Many of us know when we’re started to feel the effects of stress – we can ‘feel it in our gut’. Like many cop shows where the lead detective gets her or his ‘hunch’ from these gut feelings, we are continually responding to the continual ebb and flow of input from deep in our belly. Exploring how we tune in to these messages is the basis for the mind-body connection at the heart of yoga and how we can navigate the noise of the modern world without ‘losing our heads’.
Gut feelings are always there for us to access and if connected, listen and respond to, but it is an endemic part of our modern ‘thinking over feeling’ culture to often push down, ignore or dismiss those voices from below. This is where we respond from our conditioning, from what the primal branches of our nervous has deemed safe or unsafe from the ages before around seven years old, when all experience is processed literally and unconsciously. Before we learn to form inner discussions around what we’re presented with, our strategies in life come from instinctively feeling out what worked when we were still developing and we take this into our adult years. So if we learnt that we feel comforted by sugar if we feel upset, guess what? We can automatically turn to chocolate or biscuits when feeling down or alone.
Our second brain
In the last few decades, neuroscience has begun to understand the importance of this communication to our brains from our gut. This enteric nervous system (ENS) that runs the length of the gut wall from mouth to anus, is the size of a cat’s brain and has more neurons that our brain and spinal cord put together. It is often referred to as the ‘Second Brain’ as the root of our instincts and more immediate responses. In the constant communication of the Gut-Brain Axis, there are many more signals bottom-up – gut to brain – than the other way round, believed to be up to 90% in fact. So as much as we try to think our way through life or make logical sense of emotions, it is really cultivating a deep sense of safety through embodied awareness and mindfulness, and listening to our gut feelings that can really allow us to notice our reactions and process them on a more conscious level.
One of the theories of this gut-brain communication is the ‘somatic marker’ hypothesis by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. He proposes that these somatic markers are memories of body states associated with previous feelings and whether these were positive or negative experiences. So for instance if we felt scared on a train, we can associate trains and feeling threatened in the future. According to this theory, this visceral communication (from the gut) may play a part not only in how somebody feels at a given moment, but may also influence future planning and intuitive decision making choices. So you might think about taking the train, conjure up the possibility of feeling scared and decide to drive instead (Mayer, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2011).
This feeling our inner world is called interoception and it is the essence of tuning in to our body sensations and cultivating embodied awareness, both in our yoga practice and rippling out into our daily lives; whenever we can create the space to tune in and feel what we truly need. Just as these visceral feelings might influence how we behave, attending to them can also help to unravel held trauma and find the openness to create new associations. Allowing ourselves to be with the trepidation of the train journey means we can experience the feelings and notice that we are safe, even if our mind is telling other stories. From here we have the potential to make a new narrative about train journeys.
The Eastern Perspective
Traditional Eastern philosophies (and some Western) have taught that the belly is the home of this type of instinct and intuition for centuries. In Chinese traditions, the belly area is the home of the Hara or Dan Tien translated as ‘’elixir field’ of the sea of Qi’. It is the centre of the physical body but also of the energy and spiritual body. In Taoism it is considered the most important area to develop and strengthen as it is the revered as the source of life in people – from where will, intention and movement originate. In Chinese yoga it is pictured as a burning cauldron producing the energy (Qi) needed to open up and liberate the rest of the body. In the yoga system the belly is said to where approximately 72,000 nadis (energy channels carrying prana around the physical body of which there are said to be 320,000 in total!) originate. If there is any displacement of this centre this will have a knock on effect onto all the layers (koshas) of the being.
Connect to True Hunger
Listening to our bellies can also help us build healthier relationships with what we eat, so we turn less to food as comfort and reward and tune in more to real hunger. Unlike eating to numb when we feel pain or sadness, true hunger comes on slowly, rarely less than three to five hours after last eating and is usually accompanied by a hollow feeling in the tummy.
Mindful eating during meals – slowing down and fully chewing – has shown to naturally regulate portion size and assist gastric neuropeptide signaling back up to the brain, in other words how we regulate appetite and gain a healthy sense of ‘enough’.
How we eat can make the difference between feeling the full experience and connecting with our food, or going through the motions and reinforcing yet another ‘living neck up’ experience in life. As eating is so sensory and visceral, it is an opportunity in the day to break, tune in and pay kind attention to our needs. Eating in a state of stress results in food often only partially chewed, adding to digestive issues. Eating away from desk and socially creates more positive associations and connection with the act of eating.
A warming bowl of soup
Soups and stews have been part of human existence for nearly 300,000 years and are the ultimate healthy comfort food. Not only are they easily digestible, low maintenance and can be made batches for convenient lunches (buy a soup/stew Thermos flask), but a bowl of soup has actually shown to help alleviate feelings of loneliness. Switching from unhealthy to supportive comfort foods can set up new patterns for comfort and reward.
Include the following to support the gut, soothe the nervous system and support gut-brain communication:
• Spices for gut calming, healing, antioxidants – a curry is a stew by any other name!
