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Strengthening Digestion with Yoga and Ayurveda

by Meggan Brummer(more info)

listed in yoga, originally published in issue 116 - October 2005

What is Digestion?

Digestion is one of three processes by which our food becomes part of our body. Through digestion, the food that we eat is softened and broken down into a form that is soluble. The most important factor in proper digestion is whether or not food has been properly alkalized before it reaches the stomach. This can be achieved partly through proper chewing, which releases the appropriate digestive juices in the stomach, duodenum and small intestine, but also through eating with awareness, which I will now look at from an Ayurvedic perspective.

Poorna Dhanurasana –The Bow Pose
Poorna Dhanurasana –The Bow Pose

Ayurvedic Wisdom of Food

"As is food, so is your mind."
The ancient Indian Science of Ayurveda speaks of food in great depth. Fine details of how a meal is prepared are of utmost importance, including not only the food, but also the people preparing the food, where and how the food is made, served and eaten. As these aspects have a significant affect on our bodies and minds, they are approached with an attitude of sacred reverence.

The Cooks

Ayurvedically speaking, not just anyone can enter or work in the kitchen. Those who work in the kitchen are tested for good behaviour. The manager of the kitchen and the cook must have certain virtuous qualities of character, (e.g. compassion for others), must be thoroughly knowledgeable and trained in the science and art of cooking. It is believed that the state of mind of the cook whilst he or she is cooking becomes part of the food. As the guest digests not only the flavour of the cook's recipe, but their state of consciousness, it is important that the cooks are cheerful and uplifted.

How the Food is served

Before food is served, a portion of it is offered to the Gods and blessed with certain mantras and Sanskrit prayers. People serving the food should not only be clean and dressed neatly but should also smell pleasant so that no bad aromas interfere with the good smells of the food.

Ayurveda suggests that healthy eating means eating according to place, time and your individual constitution:

Eating according to Place

Considering climatic conditions and geographical location, the food required by the body is different when you are in the mountains compared to when you are near the sea or in the desert. When we change locations, we should change our diet accordingly.

When moving from a cold to a warm country, less food is needed. In hot weather, the body usually requires a more liquid diet, lighter food, less cheese and more fruits and salad.

Your Individual Constitution

Regarding your individual constitution, Ayurveda suggests that we are made up of three elements – pitta (fire), vata (air) and kapha (water). Usually we are a combination of two of these, with one dominant element. Eating in harmony with your individual constitution means that you will avoid overeating certain foods, avoid others altogether and increase the intake of those foods that help to keep the energy in your body balanced. If for example you are predominantly pitta, you will be advised to avoid pitta-dominating foods, such as red meat, hot spicy food, alcohol, tomatoes and raw onions.

Where and How we Eat

Have you noticed the speed with which you eat when you are in a quiet and peaceful environment? Our environment affects the depth of our awareness. Ayurveda suggests that food should be taken in a quiet and peaceful environment, either in silence – neither laughing nor speaking, or with soft background music. Food should be eaten neither too quickly nor too slowly. Eating slowly brings more harmony into our lives, but be aware that eating should not be a long and drawn out affair either. Eating too quickly creates restlessness in our body and mind. If we can increase the quality of awareness that we give to eating, then digestion naturally becomes smoother and stronger.

How Often Should We Eat?

Many of us are conditioned to eat our meals at set times of the day. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, we could deepen our awareness of the frequency and amount of food we eat. Some meals take longer to be digested than others, but we are not always sensitive to this. Food should only be eaten when previous food has been fully digested – no sooner than within three hours of having eaten the previous meal, nor later than six. This is so that the agni (digestive fire) in the body will be at its strongest during eating.

How Much Should We Eat?

Eat small quantities of food. Stuffing only causes a craving for more. Conscious awareness of the quantities of food that we ingest at any single sitting is essential for the maintenance of positive health. Food is not just nourishment for the body; it is medicine for the body, mind and spirit and eating too much destroys this healing opportunity.

