Yoga for Good Digestion
By Barbara Kaplan. Published in Yoga Journal, August 2007.
The first time yoga made a profound difference in my life was in 1981, when I was 15 years old, 10,000 miles away from home, and doubled over with dysentery. I was a foreign-exchange student in Thailand. A Peace Corps volunteer administered antibiotics, and after the pain subsided, the only thing that gave me the least bit of relief was draping my back off the side of my curved wooden bed. This created a soothing space in my belly and provided giggling amusement to my host “sister.”
I had begun practicing yoga a year earlier, yet I didn’t understand why my recurrent stomach ailments (a by-product of the unfamiliar food) sometimes felt better in forward bends and at other times were only relieved by passive backbends. Little did I know that I was just beginning a long healing journey, as I explored yoga for good digestion.
Several years after my time in Thailand, I contracted dysentery again in both India and Nepal, and giardia in Yosemite. I found myself returning to yoga poses in order to soothe my abdominal distress, experienced as bloating or burning pains in my abdomen. The fact that asanas proved more beneficial than Western antibiotics, which the parasites inside my body eventually began to resist, led me to approach my healing from a new perspective. I began with a three-week detox at the Optimum Health Institute in San Diego. The intense cleanse, daily enemas, huge doses of wheat grass, and my daily yoga practice made me feel much better. Upon my return to the San Francisco Bay Area, I continued to cleanse my system with cooked and raw foods.
Throughout all of this, I was acutely aware that I was dealing with a third-chakra challenge. (As a teenager, I had become fascinated with the chakras and often practiced a meditation in which I channeled colorful lights through the seven energy centers; years later, I now teach workshops on “Yoga and the Chakras.”)
The third chakra is located in the solar plexus and represents solar energy, or inner fire. Fire converts matter to energy in the form of light and heat. Physiologically, this refers to metabolism; psychologically, the transformational nature of fire relates to our expression of vitality, personal power, and will.
In my case, the psychological dimension of this challenge had to do with the fact that I wasn’t feeling all that powerful. I imagine that I was undergoing a passage many of us experience: finding my voice, releasing suppressed anger, and learning to listen to my gut for intuitive answers. I could have freed an enormous amount of solar energy by letting go of some big attachments. Trying to control events around me, as opposed to paying attention to what was true, certainly depleted my power.
During that time, I explored different asanas to help my acidic, burning belly and found that backbends made it feel the best. But I didn’t know why.
During my second trip to India, in 1995, I picked up a book on Ayurveda, the ancient medical science that originated in India thousands of years ago. The foundation of Ayurvedic medicine is one’s constitution, ordosha. The three dosha types are vata, pitta, and kapha; most people are a mixture of dosha characteristics, with one dosha more predominant than another. Each of the dosha types flourishes under a specific diet, exercise plan, and lifestyle. Ayurveda also recognizes “fire in the belly.” It’s called agni, and one’s degree of agni potency reveals one’s digestive health.
I learned that my dosha was pitta-vata, recognizing my pitta self in descriptions like “medium build, doesn’t miss a meal, lives by the clock, and intense.” Pittas’ agni often burns too hot and so requires cooling, both physically and emotionally. In asana terms, the best way to cool the fire is through restorative poses that lift the diaphragm and extend the abdomen. Once I learned this, whenever I experienced bloating or burning I practiced passive, supported backbends, and the discomfort went away every time. Furthermore, the restorative poses encouraged me to spend time following my breath and simply letting go.
Before I integrated an Ayurvedic approach into my yoga practice, I was floundering, not knowing why certain poses seemed to alleviate my gastric problems. Ayurveda gave me a framework to understand how to consciously apply asanas to these problems.
Today I conduct workshops on “Yoga for Good Digestion” twice a year and have worked with scores of students whose digestive issues have been ameliorated by asanas prescribed to fit each dosha’s unique requirement for “fire in the belly.”