• Cruciferous veg for sulphurophanes that support detoxification enzymes and provide Sulphur for collagen production, so healing the gut wall – cooking them long and slow breaks down fibres that may create gas
• Chicken and cabbage for glutamine to feed gut cells
• Squash vegetables for bulk for appetite satisfaction and coumarin, an antioxidant for immune support
• Coconut milk option for fats that feed the gut wall – eg in Thai green curries
• Cooking beans and pulses long and slow in garlic and onions breaks down the fibres that are tough to digest and anti-nutrients like phytic acid, that can cause digestive issues
The sugar bit
Sugar consumption is a sure route to disrupting our gut-brain communication. Here’s a quote from a research paper on the huge knock-on effects of refined sugar through the whole nervous and immune system (translation after!): “Dietary sugar overconsumption might provoke deleterious effects at both central and peripheral (NS) levels, including alterations in the regulation of satiety neuropeptides, gut permeability, … the endocannabidoid, opioid and mesolimbic dopaminergic systems” (Ochoa, 2014). This means that sugar we eat beyond that which we use for energy, is believed to affect us in many ways:
• Changes our appetite signals, so we are less satisfied by food
• Negatively affects the health of our gut wall, leaving us more open to infection and upsets digestion
• Affects the reward centres of the brain (like any addictive substance) and gives us a ‘happy’ – that’s the endocannabidoid and opioid bit above…. Result? We are driven to want more of it and become shut off from any deeper desires to eat less of it.
Sugar is confusing to our mind-body connection and the less we can rely on it for a boost or a treat, the happier in our bodies we can feel.
Get enough sleep
Our gut and brain are created first after conception and then the rest of our bodies develop around this central axis. These two ‘brains’ remain linked throughout the whole of our lives and we can see this in the rhythms of sleep & elimination; when stress affects sleep, it can also affect digestion. During sleep, the head’s brain produces 90-minute cycles of slow wave sleep, followed by periods of rapid eye movement (REM) where dreams occur. Similarly, during the night, when it is empty, the gut’s brain produces 90-minute slow wave muscle contractions, followed by short bursts of rapid muscle movement. Individuals with bowel problems have shown to also have abnormal REM sleep.
The breath as your guide
This Gut-Brain Axis rhythm can be felt as we breathe, paying attention to the natural tide of our breath can allow us to tune in to ‘what is true right now’:
• Let your jaw slacken away from your skull to melt any tension there separating out head and body, giving the breath freedom to feel it move up and down the whole body.
• Feel the inhale naturally rising up the spine, when standing this lifts us up against gravity.
• Feel the exhale dropping down, softening the outer body and dropping awareness down into the belly.
• Note the opposite motion of the diaphragm; dropping down as the lungs fill as we breathe in and rising up as breath leaves the body.
• Note the rise of the belly with the inhalation – this is best done lying with hands on the belly in Constructive Rest Position (see right) – and the drop with the exhalation.
Yoga to take us out of our heads and into our bodies….
The modern world has us stuck up in our heads and connection down into our centre and our root – embodied awareness – has the effect of dampening down that mind hum. The essence of yoga is ‘stilling the mind’ and its emphasis on occupying our bodies to find expanse, connection and liberation can have profound effects on digestive function. Whether we view this via scientific exploration of the gut-brain axis or traditional yogic chakra philosophies of our holding of early trauma and habits in the root and belly centres that need to be released upwards, mindful attention to our bodies can unravel tensions held deep down in our abdomens.
Exaggerating the natural movement of the spine as we breathe helps to unlock tension from the belly and sends a wave to move that through the whole mind-body. These movements have long been associated with expression and freedom (as well as improving digestion) in many cultural practices like belly dancing and Kundalini yoga. Arching the back and opening the chest as the lungs fill to inhale, and rounding it as they empty on exhale, can be done in any plane and from many positions:
Supine (lying) to release the shoulders fully and allow gravity to support the movement, even adding movement from the feet to draw more energy up the spine from the ground. Here the chin can be lifted on the exhale and drawn in towards the chest on the inhale, creating counter movements in the lumbar and cervical parts of the spine and a wave-like motion up through the sacrum-skull line:
inhale exhale inhale exhale
With a supine twist to explore into the soft tissues of the belly without the stress of holding up the spine. Head support can be removed to free movement in the neck if feels right for the student, with head turning in the opposite direction to the legs to find fluid motion across the diagonal and then drawing back to the midline. The body is soothed by the synchronicity of breath and movement (creating grace and flow) and the front body can open into the inhale, knowing it can release tension on the drawing in exhale:
From knees centre, feet as wide as the mat, inhale the knees to one side and exhale back to centre.
With this breath pattern, the inhale can encourage chest opening and the exhale a decompression.
Seated to create movement with strength and balance front and back of spine – can be done in vajrasana, sukhasana, on a chair or any upright variation.
inhale exhale inhale exhale
As the cat/cow to prepare for movement from all fours:
Listening to your body regularly throughout the day can help bring you out of your head if anxiety, worry and overwhelm takes over. Simply placing your hands on your belly and paying attention to your breath there can bring you back to a calm and safe centre.
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