Similarly, eating too little affects our appetite adversely, diminishing our agni and weakening our digestive system. If you need to reduce the amount of food you eat, then do so gradually, giving the body time to adjust to the changes.

What We Eat

The food we eat affects not only our digestion but also our state of mind and our emotions. Food that is heavy and takes a long time to digest, such as meat, makes the mind dull and heavy. A vegetarian diet is much easier to digest than a diet that includes meat and has a more positive effect on the mind and emotions.

Have you noticed how you feel after eating a large salad? Fresh foods contain more energy than foods that are overcooked, stale or processed and leave you feeling energized rather than dull and sleepy. However, too much salad and not enough of other types of foods can leave you feeling lightheaded and may cause sleep disturbance.

Some Ayurvedic Guidelines to Eating:

  • Do not eat before sunrise or after sunset;
  • Meditate briefly before eating;
  • Avoid drinks that are too hot or cold;
  • Eat only when you are hungry;
  • Avoid snacking between meals;
  • Avoid reheated foods;
  • Allow two hours after eating before sleeping;
  • Wash your hands, mouth and eyes after eating;
  • Do not drink during a meal.

Yoga for Digestion

If the food that we eat, for one reason or another, is not digesting well in our system, what can we do, apart from taking laxatives? Here are some excellent yoga asanas or poses for aiding the digestive system. Remember, the asanas are not a quick fix for digestive disorders, but need to be practised regularly if the benefits are to be experienced.

1. Poorna Dhanurasana – Bow Pose

Lie on your stomach. Bend your knees and bring your feet towards your buttocks until you can take hold of your feet. Take a deep breath in as you lift your head, looking forwards. At the same time, raise your feet as high as you can whist keeping hold of them. Breathe deeply through your nose for 20 to 30 seconds. When you exhale, exhale completely until there is no more air in your lungs. This will give the internal organs a chance to be massaged. Relax downwards as you breathe out. Rest on your stomach with your legs straight and your head to one side, arms by the side of your body, palms facing towards the sky. Relaxing deeply after doing the bow pose is essential if the benefits are to be fully absorbed into the body.

Poorna Dhanurasana is said to affect most of the endocrine glands, stimulating the thyroid, thymus, liver, kidneys, spleen and pancreas. The pose effectively releases blockages in the abdominal area, pressing acupressure points near the stomach. It has been used for thousands of years as a constipation-relieving pose.

2. Vajrasana – Thunderbolt Pose

Kneel on the floor with your buttocks resting on your heels. Keep the big toes together and move the heels as far apart as you can. Rest your hands on your knees with palms facing upwards. Keep your head level and your spine straight but relaxed. Make sure there is minimum arching in the lower back. Close your eyes and relax your body. Allow the breath to be normal. Keep your attention on your breath, observing the inhalation and the exhalation as they come and go. Sit in this position for at least five minutes, or for as long as you can, progressively increasing the time during each practice. If your knees become sore, shake your legs out in front of you and then move back into the posture. For extra comfort, place a small blanket or a towel between your buttocks and your heels.

Sitting in Vajrasana for a few minutes after a meal promotes strong digestion. This asana activates various acupressure points on the tops of the feet that promote strong digestion. Meridians of various digestive organs including the stomach, spleen-pancreas, liver and gall bladder all pass through this area.

3. Supta Vajrasana – Reclining Thunderbolt Pose

From Vajrasana slowly take your body backwards, using the support of your hands and then your elbows. If your elbows do not reach the ground, then place your hands on the floor and gently take your head backwards, relaxing your neck completely. If you can, relax the body all the way down to the ground so that the back is as flat against the ground, resting your head on the ground. If you need to, then separate your knees slightly. Either you can place your hands with palms downwards on your thighs or you can stretch your arms above your head with your fingers interlocked. Close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly.

