5 Yoga Poses for IBS Relief: Beat Bloat and Conquer Constipation
When it comes to IBS, what you put in your body is just as important as what you do with your body—and along with diet changes, adding movement, exercise, and gentle stretches to your daily habits can really make a difference in the severity of your symptoms.
One of the most popular ways my clients incorporate exercise is through yoga practice. It’s easily approachable, and research supports its effectiveness for managing IBS.
Yoga can be effective for virtually all aspects of the mind and the body, from emotional to physical, joint pain to digestion. Poses can be modified, adjusted, and adapted to work for each body’s needs.
And many of my clients share that adding yoga, or other movement exercises to their daily routines has helped them out a bunch. There are beginner classes you can take, as well as online resources.
If you really don’t know where to begin—or if you’re looking for some specific poses to deal with digestive health, then this is the post for you!
I had a chance to chat recently with Randi Kay, a self-care educator and yoga teacher at Naturally Randi Kay. As someone who’s struggled with IBS herself, Randi’s insight into the world of Yoga for IBS relief was really valuable! In Randi’s words:
Randi believes that our core—the area of our abdomen, including both the digestive and reproductive organs—is such an important part of us. In fact, most ancient cultures consider the core to be the most sacred place and the most powerful place.
And yet with Western culture, we tend to ignore this part of ourselves. We judge it, we hide it, and we neglect it with poor posture and poor diet. And then we wonder why we have so many issues!
"All day long, our fight or flight response helps us react to different situations--it’s just how we’re wired," explains Randi.
"But these stress signals which would’ve told us to run from a tiger are no longer serving us. They’re sending cascading signals through our bodies which trigger hormonal responses, and lead to degradation of our system. And sometimes, the stress and tensions in our bodies and minds can make us sicker, and keep us from healing."
Note: This isn’t to say that pain is ‘all in our heads.’ But if you could adjust the way you feel, by reducing stress and tension, wouldn’t you give it a try?
Yoga is mainstream enough that you likely can find a studio or gym offering classes in your area, but the ideas themselves aren’t anything new or trendy. There’s a long history of yogis using the practice for digestive health, and all sorts of ancient practices, breathing techniques, and yoga postures that work together to heal the body.
Danielle Spaulding, a yoga teacher and owner of The Yoga Barre in Washington, provided some key insights into how the whole practice of yoga, not just the poses, can help with health issues, both physical and mental:
With Randi and Danielle's input, I put together five poses that will help you bring awareness and focus to your digestive system. But in addition, you'll experience relaxation and an instant dose of stress relief.
These poses may seem simple (they're great for beginners), but they're also a solid foundation for any yoga routine. Let's start with the MOST foundational element, your breathing.
Pose #1: Pranayama (Breath)
Yoga breathing can be done in basically any position, but a good one to start with is the most simple of all: Laying flat on your back, or Savasana, known as Corpse Pose.
Danielle shared that she believes breath is the single most effective way to control your stress, healing, and overall state of being.
“Just by taking inhales that expand the belly (about 4 counts long), and extra long slow exhales (ideally up toward 8 counts long) the body will instantly slow the heart rate, blood pressure normalizes, and cell signaling tells the body to start healing, resting, digesting, and the parasympathetic nervous system is in fully swing. This will reduce disease, emotional stress, and allow the body to get to work healing.”
While in Savasana, you can relax your arms and legs, let your eyes fall shut, and focus only on the breathing, and what it feels like in your body. Or, if you feel like it, you can bring your hands to your belly, or to your chest. Explore different postures, and see which ones bring you the most relaxing, nourishing breath. Feel each part of your body slowly and evenly sink into relaxation. Allow yourself to simply be, and breathe.
“Most of our pain comes from the core of us, and most of our healing comes from the core of us. So with digestion, I always instruct to make sure we are keeping the pelvis and spine fluid and in alignment and the muscles and tissues free of tension. This includes gentle twisting postures, opening the sides of the body, and moving the spine forwards and backwards.”
Pose #2: Marjaryasana-Bitilasana (Cat-Cow Pose)
Begin this pose on all fours, with shoulders over your wrists, and hips over your knees. Take a moment to feel your neutral spine, the even distribution of weight on all four limbs, and careful awareness of breath, before you begin moving.
Flex the spine up, like a cat arching its back, looking for scratches. Then slowly curve the spine down, keeping your breath steady and even, inhaling all the way into your belly, and exhaling all of that air back out.
