Well, it’s no secret that digestive disorders are epidemic. Which is pretty serious considering that 80% of our immune system is housed in our gut and that digestion shapes every aspect of our physical and emotional well being – even depression has been linked to poor digestion. But the good news is that both yoga and herbs have been shown to be effective in optimising our ability to digest and manage everything from irritable bowel syndrome to heartburn to a disgruntled tummy. And you don’t need any fancy herbs or any acrobatic yoga postures either.
In fact, you’ve probably got common garden herbs like rosemary, lavender, sage, peppermint, chamomile and lemon balm growing right now in your garden, plus a few weeds like wild fennel, chicory and dandelion. (And if you don’t, you can check out Victoria’s Common Ground Gardens where many of these herbs are free for the picking).
All these plants have been used as digestive aids for hundreds if not thousands of years, and are safe to consume in a tea on a regular basis. But that said, if you are on any medications or are trying to conceive, are pregnant, or breastfeeding please consult a herbalist, doctor or naturopath, as some should be used with caution in these instances.
Aromatic herbs like rosemary and fennel are those whose delicious fragrance gets our saliva flowing, preparing the body to eat, revving up the digestive system letting it know food is coming. Many of these herbs are also “carminative”—meaning their aromatic volatile oils stimulate the digestive system to work properly, increasing circulation to the digestive tract, helping to improve absorption of nutrients, fats and oils and relieve many common digestive discomforts.
The second group are bitter-tasting herbs and foods like yarrow, calendula, chicory and dandelion, all traditionally consumed as “digestives” before or after a meal. From the minute they hit the tongue they stimulate the secretion of digestive enzymes and acids in the stomach and are extremely beneficial for the liver and gallbladder helping to produce bile essential for breaking down nutrients and fats. These plants also have secondary benefits i.e. anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory, all of which are great for intestinal infections.
To make a digestive tea use a combination of leaves and blossoms of aromatic and bitter herbs. I’ve used a blend of approximately two tablespoons of aromatics to a tablespoon of bitters per two cups of tea. You could make a light blend of aromatic lemon balm and fennel and add a touch of yarrow for its bitter notes. Or you could make a herbaceous blend of lavender, sage and bay. Or you could combine marjoram and calendula and so on. To this, you can add digestion enhancing spices like ginger or cardamom.
After steeping for 10- 15 minutes you’ll have a brew that will help to increase the thoroughness of digestion reduce inflammation in the gut wall, aid in the elimination of waste products, reduce bloating, gas, and the symptoms of food allergies.
Similarly, we can use simple easy yoga postures to help support our digestive health. Massage is good for the body and yoga helps give an inner massage to the digestive organs and intestinal tract. Simple postures like knee’s to chest, forward-folds and gentle twists compress and massage the organs and upper and lower GI tracts, assist the body in assimilating food while eliminating wastes and toxins (called Ama in yoga).
In yoga, the digestive system is under the domain of the third chakra, Manipura. This is the home of the fiery metabolic energy of digestion (Agni), which not only helps us digest food, it helps us digest the physical and emotional experiences life. It rules our gut feelings, and the will power and strength to carry out our intentions. Postures like Boat will help stoke up Agni’s digestive power, while Bridge helps open the abdominal area, bringing fresh energy and fresh blood flow to the entire digestive system.
Yarrow, dandelion, calendula, lemon balm, chamomile, fennel, sage, mints are all herbs under the domain of the third chakra. So a great tea blend would be a combination of third chakra aromatics such as fennel, lavender, and bitters like calendula and yarrow. And when it comes to pairing this tea with yoga, consume a cup about 30 minutes before practice.
Start your practice with slow belly breathing and gentle stretches like knees to belly (see above) that release tension held in our hips and psoas. The psoas is the muscle that connects our legs to our torso and if it is tense or constricted due to stress it causes the digestive tract to constrict and inhibits gastrointestinal secretions. On the other hand, slow deep breathing and a relaxed and released psoas signals the body that is now safe to “rest and digest”.
By strengthening our digestive ability we nourish our third chakra, stoke our Agni and eliminate the sluggish influence of Ama, the waste that builds up when our digestive fire becomes weak. After all, we are not what we eat, but what we digest. And by combining digestive teas with a few simple yoga postures we can improve our overall health and well-being.
If you want to learn more about combining garden herbs and backyard weeds into herbal teas and how to pair them with yoga, I’m hosting a FREE workshop this Sunday, August 13th at the Wark St. Commons Garden. For more info click here.