How do yoga, movement, and exercise help keep your gut happy?
“Nothing fills the spirit and lowers stress hormones like taking a walk in nature and connecting to the natural world or taking a run by the seashore, breathing deeply and listening to the waves, ” says Dr. Pedre, author of Happy Gut. “Everyone knows a session at the gym or a morning yoga class sets the tone for less stress during the day.”
Research has shown that movement and exercise is good for your heart, for building lean muscle, for improving metabolism and for balancing your mood and stress. New science is showing that exercise may also benefit your gut microbiome – that diverse ecosystem, like an internal garden, living inside of you comprised of symbiotic bacteria that help maintain a healthy digestive system.
In chapter 8 of Happy Gut, we turn to yoga, for all its long history of healing benefits. Yoga directs us to remember the body’s intelligence and through consistent practice has been shown to calm the nervous system. Through yoga we also learn to regulate our breathing, which in turn helps to promote the body’s natural relaxation system and quiet our holding patterns of stress (known as our “fight-or-flight” response).
Here are the top 7 poses to support gut health:
Pose 1: Cow-Cat
- Links breath and movement
- Attention to moving from the center
- Stimulates the intestine and gut circulation
- Relieves gas and bloating
- Start on your hands and knees, shoulders above hands and knees directly under hips. Point fingertips forward, relax your head in a neutral position and relax your gaze downward.
- Inhale the breath up, as if from your seat, up the spine as you drop your belly towards the ground, bring breath up through the heart, neck and lift your head. This is Cow Pose.
- Exhale, move from your seat, tuck the tailbone in, navel draws in to spine which arches up as the exhale softens the neck and head which move towards the ground. This is Cat Pose.
- Find a rhythm to your breath and coordinate the body movement to the breath, moving smoothly between cow pose and cat pose.
- Repeat 5 times.
Pose 2: Supine Twist
- Massages intestines
- Tones abdominal muscles
- Promotes bowel movements
- Relieves constipation
- Chest stretch, spine rotation and rib-opening
- Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Inhale, spread your arms wide like a “T” shape.
- Exhale and bring both knees to your chest.
- Inhale, allow knees to fall to the left, prop with a blanket if they don’t reach the floor. While keeping your right shoulder on the ground and try to point your belly to the right while breathing deeply.
- Turn your head to the right, soften gaze to right fingertips while alternating pressing shoulders into the ground and knees to the floor. Take at least 5 deep breaths here.
- Exhale, return to center.
- Repeat on the opposite side, try this several times on each side, timed to the breath.
- Finish by hugging knees to the chest and then slowly exhale and lower the legs to the floor.
- Be sure to experience the wringing action here. This pose helps to squeeze the organs in a way that can drain them of old, congested fluid and upon release create a rush of healthier fluid back into the system.
Pose 3: Bridge
- Opens chest, releases shoulder and neck tension
- Moves heart and lungs
- Lengthens digestion organs from mouth to colon
- Can relieve bloating
- Lie on your back with knees bent 45 degrees, feet flat on the floor, arms at side parallel to the body
- Press your feet and arms into the ground.
- Inhale and arch your back, extend the tailbone away from the chest while lifting the hips up to the sky
- Don’t squeeze the glutes, instead allow them to soften while the navel goes to the heart.
- Roll shoulders back and underneath the chest, squeeze the shoulder blades together and press the forearms into the floor.
- Keep your thighs and feet parallel.
- Press all four corners of your feet to the floor, do not roll to the outer edges of your feet.
- Lengthen the tailbone towards the back of your knees.
- Take 3 deep breaths here, feeling the expansion.
- Exhale, and lower to starting position, with your back on the mat to finish.
- Repeat, inhale to lift and exhale to lower down again, coordinating deep breathing to movement. You may repeat this sequence three times.
Pose 4: Forward Bend
- Tones inner organs
- Stimulates bowel function
- Relieves bloating, constipation and reflux
- Tones spinal nerves, relieves back and leg tension
- Sit with legs stretched out, with kneecaps towards the sky. Beginners can bend knees, straightening the legs with practice and improved flexibility
- Reach actively through the heels
- Inhale, reach arms up at side, lengthen the spine and torso and arc the arms up to above the head.
- Exhale, bend forward from the hips, not the chest, from hips, extend the lower belly and chest out over the legs followed by neck and head.
- Hold the legs at the lowest point possible, shins, ankles or feet
- Hold for 5 breaths. With each inhale extend forward, with each exhale, lower the abdomen to the legs.