As you move, consider where the pose begins for you. Is it in your neck, your shoulders, your tailbone? Each body is different. Are you urged by your body to arch higher, feel that high, catlike stretch? Or does curving inward, stretching the front of your belly, feel better? Listen to your body, and remain aware. Observe, without judgement, what your body is telling you.
Pose #3: Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Twist Pose)
Danielle says: “Twists and folds are great for detoxification and for digestion and a great way to practice observing your thoughts and emotions, detaching from them, re-focusing, and breathing.”
When it comes to choosing twists and folds for aiding digestion, she emphasises how important it is to also keep the pelvis and spine fluid and in alignment, and work on keeping the muscles and tissues of the core area free of tension.
Supine Twist Pose begins flat on the back. After extending your arms in a T-shape, bring one knee up and slowly allow it to rotate across the straight leg, coming down towards the floor. Depending on your flexibility, activity level, and even your day job, this may be easy for you, or there may be tightness and resistance in your spine. Listen to your body, and if it hurts or pinches, ease back up, and breathe gently into the area.
After twisting to one side, stay there as long as you need, breathing deeply into the belly and exhaling slowly and completely each time. You will likely feel your back opening up, your spine continuing to rotate with each exhalation. When you’re ready, inhale and come out of the pose, straightening that leg, and repeating the twist with the other.
You can also do a modification of this pose by bending both knees, and rotating them together.
Pose #4: Forward Bends
There are a few forward bend poses, both standing, seated, or kneeling, that can be wonderful for digestion.
The first, Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend, begins while standing. With feet about hip-distance apart, weight evenly balanced, bend forward from your hips—not from your back—folding in half and lengthening your torso as your head drops down. You can keep your legs straight, or let your knees bend, if your hamstrings aren’t super happy here. Breathe, and continue to open up the pelvis, and lengthen that torso.
Janu Sirsasana, or Head-to-Knee Forward Bend, is a great choice if you don’t feel comfortable starting from a standing pose, or worry that you might fall over. Seated with your legs straight in front of you, breathe in and draw the heel of one foot back between your legs, leaning over and reaching for the straight leg. You can use a folded, thick blanket to sit on, roll one up beneath your knee if you’re prone to hyper-extending your joints, or even use a strap to hold this stretch if your toes are just a little out of reach. It’s okay. Just focus on that breathing, and what that feels like in your belly. Repeat on the opposite side.
Finally, a forward bend that can be done from all fours is Uttana Shishosana, or Extended Puppy Pose. Beginning in the same hands-and-knees pose you started Cat-Cow, walk your hands forward until they are extended, your back in a gentle curve from hip to fingertip. Palms down, your head can come to the floor as well, and your hips will push back, really feeling that stretch in your spine. This is a gentler forward fold, probably the one with the most control in it. Stay here, watching your breath, as long as you like, before walking your hands back up to all fours.
Pose #5: Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Kneel on the floor, sitting on your heels, and widening your knees about hip-width apart, or wider, if comfortable for your body. Bend forward, resting your torso on your inner thighs, exhaling as you feel a stretch in your spine. For some with hip and belly tenderness, widening your knees in this pose will avoid direct pressure on tender areas, while still lengthening the spine and getting that forward fold.
You can rest your hands back behind you, palms up, or keep them ahead of you, stretched out. Check in with your body, and see if you are holding any tension in hips, back, belly, shoulders, or neck. With each breath, let a little more of the tension evaporate. Breathe deeply and evenly, and stay in this pose for as long as is comfortable, before returning to kneeling.
Final Advice and Tips
What’s more important, Randi says, is to trust what you are drawn to do, and just start practicing. One of the major teachings of yoga is the art of listening to our truth, that voice deep inside—which includes the messages our bodies send. Don’t worry or stress about doing things the right way, or force a posture that hurts. Trust in your body.
You also can try things like self-massage. Randi says she does this almost every night, before bed. Muscular dysfunction can influence the ability to digest. If the muscles of the abdomen are unhappy, it can refer pain into the organs and inhibit them from functioning properly.
Working with a trained massage therapist can be wonderfully beneficial, but at the very least, you can gently massage your own muscles on a daily basis. Use some oil or lotion if you'd like, and massage in the direction of digestion, which is right to left.
Another thing to remember, Randi says, is that the is a huge connection from your brain to your gut. People are even calling the belly the "second brain." The brain and the gut are constantly communicating and responding to each other. Incorporating therapeutic practices that calm us down and relieve stress, like yoga, will decrease the stress response happening in our bodies overall.
Is yoga part of your weekly routine? How does it affect your digestion, and what other benefits has it brought to your life?
Which pose, tip, or technique from this article will you try first? Leave a comment and let me know!