The relationship between Food, Digestion, Circulation, Respiration, Posture and Thinking could be said to form the basis of holistic health. For optimal health it is necessary for all the systems to be balanced and working in harmony with each other. YOGA offers us practices that with time and commitment can help improve the proper functioning of the physical body and the mind.
FOOD is a basic need of the physical body. We need it to provide nutrients and energy to the cells to keep the body alive. In previous centuries eating was a matter of survival, however in today’s society, for most western countries at least, food is abundant and plentiful. This leaves us with an ever growing array of “choices” when it comes to food. Our busy lives and need for instant gratification often lead us to make poor choices and we overeat food that is fast and easily available. It is also often high in sugar or fat and lacking in nutrients. With Globalisation it is also increasingly difficult to eat locally grown and seasonal food, the way nature intended. It is not my intention here to promote one type of diet over another. We are all individuals and the optimal diet for each person is different. However with mindfulness we can make better food choices and assert more control over the quantity of food we consume.
DIGESTION is the next step in the process of converting and CIRCULATING the food we eat around the body to absorb the nutrients and be used as energy. It can be broken down into 4 main actions of ingestion, digestion, absorption and elimination. Peristalsis is the name given to the action of CIRCULATING our food and waste products around the body and is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) via the hypothalamus and the Endocrine system, responsible for hormones. Hormones are the “messengers” of the body controlling many complex processes including growth, digestion and the immune system. The FOOD we consume can have a direct affect on the hormones within the body ie sugar and insulin production (Diabetes). The poor FOOD choices we make can also lead to digestive problems such as indigestion, diarrhoea, constipation and IBS, to name a few. Stress can also have a big impact on the proper functioning of our digestive system. The control of our involuntary, sympathetic nervous system, often means we are in a constant “fight or flight” response which draws blood away from our digestive system to feed the muscles, and this can have a negative impact on peristalsis and thus affecting our digestion of food, absorption of nutrients and elimination of waste.
RESPIRATION is also necessary for the body to create and store energy. Cellular RESPIRATION is the natural metabolic process in which cells break down glucose into water, carbon dioxide and energy (ATP). YOGA believes BREATH and RESPIRATION to be the mirror of the autonomic nervous system. Unbalanced breathing patterns such has shallow breathing and hyperventilation can be an indication that our autonomic nervous system in not functioning at it’s best. If our ANS is not functioning well this can lead to poor digestive health, and so the relationship begins.
POSTURE of the body, or rather GOOD POSTURE of the body is often described as the ability to maintain a neutral spine. It is important to be able to maintain the natural curves of the spine without excessive flexion or extension. If you look at a baby who has learned to sit and stand, you see they can normally hold a nice “straight” (neutral) spine. However over time as we grow older our day to day life, which often involves a lot of sitting in a chair, can create muscular imbalances and weaknesses that make it hard for us to maintain a neutral spine with ease. YOGA believes that POSTURE can help to regulate our BREATH. Maintaing good posture allows our main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, to work properly. This allows us to take deeper, longer breaths of equal inhalation and exhalation. Reducing the number of BREATHS we take in a minute actually improves the oxygen uptake within the cells and therefore the amount of ATP produced for energy. Many YOGA POSTURES are also good for our DIGESTIVE health as they massage our internal organs aiding the action of peristalsis and the absorption of nutrients, and the proper elimination of waste. The ability to maintain good POSTURE allows us to BREATH better, allowing for optimal functioning of our autonomic nervous system, which controls the DIGESTION and CIRCULATION of FOOD within the body.
THINKING can also be described as our mental health. YOGA believes that pain and diseases that manifest themselves in the physical body are psycho-somatic and can originate in our subconscious mind. One of the benefits of YOGA is that by taking a holistic approach to health it focuses not just on the physical body but on our consciousness as well, but the mind can be a difficult thing to control, even with meditation. HATHA YOGA believes that by starting with the physical body it can help us improve our THINKING patterns. It offers us practices to help cleanse the body, improving DIGESTION and CIRCULATION, along with practices to improve our BREATHING, as well as the traditional ASANA or POSTURE PRACTICE. By balancing our body we are better positioned to be able to slow and understand the THOUGHTS of the mind.
Once our THINKING is better under our control, our will is strengthened. This enables us to make better FOOD “choices”. A person who is on the path of YOGA is more likely to choose foods that give rise to a sense of harmony and balance within the body. Consuming a better quality and quantity of FOOD will in turn aid our DIGESTION, and so the link between THINKING and FOOD is established.
When you look at the “self” from the perspective of YOGA it is clear how related all these systems are. The body effects the mind, and the mind effects the body! Making improvements to FOOD, DIGESTION, CIRCULATION, RESPIRATION, POSTURE and THINKING will have a positive impact on the functioning of the other elements. YOGA gives us practices that can improve the functioning of all these elements, for those who are willing to take the first step onto the path!