Ashtanga Yoga for improved digestion (part 1)
We search for meaning. I’m even searching for it while writing this.
We want to blame something outside of ourselves for our current state of ‘being.’ Something outside of our power. We like to blame a cold for making us sick, but a virus is incomplete. It’s not whole. It needs a host. It’s completely dependent on a living organism to replicate. Maybe it’s a reminder that we need to slow down? Maybe the “cold” virus is reminding us to stop because we are not taking care of ourselves. We are not paying enough attention to ourselves. Success makes us complacent, conceited.
Poor health is responsible for “disrupting the ability of human beings from pursuing their spiritual journey.” - Charaka Samhita A.D. 200, the first Indian text on medicine.
If we spend time focusing on our health and taking care of our bodies than perhaps we don’t create an environment for the virus to replicate?
That’s not saying that the virus won’t do its due diligence and fulfill its purpose to replicate inside of you. And you can be assured that as soon as you take a moment off, it’s going to wonder right in your direction.
The practice of ashtanga yoga is a formula designed to keep us paying attention. It keeps us on our toes and keeps us able to pursue our spiritual journey.
On a physical level one way the practice restores or sustains our health is by keeping our digestive system strong.
The digestive system works to serve the other organ systems. The cardiovascular/respiratory, neuro, reproductive, endocrine, etc. These other systems work to keep us on our spiritual path. The digestive system is made up of a number of organs, glands, and tissue. Digestion begins before we take the first bite. It begins with a thought. Maybe it’s a delicious odor that triggers a cascading reaction in the body? When we are in pain, we do not sense odors. We cannot detect the smell of fresh baked bread, of the floral notes of coffee opening up as the first drops of water hydrate the thirsty beans.
After detecting an odor or another trigger, the salivary glands in the mouth begin to secrete a liquid that will help dissolve and break apart whatever you consume. Gastric acids begin to flood the stomach to assist as well.
The digestive system is lengthy to explain in detail, but easy to simplify; you put food in your mouth, chew, swallow, and poop it out.
The Charaka Samhita is an Indian composition of texts from the 2 century C.E. detailing human body theory, disease pathology, and treatment. It is very similar to the Huang Di Nei Jing of Traditional Oriental Medicine dating back to the first century B.C.E. They both detail the importance of diet and medical diagnoses for the prevention and treatment of a given disease in an individual.
They detail in length the anatomy of the body, the diagnosis, and the prognosis based upon sensory input from the doctor and patient. Chapters on ethics, pathology, philosophy, diet, nourishment, tastes of medicines, and responsibility of the Physician, the Nurse, and the Patient. The two books provide a solid foundation to care for, treat, and live a life that is in tune with our spiritual path.
Jois’ Yoga Mala is a distillation of the Charaka Samhita. He made this complex text available to his students. He gave us the updated quick and dirty version. One we could contextualize and understand. He wrote it in accordance with his teachers, teaching that “the stomach is the only cause of an untimely death.” - T. Krishnamacharya.
In his book “Origins” Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks about science evolving and the universe expanding. It’s a fantastic read. I took away an understanding that what we know today is valid, but that it doesn’t always apply in the future. Science changes, it evolves. Science is not the totalitarian rule of the medieval Catholic Church.
Thank God! (pun intended)
What we know today to be true is true because we cannot disprove it with technology. That is carefully worded and not to be misunderstood as, “truth is what we can prove.”
There are some things that exist that we cannot prove… yet. Dark matter being one of those things, according to Tyson. This will come into further discussion when we talk about the reproductive system.
We are evolving. We humans, you and I, along with the universe, plants, animals, and the earth. That’s “scientifically” proven and agreed upon by most. We are evolving every second, beyond the concept that the human body is born of new cells every seven years, but inclusive of it too. We are evolving with every experience. Our DNA is coding for new and different proteins every second, proteins that build the pathways to tell the story of our lives.
Some cells stay with us through our life, stomach cells are replaced every few days, and bones about every decade.*
It may seem like a far-out concept to think that we are fundamentally and organically different than who we were even a second ago. But when you are learning to tie your shoes, every ounce of your six-year-old body is poured into making the bunny ears, crossing them, and pushing the head down the hole. Maybe it didn’t actually go like that, but I’m left-handed, which means that I need to complicate matters. And bless my parents for being patient with me as I tried to figure out what they were showing me backwards to make some sense of the mess.
At six years old the proteins have not been made yet for us to know how to use the fingers in the particular way to tie shoes. Each time we experience tying our shoes, DNA is coding proteins to establish this pathway. In a few years one is able to tie their shoes and continue having a conversation without giving thought to tying them because the pathway had long since been established.
