Yoga for gut health? Is that a thing? It’s not what we typically think of when it comes to the benefits of doing yoga. But in fact, yoga can do wonders to help restore and maintain health in your digestive system. From indigestion to bloating to constipation, yoga can provide gentle, natural, and effective relief. And when practiced regularly, it supports an overall healthy digestive system.
As I’ve aged, I’ve noticed my digestive system just doesn’t seem to work as well as it did when I was younger. Not only does poor digestion feel uncomfortable, but the sluggishness and general yuck-ness it creates in my body can interfere with my life activities. Moreover, now that I’m older, I’m beginning to take the history of stomach cancer that runs in my family a little more seriously. And with all the research coming out in recent years showing the important role gut health plays in our overall physical and mental health, I’ve gained a new respect for my digestive system.
Of course, eating a healthy diet, exercising, making sure I get lots of fiber, and drinking plenty of water all lay the foundation for good digestion. These are things I’ve done for a long time with good results. However, over the past year, I’ve found adding an intentional focus on my digestive health to my yoga practice has made a big, noticeable difference. All my digestive issues have pretty much gone away.
In today’s post, I’m sharing 7 yoga for gut health practices I do regularly to support and maintain healthy digestion. Whether you’re dealing with digestive issues, or you simply want to make sure you’re taking good care of your digestive system, these yoga tips can help.
How Does Yoga Help Your Gut Health?
There are several ways yoga supports gut health. Firstly, it’s a form of exercise. And regular exercise is key to good digestion. When you move your body, you energize all the systems of your body. Yoga increases blood circulation and oxygen flow. It stimulates the endocrine and digestive systems while bringing balance to the nervous system. Basically, it creates an overall optimal environment for proper digestion.
More specifically, certain yoga postures apply pressure, relieve tension, and increase blood flow to the muscles and organs of the abdomen. It’s like giving your digestive tract a massage. This enables optimal movement of your bowels (peristalsis). Moreover, in yogic and Ayurvedic terms, yoga increases agni – digestive fire. When agni is strong, you’re better able to metabolize foods properly and eliminate waste efficiently.
Lastly, yoga reduces stress and thus, helps bring balance to your enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS plays a pivotal role in digestion, and research has shown stress can have a big impact on its functioning. Furthermore, some yoga practices stimulate and tone the vagus nerve, which also plays a part in healthy digestion. Not only does it activate your rest and digest mode, but it also communicates to the brain when there’s inflammation in your gut. This communication lets the brain know it needs to initiate the biological processes necessary to decrease that inflammation. So the healthy vagal tone that yoga supports helps keep your digestive system working optimally.
7 Yoga Practices For Good Digestion
Many yoga practices support gut health. However, what I’m sharing with you here are the six poses and one breathing practice I’ve been working with over the past year as part of my intentional focus on digestive health. And as I mentioned previously, my digestive issues have pretty much disappeared. Give them a try, and see how they work for you!
Note: As with any physical activity, consult your healthcare provider(s) prior to initiating any new exercise.
Yoga For Gut Health: Wind-Relieving Pose
There are two versions of this pose, and I use both of them. You might be able to guess by its name that it benefits your digestive system. It does relieve any trapped gasses in the intestines. But it does more than that. By applying pressure to the abdomen, it massages the abdomen and digestive organs. This improves peristaltic movements and helps regulate the gastrointestinal endocrine system.
For the half version, inhale as you bring one knee to your chest. Hold your breath and use your hands – placed on your leg below your knee – to press downward, compressing your knee to your chest and abdomen. Raise your head, as though you were trying to kiss your knee. Hold for as long as you can comfortably retain your breath. Then, release the compression, exhale, and return your leg to the floor. Repeat with the opposite leg.
For the full version, repeat the same process. This time, bringing both knees to your chest at the same time. Inhale and retain your breath as you press your knees into your body. Raise your head. Release the compression, exhale, and return your legs to the floor.
Yoga For Gut Health: Thunderbolt (or Diamond) Pose
This seated pose can be done while meditating and/or as part of your yoga asana practice. Additionally, because it aids in digestion, you can sit in it for a little while after eating. It increases digestive power by decreasing blood circulation to the legs and increasing it to the abdomen. It relieves flatulence and indigestion while also toning the entire nervous system.
