or paschimottanasana, stretches the spine, shoulders, pelvis, and hamstrings. It also stimulates and balances the liver, kidneys, adrenal glands, ovaries, and uterus. And while traditional yoga texts say Paschimottanasana can cure disease, modern-day yoga teachers agree to its many other benefits, which include relief from stress, improved digestion and appetite, relief from menstrual pain and symptoms of menopause, a calmer mind, reduced anxiety and fatigue, improved sleep and relief from insomnia. This pose is also believed to be therapeutic for high blood pressure, infertility, and sinusitis. It is reputed to be beneficial for overcoming obesity, as well.
Though Paschimottanasana can feel “intense,” it can be easy to push your body too much, seeking more intense sensations as signs of progress. Be careful not to misinterpret painful, sharp, or piercing sensations as positive signs! Back off if you are injuring yourself.
The more you relax in the pose, the more naturally your body will open up. Forcing forward folds will actually cause your muscles to shorten and resist even more. Breathe deeply and evenly. Settle into the moment. Turn your thoughts inward and allow resistance to gently fade away.
Try It Out:
Sit on the floor with your buttocks supported on a folded blanket and your legs straight in front of you. Press actively through your heels. Rock slightly onto your left buttock, and pull your right sitting bone away from the heel with your right hand. Repeat on the other side. Turn the top thighs in slightly and press them down into the floor. Press through your palms or finger tips on the floor beside your hips and lift the top of the sternum toward the ceiling as the top thighs descend.
Draw the inner groins deep into the pelvis. Inhale, and keeping the front torso long, lean forward from the hip joints, not the waist. Lengthen the tailbone away from the back of your pelvis. If possible take the sides of the feet with your hands, thumbs on the soles, elbows fully extended; if this isn’t possible, loop a strap around the foot soles, and hold the strap firmly. Be sure your elbows are straight, not bent.
When you are ready to go further, don’t forcefully pull yourself into the forward bend, whether your hands are on the feet or holding the strap. Always lengthen the front torso into the pose, keeping your head raised. If you are holding the feet, bend the elbows out to the sides and lift them away from the floor; if holding the strap, lighten your grip and walk the hands forward, keeping the arms long. The lower belly should touch the thighs first, then the upper belly, then the ribs, and the head last.
With each inhalation, lift and lengthen the front torso just slightly; with each exhalation release a little more fully into the forward bend. In this way the torso oscillates and lengthens almost imperceptibly with the breath. Eventually you may be able to stretch the arms out beyond the feet on the floor.
Stay in the pose anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes. To come up, first lift the torso away from the thighs and straighten the elbows again if they are bent. Then inhale and lift the torso up by pulling the tailbone down and into the pelvis.
The perfect way to wrap up your yoga therapy, Child’s Pose helps to stretch the hips, thighs, and ankles while reducing stress and fatigue. It gently relaxes the muscles on the front of the body while softly and passively stretching the muscles of the back torso.
This resting pose centers, calms, and soothes the brain, making it a therapeutic posture for relieving stress. When performed with the head and torso supported, it can also help relieve back and neck pain. Sometimes used as a counter-pose to backbends, Child’s Pose restores balance and equanimity to the body.
Life is the period between one breath and the next; the person who only half breathes, only half lives. He who breathes correctly acquires control of the whole being.
Regular practice of Child’s Pose also teaches conscious exploration of the breath. As the front of the body releases onto the thighs, the frontal ribs and abdominal muscles become slightly compressed. This restriction allows for a deeper opening of the back of the torso as the lungs expand behind the body. As this happens, keeping the breath slow, long, and steady allows for a new awareness of the breath’s path through the front and back of the body.
Try It Out:
Kneel on the floor. Touch your big toes together and sit on your heels, then separate your knees about as wide as your hips.
Exhale and lay your torso down between your thighs. Broaden your sacrum across the back of your pelvis and narrow your hip points toward the navel, so that they nestle down onto the inner thighs. Lengthen your tailbone away from the back of the pelvis while you lift the base of your skull away from the back of your neck.
Lay your hands on the floor alongside your torso, palms up, and release the fronts of your shoulders toward the floor. Feel how the weight of the front shoulders pulls the shoulder blades wide across your back.
Balasana is a resting pose. Stay anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. Beginners can also use Balasana to get a taste of a deep forward bend, where the torso rests on the thighs. Stay in the pose from 1 to 3 minutes. To come up, first lengthen the front torso, and then with an inhalation lift from the tailbone as it presses down and into the pelvis.
Yoga and Trauma
The benefits of a yoga practice include building flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and concentration. However, a regular yoga practice can help anyone dealing with the stress of facing military deployment, being homeless, being in prison or recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.
The commitment of yoga teachers and therapists for their work bringing trauma-sensitive yoga and meditation to veterans, prisoners, persons with eating disorders, and those in recovery from addictions — with powerful results — is deep and impressive. It is tempting for me to write a book about each of these worthy people. Instead, over the past four years, I’ve interviewed many of them for a Huffington Post blog series called “Yoga, How We Serve.”
In their interviews, these women and men shared the unique needs of survivors of trauma, lessons learned in doing this work and how existing resources and treatments generally do not adequately address the needs of these populations. Here is just one of many extraordinary comments from a Vietnam War veteran in a program called Mindful Yoga Therapy:
“As I started to practice daily, I noticed several things happening. First, I began to sleep better. Next, I was getting to know myself, for the first time ever. Slowly I came off all of my psych meds. That was big! For the first time in over 40 years, I was medication free. Over the years, I’ve been on over 23 different kinds of medications, from Ativan to Xanax! Yoga is now my therapy.”
Vietnam War Veteran
This veteran went on to say he hopes that yoga will someday be offered to all veterans, and offered to our troops during basic training.
