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Proper Digestion: Essential for Personal Transformation

BY Karen Johnston and Glenn Scherer ON June 28, 2013

When seeking enlightenment, many of us rush heavenward to the crown chakra, focus on the third eye for deep intuition, or meditate on the heart. Rarely do we look lower, to the humble gut, to discover who we are and what we can become.

The yogis and rishis of old knew better. They understood that without pure, nutritious food and a strong digestive fire (jatharagni); without the concerted effort of the stomach, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder (what the yogis poetically call the manipura chakra, or “city of jewels”); and without proper elimination (aided by the downward-moving energy of apana vayu), transformation can come to an uncomfortable halt. No one meditates well on an upset stomach.

Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, illuminates this path to health in the oft-quoted maxim, “Where diet is good, no need for medicine; where diet is poor, medicine is of no use.” In fact, ayurveda believes that proper diet, sufficient sleep, and loving relationships constitute the foundation of health, allowing us to digest everything the body needs and eliminate the rest, so that we can move forward unburdened by the past and free of the fear of the future.

East Meets West—in the Belly

Modern Western science and culture typically view digestion, in the words of my favorite physiology textbook, as a mechanical and biochemical “disassembly line in which food becomes less complex at each step of processing and its nutrients become available to the body.” Digestion of your lunchtime Caesar salad begins when it is crushed to mush by teeth and tongue, proceeds when it is dissolved by hydrochloric acid in the stomach, and concludes with the separated nutrients getting absorbed into the bloodstream, and waste being eliminated.

The Eastern science of ayurveda pretty much accepts the Western explanation of digestion—with one important difference. It considers your lunch to be much more than that Caesar salad—in fact, it includes all of what you take in—the noisy ambience of the restaurant, the surly attitude of your waiter, and even the rushed cell phone conversation you squeezed in between bites of your salad. All of this—what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste—mixes and mingles to feed (or disrupt) your whole being. This totality of experience—what ayurveda callsahara—feeds not only good digestive health but also spiritual transformation.

When Things Go Wrong

When our lives are in balance, we enjoy optimal digestion. Good-quality food, loving relationships, and a calm environment all stoke jatharagni, which in turn strengthens our inner, transformative fire (tejas). Tejas builds what ayurveda callsojas, or vigor, and allows the body to burn up metabolic waste and toxins (ama)more efficiently. In other words, the more robust your digestion, the more of the vital essence (prana) your body extracts from the food you eat, the less congestion (ama) you have, and the healthier you become.

Eat a few too many donuts, however, or overindulge in the Beaujolais, watch a violent movie, or endure criticism from your best friend, and indigestion, disharmony, and imbalance become what you digest. Poor choices in food, companions, or lifestyle, coupled with irregular or excessive eating, weaken jatharagni and lead to a toxic buildup of ama. The first indications of imbalance—bad breath, heartburn, or constipation—signal potentially serious trouble ahead. Excessive ama ultimately impairs tissue function and leads to samprapti, the “birth of pain,” an apt description of disease if ever there was one.

Diet for an Anxious Planet

Once Western science identified the enteric nervous system, it began to explore the more subtle energetics of digestion that the rishis of old understood so well, and it has come to see that the gut indeed has a mind of its own. This primitive “second brain” runs the length of the digestive tract and contains more total neurons than the spinal column. Surprisingly, “90 percent of the serotonin in the human body”—the major mood-regulating hormone—“is manufactured and stored in the gut wall,” says Dr. John Douillard, an ayurvedic practitioner and author ofThe 3-Season Diet. And the gut wall is “where stress is processed in the body.” So when you have a “gut reaction” to something, you experience it viscerally—it’s that knot in your stomach when you ask for a raise, or the butterflies you get anticipating a first date—and it can affect your health.

When we are happy and balanced, all those feel-good neurotransmitters flooding our enteric nervous system ensure that our digestive fire is cranking and our body is absorbing the nutrients it needs and eliminating the rest.

When we are happy and balanced, all those feel-good neurotransmitters flooding our enteric nervous system ensure that our digestive fire is cranking and our body is absorbing the nutrients it needs and eliminating the rest. But when we’re stressed, it’s a different story. All too often, in a modern world driven mercilessly by what Prem Prakash, founder of the Green Mountain School of Yoga in Middlebury, Vermont, calls “hurry, worry, and self-doubt,” we find ourselves in a perpetual state of alarm from too much work, too little rest, and too many conflicting demands on our time. Perpetual stress damps down jatharagni, allowing an undigested lunch to go rogue and become toxic. In Western terms, this kind of stress directs the body’s energies elsewhere and its fight-or-flight response effectively slows digestion to an uncomfortable, inefficient crawl.