Out of all the students I’ve worked with, I chose to write about the following three because they represent dosha prototypes. You might recognize yourself somewhat in one person, or you might find that your personality fits one dosha and your body clearly behaves like another. In any case, I invite you to practice poses from any of the doshas whenever you need them—for instance, whenever you feel cramps, try a vata pose.
Today, after my years of deep cleansing, potent yoga, and lots of inner growth, Eastern and Western doctors have pronounced my digestive system very healthy. Best of all, I feel good—and I have tools to use when I’m off balance. I hope these stories can help you find greater harmony in your health, too.
Vata: The Most Sensitive Dosha
A few years ago, I was the yoga teacher on a one-week sea cruise, teaching morning classes and making myself available for private sessions. Most mornings, Paul (the names of individuals profiled in this article have been changed) arrived a little late to class after his jog around the deck. He was in his late 30s, with hair gently graying and a friendly face and disposition. Although he said his yoga practice was intermittent, I noticed that his tall, thin body had a natural grace and that he learned poses easily. After our second class, Paul booked two sessions with me.
During our first “private” (one-on-one session), he confided that he had a troubling problem. He loved going on adventures with his wife and daughter, yet every time he traveled he got very constipated, bloated, and flatulent. He wondered if yoga could help. It was obvious to me that Paul’s dominant dosha was vata, given his attributes: digestive challenges; slenderness; prominent features, joints, and veins; and cool, dry skin. Vatas are enthusiastic, impulsive, and light and tend to eat and sleep erratically. The most sensitive dosha, they’re prone to anxiety, insomnia, sciatica, arthritis, and PMS.
Vatas are considered to be cold, light, and dry. When they travel, all the speedy movement through space, whether in cars or planes, dries them out even more. Most vatas don’t drink enough water, and dehydration only contributes to their feeling of being bound up.
I asked Paul what he was eating and how he was feeling in general. He said he usually grabbed coffee and a doughnut for breakfast. Sometimes he was so busy watching his 3-year-old at lunch that he didn’t pay much attention to feeding himself well, and dinner was his main meal. He often had bouts of insomnia, and this week he was quite stressed about a project he left at home. Each night, he could feel his stomach get tied in knots as he worried about his deadline and doing a good job.
I explained that vatas tend to get busy with what is expected of them, so they often neglect to eat, drink water, exercise, or treat themselves lovingly. Vatas need to practice slowing down, grounding, and nurturing themselves. When they feel off-balance, coffee and tea dry vatas out, making them less grounded and more easily overstimulated. Warm, cooked foods and hot water help the digestive system. I encouraged Paul to get some oil and fiber in his diet each day to help move things along in his colon. He told me the coffee was nonnegotiable, but he would drink six 8-ounce glasses of water each day, perhaps eventually working up to eight glasses or more.
I believe that just as electrical power comes from the combination of positive and negative poles, our true power comes from a balance of our polarities. For instance, the student whose energy is fiery and active finds wholeness by practicing asanas that are slow and restorative. Paul’s agni was cold and dry, and he needed poses that would give his third chakra warmth and pressure. His feelings of fear (from his imaginative, overactive mind) could be balanced by a practice that fostered steadiness and stability. Vatas often need to build endurance, so working slowly and holding asanas a little longer is wise.
I showed Paul how to lie over a belly roll, which he did for three minutes each time he practiced. He spent about 20 minutes in Child’s Pose. The ship’s crew was able to get us a hot water bottle, and I put that on top of the blankets to bring damp heat to his belly. I also had him practice Eka Pada Pavanamuktasana (One-Legged Wind-Relieving Pose); a supported forward bend in a chair, with a partially rolled towel or blanket in his hip crease (as I discovered in Thailand, it also works to use one’s fists, pressing them into the belly); Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose); and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), the latter two done sitting on the edge of a folded blanket with a rolled towel at the hip crease.