I very much share this hope, because the costs of treating trauma—whether it occurred 40 years ago or in the past decade, have become a major concern in our society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the economic burden of trauma is more than $585 billion annually in the U.S., including both health care costs and lost productivity.
The CDC also measures “Life Years Lost,” used to account for the age at which deaths occur, which gives greater weight to deaths occurring at younger ages and lower weights to deaths that occur at older ages. It turns out that the impact on life-years lost from trauma is equal to the life-years lost from cancer, heart disease, and HIV combined.
Statistics can’t say much about the personal burdens of individuals and families, of how individual sufferers are impacted, but it’s still instructive to mention one or two more here. For instance, there is an average of 293,066 victims of sexual assault or rape each year in the US, with someone in the United States being sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. And roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day from the effects of PTS symptoms, one every 65 minutes.
What is Trauma?
The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, and means “a wound” resulting from an emotional or psychological injury or experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time. According to Bessel van der Kolk, “Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds…The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.”
Yoga for Recovery
The lives of many trauma survivors revolve around coping with the constant sense of danger they feel in their bodies. It is typically difficult for them to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. As Yoga of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) founder Nikki Myers puts it, “Sustainable addiction recovery is about more than the mind…the issues live in our tissues.” Y12SR is a rich framework for integrating the wisdom of yoga and the practical tools of 12-step programs, with Y12SR meetings available nationwide, and the curriculum quickly becoming a feature of addiction recovery treatment centers across the United States.
Yoga helps one reconnect with the body, giving the opportunity to discharge accumulated stress and anxiety, and restoring the human organism to safety. Sabrina Seronello’s story paints this picture: she was on active duty in the Air Force from March 2000-March 2006, working as a medic in the emergency department of a Level 1 trauma center at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB. Sabrina deployed to Iraq in January 2005 to the Air Force Theater Hospital, a Level III (injured patients and emergency operations) trauma center. Given what she saw and experienced taking care of the wounded in Iraq, and being a victim of sexual assault while in active duty, she had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks. Upon returning from Iraq she was introduced to yoga and saw how it helped her deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. In 2013 she started teaching a regular weekly yoga class to incarcerated veterans at San Quentin State Prison in CA under the Prison Yoga Project.
Trauma-sensitive yoga programs are becoming more available at domestic violence shelters, and universities are offering them for survivors of sexual assault. Caitlin Lanier was sexually assaulted during her freshman year of college. This assault led to issues with anorexia, cutting and otherwise trying to numb her uncomfortable feelings. According to Caitlin, “those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.” Caitlin has recently pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho, area, including at a domestic violence shelter, and at Boise State and the College of Idaho. She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.
People with post-traumatic stress (PTS) who practice yoga report better sleep, improved focus and concentration, less anger and irritability, and exhibit an overall greater ability to enjoy life in the present moment. The Mindful Yoga Therapy has been found to be especially helpful for veterans who are also participating in evidence-based psychotherapy for PTS. “Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder,” says Paul, a Vietnam War veteran.
Yoga for Prisoners
Breath work, three extended exhales, is part and parcel of the Prison Yoga Project protocol for addressing symptoms of un-discharged traumatic stress, according to James Fox, Founder and Director. He says “the extended exhale serves as the body’s built-in release valve to discharge stress and anxiety.” This is confirmed from current and former prisoners at San Quentin State Prison who have been part of the yoga program. “It was mainly because of the inner peace and trust that I have developed and nurtured through my yoga practice that I was able to respond to a confrontational situation with calm.”—B.B. Or “I’m able to stay grounded by getting into my breathing which takes my focus off stressful, traumatic events such as flashbacks. It keeps me mindful mentally and physically and enhances my self control.” –D.B.
Yoga & Eating Disorders
Finally, yoga can become a game-changer in combating eating disorders. An estimated 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating). Chelsea Roff took her first yoga class at the suggestion of a therapist just a few months after getting out of the hospital for eating disorder treatment. “The short story is that yoga brought me to a place in my recovery that no form of talk therapy or medical treatment ever had before. Downward dog certainly didn’t cure my eating disorder, but the practice did teach me how to relate to my body in a more compassionate way. And more importantly, perhaps, going to yoga introduced me to community–to the people I soon came to consider family–and I suppose that’s exactly what I needed to fully step into recovery,“ she says.
Health Care Costs
What if the over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys who use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives, were offered regular yoga classes? Regular trauma-sensitive yoga classes for victims of trauma can help reduce our nation’s health care costs on a larger scale, as they address cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma. But a cultural change is required to make this happen. The current system is broken, because it overly relies on medical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are very costly without commensurate relief from symptoms.
According to Kantar Media, the heath care industry spent $14 billion on advertising alone in 2014, enough to fund over 215,000 trauma sensitive yoga classes. Especially for PTS, mainstream therapies have resulted in patients remaining significantly symptomatic after treatment, with additional problems including addiction, difficulties maintaining work, and homelessness.
The results are adding up to a national calamity that leaves human lives in ruins, particularly for men and women who have risked their lives to serve our country and need our help. According the Congressional Budget Office’s report on PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury among recent combat veterans, the average cost of treatment in the first year is $8,300 per patient and $4,100 in the following years. The average cost of treating an eating disorder is $1,250 per day, and only 1 in 10 sufferers ever receive treatment. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Such treatment is expensive not only for patients, but for insurance companies, and society at large.
The evidence base for the effectiveness of yoga in addressing trauma is extensive. Here are some resources for further reading: the textbook on trauma and body-mind practices by Bessel van der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps The Score: Memory and Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress; Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper; The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD From The Inside Out by Susan Pease Banitt; and Intelligence In The Flesh by Guy Claxton.
Learn more about Give Back Yoga Foundation and how you can get involved.