Yoga for Better Digestion

The gut can tell us a lot.  It has been more recently referred to as “the second brain,” a complex system of nerves and neurotransmitters that link to the gray matter in our head.  The “second brain” provides gut instinct, that barometer for our instinctual sense about bad food, situations and people.   The gut is also sensitive and reactive to our thoughts and moods.  The discovery that our gut contains a “second brain” provides a good explanation for why stress-reducing practices such as yoga, that help regulate physiology, thought, and mood, can be so helpful for the gut.

Nutrition and good digestion are vital for good health, clear thinking, and strong immunity.   Step one is eating nutritious food.  Food must then pass through all of the stages of digestion to be use-able fuel for our body.   We need to be able to digest the food, breaking it into the component parts that can be absorbed and assimilated by our body.

Yoga aids the digestive process in several ways:

  • Yoga practice can regulate the nervous system, helping to soothe stress symptoms, which in turn improves digestion and absorption.   Stress usually involves a wild ride of thoughts and emotions that often need to be slowed down and quieted for better digestion, absorption, and assimilation.
  • “Hyper” conditions of the stomach like excess acid secretion, ulcers and heartburn or of the intestines like diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease, often benefit from soothing, gentle, calming approaches to yoga postures, breath techniques, and sound.   Workout, power and hot yoga practices are typically contraindicated for these types of conditions.
  • Sluggish digestion such as constipation and poor absorption (gas, indigestion, bloating, poor energy, headaches) can be improved by a yoga practice adapted to create circulation in the area of the digestive organs and specific approaches to the postures and breathing to get things moving.  Twists, forward bends and lateral postures are often quite helpful.
  • Yoga trains awareness of our body, breath and mind, which is a powerful tool for dealing with digestive issues.  Our yoga practice can help us become more sensitive to how stress affects our gut, what types and quantities of food work for us and how our digestion changes on a daily or seasonal basis.

A yoga practice tailored to your individual needs and interests and adapted to your specific health issues is the best approach for gut health.  You might consider one-on-one sessions with a Yoga Therapist to get started, especially if you have a “hyper” condition such as chronic diarrhea or IBS or IBD.

If you have food intolerances and allergies, I highly recommend seeking out a registered dietitian (R.D.) with experience in gut health.   It’s important to eat the most diverse diet possible so that you fuel your body and brain with the nutrients it needs.  Long-term nutrient deficiencies can lead to serious health problems.

Don’t ignore significant changes in your digestion.  Consult your health care provider if you have a change in your digestion that persists and affects your energy level, sleep, or your ability to do your normal activities.

In Summary:

  1. Eat a nutritious diet, getting as much variety as possible within the boundaries of any food allergies or intolerances.
  2. Use your yoga practice to relieve stress (an enemy of digestion)
  3. Soothing yoga practices help “hyper” conditions of digestion
  4. Consider twists, forward bends and lateral movements to get things moving.
  5. Use your practice as an awareness tool for your food needs.

Apanasana:  The Gas-Relieving Posture

Benefit:  May be soothing for bloating or gas pains and helpful for constipation.

Lying on your back, place your hands over the tops of the knees with your fingers pointed toward your toes.  Inhale in place and then as you exhale bring the knees toward your chest.  On inhale, slowly move the knees back to the position above the hips.  Continue the repetitions at least 8 times, progressively increasing the length of your exhale.   You might find it soothing to add a “hmmmm” sound to your long exhalation.

Rib Mountain State Park

Grow Your Roots – A Stable Base of Support

Your feet, ankles, legs, knees, hips and sacrum (the wedge-shaped bone at the base of the spine) provide a base of support for moving, working, and playing.  It’s when you start slip-sliding around on the ice that you come to appreciate strength, flexibility, tracking and alignment in that base of support.  Viniyoga has great tools for helping you develop a stable base of support for doing what you need and love to do.

