4 yoga poses to help relieve IBS pain
When you’re struggling with an IBS flare-up, you rarely feel like working out. Although it’s generally not recommended to grin and bear it as you take on a HIIT class – which is likely to increase your discomfort – gentler exercises can support both your physical symptoms of IBS and help calm your mind.
Stress and anxiety are common triggers for IBS flare-ups – which can range from painful stomach cramps to diarrhoea or constipation – so a regular yoga practice could be really helpful in addressing the mental triggers, as well as providing some relief from your digestive discomfort.
“IBS is often linked to periods of high stress and anxiety,” says nutritional therapist and yoga teacher Nicole Leida. “Sometimes people who experience IBS symptoms might not have a clear diagnosis – as they are looking for a cause and feeling unwell in the body, their mind is racing, and this adds to their anxiety levels. Practising an activity that focuses one’s level of awareness on their body, but that also slows down the breath, is helpful to reduce anxiety.”
How can yoga support IBS pain?
IBS is thought to be the result of balance disturbances between the gut and brain. Stress and anxiety can trigger oversensitivity in your gut, often manifesting as severe bloating, diarrhoea, pain in the stomach or sickness, common symptoms of IBS. Aside from this, stress can also cause a weakening of the intestinal barrier, allowing gut bacteria to enter back into the body.
So, as the mind is so intrinsically linked to the body’s physical sensations, our emotions can wreak havoc on our digestive system, especially if you are someone with IBS and already sensitive to gut disturbances.
“From a neurological perspective, practising yoga tends to increase our parasympathetic response (rest and digest) and reduce the sympathetic (fight or flight) one. As a result, IBS symptoms subdue, and the person starts to feel better,” says Nicole.
Yoga can be a useful tool to come out of the mind and really ‘feel the body’.
4 poses to try at home
Specific poses that focus on twists and forward bends coupled with conscious breathing are thought to direct energy towards the digestive organs, stimulating the area and promoting the body’s natural process of detoxification. This is particularly helpful to relieve constipation.
A combination of three common styles of yoga, namely Restorative (relaxation and healing), Vinyasa (flowing through poses) and Hatha (gentle) can be practised to create a relaxing flow, targeting digestive discomfort. Let’s take a look at four poses you can ease into at home.
Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Nicole notes that looking at downward facing dog from an anatomical perspective, when practised correctly, allows a gentle squeeze of the abdominal area, which encourages blood flow, key to relieving tension.
“The front of the pelvis moves up and away from the thighs, so the skin of the belly gets tighter. At the back, the lower back broadens away from the midline and the rest of the spine lengthens up and away from the floor, which, as a result, encourages a level of containment in the core.
“As we release that gentle squeeze coming out of the pose, fresh blood flushes the area, providing plenty of nutrients.”
How to practice downward facing dog
- Start on your hands and knees, hands shoulder-width apart, feet and knees hip-width apart.
- Lift your knees to straighten your legs. You should now be in a plank position, with the back of your wrists directly underneath your shoulders. Both index fingers should point towards the top of the mat.
- Lift your hips and push them backwards. You may need to bend your knees if it’s more comfortable to position the hips. When lifting, try imagining you’re pushing your tailbone as high as the sky. Pedal the feet out to create length in the calves.
- Focus on pressing your fingers down into the mat and aim to get your chest as close as possible to your feet, rather than getting your heels to the ground.
Wide-legged forward fold (Prasarita Padottanasana)
Nicole recommends a wide-legged forward fold as a helpful pose to create a sense of peace, as it promotes introspection. “Energetically, all forward bends in yoga have a calming quality and encourage a sense of ‘coming inwards’.”
Forward folds largely focus on compressing the digestive organs, almost ‘massaging’ them and, as such, boosting circulation. This helps to encourage a healthy digestive system. Forward folds are also helpful for soothing the nervous system by creating space throughout the backbones, increasing blood flow to the spinal nerves.
How to practice wide-legged forward fold
- From standing, set the feet wide apart. Draw up through the inner ankles to lift the arches of your feet, this should help to ground the feet and toes firmly into the mat. You’re aiming for stability.
- Place your hands on your hips, inhale to lengthen the spine and slowly fold forward at the hips, keeping your spine long.
- As you fold, place your hands wherever is comfortable underneath your shoulders on the floor.
- When you have reached your full fold, release the head down.
Seated spinal twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
Twists are viewed as detoxifying, in stimulating our digestive organs through gentle targeted movements, which could help to aid eliminations of waste and support the body’s natural detoxification process.
“Side bends such as gate pose, and seated or supine twists play an important role in the management of IBS symptoms: they encourage the abdominal area to gently contract on one side and release on the other, creating a sense of inner heat and stimulating the abdominal organs. This improves the circulation of blood in the area and can help release tension.”
How to practice seated spinal twist
- Starting in an upright seated position, with your legs extended in front of you, bend your right knee and cross it over your left leg. Place your foot beside your left thigh.
- Bend your left knee and place your ankle next to your right glute. Square your hips and ensure you remain even contact between both sitting bones and the mat.
- Reach behind you with your right arm, gently easing into a twist of the upper body and place your fingertips on the floor behind you.
- Extend your leg arm high and then release down, hooking it over the outside of your right leg.
- Each time you exhale, gently deepen your twist.
Child’s pose (Bālāsana)
This classic resting posture, child’s pose compresses the digestive organs which stimulates the digestive process. “Positions such as child’s pose or Uttanasana (standing forward fold) are great to release tension in the body and when practised focusing on the awareness of the breath, are a very helpful way to finding a deep sense of relaxation.”
How to practice child’s pose
- Sit on bent knees, toes together and knees hip-width apart.
- Exhale and lower your torso towards your knees. Lengthen your tailbone and imagine reaching it back towards your heels.
- Extend your arms and relax your shoulders as you lower into the pose. Place your extended arms on the floor, palms down.
- Bring your forehead to rest on the mat, ensuring your head and neck are in line with your spine.
- You can rest your arms back towards your feet, alongside your body, whatever feels comfortable in this restorative pose.
We hope these poses provide you with some comfort or relief from painful and uncomfortable symptoms of IBS. But remember to always listen to your body, move within your range and, if you are new to yoga, always practice under the guidance of a trained professional. Use the advanced search tool to find a practitioner that’s right for you.
This article was updated on 20/03/23