Cultivating a Steady Flame: Yogic Practice for Healthy Digestion

Sutra 3.30
nabhichakre kayavyuhajnanam
By meditating on the navel or manipura chakra, a yogi can gain perfect knowledge of the human body, knowing the activities of every cell.

Sutra 3.41
samanajayat  jvalanam
Mastery of the energy of digestion located in the abdomen brings the power of radiance.

Healthy digestion is essential for maintaining energy and balance. In the science of ayurveda agni is the digestive fire located in the solar plexus, burning strongest in the stomach, spleen, gallbladder and pancreas. Agnisupports our ability to metabolize food as well as experiences and emotion. A steady flame of agni is integral in supporting longevity and mental clarity. When agni is balanced essential nutrients are absorbed and waste is burned off or eliminated. If agni is weakened a toxic substance called ama builds up, creating disease in the body and a state of distraction or lethargy. The ability to metabolize stress and release emotional holding are important aspects of maintaining healthy agni and creating the conditions for steady awareness and physical ease. As is the case with all yogic practice, we seek a balance or "middle way" between excessive energy or burning and damp or weakened agni.

Yoga Sutra II.I
Tapah Svadhyaya Ishvarapranidhanani Kriyayoga
The yoga of action is comprised of three actions: physical discipline, contemplative study and compassionate awareness.

Digestion can also be viewed in three stages:

  • Ingestion:
    The types of foods you take in and the conditions surrounding your eating habits, stress levels, media, relationships, andyour daily practices.  What you are exposed to or put in your body should support your ability to focus without the distraction of lethargy or agitation. Essentially, the yoga practice is meant to create and support the conditions for greater freedom from distraction and disease. The term Hatha Yoga encompasses all yogic practices involving action: asana, pranayama, chanting, and meditation. Hatha Yoga is yoga of the will, discipline in creating positive conditions in life. This discipline involves not only practice of asanas, but also disciplined ingestion, nourishing the body and mind.  What you put in your body should support a steady flame of physical energy, awareness, and connection with others.
  • Digestion:
    Processing, breaking down and extracting nourishment from what is ingested. The abdominal area is the seat of agni (digestive fire) where the digestive process occurs. The abdominal plexus is also home to major autonomic nerve plexus. In the Chakra system the manipura (jewel) chakra is located in the abdominal region. There is tendency to store emotional distress or dissatisfaction in the gut, causing indigestion and inability to gain satisfaction or nourishment from what is ingested. Our lack of fulfillment creates conditions of eating too much or too little, eating too fast or eating when distracted. To maintain healthy agni we must seek to generate the qualities of karuna (generosity), nourishment and self respect, and Santosha- contentment or satisfaction. Cultivate a sense of reverence for your body and overall being through healthy eating practices. Focus while eating (don't eat while driving, talking, or when on the computer), combine foods properly, eliminate foods that cause indigestion, and eat regular meals. "When I eat I eat and when I sleep I sleep”- Shunryu Suzuki. Practice meditation, self-study or svadhyaya, and chanting to relieve emotional and mental stresses and holding.
  • The third stage of digestion is elimination or letting go. The foods we eat should be easily processed without creating stagnation. Asana practices that are grounding such as standing poses or forward bends support elimination. Practice pranayama and meditation with a focus on the out breath, visualizing a release of unwanted emotions or habitual patterns.

Yoga Practices to support the Digestive System

ASANA

  • Practice twists to bring greater motility or ease of movement in the digestive organs. Twists bring blood and oxygen into the abdominal region which relieves stagnation, and build tonicity in the abdominal plexus.
  • Inversions support blood flow into the abdominal area, nourishing the digestive organs, liver and kidneys. Like twists, inversions relieve stagnation in the organs of elimination, releasing ama and sending it back up into the fire of agni.
  • Dynamic standing poses strengthen the legs which in turn support the torso and abdominal organs. Standing poses are also grounding for people who tend to be overactive and distracted.
  • Supported back arching creates space and fluidity in the abdominal region, releasing chronic gripping and dehydration in the belly. Back arches strengthen the back muscles to support length in the front body, which releases compression around the organs.

RESTORATIVE PRACTICES
Practice restorative poses to relieve stress and balance the burning of tapas or heating practices. Poses that open the abdominal region, invert the body, or twist the abdomen are excellent for digestion.

  • Supta Baddha Konasana- Support your back spine with a bolster or folded blankets and support the back of your head with a blanket. Lie down with your spine on the bolster, your hips and legs on the floor. Bring the soles of your feet together, knees wide. Support your legs with a rolled blanket or blocks under your knees. Turn your palms up and broaden your upper chest.
  • Supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana-  Lie down with a bolster under your spine so your torso is supported but your shoulder blades and head are on the floor. Your legs should be straight and slightly rolled inward. Place the soles of your feet on the wall and support your heels on a block.
  • Jathara Parivarttanasana- this is a supine twist. Lie down with your arms straight and perpendicular to your torso. Bend your knees with your feet on the floor and shift your hips to the right about 8 inches. Take your knees towards your left shoulder and let them rest on the floor. Check that your right hip is stacked over your left. Ground through your right shoulder and arm. Actively turn your belly to the right.
  • Viparita Karani- This is commonly called legs up the wall pose. Support your pelvis on a bolster or blankets and extend your legs up the wall, your upper torso will rest on the floor. Today we practiced a wide legged version of this pose to encourage blood flow down the inner legs and into the belly. We placed a strap around the outer feet to support the position of the legs.

PRANAYAMA
Controlling the breath relieves stress and supports steady energy. Deep breathing also activates the diaphragm which in turn creates pressure and release on the organs flushing blood into abdominal area. Practice pranayama with a teacher in the beginning as pranayama is subtle and can be potentially harmful without thorough understanding.

CHANTING OR SINGING
Chanting has been proven to relieve stress and create a sense of well-being. In the workshop we chanted Karpuraguaram, a chant for Shiva Shiva is the arch yogi and among many things, represents transformation as well as compassion and peace. Another name for Shiva is Shambo from which the term santi or peace is derived.

Karpuragauram
karpuragauram karunavataram
samasarasaram bhujagendraharam
sada vasantam hrdayaravinde
bhavam bhavani sahitam namami

White as camphor, the incarnation of compassion,
the essence of samsara (cyclical existence),
wearing a cobra,
always dwelling in the ltus heart,
I honor Bhava (Siva), accompanied by Bhavani (Sakti)

MEDITATION
In meditation support your pelvis for good upright posture allowing for the abdomen to feel open and relaxed. Roshi Joan Halifax is quoted as saying "Strong back, soft front." Visualize releasing the low belly and the area directly below the diaphragm. Also relax your throat and jaw and allow your breath to flow freely.  Place your mind on your breath and each time it wanders to habitual thinking gently bring it back to the breath without judgment. This practice can unstick your mind from worries and concerns and allow for fresh insight.