Forward bends increase the space in the abdomen and facilitate the release of entrapped gases. These poses heat the front of the body and cool the back body. For vatas, it is important to stay warm. Since Paul held these poses at least five minutes, I put a soft blanket over his kidney area and encouraged him to wear warm clothes when he practiced them in the future.
To help him ground his energy and release some of his anxiety, we practiced Virasana (Hero Pose), Tadasana (Mountain Pose), and Vrksasana (Tree Pose)—which was quite a feat on a moving ship! For Savasana, I raised Paul’s lower legs onto a chair seat, placed some support under his head, and put a folded washcloth over his eyes. If I had had a sandbag, I would have put that on his abdomen; instead, we used the water bottle. The warm weight encouraged layers of tension to release from his belly. We didn’t practice any inversions, but Headstand and Shoulderstand relieve constipation: The change in gravity helps the bowels move more freely.
During our second meeting two days later, Paul was happy to say that he was doing the asanas, drinking plenty of water, and that his constipation had been relieved. I encouraged him to find time for a massage before the cruise was over and to keep practicing the prescribed asanas whenever his digestive system felt out of balance.
Pitta: Some Like It Hot
Amy is a bundle of radiant energy. She is an active tennis player, a former aerobics instructor, a devoted yogi, and a busy mother of two teenage boys. Quick, intelligent, and a perfectionist, she easily looks 10 years younger than her 45 years.
Amy began attending my classes about seven years ago after having studied with other teachers. She always arrived early, was gracious to people, and had a good understanding of the poses. Yet it often felt painful to watch her do yoga. I could sense the self-imposed pressure burning inside of her to do the poses right. Juxtaposed with other students in the same class who beamed calmness even in Warrior Pose, Amy’s beautiful body seemed tense at the core.
Amy used to resent coming to class and discovering that I was teaching the occasional restorative session. She wanted a more aerobic workout; a slow, nurturing class was way too passive for her. On yoga retreats I got to know her a bit better. She was generous, funny, and always wanted to hear how things were going in my life. She wasn’t shy about sharing her opinions—and she would usually make them known in a slightly angry or urgent tone. While she clearly adored her two sons, she confided in me that when they didn’t perform well in their sports, she became disappointed and critical.
It wasn’t hard to peg Amy as a pitta. Pittas have a medium build, strength and endurance, and are well proportioned. They eat and sleep regularly, digest quickly, and maintain a stable weight. Pittas are warm and loving, orderly and efficient. Their inner fire can burn too hot, and this causes inflammatory conditions such as ulcers, heartburn, acne, rashes, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. Emotionally, their fieriness can make them critical, impatient, and passionate, with quick, explosive tempers. Most pittas’ inner heat causes their skin to perspire easily, and they’re often thirsty.
Two years ago, Amy began experiencing painful acidity after eating. Any time she ate too much, dined late, or ingested rich or greasy foods, she felt a sharp, burning sensation between her ribs just below the breastbone. The heartburn brought on gas, cramps, and diarrhea. Heartburn is caused by stomach acids backing up into the lower esophagus, the tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach. Not wanting to rely on Tums or prescription medications, she decided to turn to yoga for help.
Amy’s first step toward self-healing was to bring more mindfulness to her eating. To prevent the acid reflux, she avoided eating late. To avoid setting off digestive fires, she monitored her intake of greasy, pungent, and spicy foods. Since swallowing in big lumps can cause indigestion, she focused on chewing well in order to process food correctly. Amy also watched her intake of red wine and coffee, for those brought on burning pains and diarrhea (as acidic foods and beverages tend to do with pittas). Wine, she said, also dulled her awareness of being full, and she wanted to avoid overeating, a common pitta habit.