Start with practising Supta Vajrasana for up to one minute, building up gradually at your own pace. Beginners can hold the pose for just a few seconds. When you move out of Supta Vajrasana, use the elbows and the hands to lift yourself up and then unfold your legs. Once you are back in Vajrasana, relax forwards into the Child's Pose, with your forehead resting on the ground.

Supta Vajrasana allows the abdominal organs to be deeply massaged and can provide great relief for constipation.

4. Supta Pawanmuktasana – Wind-Relieving Pose

Lie on your back and bring your knees up towards your chest. Interlock your fingers and wrap them over your shins just below the knees. Slowly lift the head off the ground, taking your nose towards your knees. Place the nose between the knees. Hold the position for five deep breaths, breathing deeply and slowly. Before lowering your head, take a deep breath in, relaxing down on the exhalation. Repeat three times.

This pose helps to open up the rectum so that excess gas in the body can be expelled. It also activates pressure points on the stomach connected to the stomach and the large intestine, helping to improve overall digestion and is especially recommended for constipation.

Do not practise this asana if you have a slipped disc.

Fasting to Increase Digestive Power

Fasting is an ancient practice, easing the burden on the gastrointestinal tract so that the available energy can be used to eliminate waste from deep within the cells and rekindle the digestive fire.

Why Should I Fast?

When food is not given to the body despite the strong digestive fire that is burning, toxins that have been in the body for a long time are slowly burnt away. As we are accustomed to feeding our bodies two or three times a day, often more than what it needs, we tend to think of fasting for a day as starving, but the body can go days without food. Fasting also eliminates the un-eliminated faeces in the bowels, which otherwise poisons our entire system and can lead to health problems.

Fasting has been referred to as a key to mental and spiritual enfoldment and evolution. Everyone is seeking their birthright of happiness in one form or another, and in our search for freedom fasting can be used as a tool by which we can move closer towards this birthright. Clarity of mind, expansion of consciousness and more acute extrasensory instinct become more intense during a period of fasting, attuning us with nature and increasing our energy.

How to Fast

Initially, a prolonged fast should not be undertaken without skilled supervision. First, you need to understand how to fast sensibly. Many people decide to fast without first looking at their individual constitution. People who fast for ten to 20 days can sometimes be doing more harm to the body than good if they have not considered their constitution.

Fasting According to your Ayurvedic Constitution

It is recommended in Ayurveda that a person who is predominantly vata (air) should not fast for more than three days. If they do, it is highly likely that it will increase the air in the body, creating an imbalance, as well as emotions such as fear, anxiety and weakness. A person of pitta (fire) constitution is advised to abide by the same restriction. As pitta people have a high element of fire in their bodies, too long a fast increases the fire element and can cause psychological and physical reactions such as dizziness as well as the emotions of anger and hatred. However, someone of kapha (water and earth) constitution can fast for a long period of time and will experience increased lightness, greater awareness and clarity.

In addition, it is important when fasting to observe yourself closely. If the body is becoming weak and stamina is decreasing significantly, then the fast should be stopped. Fasting is highly recommended as a monthly practice, even for just one day, but is especially beneficial if someone has fever, constipation or arthritic pain in the body.

Spices that aid Digestion

Spices to include in your cooking to increase the digestive fire include cumin and ginger. Cumin not only promotes digestion, but also is rich in various vitamins and minerals and great for curing weakness and fatigue. Ginger is wonderful for promoting digestive power.


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About Meggan Brummer

Meggan Brummer (BA Hons) is a health writer, Hatha Yoga and Meditation Teacher, teacher of The Art of Living courses for the International Art of Living Foundation (, singer and traveller. Having taught yoga in Africa and Asia, Meggan now lives and teaches in Sydney, Australia. Although she specializes in Yoga and Ayurveda, Meggan is dedicated to exploring and sharing the myriad of alternative ways in which we can live happier and healthier lives through her writing. She can be contacted on

  • College of Ayurveda UK

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