How the ashtanga yoga practice improves digestion

BRINGING IT BACK TO THE MAT

We call the small intestine the second brain, but it’s actually the first. The enteric nervous system (ENS) present in the abdomen operates independently of the central nervous system (CNS), and it is formed in utero before the CNS.*

We experience emotions through our gut. Along with food, this is where we digest our human experience. All of what we eat is being processed by the body. ALL of what we eat is contributing to our evolution. It’s going to take more than a 30-day detox to clean out thousands of DNA-coding proteins. Yet, sometimes all it takes is a second to release a samskara that we have been holding on to, processing.

The first time I was invited to Led Intermediate, I spent the hour before practice anxiously waiting on the steps of the shala. Every “chakrasana, go back’ brought me closer to this impending doom I had building up in my head. The two hours before practice had me visiting the toilet with the runs about as frequently as when I had giardia. By the time I made it in the shala, my large intestine was clean and my bandhas were gone. 

We take in the world with our five senses. We experience the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and being touched by the world. These signals refer back to the center of our being for processing. 

If an experience is not processed and released it will get packed away and stored. The energy that is not released and not allowed to pass through is incomplete. Not finished. The stored unfinished energy is an impression. In Sanskrit, this is known as a samskara. 

The thing is, our senses are often wrong. They are limited. 

Bats would laugh at our ability to hear, cats piss all over our ability to see, and that’s only two examples of our limited senses. What we are interpreting is often all “in our head.” And not what actually “is.”

I had two options when I was losing my crap, quite literally, before that first Led Intermediate practice with Sharath. 

As I saw it, I could call in sick and avoid going to this class for another week and face the shaming eyes of the boss on Monday, or I could move into the fear and process this experience. Process the diarrhea caused by fear, the fear of feeling unworthy of practicing with people who intimidated me. The inadequacy I felt from not being the cool kid in school repeated here again as an adult alone in a foreign country.  I didn’t feel like the cool kid in school because I didn’t have the cool toys that they had. In this case it was the cool asana that they were able to do with ease and a smile. 

What it came down to was me comparing myself to others, and not comparing myself to who I was yesterday, comparing myself to who Sharathji sees and the potential he recognizes.

We get a few chances to process our experiences. If we choose to stuff our emotions, or eat them, then they may not come up again and we will face them in the next life. However, if it is our dharma this lifetime to overcome them, they will be regurgitated to be experienced all over again with more bitterness. 

Before we get to taste the experience again, it will ferment within us, undigested.

So how do we work through digesting this experience?

Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.

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We have established that we are moving out of pain and moving through Surya Namaskara A. Ekam, inhale.

We are moving out of our past, whatever that had on us, and we are agreeing to process our unresolved energies, our samskaras. We have committed to moving into our version of health and happiness; whatever that looks like for ourselves that’s not defined by a magazine or an Instagram photo.

With Surya B we get right into expelling, evolving, and processing this journey. 

Surya B begins with a slight bend to the knees, ensuring that we are contracting the lower abdomen to lift up the chest, preventing it from collapsing. This movement activates the anal sphincter, if it hadn’t been activated before. It ensures that what you have when you started this healing formula, on this journey is not going to be leaking out but will be burned up. 

Sapta, take right foot.

The large intestine is responsible for retaining the necessary fluids from the food we have ingested and it’s responsible for pushing out what we no longer need.

When we step the right foot forward we are squeezing the right side of the abdomen. 

The right side of the abdomen is the ascending part of the large intestine. This is the part where the small intestine meets the large intestine. Anatomically, we call this area the cecum. 

Placing physical pressure on the right side of the abdomen helps to move processed food from the small intestine along faster up the large intestine. 

Contracting the right side can be thought of as wringing out a wet towel, squeezing beneficial fluids back into the blood stream. But to wring out a towel properly we need to twist from both ends, and that is why we put the left foot forward second.

This squeezing and compression of the right side continues in Utthita Trikonasana, and even deeper in Utthita Parshvakasana.

It is also why we place the right foot into Padmasana first in Ardha Baddha Padmottasana. This “simple” procedure of placing the right foot at the sigmoid colon, the “S” shaped intersection of the colon to the large intestine, places physical pressure on the area to lock the waste from moving back up, and it prevents diarrhea from ‘leaking’ out.