There are many postures done lying on your back without any weight-bearing that benefit your entire lower base of support.   This is often an important starting place if you have low back, sacrum, hip, knee or foot/ankle problems.  Developing strength and stability in non-weight bearing often helps train the alignment needed for walking, running, skiing, ice skating, hockey, curling and standing yoga postures.  Flexibility is important but should be balanced with stability and strength.

Check out Dvidpada pitham or Bridge, for its benefits for the lower body.  It’s a good posture to add in to begin to gently bear weight and develop strength and stability in the lower body.  You might consider exploring progressively widening the base (your feet) to work different hip muscles.

Yoga standing postures, including leg balances, can be helpful for “waking up” the muscles that support your feet, which include muscles in the feet as well as lower legs.  One of my “every day postures” is the Viniyoga version of Tadasana or Mountain Pose where you raise your arms overhead and raise your heels off the floor simultaneously while inhaling and slowly lower arms and heels simultaneously on an exhalation.  If you do this posture slowly on inhale and exhale, I can guarantee that you will start to “wake up” your feet.

Grow your roots and cultivate your stable base of support in practice.  Do movement coordinated with a steady, slow even pace of breathing.  Notice how working with your lower body in a conscious, breath-centered way travels with you during your day to help you feel rooted, grounded, and better able to deal with life’s inevitable stresses.  Doing a practice that emphasizes the lower body is like strapping on your seatbelt in a rollercoaster.  You’ll be able to lift your arms, scream and enjoy the ride!

Awakening To Awareness

Many people who have practiced other styles of yoga say that Viniyoga is different. You have to pay attention. You have to be aware. It’s not the same sequence of postures every time or one size fits all yoga. There is active participation of attention in the process of awakening to who you are.

First and foremost through attention, Viniyoga awakens the practitioner to the breath, and then through the flow of the breath to the movement of the spine, and then to the movement of the spine in postures. (We gratefully acknowledge our teacher, Gary Kraftsow, MA, E-RYT 500, for this paraphrased sutra about this relationship between attention, awareness, the breath and the spine.)

The postures are not the goal. The postures provide tools for understanding what’s happening in your body. Where do you hold tension? What’s tight? What’s weak? Where is there pain or dysfunction in a joint?

It’s by using movement in and out of postures that we can become aware of the condition of the major joints and muscles. It’s by movement in and out of postures that we can begin to release tightly contracted muscles, improve movement patterns, and create stability. The beauty of the Viniyoga approach to asana practice is that it can be individualized for your unique challenges.

The practice can be adapted to help create specific effects for a variety of interests or needs including to: impact a challenging condition, increase strength, achieve a more difficult posture in time (such as shoulderstand or headstand), create an energetic effect, prepare for a breath practice or meditation, or compensate or prepare for other activities (such as a golf game or bike ride).

Whether you’re practicing Viniyoga in one of our classes or through private work with us, we’re interested in having the practice help you awaken to awareness. No auto pilot…just pure awareness.


Yoga & Winter Seasonal Changes

“This season of the year grinds the very soul out of me.  My nerves lose their tone, my teeth ache, and my courage falls to the bottomless bottom of infinitude.”

– Henry Adams in a letter to Charles Milnes Gaskell, 1869

Are there days, weeks or months that you feel like Henry Adams?  We are fortunate to have well-insulated homes, snow plows, running water and indoor plumbing but the dark days of winter can still “grind the very soul” out of us.   Most people who live in northern latitudes experience some seasonal changes.  Winter blues and seasonal affective disorder are terms used to describe the spectrum of more problematic and serious symptoms experienced as the days grow shorter.

Seasonal changes may include difficulty concentrating and processing information, overwhelm, irritability, anxiety or a depressive mood.  Pain, an achy flu-like feeling, exacerbation of fibromyalgia symptoms, fatigue,  disturbed sleep (either too much or too little or poor quality), sweet cravings, lowered sex drive and less desire to socialize are all part of the change in brain chemicals that can occur with changing light.