“What occurs in the Western lifestyle, with its constant physical and psychological stressors, is an inability to shut off this enteric alarm,” says Dr. Douillard. “As long as your body thinks life is an emergency, you will crave emergency fuel in the form of carbohydrates and sugar. The body, fearing that it will never get enough to eat, stores emergency sugars as fat—for backup fuel.” Uninterrupted stress also makes us more susceptible to illnesses, ranging from the common cold to cancer.

The solution to stress, according to Hilary Garivaltis, dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, begins with self-awareness. “The more conscious and aware we are, the better choices we’re going to make, and the more aligned and connected to the food we’ll be,” she says. “The thoughtfulness, the slowing down, the intention are all crucial aspects of the digestive process.”

 Eat, Rest, Love

Ayurveda’s three pillars of health offer the basic steps to dietary and lifestyle transformation: proper diet, sufficient rest, and loving relationships, starting with yourself. All this will promote good digestion, proper detoxification, and increased vitality to protect and defend.

Turn off your alarm. The first step to achieving optimal digestion is to turn off the enteric alarm system. Begin on the mat by engaging in a slow-paced asana practice, complemented by calming pranayama (see “Yoga to the Rescue,” page 56). Taking adaptogenic herbs can also help reduce the harmful effects of stress, boost immunity, and move the body toward homeostasis. (See “Reduce Stress with the Mighty Adaptogens” above).

Create a regular routine. In timesof stress, “we need to eat and live as well as possible,” writes Dr. Claudia Welch inher latest book, Balance Your Hormones,Balance Your Life. Her advice: keep a consistent daily routine, which includes exercising, meditating regularly, and performing abhyanga, or warm oil self-massage, each morning.

Use the senses as a checklist: Is what you’re seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling nourishing you?

Listen to your body. Cranky knees, upset stomach, and headaches are the body’s way of putting on the brakes. These warnings alert you to something unhealthy. Use the senses as a checklist: Is what you’re seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling nourishing you?

Detox and balance. After the alarm bells have quieted down, doing a gentle detox will help your body eliminate the ama that’s accumulated and build new, healthy tissue. Minimal fasting, like skipping a meal when your tongue is heavily coated with ama, or a gentle kitchari cleanse is safe to try at home, at the appropriate juncture of seasons. Spring, with its liquid, melting effect, is the perfect time to cleanse excess fat accumulated over winter. The passage of summer into fall is the best time to cool excess heat as Nature herself cools down.

The Cadillac of cleanses, pancha karma, guided by a qualified practitioner to address chronic imbalances or acute conditions, is the most intense form of detoxification. The object is to move ama held in the tissues back into the digestive tract for elimination and prevent further progression of disease.

Address your emotions. Physical detox is not enough. Dr. Welch believes you should “digest emotions as you do food. Buried, denied, or unprocessed emotions become mental ama (toxic sludge) in the same way that undigested food becomes physical ama. End or improve any toxic or strained relationships.”

Rekindle the fire. Once you finish detoxing, resist the urge to congratulate yourself with comfort foods. You need to rebuild jatharagni—digestive fire—carefully and slowly. Start with simple foods like rice and steamed vegetables and avoid heavy, hard-to-digest foods immediately after a cleanse. Adding digestive herbs, like ginger, cumin, coriander, and fennel to your food will strengthen agni. Sipping warm water during a meal, not after, will liquefy and aid in churning food, making it easier to digest.

Eat regular meals, mindfully. Put yourself on a regular schedule, eating meals three times a day, slowly and mindfully. Ayurvedic physicians say eating until you’re three-quarters full promotes efficient digestion and will help the body burn off stored fat between meals.

The Old/New Diet for Life

To nourish a healthy, balanced digestive system, Welch urges us to “eat mostly whole, mostly freshly cooked and minimally processed food grown without the aid of pesticides and insecticides.” Garivaltis agrees and gives this advice: “Stop eating processed foods. That means no snack foods or fast foods, no eating at most American chain restaurants, and no shopping in the middle aisles.” Of course that means cooking more for yourself, says Garivaltis. “If I can just get someone to do that, [his or her] life changes completely.”

The experts advise eating for your unique body type and state of imbalance (what ayurveda calls prakriti dosha and vikriti dosha, respectively), the region 
in which you live, and the current season. “When you eat local foods, you eat seasonal foods,” says Thomas Hughes, an ayurvedic practitioner and blogger at epicureanayurveda.com. “This approach gives you the best chance to stay in harmony with the seasons as well as ensuring that your foods are fresh and nutritious.”

Once in balance, the body leads the way, digesting the whole plate of infinite experience joyfully, and doing so with ease. The eyes no longer get bigger than the belly, and we crave things our body really needs.

