Yin Yoga for Digestion
Editor's note: The following are intended to be general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. They are not a replacement for the personal advice of a healthcare professional.
If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or experience even the occasional bout of bloating or indigestion, you’ll agree that tummy troubles are not fun. Stress-relieving practices can certainly help, as may dietary adjustments. Personally, I have found that a yoga practice that targets the GI region of the body and Chinese medicine meridians associated with GI imbalances can also provide blissful relief.
When digestive woes strike, I don’t feel much like going out. And when I’m gurgling, bloated, and possibly needing to keep a washroom in my sights, I sure don’t feel like going to a yoga class. The good news is that certain yoga poses that we can do at home can help relieve short-term discomfort and, as has been my personal experience, may even help decrease the severity and frequency of such episodes. (And if you do feel up to going to a class, don’t worry about the rumbles from the depths—everyone gurgles in yoga at some point!)
There are two ways to look at the yin sequence I’m about to share with you (which can be done at home on those days when you’re simply not setting foot out the door!). Some of the poses will gently massage the digestive organs, which may alleviate gas and improve digestion. Other poses are intended to strengthen the spleen and stomach chi (vital energy). Yin Yoga is influenced by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which holds that when the chi of these two meridians is not in balance, bloating, flatulence, and other digestive problems may arise. Additionally, TCM holds that if spleen chi is weak, worry might be a problem, while if it is strong, creativity is the reward. Spleen chi is also connected with intention, willpower, and awareness of possibilities for change. So don’t wait for rumblings in the belly to try this one-hour sequence!
As some of the poses gently compress the digestive organs, you may want to wear pants without a tight waistband. You’ll also want one to two blankets or large towels, a bolster, and two straps (optional). As with many types of yoga and exercise, it is best to wait at least an hour after eating before practicing, in order to allow for digestion. And let the belly and digestive organs make all the growls, gurgles, and whines they need to in order to arrive at a more balanced state.
Mountain (4 minutes)
Begin in mountain pose. Root into the mat through the four corners of each foot: the base of the big toe, the base of the little toe, the inner heel, and the outer heel. Close your eyes if it is comfortable to do so.
Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, and out through your mouth for a count of eight. If this breath count is not achievable, or if it makes you feel as if you are chasing the breath, try for a ratio of three to six, or two to four. Continue for two minutes, and then let your breath find its natural rhythm for another two minutes, breathing in and out through your nose if possible. Bring your awareness to your stomach and notice, without judgment, if there is any discomfort there. Label any sensations objectively.
Dangling (3 minutes)
From mountain pose, soften your knees and fold forward, resting your elbows on your thighs. Allow your back to round slightly. Bend your knees and visualize your chest resting on your thighs—or, if accessible and comfortable, actually connect your chest to the thighs, which will gently massage the stomach.
Consider this to be a modified dangling pose to soothe the stomach, rather than a deep forward fold targeting the hamstrings or back.
Squat (2 minutes plus one minute counterpose)
Move your feet almost matwidth apart, toes pointing toward the top corners, and bend your knees more deeply. As you squat, drop your hips toward the ground. Your heels may lift off the mat, which is fine (although placing a folded blanket under your heels, or an eye pillow under each heel, may be more comfortable). Bring your hands together in prayer position, with your collarbones wide and your elbows nestled inside your knees. If you feel stable doing so, lean forward slightly so that you feel sensation in your ankles, which will stimulate your stomach and spleen meridians.
To come out, place your hands on the floor, shoulder-width apart and under your shoulders; then place your knees on the floor, hip-width apart and aligned under your hips. Stay for one minute in table pose, the counterpose.
Upright Swan and Sleeping Swan (2 minutes and 3 minutes each side)
From table pose, bring your right knee toward your right wrist, externally rotating your right thigh. Depending on your body, your right shin may be in one of the following positions: 1) parallel to the top edge of your mat (if this is the case, try to keep your right foot flexed), 2) angled on a diagonal (in which case the foot can be more neutral, even in line with the shin), or 3) nearly perpendicular to the top of your mat, with the right foot directly under the right buttock (in which case your foot is pointed, not flexed).
Allow your pelvis to sink down—feel free to tuck a blanket under your right buttock to support it. Extend your left leg straight back behind you, or if this is uncomfortable, bend your left knee out to the side as in stag/deer pose. Press the fingertips of your right hand into the floor next to your right thigh or hip. Lift your left arm up to the sky for five breaths to accentuate the feeling of stretch in your left psoas, which will target your stomach and spleen meridians.
Then release your left hand back to the floor. Stay for 90 seconds.
Note: If your front foot falls asleep, try padding the ankle with a blanket.