One of the most powerful tools that yoga has to offer to deal with seasonal change symptoms is breath-centered movement and breathing practices.   The breath can be manipulated in different ways to energize, focus, and lift mood.

Try this experiment:  From a seated or standing position, inhale as you simultaneously take your arms out to the side and up and overhead.  Exhale as you bring the arms back down.   Then progressively lengthen your inhale every repetition over the course of six repetitions.  An early morning yoga posture practice that emphasizes lengthening inhalation can help change symptoms of low energy, lack of focus and depressed mood.

Are anxieties and sleep issues a problem for you during the winter?  A practice later in the day that emphasizes gentle, soothing postures and a focus on lengthening exhale may soothe irritability, anxiety and stress.  When I work with clients who have seasonal changes, a variety of short practices to help manage different symptoms are often the most helpful.

Exercise, preferably earlier in the day in natural light, a strong cup of coffee in the morning, a diet that is rich in omega 3 fatty acids (flaxseed oil, salmon, sardines, etc.) and limits simple carbohydrates, stress management, good habits around sleep (no late night electronics!) and social outings with friends can also help manage seasonal changes.

It’s important to work with your health care provider if symptoms progress beyond what feels manageable.   If you have trouble functioning at work, home or in your volunteer work, your personal relationships suffer and you have significant feelings of depression, including suicidal thoughts, it’s time to talk with your doctor.  Light therapy, medication and therapy may be recommended to help you get through the winter.

If you can relate to Henry Adams, it’s good to get into a preventative routine of natural sunlight, exercise, yoga or other stress management practices, a healthy diet, fun social outings and a morning cup of coffee.  Prevent symptoms if you can, manage symptoms that come up and seek the advice of your doctor if symptoms get overwhelming and you can’t escape to a sunny location.


Apples – Symbolic of the Journey of Transformation

My husband recently turned his own harvest of apples into crowd-pleasing apple bread (see recipe below) for one of my yoga retreats.   It struck me how long the journey is for that wonderful apple bread.  We can learn something for our journey in yoga from the patience it takes to nurture apples from seed to bread.

Apple seeds grow into tree stock, soil is prepared, and small trees are planted.  Trees are mulched, pruned, trellised and fussed over in those first years.  Deer, rabbits, turkeys, insects and diseases are discouraged from messing with that tender sapling.  Come May in some future year, the tree produces an abundance of blossoms that form into budding apples.  Treacherous invaders are discouraged as apples grown large into the fall and are harvested for the transformation into some wonderful palette pleaser.

The journey of personal practice in yoga also takes this nurturing patience.  At first it’s easy to be excited about doing something that makes our body relax, mind quiet and breath spacious.  But as we practice, we come upon obstacles.  The body ages or we come upon deeply entrenched thought patterns or we recognize an emotional imprint that holds us back.  Some of these thought patterns and emotional imprints are like deep hard ruts in the field.  It’s easy to lose to a truck or tractor in them.

The very time that we want to give up on our personal practice is the time to keep going. This is the rich fertile field of personal growth and transformation.  If we can dig the tractor or truck out of one of those deep grooves, we will transform.

Kim’s Apple Bread

1 cup olive oil

3 eggs

1-1/2 cups sugar

1 tsp. Vanilla

3 cups peeled, diced apples

3 cups all-purpose flour or bread flour (firmer texture)

1 tsp. Cinnamon

1 tsp. Ground star anise

1 tsp. Ground coffee

1 tsp. Black pepper

1 tsp. Baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Combine oil, eggs, sugar and vanilla in a small bowl.  In large mixing bowl, combine flour, spices, baking soda, and salt.  Add wet ingredients plus apples and nuts. Mix but avoid over-stirring.  Use vegetable spray on 2 loaf pans.  Split batter between the 2 loaf pans and bake at 325 degrees F for about 70 minutes.

