by Jillian Pransky
In Yoga and Ayurveda we believe that digestion is the cornerstone of good health. Everything that is taken in must be chewed and broken down. We must be able to assimilate that which will contribute to our well-being and release that which would become toxic if built up.
We also know that complete digestion can only happen when our bodies and minds are “safe” to rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system), when we are relaxed, warm, and relatively content. When we are not in this state, when we are stressed, our bodies pause all digestive functions and instead focus on the potential need to “Fight, Flee, or Freeze” (sympathetic nervous system).
While complete digestion is always the cornerstone of good health, it becomes the focus of a winter yoga practice. In winter, nature slows all outward growth; the earth contracts, stops producing, and instead pauses to replenish its inner energy reserves. Our inner world also slows down with this contracting cycle of nature, and therefore we need to take extra efforts to ignite our digestive fires in order to prevent build up of toxins, enhance our immunity, and cumulate our own inner energy reserve.
During this time of year, our yoga practice should keep things warm and moving inside while encouraging relaxation and ease. We can increase our health through asana that address the organs of digestion such as in the lungs, stomach, and intentions.
Think twists, forward bends, side bends, simple inversions, easy chest openers and, of course, restorative poses to turn on the Rest and Digest response of the body.
In addition focus on kindling inner heat—and digestive fire—through slow-flow vinyasa and deep breathing that doesn’t over stimulate or prevent energy from moving down in a way that encourages release and elimination. Often it can be fun to speed up in a vinyasa practice, but we end up barely finishing a pose before our minds jump to the next. This is much like not chewing our food before swallowing. We wind up cutting off our breath before our inhale or exhale are actually complete. In order to digest fully, we need to savor our yoga and everything about our experience—just like when we eat, we need to clearly see our food, smell it, taste it, and delight in it, in order for good digestion to happen.
My favorite way to slow down and savor each moment of my vinyasa practice is instead of synchronizing my movement and breath exactly together, I wait a moment (one or two seconds) for the breath to start and THEN initiate my movement.
Waiting in this mindful pause sharpens my alertness throughout the vinyasa flow making it effortless to stay present and also kicks in more relaxation – both through the one point focus of listening to your breath, while preventing mindless over-efforting which will actually prevent digestion by kicking up the stress response.
Try it: In Cat/Cow, from all fours, feel the inhale begin, allow a second or two of breath to inflate you, then begin to release your spine towards the floor, move your heart forward and look up to the sky. Notice the very top of the inhale when your lungs are full, and enjoy filling out your shape completely.
Then WAIT until you feel the exhale begin; let a second of breath flow out before you round your back to the sky and gaze at your navel. Stay in this rounded shape all the way to the end of the breath. Relax in the pause at the end of the breath as you wait for the next inhale to start, allowing a second before you flow back to open your chest and look up. Continue like this for 10-20 breaths. Savor your delicious practice. Experiment with this technique in the sun salutations and all your poses!