- To release the pose, roll the spine up one vertebrae at a time while supporting the lower belly
- Take time to notice the specious feeling you have created in the center of your body.
Pose 5: Downward Facing Dog
- Energizes and rejuvenates the entire body
- As an inversion, calms the nervous system, relieves stress
- Gives grounded feel of connection between body, mind and gut
- Begin on hands and knees. Align wrists under shoulders, knees under hip joints. The fold of your wrists should be parallel with the top edge of your mat. Point the middle finger directly to the top of the mat.
- Distribute your weight equally with all touch points to the ground.
- Inhale, as in cow pose, curl your toes, press down and lift the knees off the ground.
- Exhale, straighten the legs without locking the knees and bringing the feet to lay flat.
- Stay here, with each inhale press away from the hands and with each exhale, lower the heels to the ground, lengthening the body, giving space to the organs of you abdomen.
- Allow the head to dangle like a ripe fruit, keep extending the spine with deep breaths.
- Exhale, reverse out of the pose when ready by gently bending the knees and come back to hands and knees on the mat.
Pose 6: Triangle
- Stimulates internal organs
- Improved metabolism
- Improved circulation
- Balance and calm within the intestines, helpful for constipation, IBS diarrhea
- Stand at the top of the mat, feet together, arms at your sides. Feel your breath filling the body from the fingers to the toes. Draw your attention and awareness inward. You might imagine yourself as a starfish and send your breath from your center to all extensions of the body.
- Inhale deeply and place your feet in a wide stance, a leg’s length apart.
- Exhale, align your heels and turn your front foot so toes point to the front of the mat and turn the back foot 45 degrees to the side.
- Inhale and lift your arms shoulder height, parallel to the floor, directly over the legs.
- Exhale, reach the front hand forward pulling your torso forward and aligned over the front leg, chest remains to the side. Don’t lock the knees.
- Inhale deeply, then exhale, lower the front hand to contact the front leg, shin, ankle or yoga block increasing flexibility to reach for the floor.
- Inhale reach the back hand up and expand, exhale lengthen your tailbone to the back heel.
- Five breaths or hold up to one minute. Allow the breath to expand your center open to the side, extending equally from both sides of the waist.
- Inhale to lift up, turn the feet to prepare to do Triangle on the other side.
Pose 7: Sun Salutation, a series of 12 linked poses
- Builds heat in the inner body
- Stimulates a sluggish gut
- Increases heart rate
- Moves lymphatic fluid in the body
- Stand at the front of the mat, feet hip width apart, weight evenly distributed, spine erect, arms at your sides. Inhale, open the heart and the chest area and exhale into the ground. Attune to the whole body through the breath. (Mountain Pose)
- Inhale, raise arms up overhead, palms facing each other. (Upward Salute Pose)
- Exhale, bend forward at the hips , bring chest to legs and hands towards the ground. Bend the knees if its more comfortable. (Standing Forward Bend Pose)
- Inhale, lift head, open chest and lunge the right leg back straight behind while placing hands alongside the feet. (Lunge Pose)
- Exhale, step the left leg back, feet side by side. Gaze at the floor, keep arms extended and body straight like a plank. (Plank Pose)
- Drop knees, chest, chin to the floor. Alternatives are to come to all fours. (Eight-Point Pose)
- Inhale, push down on hands, lift forward and up with the chest like a cobra, keeping the hips on the floor. (Cobra Pose)
- Exhale, tuck the toes, bend knees and push back on your hands into the Downward Facing Dog pose as described previously. Stay here for 5 breaths. (Downward Facing Dog)
- Inhale, look up bend knees, extend the right leg forward into the Lunge Pose.
- Exhale, stepping the left foot forward to meet the right, into Standing Forward Bend Pose.
- Inhale, arms up by the side of the head into the Upward Salute Pose again.
- Exhale, arms to sides, rest in Mountain Pose.
You can spend 5 minutes in the morning doing one of these poses. Remember to do both sides for triangle pose. Or dedicate 15 minutes to go through the sequence of poses. A great starting point to open up the body, loosen up the digestive organs, and get the blood circulating is Pose 7: Sun Salutation. This is the way I like to start my day, but if I have less time, I will simply do a Cow-Cat Sequence or Downward-Facing Dog.
Let me know if you too have found yoga to be helpful for maintaining your happy gut and improving your sense of wellness! And for more information on how to keep your gut healthy, read my book, Happy Gut: The Cleansing Program To Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Eliminate Pain. It’s a 28-day commitment you will not regret!!!
Here’s to your happy gut!