Staying flexible

Feel Your Best with Yoga: Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Life changes in an instant with a diagnosis of cancer.  It’s like a big wave crashing through the house rearranging everything.  How do you manage the big wave?  The ancient science of yoga provides useful tools for coping with the diagnosis and treatments and supporting optimal health in recovery.

How Yoga Helps

Yoga therapy (the therapeutic application of the tools of yoga) can help increase energy, reduce fatigue, reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, manage pain, and improve psychological health, including depression.

One of the most important self-care strategies for cancer is caring for your immune system.  A tailored yoga practice does this by reducing stress, improving sleep and promoting better digestion.  Yoga, along with nutritious food, adequate sleep, regular exercise, social support and other therapies, promotes the optimal functioning of your immune system during and after treatment.

Yoga Adapted for Your Needs

A yoga practice for cancer treatment and recovery is adapted to the person to help with their unique and very individual experience.  Yoga practice might include yoga postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, sound, meditation or other practices.  The tools used are always tailored to the person’s interests and needs. There is no “one-size-fits-all” yoga approach when it comes to the type of cancer, the treatments or the recovery.

Short, Simple and Practical

My clients often find that short, simple practice tools tailored for their specific needs are the most beneficial.  Many people with cancer find that simple breathing practices are extremely helpful in managing nausea, stress, fatigue and sleep.  Yoga breath practice (pranayama) can be tailored for managing specific symptoms.

One of my yoga therapy clients, a woman with breast cancer, found that her yoga practice helped her throughout her day.  She did a short breathing practice in bed in the morning to increase her energy, a short mid-day practice of 4 gentle postures to help manage stress and pain, and a walk outside before dinner to connect with nature, something that brought great meaning to her life and helped her feel better.  She was also equipped with other yoga tools to use as needed to manage fatigue and improve sleep.  Through our work together, she was able to better understand the relationship between stress, anxiety and pain and how she could control stress and anxiety through her breath, rest, movement, and other yoga tools.

If you are interested in yoga as a tool for managing cancer treatment and recovery, seek out the services of a Yoga Therapist or a yoga teacher with specialized training in cancer.  It’s usually best to work one-on-one, especially while undergoing any treatments, so that the practice is adapted to your needs.

A Yoga Tool:  The Calming Breath

Sit upright in a chair with your feet firmly placed on the floor.   Begin to notice the flow of your breath and make your breath smooth through the inhale and exhale.  Control the flow of your breath through the throat area so that you can hear your own breath.  Then progressively make your inhale and exhale longer, keeping your inhale and exhale equal in length.  Do this for 6 breaths.  Then make your exhale 2 – 3 seconds longer than your inhale.  Do this for 12 breaths.  Then gradually allow your breath to soften back to a normal.  Notice the effects of the breath practice for you.

Rocks in Water

BEing vs. DOing

The other day I read something very “new-agey” about yoga.  The author said that yoga is being, not doing.  I immediately visualized the packing of my bags to trek to the Himalayas to meditate, to just be.  It made me chuckle.

Reality set it.  It’s rare that a person of the modern world has an opportunity to set their worldly duties aside to just be.

Doing is a reality of human existence if you want to pay the mortgage, feed the children, take care of grandma, do community service, train for a marathon race, achieve your potential through your chosen profession or make meaningful connections with your friends and family.

A more appropriate way to describe yoga might be that it is the being within the doing.  It is bringing attention, focus and presence to anything that you do. We often go on auto-pilot, especially with those closest to us.  One of the first challenges of presence is to just stop, breathe and listen.  Once you master that, then maybe the trek to meditate in the Himalayas will be a wise journey.

Until then, bring presence to your doing.  Breathe into the household chores, the yardwork, the carpools, the games, the job, the volunteering, the savoring of a good meal with friends, and into the cherished moments of your own personal practice of yoga.

“Explore the life that is the life of your present form.  One day you will discover it is not different from the life of the Secret One, and your heart will sing triumphant songs of being at home everywhere.”

