No matter your sensitivity to food, you might find that you have trouble properly digesting after a meal. This can throw a wrench in your day, especially if the next few hours call for physical activity. You might also notice that, when you feel bloated or blocked up due to issues with digestion, you feel stressed mentally. This is no coincidence. In fact, your stomach and the mind are closely linked. Luckily, stretching can help on both fronts. Use stretches to promote digestion and reduce bloat, as well as provide some much-needed mental calm.
“Along with conscious breathwork, yogic twists and forward extensions soothe the sympathetic nervous system, decreasing stress and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system,” explains Gretchen Lightfoot, yoga instructor at Goorus Yoga in Palisades, California. “Yoga postures, many of which qualify as stretches, detoxify the body by massaging the internal organs and help get things moving properly.”
Legs Up the Wall
This traditional yoga pose is one of the best things to do if you are feeling bloated or gassy. Or, if you just need time to rest and digest your food. It helps reverse the effects of gravity on your entire digestive system, helping to regulate blood pressure in the process, according to Megan Kearney, Yoga Medicine instructor.
How to: Start by sitting on the floor with one hip against the wall or close to it. Swing your legs up the wall, as you simultaneously lay back on the floor. Hang out for two to four minutes while focusing on taking deep belly breaths. “The big belly breaths will get the diaphragm in on the massage effort by extending it deep into the stomach cavity,” says Kearney.
Just as simple as it sounds, this stretch involves sitting upright and twisting to one side. Kearney explains that these twists help gently squeeze our organs, shunting blood away from the core and then allowing blood to return once we release from the twist. “This gentle wringing movement will give you some bloat relief and also help gently massage the GI tract,” she says.
How to: Come to a cross-legged seated position sitting tall and elongating the spine. Gently twist to one side, bringing one hand behind you and the other to rest on your knee. Breathe into the twisted position. Make every exhale a little more pronounced by drawing the belly button back to the spine. Hold for five to six breaths per side and repeat.
If you frequent yoga classes, you’re probably familiar with this crowd-pleasing pose that involves laying on your back with your knees drawn into your chest and rocking side to side. “Babies are notorious for their digestive issues and gassy constitutions. So, it’s fitting that a pose named after them might help you feel better too,” says Kearney.
How to: Lay on your back and draw your knees into your chest. If you can, reach up and grab the outside edge of your feet and continue to draw the knees down alongside your body. If that feels accessible, start to open your knees by lifting your heels towards the ceiling. Breathe and stay for eight breaths. Maybe even rock side to side to massage the back.
This restorative posture is also a hip opener—and, when props such as blankets, bolsters, blocks or straps are used, it can instill a deep sense of relaxation, explains Lightfoot. “Besides stretching the groins, inner thighs, and knees, supta baddha konasana activates the ovaries, prostate gland, kidneys, and bladder—this stretch soothes the digestive and reproductive systems, helping alleviate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, menstruation, and menopause,” she says. “It reduces tension, calms the mind, and can provide relief for headache and insomnia sufferers.”
How to: Begin by lying on your back. Bend the knees and bring the soles of the feet together, knees open wide out to the side. Arms should be alongside the body with enough room to allow the armpits to breathe. Palms should face up so that the chest feels open. The chin will be slightly tucked toward the notch between the collarbones so that the neck is long. The thighs and knees can be propped up with rolled blankets or foam blocks if this is too much stress on the groin area.
This is similar to a seated twist, with the main difference being that you’re lying on your back. A spinal twist helps to wring out your liver. This is a key player in removing toxins from the body, according to Stephanie George, certified yoga instructor and personal trainer. “It also helps move food and waste along your digestive system.”
How to: Lay flat on your back and bring both knees to your chest while untucking your tailbone. Bring your arms to form a “T” and slowly let both of your legs fall to the right. Gaze over your left shoulder. Repeat on the opposite side; hold for eight breaths.
Focus on Meal Times
Though not technically a “stretch,” one of the best things that you can do to promote digestion and banish bloat is to stretch out your meal time. In other words, sit down, set aside enough time to eat and pace yourself, placing your fork down each time you take a bite. “We live in a fast-paced world and often inhale while eating our food,” explains Kearney. “Taking your time to chew your food (I always recommend 15-19 times) helps to begin the metabolic process. [It] also ensures that you don’t add too much air into your belly by gulping your food.”