The Real Takeout

Two major treatises of ayurveda, the Charaka Samhita and the Ashtanga Hridayam, agree that health begins with what we take in, creating the ahara rasa—the juice of life—that heady mix of food, emotions, and the full range of sensual perceptions.

The skillful practice of yoga and ayurveda brings us to balance, enabling us to finally address and master what the Bhagavad Gita describes as the “restless and wandering mind.” In good health, we are able to access our true nature in equipoise and love, becoming a joy to ourselves and others.

Digestion is nothing less than the miraculous means by which “cosmic consciousness manifests as individual consciousness,” concludes esteemed ayurvedic practitioner Dr. Vasant Lad. It is the fuel and furnace of our existence, at the core of who we are and will be. Indeed, digestion is transformation, isunion—connecting us with the elements, the soil, rain, air, sun, each other, and ourselves.

Reduce Stress with the Mighty Adaptogens

Adaptogenic herbs support the body’s natural response to both physical and emotional stress. They boost the immune system, increase vitality, and calm the central nervous system. Even though these herbs are generally safe and nontoxic, they’re still powerful medicines, so it’s best not to self-prescribe. Consult with your holistic health care practitioner, especially if you’re pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription meds, to determine what your body needs.

Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) Holy basil. Grown in India and throughout Southeast Asia, tulsi is commonly used to enhance the immune system. Tulsi tea is a safe, tasty way to enjoy the benefits of holy basil.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Winter cherry. Native to India, Sri Lanka, and Africa, this “Indian ginseng” can be a little intense. Best to take it in warm milk with herbs like ginger and green cardamom (or in tablet form).

Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng) Chinese or Korean ginseng. A native of northern China and Korea, Panax ginseng should not be confused with milder American ginseng. Most people prefer taking it in supplement form.

Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus). Native to subtropical and tropical Asia, Africa, and Australia, this ancient herb is a powerful aphrodisiac, which explains the English translation “she who possesses 100 husbands.” It works better when combined with ginger.

Your practitioner will likely recommend switching between several adaptogens. That’s because, over time, the body becomes acclimated and their effects diminish. Adaptogens may also be adjusted individually or seasonally to target the appropriate energetics (i.e., use warming ashwagandha in winter, and cooler shatavari in summer).    —K.J.

Yoga to the Rescue

When things move too fast: Excess agni (digestive fire) can lead to hyperactive digestion, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome. Calming breaths like nadi shodhanam (alternate nostril breathing) ease anxiety and soothe the nervous system, and restorative poses—cat and cow, and supine twists—will produce a further pacifying effect. When suffering any digestive problem, notice if you’re also having mid-back pain. Spinal nerves in the mid-back connect to key digestive nerves. Asana and/or chiropractic treatments can release the spine and normalize nerve communication.

Before and After Meals: Optimal digestion requires emotional peace. Virasana (hero’s pose) is an ideal calming pre-meal posture because it allows the digestive organs to nest gently atop the psoas muscles. Sit on a block for more comfort, if necessary. After dinner, sit in vajrasana (thunderbolt pose) to bring the digestive organs into optimal alignment. Add dirgha and layer on ujjayi calming breaths, and then naturally double the length of your exhalation to fully engage the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest-and-digest response.

When Things Won’t Move: The best cure for common constipation, bloating, and gas is to get moving—a brisk walk will help. Standing poses, supine twists, and forward folds like balasana (child’s pose) also help by gently squeezing the large intestine. Add fennel tea for quicker action.

Toning the Gut: When you don’t have GI distress, inversions, twists, forward folds, and backbends—practiced on an empty stomach—will stimulate and tone the digestive organs. Matsyendrasana (seated spinal twist), uttanasana (standing forward bend), paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), and parivritta trikonasana (twisted triangle) massage the digestive organs and glands, increasing blood flow and squeezing out toxins. Agni sara also activates digestion. For advanced practitioners, mayurasana (peacock pose) is the king of detoxifying poses. Named for a bird that can digest poisonous snakes, mayurasana detoxifies the liver, increases abdominal organ blood circulation, massages the stomach and spleen, revitalizes the pancreas, and relieves many digestive disorders.

Breathe Your Way to Good Digestion: Natural, unforced diaphragmatic breathing lifts and lowers digestive organs, giving them a steady massage. A strong, regular pranayama practice means a stronger diaphragm, a stimulated digestive system, and better health. Agni sara is especially useful for activating digestion and burning away toxins.

Asana and pranayama offer major enhancements to digestion—not just of food, but of thought and emotion, too. Of course, if physical digestive distress persists, see a doctor.

ABOUT Karen Johnston and Glenn Scherer Ayurvedic lifestyle consultant Karen Johnston and yoga instructor Glenn Scherer both trained at Kripalu and are cofounders of Gift of Ganesha Yoga and Ayurveda in Hardwick, Vermont.

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