— The Radiance Sutras

Transitions and Transformation

Change in our life comes in many different ways.  Sometimes we plan for the change.  A retirement, career change or getting married are examples of things that we often consciously choose.  And then some changes blow in like a strong wind taking with it any sense of order and stability.

There are many teachings in the ancient tradition of yoga for transforming through life’s inevitable changes.   Some of the most profound and useful teachings on change come from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The teachings most helpful center on our relationship to attachment and aversion, understanding what causes suffering, how to free ourselves from suffering and staying centered in regular practice that is suitable for us as individuals.

Yoga can be profoundly useful in helping us build our prana shakti or vitality so that we are strong and stable in body, physiology (especially our immune system) and mind.  We build prana shakti through postures and breath practice (pranayama).  We can then use our vitality to work with the more difficult aspects of change including thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that create suffering around the inevitable changes that life brings our way.

Want to learn more about using yoga to navigate change?

August 20 – Cultivating Discriminative Awareness & Inspiration

6:30 – 8:15 pm

Sport & Spine Physical Therapy, Rib Mountain (in Bone & Joint Clinic Building)

Fee:  $20/retreat

Explore yoga tools for navigating the journey of change including:

  • Using your voice to manifest a new path
  • Understanding change and its relationship to suffering or freedom
  • Opening to grace as you navigate through transitions.

Can Yoga Help Seasonal Allergies?

As the trees and flowers burst into their spring brilliance, those who suffer from seasonal allergies quickly shift their immune systems into high gear to deal with the pollen.  It’s been a week of students walking into class with itchy, swollen eyes, runny noses, congestion, sinus headaches, coughing, worsening of asthma and fatigue.  “Can yoga help allergies?” has been the question of the week.

Yoga therapy can help seasonal allergies in two very different ways – preventatively and on an emergency basis.  Many of my students needed the emergency approach this week, which is dealing with the most urgent uncomfortable symptoms.

The yoga therapy emergency approach to allergies centers on calming the nervous system, which in turn helps calm the immune system.  A very short gentle practice that includes progressively lengthening exhalation, a calming breath practice and restorative relaxation may help reduce the “hyperreaction” that happens when every tree and shrub decides to spread its pollen.  When I work with people individually, I individualize breath ratio and techniques to manage sinus congestion, asthma symptoms and fatigue.   Most people who have allergies will need to do emergency methods from time to time but even more ideal is building up your system in advance of the season.

A yoga therapy preventative approach to allergies starts long before the pollen count goes up and focuses on progressively strengthening the respiratory, digestive and immune systems.  This prepares your system for high pollen counts so that you have fewer or less disabling symptoms, possibly reduced need for medication amount and frequency, and overall less restriction of doing what you love or need to do. Yoga postures are used to extend the breath and prepare for pranayama or breathing practice.  It is pranayama and other individualized approaches in personal practice that provides something akin to a multivitamin for the immune system way in advance of seasonal allergies.

Your own unique constellation of allergens and subsequent symptoms are the starting point for yoga therapy emergency and preventative approaches that help you live with minimal disruption as the trees and flowers burst into their full glory.

Working Inward with Yoga: Dealing with Life’s Messes and Stresses

“The body keeps the score.” Bessel A van der Kolk

This simple quote reveals so much about what we are just beginning to understand about the science of chronic stress.  Dr. van der Kolk, a researcher who studies the effect of yoga on stress and trauma, is reminding us that the body stores up life’s messes and stresses.

Stress enters through our senses (what we hear, see, smell, and feel) and the nervous system.  All that we perceive is processed through the brain.  The brain is then involved in little or large reactions that are physical, physiological, mental and emotional.   We store up knowing how to flee the tiger, deal with a long, uncertain period of unemployment, make the next deadline, or deal with the next difficult person.

The problem with chronic, unrelenting stress is that if we don’t discharge and unwind, our body runs on what I call “reaction overdrive.” Chronic stress often plays out in body tension and pain, headaches, sleeplessness, fatigue, mental fog, increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety and depression.