When people feel deficient or excessive in the third chakra, they often ingest substances such as sugar or coffee to manipulate their sense of power. The substances give a temporary reprieve, but in the long run render an even greater depletion, as they deprive the body of rest and well-being. Those with overactive third chakras, like Amy, may crave things that sedate, such as alcohol, tranquilizers, or overeating. Such behavior calms the hyperactive nervous system and creates a sense of relaxation—but only superficially, not in a way that promotes genuine health. For that, we’re better off seeking the wisdom of yoga and Ayurveda.
The best poses for pittas with digestive problems are supported backbends on bolsters. Backbends cool the agni by lifting the diaphragm and extending the abdomen. Pittas usually protest that they are too busy to rest and do nothing. Yet cooling the mind and calming the body is what they need most for balance.
The pose Amy found most comfortable and enjoyable was Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), which she held for 20 minutes. She also did Supported Supta Sukhasana (Reclining Easy Cross-Legged Pose) for five minutes, and an upright variation of Parsvottanasana (Side Stretch Pose) facing a wall. With her hands on the wall at about shoulder height, Amy could lift her diaphragm and chest, increasing abdominal blood supply and reducing digestive acidity.
When suffering from acidity, pittas should avoid poses that compress the abdominal area, especially forward bends such as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). Pressure creates heat, and pittas need to cool their inner fire, not stoke it. Asanas such as Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I), Trikonasana (Triangle), and Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle) lift the diaphragm area and extend the esophagus and the top portion of the stomach. This reduces the reflux of gastric contents, cools the solar plexus, and arrests acidity. Standing poses also increase the blood supply to the abdominal organs and help tone them.
Inversions should not be done during the acute phase of acidity, because they can cause headaches and vomiting. However, when the digestive system feels just a little off, it is fine to practice Shoulderstand, for it’s cooling. (Avoid Headstand at such times, however; it’s too warming.) A regular practice of all the inversions during the dormant stage of acidity serves to tone the abdominal organs and promote overall health.
Over the last two years, Amy has worked hard. Her heartburn rarely reappears. She has come to love restorative poses and turns to them when she feels ill or finds her controlling impulse emerging. For instance, she recently told me that not long ago, when she drank a glass of orange juice just before meditating and her stomach began to burn soon after she sat and closed her eyes, she lay over her zafu into a backbend and felt better within minutes. She later realized that in those first few minutes of meditating, she had been diligently planning her day; after her “belly break,” she felt more spacious and calm—and better able to simply follow her breath.
Amy now recognizes how reactive she used to be, especially with her children, and in these two years she has tried to be a more sensitive listener. She understands that she has a “hot” disposition, but she is learning to relax through Pranayama, meditation, and yoga, rather than seeking to control the world around her, as pittas are wont to do. In time, her practice should help her develop a deeper sense of her inner power, the sense that comes from feeling connected to one’s self and to others. Then, instead of an overstoked internal furnace, she will feel a truer, more enduring vitality flowing effortlessly through her, like warmth from the sun.
Kapha: Slow But Steady
The general theme of the kapha body type is relaxed. Kaphas are slow to anger, slow to eat, and slow to act. Their sleep is long and sound. Heavy, solid, and strong, kaphas often have thick, oily, wavy hair and cool, damp skin. Although they are known to procrastinate and be obstinate, they can also be very tolerant, forgiving, and affectionate. With a tendency to be overweight, kaphas have sluggish digestion. They are prone to obesity, high cholesterol, and respiratory problems like allergies, congestion, and sinus disorders.
Carol, 42, is just over five feet tall with pale skin, thick black hair, and a great belly laugh. She struggles with her weight, slow metabolism, and sinus problems. Carol regularly vows to devote more time to her body and begins to exercise and do yoga. Then her work hours become longer, and her physical activity stops. Eventually, she feels like a “heavy little ball,” and the process begins again.
