Gastrointestinal (GI) or gut health is important for overall health and well-being. Maintaining GI health can help prevent digestive issues as well as more serious illnesses, including cancer. While food is an essential factor for a healthy GI tract, exercise can also help in improving motility and promoting a healthy GI environment. Yoga, particularly Yoga Asana, provides the physical stimulation of the digestive tract that can help improve GI health.
Yoga Asana helps stimulate intestinal contractions or peristalsis by combining twist, bend, or fold movements of the abdomen through full yogic breathing. It also helps promote healthy diversity in the gut microbiome essential for GI health.
What is Yoga Asana?
Yoga is an eight-limb path consisting of various facets of physical and spiritual well-being. Asana, which translates to posture or pose in Sanskrit, is the third limb of yoga which focuses on the physical aspect of yoga.
Yoga Asana aims to achieve comfort and stability through meditative poses. It aims to bring balance within the body by improving the mind/body connection.
Yoga Asana can be customized based on the individual’s needs. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is considered as the father of postural yoga which promotes the customizable practice of Asana. Iyengar Yoga is another style of yoga that also promotes modification on Yoga Asana poses to be more effective for all practitioners.
Aspects of Yoga Asana
Yoga Asana aims to increase strength, flexibility, balance, core strength, and mindfulness by bridging the mind and the body. Asana practitioners do not only consider Yoga Asana as an exercise but also a meditative state where they manipulate energy and channel it to specific areas in their bodies.
Yoga Asana is used both as a physical, mental and spiritual exercise which relieves stiffness of the body as well as mental anxiety through a combination of physical poses and deep and heavy breathing. Breathing itself, however, is a core component of Yoga Asana as much as other styles of yoga. In fact, Asana practitioners can reach certain levels of awareness and raised sensation without even moving their limbs.
As part of the benefits of breathing inherent in Yoga Asana, it can promote efficient blood circulation and nerve health by ensuring an ample supply of oxygen and nutrients to various parts of the body. A core body system that benefits from deep breathing in Yoga Asana is the gastrointestinal tract of the digestive system.
Important Factors Affecting Gastrointestinal (GI) Health
A healthy digestive system will promote good nutrient absorption through a healthy ecosystem of gut microorganisms. Diet largely affects the condition of the digestive system through the amount of macronutrient intake in the body.
The western diet is largely dominated with high-fat and low-fiber diets which can lead to degradation of the condition of the GI tract. Specifically, a low-quality diet can lead to a decrease in the population of beneficial bacteria such as the Bifidobacterium and Eubacterium.
The disproportionate population of good and bad bacteria can cause dysbiosis and can lead to low quality of GI mucus and reduction in short-chain fatty acids that prevent the susceptibility of the gut for pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli.
The digestive system is deeply related to the brain and commonly share interrelated roles in overall well-being. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is often referred to as the second brain because it has a similar impact on the other systems of the body as the brain.
The low count of good bacteria in the gut can cause mood shifts as well as reduce cognitive presence which can result in loss of focus. This is part of the communication between the brain and the digestive system. Conversely, mood shifts and low cognitive abilities can result in stress which can worsen the condition of the digestive system.
Since psychological health largely impacts digestive health, psychological stress can result to reduce intestinal contractility and reduced gastrointestinal secretions. Without these two essential components of a good digestive system, the microbiota, or the ecosystem of bad and good microorganisms in the gut, becomes compromised.
Furthermore, stress can also increase the production of cortisol which can trigger the gut and negatively affect the digestive system. Many people experience nausea and intestinal pain when they experience stress and anxiety. Similarly, people’s experience of hunger intensifies at the thought of eating.
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System
This demonstrates the relationship between the two states of the nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic state. The sympathetic state functions during “fight or flight mode” which occurs when the brain experiences stress and anxiety. This state of the nervous system diverts blood flow to the heart and brain which compromises blood flow to the digestive system. This effectively disrupts the functioning of the digestive system.
The parasympathetic state is responsible for promoting an acidic environment for digestion by increasing mucus and enzyme production. This requires alleviation of stress and anxiety and allowing the heart to resume its normal function to distribute enough blood supply to the digestive tract.
Asana and Gastrointestinal Health
Yoga Asana uses various twisting and bending movements combined with deep diaphragmatic breathing to engage the deep abdominals. The full deep breath in yoga called full yogic breathing. It emphasizes the expansion of the stomach and chest to engage the diaphragm and contract the belly. This affects both the mental and physical aspects of well-being related to digestion.
First, yogic breathing relieves anxiety and stress to prevent psychologically related digestive issues. It allows the nervous system to transition from the sympathetic state to the parasympathetic state to stimulate digestion.
Second, it relaxes the digestive organs which increases intestinal contraction or peristalsis. Yogic breathing is an essential component of Yoga Asana in aiding the digestive system and improving gastrointestinal health. It also promotes balanced hormone secretion to prevent sudden mood changes and improve cognitive function.
Yoga Asana also contributes to promoting healthy diversity of gut microbiota and short-chain fatty acid production in the body as well as other metabolites responsible for reducing intestinal inflammation. It can also increase the population of good bacteria for promoting gut health such as Bifidobacterium, A. muciniphila, and F. prausnitzii.
Asana Poses to Improve Gastrointestinal Health
Various Yoga Asana poses can help improve gastrointestinal health. Some of the best Asana poses include twisting movements, bending movements, and breathing exercises.
The Supta Matsyendrasana or Supine Spinal Twist is a twisting movement that introduces pressure on the digestive organs to expel stale air to reduce bloating and cramping. It also wrings intestinal toxins and increases mobility and motility to promote regular bowel movement.
The Paschimottasana or Seated Forward Bend Pose is a bending movement that presses the digestive organs and relieves bloating and constipation. The Balasana or Child Pose is a similar movement to the Paschimottasana which also compresses the abdomen and the digestive organs.
Similarly, a Cat/Cow Pose is a combination of the Cat Pose and the Cow Pose which works well when paired together as a bending movement. It can compress and lengthen the intestines by massaging the digestive organs and drawing in fresh blood to improve peristalsis.
The Shavasana is a breathing exercise typically done towards the end of the Yoga session. This exercise aims to provide an ample supply of blood flow and oxygen to the digestive organs to stimulate digestion. This pose works through a sequence of compressing and lengthening of the intestines to improve the health of epithelial cells responsible for a healthy GI tract. It also promotes the parasympathetic state of the nervous system to counteract the negative effects of stress and anxiety to digestion.
Other effective Yoga Asana poses that can also help in improving gut health are Mayurasna or Peacock Pose; Pavanamuktasana or Wind-Relieving Pose; Adho Mukha Svanasana or Downward-Facing Dog Pose; and Ardha Matsyendrasana or Half Lord of the Fishes Pose.
Yoga Asana presents the physical method of improving GI health by massaging the GI tract and ensuring good blood flow to the digestive organs. Choosing specific movements that incorporate twist, bend, or fold movements with deep diaphragmatic breathing coupled with a high-fiber diet to cultivate a healthy microbiome can help alleviate digestive issues and promote GI health.