Digestive health plays a central role in Ayurveda. An imbalance in agni (digestive fire) is considered to be one of the root causes of illness. Conversely, a strong and balanced agni paves the way for optimal, radiant health. According to Ayurvedic practitioner and scholar Dr. David Frawley,
“When Agni is normal there is good digestion, circulation, and complexion; pleasant breath and body odor; adequate energy and strong resistance to disease.” (1)
Think of tending your agni like tending a fire—you want to keep it burning with just the right amount of heat and flame. This is where yoga can help. There are several guiding principles when it comes to practicing yoga for digestion.
Understand Seasonal Effects
Climate and time of year have an impact on the doshas. Therefore our psychology and physiology are also affected by seasonal changes. For instance, autumn is Vata season. Many Vata imbalances are more prevalent at this time. What does this mean in terms of digestion?
Especially if you have a Vata constitution, you may be more susceptible to gas, bloating, constipation, and a variable appetite during the fall. This is why a Vata balancing diet and lifestyle are especially important in the fall. Also, you can tailor your yoga practice to support digestive wellness.
Soothe the Nerves
If you suffer from a ‘nervous stomach’ as many Vata types do, yoga poses that soothe the nerves and release abdominal tension will be helpful. If your nerves are jumbled, try taking a supported restorative asana or two to let your nervous system and body settle. This can be a nice way to ease in—even if you are planning on a more active practice.
Some examples of restorative yoga poses are Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle Pose) and Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose). Also, simply crossing the legs and resting the spine on a support such as a bolster with a folded blanket for the neck and head is a great way to settle the nerves. This is also a good way to relax the abdomen and roots of the legs.
Stoke the Fire
Yoga poses that create warmth and tone the abdomen can also be part of any yoga for digestion program. As the weather cools down and the season transitions to autumn, this is generally a good time to focus on strengthening the agni. Foods, asanas, spices, and practices that create warmth are recommended. This will also help protect the immune system during cold and flu season.
Twists are a great way to create warmth and abdominal tone. However, if you are suffering from acute constipation, abdominal distress, or cramping, it is usually best to wait until those aggravating symptoms calm down before working on poses that strengthen and contract the abdomen. In this case, starting with some of the restorative poses that soothe, calm, and relax the abdomen and nerves is a good idea.
In addition, the bija mantra “Ram” pronounced “Rum” corresponds to the chakra located in the region of the solar plexus. This chakra and the sound “Ram” corresponds to the fire element. Therefore, chanting this mantra (aloud or silently) can strengthen the fire element. Strengthening the fire element will give a boost to agni.
Yoga for Digestion: The Staples
If you have chronic or serious digestive challenges, it is always wise to seek the help of an experienced teacher. However, there are several yoga poses that are are thought to be generally helpful for digestion. Sirsasana (Headstand) is one such pose. Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar writes,
“Coupled with Sarvangasana [Shoulderstand] movements, [Headstand] is a boon to people suffering from constipation.” (2)
Furthermore, in the famous yoga text Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar lists sequences for various maladies, including constipation, diarrhea, and colitis. The seated forward bend Paschimottansana (Stretch of the West Side of the Body) is included in both the sequences for constipation and colitis. Of Paschimottanasana, B.K.S. Iyengar writes,
“[Paschimottanasana] tones the abdominal organs and keeps them free from sluggishness.” (2)
Observe the Vayus
Apana vayu rules all the down and out movements of the body, such as urination, menstruation, and defecation. Therefore, if bowel movements are irregular (constipation or loose, frequent stools), look to poses and practices that regulate the apana vayu.
Supta Virasana is one such pose. Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose) can be quite balancing in the case of constipation, gas, and abdominal tension. This pose creates space for the whole abdominal cavity, and the abdomen is gently stretched. Also, one of the wonderful things about Supta Virasana is that it can be practiced even on a full stomach. So, if you overeat a bit during the holidays, think Supta Virasana! This asana is also helpful during menstruation.
Also worth mentioning is the connection between movement and the vayus. This relates to digestive balance. If you are prone to constipation, you will need to focus on moving more—moving the legs and taking walks can be as helpful as anything in terms of stimulating healthy bowel movements. On the other hand, if you have a case of diarrhea, you many need to focus on stillness and practicing poses where the legs are held steady.
How You Practice is as Important as What You Practice
As the esteemed Dr. Vasant Lad likes to say, “Ayurveda is not a quick fix.” Yoga and Ayurveda are time-tested practices that guide us to the root of our problems. These practices may not create instant relief (though it has happened)! but they give us the tools to gain self-understanding and to find true balance .
If you suffer from digestive distress, pay attention to the sensation of the abdomen in all poses. Note which asanas bring ease and which lead to more distress. And remember, that how you practice is as important as what you practice. This is a helpful principle when it comes to practicing yoga for digestion. Depending on the particular state of your agni, you may need to focus on creating space and relaxation or you may need to emphasis tone, warmth, and strength.
Keep in mind that yoga is not a one-size-fits-all practice. Understanding the circumstances of the individual is key for developing effective yoga therapy. For instance, your constitution, phase of life, season, and particular imbalance all impact your digestion and should be accounted for in your practice.
(1) Frawley, D. (2000). Ayurvedic healing: A comprehensive guide. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
(2) Iyengar, B.K.S. (1966). Light on yoga. Schocken Books.
Greta Kent-Stoll is a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner (NAMA), as well as a writer, editor, and Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. Her Ayurveda practice is based in Asheville, North Carolina and she is the co-owner of Iyengar Yoga Asheville.