Carol was one of my first yoga students 11 years ago. I gave her weekly privates in her apartment. In retrospect, the private sessions were the best yoga years for Carol. She never canceled a meeting, we went at a pace that was just right for her, and we got to know each other more intimately, joking and sharing about our families and weekend plans. Two years later, when she joined one of my public classes and ended our privates, her attendance became very irregular, and she confided how her self-esteem plummeted when she compared herself to other students whose bodies seemed so capable and slim. I always reassured Carol, for, in fact, she was doing very well. (Many kaphas feel as Carol did—which might explain why most yoga classes are dominated by pittas and vatas. Kaphas often prefer to move at their own tempo and may feel self-conscious about their bodies in group-exercise situations. My kapha students tell me it can easily be more enticing to stay at work or rest at home and read.) A few years ago, Carol called me to begin two months of privates. She wanted weekly help because she was feeling particularly stuck and full in her body, and she was also constipated and bloated.
In Ayurveda, kaphas are considered to be cold, heavy, and wet. Because of low agni, they have very slow digestion. Kaphas need sweaty cardiovascular exercise and abdominal toning to eliminate toxins and dampness throughout the body. The fiery third chakra represents our “get up and go”; a healthy chakra burns up inertia. I gave Carol a yoga practice emphasizing twists, abdominal toning, Sun Salutations, and standing poses, which she practiced almost every day. After a month, she felt toned and less prone to hemorrhoids, and as her metabolism improved, she even dropped a few pounds.
Pat Layton, the director of the San Francisco Iyengar Institute and an Ayurvedic counselor, notes, “The ancient yogis believed, ‘As above, so below.’ Agni was worshipped in the sun, and our portion of the cosmic sun was the third chakra, the fire inside of us. The yogis believed that good digestion is a key to radiant health.” It’s not surprising, then, that the traditional Sun Salutation was composed of 12 positions in which the stomach was alternately expanded or compressed-balanced, rhythmic movement similar to peristalsis. The forward bends (such as Uttanasana and Downward-Facing Dog) create heat, which kaphas need. The backbending positions (Tadasana backbend; lunging and extending the arms up; and Cobra) are cooling. I encouraged Carol to practice the Sun Salute six to 12 times each morning, letting the vinyasa become fast and sweaty. By practicing in the morning, Carol jump-started her metabolism and kicked it into gear for the day.
We also practiced twists, including a chair twist and stomach strengtheners like Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Upward Extended Foot Pose) and a variation of Navasana (Boat Pose). Over time, we practiced all of the standing poses (with perspiring encouraged) and used ropes to move rapidly between Upward-Facing Dog and Downward-Facing Dog. Inversions help kaphas increase their digestive fire. We emphasized Setu Bandha (Bridge), Halasana (Plow), and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), because their chin locks stimulate the thyroid and parathyroid glands, which govern healthy metabolism. In addition, Carol practiced rapid diaphragmatic breathing (kapalabhati), bellows breathing (bhastrika), and an upward abdominal lock (uddiyana bandha)—excellent pranayama techniques that massage the intestines, relieve constipation, and eliminate toxins in the digestive tract. And as an adjunct to her practice, Carol rested on her left side for at least five minutes after eating dinner. According to Pat Layton (who encourages all doshas, but especially kaphas, to do this after meals), “This opens the right nostril, the side of the body that represents heat. The increased fire improves digestion.”
Carol felt most alive when her belly was heated and toned. “My increased stomach strength made me stand taller and feel less round,” she says. “It supported my back and my sense of balance.” She came to realize that rich foods and dairy products not only slowed her digestion, but also affected her thinking and overall ability to function well.
Today, Carol’s job continues to place overwhelming demands on her time, making it difficult for her to keep up her practice. This shouldn’t be surprising, not just for Carol but for anyone: Establishing and maintaining balance—whether in Tree Pose or in one’s digestive system—requires constant attention and commitment. But Carol has made real progress, both in her yoga and in her attitude about herself. “It’s perfectly fine with me that I don’t advance quickly in yoga,” she says. “I’d be much worse off today without it.”
More articles by Barbara Kaplan