The holidays can be joyful and jubilant—and, well, delicious! But they can be stressful too, sometimes making it a bit of a challenge to savor and digest delightful experiences and meaningful conversations—not to mention your favorite sweet potato pie.
That’s why I find myself appreciating my yoga practice more and more each year.
A little pre- or post-celebration yoga helps to lessen seasonal stress, relieve my pre-party anxiety, and shake off the introvert-fatigue I tend to feel after holiday parties (or any party for that matter!). When dinner-table discussions become heated, my yoga practice reminds me to pause and think before responding. Yoga helps me to feel both more calm and more energized. And I’ve also found that it benefits my physical digestion, helping to keep tummy aches at bay.
When it first occurred to me to write up a Thanksgiving sequence, I began contemplating which poses might be especially helpful for digestion, and why. Sure, I’d heard and been taught things like “twists are great for digestion!” But I also know that while twists can feel great, they’re not actually wringing out my organs like a wet dishrag or anything. So how exactly does yoga help with digestion?
Recently, I asked Dr. Carrie Demers, an integrative medicine physician and longtime Yoga International contributor, if she could recommend any asanas that were particularly helpful for digestion. Dr. Demers reminded me that while certain poses are touted for their digestion-boosting benefits, what’s most important is how we practice—and that yoga’s digestive benefits and its stress-relieving benefits are intricately related. “The thing that really matters,” she explained, “maybe even more than what particular poses we practice, is relaxation practice. Remember that when we have a lot of sympathetic tone [meaning that the sympathetic nervous system, aka the “fight or flight” nervous system, is very active], the blood flow and support to our gastrointestinal system is lessened. When we increase our vagal tone [the activity of the vagus nerve] and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system activity, we bring more blood flow to our digestive organs.
“So, of course, take an after-dinner walk, and do agni sara (see below) to stimulate your digestion. But make sure you breathe deeply too!” she implored.
The Power of Restorative Poses
When it comes to activating the parasympathetic nervous system, senior ParaYoga teacher and director of Sangha Yoga Institute, Karina Mirsky, recommends basic relaxation postures like crocodile, savasana (pictured below with the added support of a bolster and blanket), virasana (hero’s pose), and sukhasana (easy pose). Mirsky tells us: “It would be most supportive to digestion to practice each of these poses for three to ten minutes while engaging in diaphragmatic breathing. Any of these would be beneficial to do before meals. And virasana or sukhasana could be practiced immediately following meals.” “Also,” she adds, “lying on the left side of the body after meals can often help to ease heartburn, acid reflux, and other discomforts related to the production of esophageal acid.”
Virasana—in particular, supta virasana (reclined hero’s pose)—is often praised for its digestion-supporting powers. I love practicing a propped version (with a bolster behind me and a block or blanket under my seat), but find that without props, my tight quads and hip flexors make this pose feel anything but relaxing. Sans props, I prefer the “half saddle” variation from yin yoga.
I like to come into this pose from a cheerleader sit—leaning onto my right hip and swinging my legs off to the left, bringing the sole of my right foot to rest against my left inner thigh (just below the knee). When including this pose as part of a complete yoga practice, it feels super-intuitive to come into it from pigeon prep. I simply press myself upright (if I’m in a forward fold variation or pigeon), then shift onto my right hip and, keeping my right leg essentially where it is, swing my left leg around to meet it, adjusting so that the sole of my right foot comes into contact with my left thigh.
From the cheerleader sit, check in with your left foot. Bring it as close to your left outer hip as you comfortably can, with all of your left toes pointing straight back. (If you feel any discomfort in your knees, come out of the pose immediately.) From here, you can start to lean back, just as you would for supta virasana—placing your palms onto the floor behind you, coming onto your forearms, or lying all the way back and resting the back of your head on the floor. Stop at a point where you have no knee pain, can maintain your relaxed diaphragmatic breathing, and feel a satisfying stretch in your quads. If your knees don’t object, remain here for several relaxed breaths before pressing back up and sweeping your legs over in the opposite direction (or coming into pigeon on the other side if you’re practicing pigeon first) to repeat the pose on the second side.
Child’s Pose Variation
You’re probably not going to want to practice this one immediately after eating (though a classic child’s pose might be fine). However, a wee bit of compression like this can feel pretty great a few hours later, or maybe the next morning if your digestion is a bit on the sluggish side.
To try this variation, come into balasana (child’s pose) as you normally would, bringing your big toes to touch and separating your knees a comfortable distance apart. If it’s accessible for you, you might find that having your thighs/knees a little closer together makes this variation more effective. From child’s pose, make fists with your hands and place them against your low belly. Reestablish the length in your spine, and allow your forehead to rest comfortably on the floor or a block. Soften your belly and remain here for several relaxed breaths, enjoying a gentle “massage” with each inhalation and exhalation.