Yoga helps reduce stress and the symptoms of stress by:

  • Gentle, breath-supported movement that helps dislodge the issues from the tissues
  • Breath practices that re-train and tune the nervous system to be able to handle life’s normal stresses without going into overdrive
  • Yoga philosophy teachings on the nature of the mind that can help usunderstand and work with thought patterns
  • Mental techniques, including self-inquiry and meditation, that help us identify and change disruptive, negative thoughts, attitudes and behaviors
  • Other techniques such as the use of sound/chanting to calm the nervous system and focus the mind

Breath-supported gentle movement is often the doorway in to feeling embodied again after periods of chronic stress.  The body begins to feel as if it’s connected to the brain.  And once that connection is more fully established, it provides avenues to begin to explore more deeply the sources of stress, how we react to them and how we can develop more productive, life-affirming thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.

We can live life’s messes and stresses over and over again, building up a toxic load for our body, mind and spirit or we can take steps to deal with past stress and the day-to-day stresses through positive action.

Staying flexible

Yoga for Boomers and Beyond

If yoga makes you think of pretzel poses, think again.  Yoga that is adapted for boomers and beyond offers many tools for optimal health.  It is a science that promotes physical fitness, physiological and emotional/mental health through yoga postures, breathing practices, deep relaxation, and other practices.

What are the tangible benefits of regular yoga practice?

Physical – Expect improved strength and stability, better flexibility, improvement in posture, better mind-body awareness, more functional movement patterns, reduced pain and stiffness, better balance and improved circulation from doing yoga several times per week.

Physiological – As we age, our physiology (organ and glands) benefits from the deep breathing practices so common in most yoga traditions.  Deeper breathing helps almost all of our organs and glands and can improve digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, stress, sleep, immunity, nervous system tone and energy level.  Deep breathing also has an important role in pain management and mental health.

Mental/Emotional — While Yoga does a body good in terms of physical and physiological fitness, it also improves what I like to call “attitude and gratitude.”  A yoga practice suited to your individual needs can increase self-confidence, happiness, focus, memory, compassion, and capacity to deal with life’s inevitable changes.  At its core, yoga philosophy teaches us not to identify with our body, that we are much more than the aging chassis that we walk around in.

Aging is not for wimps.  You need good tools to support your body, mind and spirit.  Even a small amount of yoga on a daily basis (10 – 15 minutes) can make a difference in how your body feels, your organ systems work and your mind functions.  Give it a whirl.  And if you have questions, we’re happy to talk to you about how to get started.

A Way Back into Relationship with Yourself

A very practical way back into relationship with yourself is through your body and breath.

From your hands and knees, inhale.  As you exhale, bend your elbows toward your knees and take your chest toward your thighs.  Fix your attention to your back, knees, hips, shoulders,  and neck without any judgment.  Do several repetitions.  Just notice the physical sensations.

Then focus on your breath.  Is it shallow or deep?  Is it “jiggedy” or smooth?  Can you begin to make the breath smooth and flowing?

Then focus on your mind.  Can you keep it focused or is it wandering?  As you smooth out the breath, does your mind begin to focus?

Then focus on any emotional content that is present.  Acknowledge it and be present with it until you can start to breathe right into the center of it.  As you breathe into the center of emotion, it creates space.  It’s like throwing open the windows in spring to dilute out the stale air that builds up in your house over winter.

Our personal practice provides this amazing playground to be with ourselves, to be aware of our structure, our breathing, our thoughts and thought patterns, and our emotions.  It allows a space to continually observe and reconnect with our true selves.

You don’t need to travel to faraway places to find this playground.  It might just be 10 minutes a day that you do a few yoga postures focusing on the breath and take a few minutes to sit, breathe and observe thought.  Sometimes nothing happens and sometimes deeper insights arise.  The point of personal practice is to return again and again to experience your true self.