Yoga & Digestion Issues: What You Need to Know

Most of us give little thought to our stomachs, or any of our internal organs for that matter. We focus primarily on the muscles and bones, rarely paying attention to our organs until they cause pain or discomfort. People suffering from heartburn (GERD), indigestion, irritable bowel disease, chronic constipation, Chron's disease and other digestive issues know this all too well. While there are many things these individuals can do to reduce symptoms and flare-ups, is yoga one of them? And for people who deal with intestinal distress on a regular basis, who already practice yoga (or want to) is there anything you can do to reduce symptoms (like cramps or gas) during class to make your practice more comfortable overall?
The Purpose of Yoga
Hatha yoga was created to help people sit quietly, to calm the body so the mind could rest. Those who tried to sit quietly found they couldn't, for a variety of reasons, the distractions of gas, excess bile and other GI issues chief among them. Ayurveda, the Indian system of health that is a "sister" practice to yoga, says that inefficient digestion is the root of many diseases. They helped solved these issues by following a "yogic diet," which bears resemblance to dietary guidelines for those suffering from GERD or IBD: Avoid caffeine and other stimulants, pass over spicy food and limit fat intake; eat simply, not too much or too little, and allow plenty of time between meals and bedtime for proper digestion.
The Yoga Sutras, the ancient text upon which most yoga practices are based, says that a healthy digestive system yields radiance in the body. That brings us to the yoga poses, many of which were designed to help cleanse the body and soothe specific internal organs. Ancient yogis concluded that the body's organs, especially the digestive system, could benefit from being compressed, twisted and massaged from the outside. While most modern yoga classes focus on the muscular and skeletal aspects of poses, the "asanas" (poses or postures) were designed with a specific internal organ or system in mind—not necessarily as a focus on the muscles and bones, as we think of it today.
Asanas help bring fresh blood to your organs. By practicing yoga, we keep the organs moving, gently prodding and twisting them. According to yogic wisdom, twisting poses in particular are said to "wring out" our organs, stimulating blood flow. And the gentle physical activity of yoga also may help get digestive juices flowing and food moving on through! By bringing your attention to your inner body and your organs, you also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down bodily processes and supports digestion and elimination. Yoga's diaphragmatic breathing even gently massages the internal organs.
Yoga and Digestion
Take a look at a diagram of the digestive system, and you'll notice that ascending colon is on the right and the descending on the left. By putting pressure on the ascending colon (on the right), we can facilitate digestion, giving our abdominal organs a helping hand when they're overwhelmed by illness or from overeating. Twisting gently or bringing the right knee to the chest while sitting or lying on the back can ease gas and relieve pressure after a large meal. Bringing in both knees can also assist the diaphragm in putting pressure on the organs, encouraging them to work harder. Stretching the back can open up the front of the body, including the intestines, assisting with constipation. Twisting to the left, for the reasons mentioned above, can be helpful after a big meal. (You will also want to twist to the right to balance out the pose. It won't do any harm, but the left-side twists are said to be more beneficial.)
Beyond these anecdotal benefits, there is some research to support yoga's role in helping with digestive ailments. Yoga has been shown to help with both pain level and frequency in kids with irritable bowel disease. Also, stress is a major contributor to GI issues, and since there is ample evidence that yoga can help alleviate both stress and anxiety, it may help ease suffering for those with irritable bowel disease (or other stress-provoked GI symptoms). Other studies, such as one published in the journal Gastroenterology in 1994 found that the relaxation exercises learned in yoga could help reduce symptoms of acid reflux. Of course, you should always consult your health-care professional before integrating any new treatments, and neither a regular yoga practice nor any particular pose is a panacea for all digestive ailments.
Making Yoga More Comfortable
For those who are cleared to participate in yoga, here are some tips to make yoga class more enjoyable when you're suffering from digestive issues. 
  • Avoid eating at least two hours before class. A full belly makes most of the moves in yoga seem even harder. Especially if you are prone to acid reflux or indigestion, skip a pre-yoga snack. With all the twisting and inverting you can anticipate in a yoga class, you'll feel better if you err on the side of an empty rather than a full belly.
  • Avoid spicy food for at least six hours before class. Spicy foods can induce indigestion in many people, especially those with sensitive GI systems. Skip the chili at lunchtime if you plan to take a yoga class that evening. It will return to haunt you in your first down dog.
  • Plan your meals carefully. If gas keeps you off the mat, avoid foods that induce it. Beans, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts), dairy (for those who are lactose intolerant), artificial sweeteners and foods with added fiber can all cause gas.
  • Resist the urge to drink water an hour before class and during class. While drinking plenty of water between meals is important when you're trying to dilute and neutralize stomach acid, you don't want to gulp down too much water before a yoga class. Chances are, you won't be sweating much in the average yoga class, so you don't need to worry about hydration as much as if you were taking, say, a Spinning class. Stop drinking an hour before class and limit water consumption during your practice to avoid a full belly, which puts pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle that keeps foods from moving back into the esophagus. Chugging water during class then inverting can put excess pressure on this muscle and lead to reflux. A belly full of water eventually leads to a full bladder, which can make all those down dogs feel really uncomfortable and also puts pressure on the digestive organs. 
  • Skip headstand pose and try "legs up the wall" instead. This gentle pose will offer similar restorative benefits without putting excess pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter.
  • Take it easy in twists. Not only can an overzealous twist lead to an unexpected outburst from your nether regions, but it also can irritate GERD symptoms. Twist only until you feel a stretch, and if you start to feel too much pressure in the intestines or a buildup of acid, gently ease back on the pose.
  • Consider a home practice. Don't let an upset stomach, chronic gas or IBD stand in the way of your yoga practice. If you feel uncomfortable in a class setting due to gas or frequent bathroom visits, invest in a yoga DVD and unroll your mat in the comfort of your own home. You can balance your body's needs and your desire to practice. Here are some specific poses that can help with indigestion that you can try on your own. 

Brands MM, Purperhart H, Deckers-Kocken JM. "A pilot study of yoga treatment in children with functional abdominal pain and irritable bowel syndrome." Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2011 Jun;19(3):109-14.
This article has been reviewed and approved by Nicole Nichols, Certified Personal Trainer.