To enter this yoga for gut health pose, kneel on the floor with your knees together, heels apart, and toes touching. The whole length of your lower legs should be touching the floor. Gently sit back on your legs, with the weight of your body on your ankles. Align your head, neck, and body in a straight line, and place your hands on your knees. Breathe naturally, and stay as long as is comfortable or for about five full breaths.
Note: Skip this posture if you have a knee or ankle injury or have had recent surgery in the legs.
Yoga For Gut Health: Half Spinal Twist
This pose promotes gut health by compressing, strengthening, and massaging the abdomen. It also supports healthy liver and pancreas function – organs that play an important role in digestion. It can relieve indigestion, constipation, and flatulence. Consult your healthcare provider before doing this pose if you have an injury or condition of the spine.
I’ve demonstrated this pose with both legs bent. However, it can also be done leaving the bottom leg extended. You’ll want to do this posture on both sides.
To enter for the right side, bend your left leg, bringing your foot toward the outer edge of your right hip. Lift your right foot and place it on the floor to the outside of your left knee. Your right knee should be close to your chest. Lengthen your spine as you sit tall, then gently twist your torso, bringing your left arm in front of your right leg. Extend your left arm down the length of your right leg. Then wrap your right arm behind your back. Turn your head gently to look over your right shoulder.
Breathe normally as you hold the posture for about five full breaths. To come out, turn your head to face forward. Then, your body. Lastly, uncross your legs.
Yoga For Gut Health: Forward Bend
Forward Bend massages the abdomen and its organs, and increases peristalsis (movement of the bowels). It can relieve and prevent constipation; however, it should be held only briefly if you are presently experiencing symptoms. Also, avoid this pose if you have any disease or enlargement of the abdominal organs. Consult your healthcare provider before doing if you have an injury or condition of the spine.
To enter this yoga for gut health pose, sit with your legs extended in front of you. Lengthen your spine and fold forward, hinging at your hips. Breathe naturally, and gradually deepen your stretch. You don’t have to grab hold of your toes, as I’ve demonstrated. Find your own edge by listening to your body. Meaning, find that point where you can really feel the stretch, but it’s not painful or so uncomfortable you feel you can’t stay with it for a while. Stay as long as you like, but not more than one minute.
Alternately, you can enter this pose from a lying down position. Lying flat on your back, stretch your arms over your head on the floor. Lock your thumbs, stiffen your body, and slowly raise your arms, head, and back as you come to a seated position with your arms over your head. As you exhale, slowly fold forward over your legs. Entering the pose in this way strengthens your abdominal muscles.
Yoga For Gut Health: Uddiyana Bandha, Or Stomach Lift
The stomach lift is a great exercise for your abdominal muscles. Not only is it an effective yoga practice for gut health, but it also tones the solar plexus nerves. These are the nerves that support healthy digestion and also regulate our stress and relaxation responses. So it’s good for you in many ways. You’ll want to avoid this practice if you have serious abdominal problems, a hernia, circulatory issues, heart disease, or are pregnant or menstruating.
Stand with you feet apart and bend slightly forward, placing your hands on your knees. Exhale fully and then contract your abdominal muscles, drawing them in to form a hollow in your abdomen. Hold your breath (don’t inhale) as you hold the lift. When you feel the need to take a breath, release your abdomen and inhale slowly. Repeat several times.
Yoga For Gut Health: Lotus Pose & Yoga Mudra
Like Thunderbolt Pose, Lotus Pose reduces blood flow to the legs, increasing it within the abdominal region. This makes it beneficial to the abdominal organs and digestion and therefore, a yoga for gut health practice. When you add in Yoga Mudra – which is Lotus Pose with a forward fold – the benefit to the digestive system increases. That’s because the abdomen and its organs get compressed and massaged.
However, this is an advanced pose. You don’t want to force yourself into this posture, and you want to be sure to listen to your body as you enter it. Don’t attempt this posture if you haven’t been practicing yoga for a while with the benefit of instruction. Avoid if you have injuries of the knee, ankle, or foot. For yoga mudra, injuries and conditions of the spine might also be a contraindication. You may also practice Yoga Mudra using Half-Lotus Pose, or any cross-legged pose, which is a more beginner-friendly option and still very effective.