Next, keeping your hips grounded, walk your hands toward the top of your mat and fold forward for sleeping swan. You can extend your arms straight out, bend your elbows and rest on your forearms, or lower your torso onto a bolster if you’d like.
After three minutes in sleeping swan, walk your hands back until they’re under your shoulders (remove the bolster if you were using one). Tuck the toes of your left foot under, press your hands into the earth, straighten your arms, lift your chest off the floor, and press back and up into downward-facing dog. Stay for five breaths, and then release your knees to the mat and come into table.
Repeat upright swan and sleeping swan on the other side, then finish in downward-facing dog or table.
Sphinx or Seal (5 minutes)
Come to table (if you aren't there already), walk your hands forward and lie down on your belly. Bend your elbows and place them under your shoulders, with forearms parallel. Notice where you feel sensation—probably in your low back.
If it feels too intense, move your elbows farther forward. If you need more sensation, try resting your forearms on a bolster or folded blanket. But remember: The sensation doesn’t need to be the most intense you’ve ever experienced!
Next, experiment with the position of your head. See if it feels good to drop your head down. If that's uncomfortable for your neck, bring your head upright again, in line with your spine.
If, after two minutes or so, you no longer experience any sensation, try bending your knees, dropping your heels toward your hips.
Alternatively, you can turn your hands outward on the diagonal so that the middle fingers point to the top corners of the mat, and straighten your arms to come into seal pose.
Notice the sensation. After a total of five minutes in sphinx or seal, straighten your legs if bent, or bend your arms if straightened (and turn your forearms back to parallel if you turned out your hands); remove any props you’ve used.
Child’s Pose (5 minutes)
Come into child’s pose by gently pressing your palms into the floor, bending your knees, and releasing your hips toward your heels (you choose how narrow or how wide you want to spread your knees). It can feel quite lovely to support the forehead on a block or bolster.
Another option is to support the chest with a bolster.
Child’s pose compresses the abdomen, so you may find it less than comfortable to practice it after eating (and especially so if you happen to have diarrhea!). Listen to your body—know thyself.
After five minutes, gently push the floor away to assume an upright position. Drop your hips over to one side and come into a seated position. Arrange a bolster halfway down your mat, off to the side.
Half Pontoon (3 minutes each side)
Lie down on your back. Bend your knees and place your feet on the mat. Press into your feet and lift your hips off the mat, sliding the bolster under your hips and sacrum (not your low back); then allow your hips to settle back down, supported by the bolster. Reach for either the back of your right thigh or the front of the right shin, and gently draw your right knee toward your chest. Extend your left leg along the mat.
This pose doubles the digestive effect: Drawing the right knee to the chest gently massages the digestive organs and can help with bloating; extending the left leg gently pressurizes the spleen and stomach meridians as they travel along the front of the thigh. If you don’t feel any sensation around the hip flexor of your left thigh, consider adding a folded blanket to your bolster for more height.
After three minutes, switch sides.
Full Pontoon (5 minutes)
From half pontoon, extend your left leg along the floor. Allow your legs to go limp. As they do, you may notice that they roll open. Once again bring your awareness to your hip flexors, checking to be sure you’re not tensing there. To increase the feeling of being supported in this yin pose (which should also counter the feeling of falling off the bolster, and will facilitate the release or stretch of the hip flexors), consider using one or two straps around the middle thighs, the shins, or both, to keep the legs in a more neutral position.
To come out of the pose, bend your knees. If you are using the straps, remove them. Place the soles of your feet on the mat, press into them to lift up your hips, and remove the bolster. Release your hips to the floor.
Bent-Knee Twist (5 minutes each side)
Shift your hips an inch or two to the left, and then bring both knees into your chest. Let your arms open into a T and ease both knees down to the right, allowing them to rest on the floor, on a blanket, or on a bolster.
Twists are wonderful for massaging the digestive organs. To extend the digestive benefits of this pose, reach your left arm overhead (if your left shoulder lifts off the floor, it can be supported on a folded blanket). This stimulates the meridians of the small and large intestines.
After five minutes bring your left arm back into a T position. Bring your knees back to center and then release the soles of your feet to the mat. Shift your hips back to the midline and then an inch or two over to the right. Repeat the twist to the left, then bring your arms back to a T and your knees back to the center. Allow the soles of your feet to come to the floor.
Savasana (5 minutes or more)
Extend your legs down the length of the mat, with your feet wider than your hips. Your arms can rest by your sides, or your hands can rest on your belly or your ribs.
Enjoy savasana for as long as you’d like. But please, do dedicate at least five minutes to this all-important resting pose. It will help your body to benefit fully from the healing work you have just done.
Photography: Andrea Killam
About the teacher
Janice Quirt first discovered yoga as a child in the 70s, watching her mother flip through a yoga book... Read more