Holiday time is often synonymous with overeating. Reunions with family and friends afford us excuses as to why two desserts are not only acceptable, but healthy, with the insistent invisible voice that floats somewhere just above our ears reminding us that we’ll change this wicked habit “in the new year.” For many, stuffing your belly might be inevitable. That does not mean you have to completely suffer, however. Below are a few of my favorite digestive yoga techniques to help keep things in your tummy moving in the direction you need them to move.
It was once told to me that in yoga we perform the postures with our right foot forward first to stimulate digestion (right, upward moving instestines; left, downward). I don’t know the literature on that, but to say that yoga helps digestion is an understatement. Ayurveda, the nutrition companion to yoga, has a long history of discussing the digestive ‘fires,’ with various tapas, or physical austerities, to help stoke and kindle the inner flame. What you eat and how and when you eat it all play into how hot that fire gets, with the goal being to find a moderate temperature that digests your food without overheating your insides.
The most simple and direct posture towards this end is Bharadvajasana. This simple twist “massages” your intestines, as I’ve heard some describe it. You just have to make sure you’re twisting from your midsection, engaging your shoulderblades to help facilitate the movement. What you don’t want to do is twist your hips, which will not be helpful to the goal of moving your digested food along, and could place unnecessary pressure on your knees. A similar twist can be accomplished in Utkatasana, though the same danger of rotating your hips exists. Either way, try to keep your knees even and close together, and do your best to take deep, long breaths. If your breathing becomes stunted, it probably means you’ve gone too far into the twist. Simply pull back a little and hold there.
Perhaps the quickest way to access your digestive fires is through stomach pumping breath, which involves breath retention (kumbhaka) while pumping or churning your stomach. Every time I perform this kriya, or cleansing technique, I immediately begin to sweat. It’s a great way to wake up in the morning to bring heat into the body, as well as stimulate your entire digestive system. If you’re new to breath retention, you don’t want to excessively hold your breath. If you start feeling lightheaded, breath. Like all yoga asanas, it’s not a contest to see how long you can last. This technique can be challenging, but should not make you dizzy. The best thing is that you can perform this posture while standing, seated and even lying down. Similarly, there is Kapalabhati Pranayama, which involves pumping breath into the stomach (slightly different, as this is only an exhale, while during the other version you are retaining breath), though you do want to be seated for this pose.
One last powerful technique also builds abdominal strength in the process: Navasana. Nothing makes my students cast evil eyes my way as this pose, especially when it’s incorporated with the infamous “half-boat” repetitions and twisting versions. Everyone wants a strong core, but somehow forgets that it takes a lot of work to get there. If you have lower back issues you may want to skip this one, or you can do a version with bent knees (or even feet on the ground; you can still lean back with a straight spine that way). The important part of this posture is the direct engagement of your abdominal muscles, with the lowering and lifting keeping your intestines happy and productive—when the exercise is through, that is.
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