In a comical way, I have heard the human body described as a doughnut ! The Digestion system appears as a tube through which we receive, process and eliminate waste products. Only that which our body deems needful and nourishing, in an ideal world, passes through into our body through the gut. In the psychological / mental realm, our digestion system is akin to our processing and integration of information and experiences. For the study of spiritual texts in which case it is better to fast and abstain from food to enhance focus and sensitivity – yet if we are studying for exams, the body and mind can benefit from lots of chewing ! The process of breaking things down into manageable chunks is essential for assimilation and this brings us to the important role of the teeth. How often do you chew? I was always told as a child to chew each bite twenty nine times ( I am not sure to this day why exactly 29 times but it seems to have worked ). We are more likely to tend towards indigestion if we are stressed or anxious, and rushing our food certainly does not help. This is why it is so helpful to say ‘grace’ or ‘Sat Nam’, or in some other way create a ritual space around the act of eating to ensure that food receives the necessary gratitude and respect as well as on a physical level to assist us in proper digestion. Eating consciously, and lovingly preparing your food can also enhance the good energy that you will absorb into your body. It is helpful to focus the midn with a chant or a prayer as we prepare our food giving thanks for all the bounty of the earth. Ensuring that our food tastes and looks appealing also adds to the pleasure of eating, encouraging the body to relax.
Long deep breathing or any segmented breath work can help the body to function towards more optimum levels – the digestive fire, the agni is also the power of our will, our capacity to transform and extract the goodness from any ‘food’ that life throws at us – experiences included.
In the Irish Mythology, the Bull God known as the Dagdha has a symbol of a cauldron of plenty and a two sided club where one side is a spoon to nourish all who come to him. The attitude of the Dagdha figure as an archetype is ‘good food this’ – meaning that all experience is welcome as nourishment. This is a quality that Jungian Analyst, Sylvia Brinton Perera interpreted as a positive antidote to our hitherto heroic masculine driven culture ( which she describes in her Book the Irish Bull God Images of Multiform and Integral Masculinity) as having Cú Chulainn as its archetype. Cú Chulainn is the eternal boy warrior – ever at war : the Dagdha is a lover and, for Perera, models peaceful co-existence with both the feminine and the earth.
Being able to live in tune with our bodies, to intuitively follow our ‘gut ‘ also hints at valuing our animal nature – our instincts. Food of course is necessary for survival ; for many of us on the planet those primal needs are sadly not being met either due to war, famine or mal nutrition. Paradoxically, in the developed western world there is an unseen majority who , while despite being well fed , are in truth mal nourished – due to the unnatural farming practices that have depleted our soils and the processing of foods that may be high on taste but poor on nutrition.
As we become more aware and in touch with our bodies ( embodied ) – our consciousness will naturally gravitate towards more nourishing foods and a simpler diet. False sources of energy ( though coffee, sugar or other stimulants ) are a poor second to the natural vitality that is our birthright once we live in harmony with nature and our bodies true needs. Addictions and cravings all take us off balance and contribute to a lack of ease in our body and mind.
The yoga of digestion then, will include a focus on what we take into our bodies, and the state of our mind and consciousness as we do so. To support our digestive system there are key postures that assist with the action of our gut and elimination system : hip circles, sufi grind, spinal flex, stretching from the waist as well as root chakra poses including crow pose, chair pose and frogs may also help. Lying on the back there are many active exercises too that can help up in this area, moving the legs in bicycle motion, or scissors, or with a gentle shoulder stand. Helpful stretches include the cat pose breathing deep into the posture, and also hugging the knees to the chest.
Always remember to refrain from eating for at least an hour before your yoga class ! And as usual, drink plenty of pure water.