When I was still teaching yoga regularly, I introduced a special Thanksgiving morning class, which dealt exclusively with digestion. It was one of the most-attended and -enjoyed traditions at the studio, and I always was grateful to have the opportunity to help my student friends enter the holiday hoopla on a healthy and uplifted note.
Typically, a hatha yoga flow to aid digestion includes lots of forward bends and twists: the former to relax the entire abdominal region, and the latter to help move food through the digestive tract. In kundalini yoga, there are full kriyas dedicated to the bowel system and to elimination.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it can be stated that each meridian system contributes to healthy digestion. For today’s post, however, I focus on the heavy hitters: Stomach/Spleen, and Lung/Large Intestine.
Following are some techniques to help you feel better after a large holiday meal, or when seasonal pressures begin to take a toll on your insides. You can use these ideas anytime, however: when you feel bloated; when you are constipated, perhaps from travel or a change of diet; or simply as a new addition to your regular routine.
Also known as Thunderbolt Pose, this posture is the one technique that is appropriate immediately after a large or heavy meal. While most postures for digestion are best practiced at least an hour post-indulgence, Rock Pose is ready and waiting as soon as you get up from the table. And it is simple: Sit on your heels, knees together; if you need to place a blanket or pillow between your bottom and your heels, feel free. Then, sit quietly with a long spine, breathe as deeply as your full belly will allow, and close your eyes. Let your hands rest wherever is comfortable: I like to give myself an abdominal massage, which is outlined next.
Abdominal Tapping and Massage
Still in Rock Pose, or in any comfortable (yet aligned) seated position, begin tapping your stomach with all fingertips. Tap all around the area, stimulating the digestive fires.
Then, to begin the massage, first remember the direction of digestion: From the stomach, food travels downward (toward the belly button), then veers right, and back up a bit, before it loops to the left, across the midline, and down to the end of the large intestine, before exiting your system.
To encourage this flow, place the right palm on your stomach, just beneath the ribcage; fingers point to the left. Slowly, move the hand down toward the navel, then draw the hand toward the right hip bone, before drawing it up the right side of the abdominal wall.
With that piece in mind, you will add in the left hand. As the right hand moves from your stomach downward, place the left hand on the stomach (fingers pointing right). As your right hand begins to pull toward the right (just below the navel), move your left hand to the left, still at the level of the stomach. As the right hand begins to travel upward on the right side of your abdominal wall, slide the left hand downward along the left side. As the right hand returns to its origin on the stomach, finish the work of the left by using the heel of your hand to exert a little pressure as it slides down and away from your body. Repeat as often as you like; this is particularly useful if your belly is aching a bit, or when constipated.
Squat (with Twist)
A traditional crouch, or squat, is the optimal position for elimination. With the buttocks off the ground, the hips and groin stretched, and the digestive organs in a relaxed position, gravity kicks in and the body can more easily eliminate.
If you have trouble squatting because of tight muscles, try placing a book, block, or rolled blanket under your heels. This adjustment typically provides enough support, so that you can remain in squat for a round of deep breathing. I enjoy placing my hands in prayer position, with my elbows pressing the front of my shins: Close your eyes, and take 6-12 deep breaths.
To enhance the effect of the squat, add a twist. Widen your feet and legs, with toes pointing slightly outward. Reach your left arm forward, through your legs, as you turn your torso to the right. This may be as far as you can go, so exert some pressure of the left arm against the left thigh to deepen the twist.
If possible, however, wrap your left arm around the left shin as you rotate the shoulder forward and down (“Internally”). Bring your right arm and hand behind your back; take a hold of the right wrist (or fingertips) with the left hand. Breathe fully, deepening the twist with each exhale. Work with the twist for 3-5 breaths, then repeat the twist on the other side.
Special note: For the purpose of aiding digestion, always twist to the right first (squeezing the left side), and then to the left (freeing the left side, squeezing the right). Again, this mirrors the natural progression of elimination.
Cat/Cow Hip Circles
From squat, come onto all fours. If you are comfortable enough at this point to practice cat/cow flexion and extension of the spine, do as many rounds as you like to further stimulate circulation, and to “pump” the digestive organs. The mild stretch of the abdominal and back muscles is especially soothing to a full belly (not, however, immediately after a meal!).
Then, on all fours, begin to circle your hips to the right, 6-12 times. Focus on the rolling action of the pelvis, and the movement in the lower abdominal region. Repeat the circles to the left. This gentle, yet localized movement pattern brings blood to the organs and the lumbar spine, which establishes the prime environment for effective elimination.
This qigong and acupressure triumvirate is part of my daily routine; at this point, it is nearly automatic as I move around preparing for the day. You can practice each part separately, or combine them in whatever way seems most effective for your body. I like the full 1-2-3 wallop:
Index Finger Massage
Hold one index finger with the opposite hand, so that the holding thumb can rub the inside edge of the index finger from the nail to the base. Stroke firmly downward, repeating a few times. Then move to the other hand. The index finger holds the first four points of the Large Intestine meridian, including LI4 (“Meeting Valley”).
This point is located in the webbing between your thumb and index finger. With the thumb and index finger of the opposite hand, pinch the web until you find a tender area; this spot may feel “full,” or a bit hard. Pinch and release 5-8 times, using enough pressure to access the soreness without causing pain. Inhale as you pinch, exhale as you release. Repeat on the other hand.
Return to Rock Pose, or any comfortable seated position. Make light fists with your hands, and begin thumping all around the top of your buttocks: Move back and forth along the top portion of your gluteal muscles, knocking rapidly. To end, spend some time thumping close to the sacrum. The knocking speedily stimulates eliminatory energy.
Special note: The above three techniques can be done in just about any position. If you are comfortable in squat, try practicing the Triple Treat as you crouch. As mentioned earlier, I do this routine every day, most often as I am walking and puttering around my apartment. Experiment, and find what works best for you.