There are two versions of Yoga Mudra. Both begin in Lotus Pose. The first involves wrapping your arms behind your back and then folding forward. Your heels provide a pressure against your abdomen when you bend. In the second, you grab hold of your heels with your hands balled into a fist, then fold over. This adds extra pressure to your abdomen. In the pictures below, I’m demonstrating this second option.
To enter Lotus Pose, begin by sitting with your legs extended in front of you. Bend one knee and bring your foot to rest on the opposite thigh, with the bottom of your foot turned up. Let your knee touch the floor. Gently fold your other leg, bringing that foot to rest over the opposite thigh, with your foot turned up. You’ll want to bring your knees as close to each other as possible and nestle your heels against your belly. Sit with a long spine, lifting through your sternum.
To enter Yoga Mudra, wrap your arms behind your back grabbing hold of one wrist. Or, alternatively, cup your hands around your heels as you ball them into a fist. Gently and slowly bend forward, as though bringing your chest to the floor. Listen to your body and fold only as deep as feels comfortable. If needed, you can place your hands on the floor for support. Breathe naturally and hold for as long as feels comfortable.
To exit, slowly raise to an upright position and use your hands to gently move your top foot from your thigh to the floor. Then, your other foot.
Alternate Nostril Breathing Aids Digestion
This breathing technique is a wonderful yoga practice not only for gut health, but also for overall health. That’s because it tones and brings balance to your nervous system. When we breathe in through the left nostril, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our relaxation response. When we breathe into our right nostril, it stimulates our sympathetic nervous system, which is our energizing response. By alternating between the two, we’re toning both systems and bringing them into harmony.
Additionally, because this practice asks us to breathe deeply and elongate our exhale, it has a calming effect. With regular practice, it can increase parasympathetic dominance (meaning, we’re more consistently relaxed). And it can even improve heart rate variability, decrease blood pressure, and decrease stress response and anxiety.
All of this is important when it comes to digestive health. Because as I mentioned earlier, stress can significantly impact digestion. When we’re frequently in a physiologically stressed state, it means our body doesn’t ease into its rest and digest state as well and/or as often as it should. Additionally, it’s our parasympathetic nervous system that signals the body’s digestive functions.
To do alternate nostril breathing, sit in a comfortable position with upright posture. Close your right nostril with your thumb. Slowly and steadily inhale through your left nostril, expanding your abdomen with your breath. Release your thumb and use your ring finger to close your left nostril. Exhale through your right nostril, slowly and steadily, until all air has been emptied from your lungs. Then, inhale through your right nostril. Release your ring finger and close your right nostril with your thumb again. Exhale through your left nostril. This completes one round.
Repeat 10-20 rounds.
Over time, as you practice, begin to gradually slow the pace of your exhale, so that it becomes longer than your inhale. Eventually, work your way up to a 1:2 ratio, where your exhale takes twice as long as your inhale. For example, if it takes you 5 counts to inhale, it should take 10 counts to exhale.
As a general rule, yoga should be practiced on an empty stomach. Wait at least one hour after eating prior to doing these postures. The exception is Thunderbolt Pose, which can be done right after eating to aid in digestion. You can easily add them into your established yoga practice. Or, you can work with one or all of them alone. However, you’ll want to make sure your body is warmed-up before entering into deep twists and bends.
In addition to these yoga for gut health practices, Savasana (Corpse Pose) can greatly support digestive health. It’s the final pose of any well-rounded yoga practice, because it helps your body integrate all the changes that have occurred throughout the preceding poses. But more than that, when done properly, it takes you through a progressive muscle relaxation that drops you into a deep state of restorative stillness. It releases stress and activates your parasympathetic nervous system. I recently dedicated a whole post to this powerful pose, which includes a guided savasana you can use in your home practice. You can find it here.
I hope you find these yoga practices as beneficial to your digestive health as I have. Let me know what you think in the comments section below. Do you plan to give some of them a try? Have you noticed yoga supports your own gut health?