It’s been well documented that practicing asana, or the postures of yoga, helps with a variety of physical and mental ailments. A regular practice can help with muscle tension and arthritis, even anxiety and stress responses.
One area of our health yoga can improve that is often overlooked is digestion. Digestive issues are prevalent in our society. Countless people suffer from things like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, or daily chronic bloating and abdominal discomfort.
Detox yoga is a style of yoga that uses twists, bends, and targeted holds to focus on the abdominal area. The sequences in detox yoga help stimulate movement in the organs that make up our digestive tract. This helps our bodies get rid of toxins, and in today’s post we’re going to learn about why that’s important for both our physical and mental well-being. We’ll discuss why the gut is often referred to as the ‘second brain’, and how detox yoga is a safe, natural, and effective way to improve this aspect of our physical beings.
The information in this post was taken from an excellent book on the topic called Yoga Therapy for Digestive Health by Charlotte Watts. In her book she goes into depth about gut health and its relation to mental health, and how we can use yoga as a tool to rebalance our systems.
She talks about how stress and trauma can create imbalances in the gut that manifest as physical symptoms such as IBS, and mental symptoms such as anxiety. I will include some quotes for her book, but have included a link here if it sparks your interest and you’d like to read more!
“We are learning more and more about how engaging with the nervous system (NS) and talking to the gut via attunement and self-compassion can have far-reaching effects that unravel conditions like IBS, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), acid reflux, colitis, diverticulitis and more.”
At Inspiring Actions, we offer a both a heated and non-heated Detox Flow class at our River Falls and Hudson studios. The Detox Flow class focuses on sequences designed to promote digestive health, and release toxins from the body. This is a focused class, but most yoga classes will, by default, incorporate poses that promote gut health, so check out our full list of classes here. We’ll go over some poses for digestive health in this post, but we’d love to have you join us at our studio for an in-person class!
What is Detox Yoga?
To understand how detox yoga can be beneficial, it helps to define what we’re talking about when we refer to our gut and digestive system. The digestive system encompasses the organs, tissues and neurons from your esophagus to your rectum. Also known as the enteric nervous system, the digestive system contains the mouth, throat, esophagus, small and large intestine. A detox yoga class will focus specifically on this area, stimulating movement of energy and toxins.
Think of your digestive tract as a battleground. There are good bacteria and bad bacteria, and they are fighting for dominance in what’s called the microbiome. The microbiome is the powerhouse of your digestive system; it is where our food is broken down. In a balanced system, good bacteria defeat bad bacteria, but when the system is out of balance, one or more of the bad bacteria is more prevalent in our system, which can result in digestive ailments.
Detox Yoga and the ‘Second Brain’
So much is known now about the connection between our bellies and our brains that researchers often refer to our gut as our ‘second brain’. Our second brain is made up of millions of nerve cells that communicate with our ‘big’ brain.
A lot of these neurons are the same as the ones we have in our ‘big’ brains (such as serotonin), and that is why we experience feelings like butterflies in the stomach, or a gut feeling. Our gut is sending signals to our brain based on its own health, so if our digestive health is not ideal, the communication will follow suit.
The gut and the brain communicate via what’s known as the gut-brain axis. The vagus nerve is the main vehicle that connects the gut and the brain, and it is constantly sending signals back and forth between the two systems. The vagus nerve also sends messages to the heart, lungs and other organs, and the messages that are sent are affected by the make-up of the microbiome. The content of the microbiome is affected by things like nutrition, stress, and antibiotics.
What are The Benefits of Detox Yoga?
Detox yoga improves our digestive health by addressing both the physical and mental contributors of digestive imbalance. On a physical level, the postures of yoga squeeze and massage the organs and tissues in the digestive tract, which releases toxins and helps restore proper flow of energy. This is of particular importance to anyone experiencing digestive issues like IBS, Chron’s, and so on.
In terms of mental health, detox yoga can help with our digestive health by reducing anxiety, a major contributor to digestive illnesses. Yoga also encourages focused breathing; Watts touches on why that matters in terms of digestion in this excerpt from her book:
“Asana (posture) practice physically moves into the fascia around and between organs, freeing space, glide, fluidity, mobility and tone into all of the physiology in the abdominal cavity. Breath awareness and control allows the breath to drop into the belly and diaphragm, a basic need for optimal digestive function.”
Detox yoga also increases the flow of prana, or life energy, in our bodies. Prana is the energy that keeps us alive, and practicing yoga moves that energy through our bodies and minds where it might otherwise be stagnant.
“Within the realms of physical practices for digestive health, this is to recongise that how we take on what we need (nourish) and let go of that which we do not (elimination) is the continual dance of what it is to be alive. When this continuum is interrupted within our gut – our core- all processes of this ebb and flow are affected – body and mind.”
(For a more in-depth read on prana, check out our post about directing life energy through the use of pranayama, or focused breathing techniques.)
Detox Yoga Poses
Yoga poses that focus on the midsection, or poses that incorporate twisting, are of particular benefit to the health of our gut. Here are a few you can try!
Boat Pose (Paripurna Navasana)
Supine Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
If you are experiencing digestive issues and haven’t given yoga a try, we invite you to our Detox Flow class at Inspiring Actions! You’ll learn poses you can do at home (or with us at our Hudson and River Falls studios!) to keep your digestive system running optimally. We’d love to see you there!