The practice of yoga, especially asana and pranayama, not only supports our structural physical health, but also the internal physical health of our organs. One particular internal benefit of yoga is the support of digestive health, governed by the Manipura Chakra. Digestion involves the breakdown of food and assimilation of nutrients inside the digestive tract. Though essential to life, it is a body function that many of us take for granted. Yet 60 to 70 million people are afflicted with digestive-related conditions in the United States.
Deep belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is one of the most beneficial breaths for digestion, especially since it can be practiced for long periods of time, any time, any place. The involvement of the diaphragm during deep belly breathing is the key to its digestive support. The diaphragm is the large muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. Upon inhalation, the diaphragm pulls down to make room for the lungs to expand which has the effect of massaging the abdominal organs. This massage helps stimulate the movement of food through the intestines.
Further, deep belly breathing has a calming effect on the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that is in charge of involuntary actions throughout the body, such as digestion, circulation, and stress response. The calming effect of deep belly breathing also releases hormones involved with digestion. It is the opposite of the stress response involved during panic, also known as the fight-or-flight response, which shuts down digestion. Though you probably didn’t need another reason to find stress relief, better digestion is a good one.
Many yoga asanas, or postures, are also helpful for digestion. So many movements in yoga massage the abdomen. Forward folds are particularly digestion-friendly. Twists are effective because they tend to move the body in ways it doesn’t normally move, exerting pressure on the digestive tract from a new angle. Even inversions can support digestion by changing the body’s orientation, which utilizes the effects of gravity to encourage movement of food that may be “stuck” (think constipation). Yoga helps you get unstuck.
It might not be dinner table conversation, but healthy digestion is the foundation of total-body health. As you practice use the deep belly breath in conjunction with forward folds, twists, and inversions to help support digestive health, and overall health.