Over the last 2 years, I have had the good fortune to act as faculty for the Niroga Institute’s Yoga Therapy Program in Berkeley, CA. As part of my teaching duties, I was asked to present and teach the group about yoga and the digestive system. This is a fairly daunting task, as the digestive system is a complex system that interconnects with our conscious mind, the unconscious portions of our nervous system via the autonomic systems sympathetic and parasympathetic systems (which we have discussed here on more than one occasion), and our immune and endocrine systems. Despite the enormity of the task, I came to be reminded of a wonderful fact about the digestive system: it has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system (ENS). Upon further investigation, I discovered that this system has a lot to do with helping to move food through the small and large intestines, affecting the fluid absorption from the gut, as well as local blood flow in the gut. The ENS is sometimes referred to as an independent gut brain, which seems quite cool. But this is not quite accurate, for while it does have an independent influence on the many gut activities, it interfaces profoundly with the autonomic nervous system and conscious mind as well.
In some ways, this is good news. As we have seen before when discussing yoga and stress, if we can influence the autonomic nervous system and shift the patterns of excess sympathetic stimulation to balanced stimulation, including appropriate amounts of parasympathetic stimulation, we can allow for the body to have adequate amounts of rest and replenishment. In fact one lay term for the parasympathetic system is the “rest and digest response!"
|Human Digestive System|
When we engage in a balanced yoga practice that includes active poses, resting poses, breath awareness and relaxation, an interesting thing happens: our digestive system often works more efficiently with less unwelcome symptoms (I’ll leave that to your own experience and imagination to figure out what those are!). So, although the digestive system itself is complex, our yoga practices quite elegantly can interface and support the best possible digestion, via our effect on the conscious mind and the background autonomic nervous system.
More specifically, consider restorative practices and yoga nidra when you know you are under lots of stress that could over-activate your sympathetic nervous system (your fight or flight response). If you’re in the Bay Area and would like to learn more about yoga and the digestive system, consider joining me on June 2nd at 4th Street Yoga in Berkeley, CA. See http://www.4thstreetyoga.com/workshops.html for information.