Every now and then I suffer from bad digestion. Not indigestion, just total digestion failure… or so it feels! Imagine concrete poured into your stomach that slowly settles its way through your colon and intestines completely blocking the entire region between the ribs and pelvis. It’s not pleasant.
Unsurprisingly these periods of ‘blockage’ often appear during times of stress or uncertainty, when I’m emotionally clinging-on to whatever drama seems to be unfolding. If I can’t let go, no wonder my guts can’t! And of course the discomfort and concern about my insides just raises my stress levels and cycle persists.
Just last month things were so bad that I was limiting my food intake to porridge, my staple easy-to-digest meal. And even that wasn’t going down well. Talking things over with The Husband I realised that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, as well as on my digestion. My expectations have always been high and we can often find ways be kinder to ourselves. He suggested that maybe through restricting my diet so much I was perhaps punishing myself. I turned to my Ayurveda books to get some perspective.
Ayurveda is the ancient health-science of India. It works on the premise that there are three different body types (doshas) and we all fit into one category or a combination. The theory of Ayurvedic medicine says that we’re happy and healthy when our dosha is in balance; imbalance causes disease. Each dosha has a diet and lifestyle regimen designed to keep the dosha in balance. There are lists of food that you should eat, and those you should mainly avoid. There is advice on what time to get up, when to eat, what colours to wear and surround yourself with, and what type of exercise to take and when.
It’s a dense and fascinating subject, especially if you’re interested in an ‘alternative’ view of nutrition. But it’s also a subject one can easily get very engrossed in, too engrossed perhaps. So I was fascinated to find the message I kept coming back to was: “it’s not what you eat, but how”.
I’ve been living alone for four months. Eating all my meals alone. To lighten the mood I often watch something on my laptop while I’m eating. I’m also the sort of person that needs to eat little and often, but working from home without much routine means I can get totally absorbed in a task and not notice I’m hungry until I’m starving. So I rush through my meal, trying to get my blood-sugar levels back up and to feel calm once again. I do try to eat at regular times (those suggested by Ayurveda) but that’s not always frequent enough for me, especially as I add more yoga classes to my schedule. It was time to try something new.
After some more research I came up with a new approach and within days I was feeling so much better, it was almost as if a miracle had occurred. I was being kind and respectful to my digestive system, and she was returning the favour.
This asana sequence comes from the seminal The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health by Linda Sparrowe and senior Iyengar teacher Patricia Walden, which includes a whole chapter on the yogic approach to digestion (including IBS).
1. Reclining Hero Pose (Supta Virasana) – supported
2. Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
3. Doward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
4. Head-on-Knee Pose (Janu Sirasana)
5. Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana) – supported
6. Head-on-Knee Pose (Janu Sirasana) – supported
7. Headstand (Sirsasana)
8. Child’s Pose (Adho Mukha Virasana) – supported
9. Inverted Staff Pose (Viparita Dandasana) – supported
10. Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana)
11. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) – supported
12. Legs-up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
13. Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Before eating my midday meal I now practice Alternate Nostril Breathing with retention (Anuloma Viloma). This breathing exercise only takes a few minutes and helps to calm the body and the mind before eating. It’s also said to rebalance the energy between the left and right side of the body and brain, which increases energy and helps us to feel more grounded. I find that it takes the edge off my food craving and allows my lunch too cool down!
1. Sit with your back straight and gently close your lips, breathing through your nose. Curl the index and middle to the palm of your right hand and place the left hand on your left knee or thigh, palm up to the sky.
2. Breathe out fully through both nostrils then hold your right hand in front of your face and close your right nostril with your thumb. Breathe in for a steady count of four.
3. Bring your ring and little finger to your left nostril and close it gently. Hold your breath for a count of 16.
4. Release the thumb and breathe out of your right nostril for a count of eight.
5. Keep the left nostril closed and breathe in through the right nostril for a count of four.
6. Close both nostrils and hold your breath for a count of 16.
7. Release your left nostril and breathe out slowly for a count of eight. This is one round and you can build-up gradually to ten rounds. I currently do five rounds.
If you find it hard to hold your breath for 16 counts, you can lower the number to eight, however you must keep the ratios the same, ie. 1:4:2. Once this breathing routine is finished I feel much calmer and able to devote my attention to enjoying my food. I feel it’s natural to say thank you for the meal we’re about to eat. But if a traditional ‘grace’ doesn’t suit you, do take a moment or two to appreciate the miracles of earth that brought food to your plate.
This idea is taken from Louise Hay’s “You Can Heal Your Life”, in which digestive troubles are linked to a refusal to release old ideas and ways of living. Each morning, when I massage my body with oil I repeat positive affirmations to encourage health and happiness in my body and spirit. The one I use when massaging my abdomen – always clockwise – is “As I release the past the new, fresh and vital enter me. I allow life to flow through me.” For more on self-massage and eco-friendly bathroom ideas, click here
Again, this idea may seem a bit kooky to you but you can repeat the mantra when you apply body lotion, while you’re getting dressed or while you’re washing. Take the idea and adapt it to your personal routine. There’s no point in adopting something that you’re truly uncomfortable with, it’ll never last.
If Ayurveda is something that interests you, then look online for a dosha-test and the results will give you a good idea on where to start directing your diet. There are also thousands of resources online about healthy, natural eating and I’m a huge advocate of cooking from raw ingredients rather than buying tins, jars and packets of prepared foods or sauces.
In general, a sensitive digestive system will react well to warm, wet, easily digestible foods like porridge and soup. Personally I find that my digestive system needs something with a bit more ‘oomph’ to keep it going so I like to add cooked rice, quinoa or bulgar wheat to my soup to bulk it out a bit. In order to help my tummy I also eat my dinner early, between 6pm and 7pm at night so I have time to fully digest before going to bed.
Just by making these simple changes to my daily routine my digestion has improved and they’re all sustainable measures that I feel confident I’ll be able to maintain most of the time. We all have days when we fall off the wagon or when life intervenes, but when these things happen we simply go back to the methods we know work for us. Having this structure as a back-up for the next time my tummy feels like concrete gives me peace of mind and takes the pressure off.
What do you do when your digestion goes on strike? Have you found any ‘miracle cures that work for you? I’d love to keep sharing ideas on this topic so feel free to post in the ‘comments’ section below or to email me with any queries.
Om shanti with love … looking forward to hearing from you.
PS: For more views and ideas on Alternative Living, click here.