Throughout the rest of the asana in the formula (primary series) that deal with digestion, this pressure and wringing out of the towel is going to continue to deepen.

When practicing Triang Mukhaepada Paschimattasana in the sequence ,we hold constant pressure on the ascending colon for five breaths while in the asana. This is like squeezing the towel and holding it. In the asanas that precede it we are locking off or holding pressure on part of the intestine, but not completely closing down an entire side. In this asana we express more of the good fluids back to the bloodstream for our benefit. It is why Jois states in the benefits for this asana that “aspirants should not forget to do rechaka and puraka slowly and as much as possible, while in the state of this asana.”

The most challenging digestive asana is often Marichyasana D. 

Locking the hands can be demanding. There is tremendous pressure on the joints, shoulders, and the sacral-iliac joints and it seems impossible if there are knee or spine injuries. However, the specific benefits of the asana are not listed in Jois’ book. The benefits are lumped together with all of the Marichyasana asana and include digestion and reproduction, i.e. strengthening the womb. 

Ekadasa, left foot

If we stepped the left foot forward first in Surya B or the other asana, not only is it ‘incorrect method,' but we risk moving food from the colon, back into the large intestine (this is also an argument for why it is good practice to defecate BEFORE practicing). The colon is where food ferments and gets ready to leave. You just don’t want that shit coming back. There isn’t much separating the colon from the large intestine. To keep the shit from getting out we have a strong sphincter muscle that holds it in the colon. But the only division between the colon and the large intestine is an ’S’ shaped fold that keeps the fermenting waste product from moving back up to the intestine. ))<>((

I don’t feel the need to explain each asana individually, as Jois’ book covers the benefits of each one. However, one thing to note is that with the twists, Utthita Trikonasana, Parshvakasana, Mari C & D, more pressure is exerted on the large intestine. If the individual has a history of diverticulitis or has a colostomy /ileostomy extra care must be taken when performing these asanas. They are still assessable to the practitioner, but they may need to be modified.

GETTING THE GOODNESS IN

Plants take in sunlight and nutrients from the soil and metabolize it through a process called photosynthesis. Plants grow and expand, taking in more light and nutrients to eventually reproduce, thus making more plants, taking in more sunlight and more nutrients.

We take in air and nutrients from the plants and animals that we eat and metabolize it in a process known as the Krebs cycle. Like plants, we are ever expanding and evolving, reproducing, and coding new DNA that will remake the entire body. So it is important to take in beneficial nutrients. Nutrients that will contribute to a positive evolution. 

This evolution is different for each person so I’m not going to begin to profess what “beneficial nutrients” are for you specifically. In general, get some sunlight, breathe in some clean air, drink water, eat.

Chew your food. 

Digest the experience.

In 2004, one of my good friends from high school committed suicide when he was 24. 

14 years later, I know that I will never “get over” him or what he chose to do. It was his choice, but that doesn’t mean that the hurt isn’t still there. There is still a part of me digesting the entire experience, accepting it and its energy, and allowing it to pass through me.

I did try to drink away the hurt at one point. I tried to stuff it down… because that’s always healthy. I tried running from it. I ended up running from a lot more than the hurt. I ran from a marriage, my friends, my family, and even my health. 

I ran because I only knew two modes: on/off.

I got fast. I ran a 5k in 22 minutes. But I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. There was always another time, another race, and running in minus temperatures in Chicago is awful. 

I covered a lot of ground, but I just wasn’t getting anywhere.

I had an amazing therapist and I did a lot of work. There was a lot of breaking down and breaking through to understand that this is an event that has shaped and continues to shape me.  

Emotions can be painful things to deal with. Most of the time we run away from them. We cover them up rather than confronting them. Rather than looking the emotion in the eye and going through it, allowing it to pass through us.

The same goes for all of the nutrients we take in from what we eat. Will you take in what you need and allow the indigestible contents to pass through or will you hold onto them?


* Society for Neuroscience. "'Second brain' neurons keep colon moving: Brain in the gut coordinates activity of millions of neurons to propel waste through digestive system." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 May 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180529132122.htm>

Morgan Lee