This classic (and slightly strange looking!) digestion-booster is one you’ll want to do before you eat.
Setting Up the Pose
Stand with your feet a little more than hip-width apart (about the distance of the short edges of a yoga mat). Bend your knees, and place your hands on your thighs. Bring the weight of your torso over your arms (avoid bending your elbows) so that you can start with a relaxed belly. Look down toward your belly.
This is the traditional stance, but agni sara can also be practiced with your hips against a wall for stability, on all fours, or with legs turned out in a wide goddess pose-like stance (as often taught in Forrest Yoga).
For a basic variation (called akunchana prasarana, or simply “abdominal squeeze”) simply contract and release your belly with your breath, drawing your navel back toward your spine on the exhale, and relaxing your belly on the inhale. Start with about five to ten repetitions.
If the three-part squeeze that follows is contraindicated for you (common contraindications include hiatal hernia, high blood pressure, heart disease, pregnancy, and menstruation), stick with this gentle squeeze and release of the navel toward the spine.
Practice this from the same setup described above. Begin with your pelvic floor and belly relaxed. As you exhale, engage your pelvic floor, followed by your lower belly (laterally, between the two frontal hip bones, and horizontally, between the pubic bone and the navel), and then the upper belly (navel to spine). Release the upper belly, lower belly, and pelvic floor as you inhale. Repeat this five to ten times, or add uddiyana bandha, the abdominal lock, as described below.
To Add Uddiyana Bandha
Exhale, and contract the pelvic floor, lower belly, and upper belly. When the whole abdominal wall is contracted and the breath empty, suck the belly up under the ribs. Then immediately release the suction and inhale, releasing the contraction in the upper belly, lower belly, and pelvic floor. Without pausing, exhale and repeat.
This is a fun one that I learned from NAMA Certified Ayurvedic practitioner and senior ParaYoga teacher, Kathryn Templeton. Templeton touts this as a great post-feast variation (meaning the next day, as this is another you won’t want to do immediately after eating) that can help relieve gas or bloating.
Begin in dhanurasana (bow pose). Lie on your belly with arms resting alongside you. Bend your knees and reach back with your hands to grab hold of your feet or ankles. To avoid twisting your pelvis, be sure to reach both hands back at the same time (not one at a time). If you’re unable to reach your feet or ankles, wrap a strap around the fronts of your ankles (or feet) and hold on to the ends of the strap. Spread your toes to activate the muscles of your legs. Resist your shins in toward each other to avoid splaying your knees. Press your feet (or ankles) back against your hands (or strap) to lift your thighs away from the floor, and lead with your chest (not your chin) as you rise up into the backbend. Broaden your collarbones, lift your sternum, and allow your head to follow the movement of your chest—lifting it slightly, but still maintaining length in the back of your neck.
To turn your bow into a rolling bow, roll back and forth and side to side, creating gentle compression in different areas of the belly, which Templeton says helps to “massage” the colon, break up stagnation, and express gas (FYI, you may want to practice this pose solo).
Move, Twist, and Flow
Before eating, or after your meal has had a chance to digest, Templeton recommends a practice that includes both expansion and contraction and a nice balance of side-bending, twisting, backbending, and forward bending postures.
And again, as far as digestive benefits go, while twisting poses probably aren’t going to “wring out” your organs, moving, twisting, and breathing are still good for you and can feel great (because you’re still moving things around in there!). And that’s a huge reason for practicing yoga, right? Just because it feels so wonderful!
Ultimately, a great way to ignite your digestive fire is to simply move. That might mean going for a walk or flowing through your favorite yoga poses (after your meal has had a reasonable time to digest—so you’re not uncomfortable).
And finally, one of my personal favorite twists to include in a flowing vinyasa sequence is this balance-challenging variation:
From a low lunge, with the right leg forward and the right knee stacked directly over the right ankle (back knee can be on the floor, or back leg can be straight), plant your left fingertips on the floor, directly under your shoulder and beside your right foot. Walk your right hand up onto your right thigh. Press your back inner thigh up toward the sky, and press your front thigh down and forward. Holding that, lengthen your spine and twist your belly to the right. Walk your right hand up onto your hip and roll your right shoulder back so that it’s stacked directly over your left shoulder. Then extend your right arm up to the sky. From here, get light on your left fingertips and see if you can float them up off of the floor, bringing your torso upright as you remain in a twist. Your arms are now extended out to a “T” position with your palms facing the direction in which you’re twisting. Remain here for a breath or two before “windmilling” out of the twist (i.e., circling your arms forward and down as you come out), bringing your fingertips to frame either side of your right foot, and returning to lunge. Repeat on the second side.
Give one, two, or all of these practices a try this Thanksgiving—or any other time you’re looking to boost your digestive powers!