Each experience is changing our DNA, evolving.
The stages that we went through to simply tie our shoes developed from the fine motor skills that preceded it. The pincer grasp at 10 months, the use of the noon dominant hand at three to stabilize an object. We build upon the greatness of our current self to be at our next level.
We build up, level upon level, by taking in nutrients and processing them. These nutrients become incorporated to form the proteins that make up our hair, eyes, blood, and movements. The chemical reactions that take place to maintain our evolution and our spiritual journey is called metabolism.
You have probably heard this word thrown around when discussing weight loss. Metabolism is more than just weight loss though. Metabolism is the sum of the chemical reactions that take place in an organism. The reactions that build up and break down. The chemical reactions that convert food to fuel, building blocks of life (protein, lipids, nucleic acids), and remove waste.
If you are taking in more fuel food than you are breaking down and using, you are in an energy surplus and the body will store that surplus for use in the future. If you are taking in less calories than you are burning up then the body is in a deficit and the body burns the extra storage it had built up.
When people speak of metabolism related to fat loss they are referring to your metabolic rate, the rate at which your body burns calories. Calories are units of energy, so when people talk about calories they are talking about how fast your body uses energy, how much fire you are burning inside. It’s referring to how easy it is for your body to break down or build up a complex carbohydrate into a simple sugar, or how much energy it takes for a nucleic acid to become an amino acid, a neuclotide, or a piece of DNA.
We each have a different metabolic rate, affected by the enzymes and flora that live in our digestive system. Affected by our activities of daily living, and our emotions.
The easiest product for our body to break down is sugar, followed by carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, in that order. Carbohydrates not broken down and used immediately are stored in the body as fat to be used when the body is calorie deficient. Fats are also necessary. Period. Fats are necessary for our sex hormones to activate throughout the body. Marvin Gaye will not be singing for you unless you have some body fat. Hair growth, menses, libido, and more all depend in part to having some fat.
*Barbara J. Campbell, MD, https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/staying-healthy/bone-health-basics/
Digestion 101 digested in 3 minutes.
Digestion begins in the mouth, chewing food and allowing it to mix with saliva that helps to break apart carbohydrates into smaller pieces. This is the only part of digestion that is under our conscious control. The more time we spend meditating on our food and breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces, the more the body will be able to extrapolate more nutrients.
After we swallow the food it is no longer under conscious control. The autonomic nervous system takes over. The digestive system, under automatic control, only operates if the individual is free from pain and feeling safe.
Food enters the stomach where it mixes with a bunch of gastric juices that further dilute and break apart the, now completely unrecognizable, lunch. This is the primary area that breaks apart proteins into smaller compounds. Food hangs around for about an hour in the stomach and it is emptied after about two. Powerful muscles in the stomach contract in a wave-like pattern, beating up the food in a process called peristalsis.
This partly digested food and gastric juices, called chyme, passes from the stomach into the small intestine. Assisting the breakdown of the chyme in the small intestine is bile and lipase.
Bile is mostly water and salt. It is produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder. When the chyme enters the small intestine from the stomach it send a signal telling the gall bladder to release the stored liquid. Bile increases the surface area of fats which are broken down by lipase, the juice secreted by the pancreases. If fats are not broken down this way and absorbed by the small intestine then we run into a bigger issue down the road at the large intestine which is not equipped to handle fats.
Bile also colors our stool that lovely shade of brown. The color comes from bilirubin, the corpses of red blood cells that are old and worn out. The spleen severs them in half and sends them to the liver for processing.
The pancreas is responsible for producing lipase. Lipase is the chief of all digestive juices. It controls the entire symphony of destruction from macro molecules to micro ones. It is also responsible for producing insulin when blood sugar is too high.
Insulin moves sugar from the blood into the muscles and other tissue to use as energy. Lipase also produces glucagon, a hormone that tells the liver to turn stored sugar into glucose, aka useable energy.
Most of our digestion takes place in the small intestine, our lower brain. When the food particles are reduced enough in size and composition they are moved through the small intestine and carried away through our blood stream. Inside the twisting and turning folds of the small intestine are these finger-like protrusions called villi, which increase the surface area of the small intestine. The twisting and folding slows down food to be properly absorbed so it can take in the maximum amount of nutrients.
After most of the useable nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream the semi solid mass of chyme enters the large intestine where it travels up the right side of the abdomen. Water is reabsorbed as the chyme travels across and down the left side of the large intestine to the colon. In the colon stool ferments and packs together preparing for deification. This entire process, from chewing to pooping, usually takes about 12 to 50 hours and varies from person to person.
continued in the next post applying the physiology to the asana practice.