My experience of practicing yoga and living with Crohns Disease
I have Crohn’s disease and I am really passionate about sharing my experiences of practicing and teaching mind - body based therapies such as meditation, breathwork and yoga movement and how they positively impact my own condition and day - to - day symptoms.
We have all heard at some point whether you have a GI related condition or not that stress can hugely impact the gut. The brain - gut axis is a bidirectional link between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system. Both brain and gut can connect to each other through direct and indirect pathways. The less well-known component of the autonomic nervous system — the enteric nervous system, helps regulate digestion. The enteric nervous system is sometimes referred to as a "second brain" because it relies on the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). After sensing food has entered the gut, neurons lining the digestive tract signal muscle cells to initiate a series of intestinal contractions that propel the food, breaking it down into nutrients and waste. At the same time, the enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters like serotonin to communicate and interact with the central nervous system.
The hypothalamus is an area of the brain which helps to maintain homeostasis in the body. Stress interpreted in the brain, stimulates the release of chemicals from the hypothalamus, which then triggers the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), to release adrenaline, which then interacts with the entire gut. The opposing system in the body is the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body down after the danger has passed and encourages normal intestinal motility.
When a person becomes stressed enough to trigger the Sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response), digestion slows down and can even completely stop so that the body can divert all its internal energy to facing whatever the threat may be. It can work the other way as well: persistent gastrointestinal problems can heighten anxiety and stress.
With our busy and hectic lives, stresses such as work deadlines, challenging colleagues, maybe arguments with friends of family members, and our bodies don't know the difference between an actual life threat (such as a lion) when we need that fight or flight response and a stressful email. We are in fight or flight mode far too often and this can be quite damaging to our mental and also physical health as it can lead to chronic stress, fatigue, gut health problems and also immune system issues.
An increasing number of studies have shown benefits with relaxation-related treatment of IBD. Meditation, mind-body alternative approaches, yoga, and relaxation response-based mind-body interventions have shown to be beneficial for IBD patients. For example, a randomized controlled trial of a relaxation-training intervention has shown decreased perception of pain as well as decreased anxiety and improvement of quality of life.
I am sharing some yoga practices below with you that have helped me and continue to help me when dealing with stress, pain, fatigue and general day to day symptoms of my Crohns disease. They might not all work for you, some of them might need some practicing before you start to feel any physical or mental benefits.
Breathing exercises are know as Prānāyama. The word Prānāyama is both Prāna- the inhale (energy/ life force) and Apana – the exhale (waste). When breathing, the inhale brings in energy, fresh vitality and life, the retention of breath savours the energy and the release empties the waste.
Practicing Prānāyama helps to develop a steady mind, a settled mind. When practicing our physical yoga practice, Prānāyama is what helps to create the energy and strength in the body.
Pranayama can be practiced on it's own without movement, either sat up on a chair, cross legged on a yoga mat, laying down, pretty much anywhere! Different breathing techniques can be immunomodulatory and dampen the inflammatory response. Randomised clinical trials have also been carried out to see if breath work can help to lower stress and also inflammation in the body. Amongst the results that were gathered, the resting heart rate decreased, salivary cortisol levels (stress hormone) decreased, and inflammation also had reduced! These simple exercises can focus the mind enabling us to connect to the vagus nerve which is essentially the part of the brain which is in charge of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest state).
Extended exhale breathing - can be very effective at calming the nervous system. Deep inhales can controversially trigger a fight or flight response in the brain, so working on extending the exhale has been seen as a really effective way to calm the body and brain down, releasing tension with the exhaled breath. Long exhalation phases help to connect to your rest and digest state.
Box breathing/ square breathing - is one of these techniques which incorporates a mix of equal inhales and exhales with retention between the breaths. This style of breathing can reduce stress and improve your mood which is always a plus when dealing with chronic pain. I personally have learnt to use box breathing when I am having a flare with my Crohn's, the counting and holding of the breath helps me to focus my mind away from the pain and also helps me to feel like I am gaining back some control of my body when suffering from symptoms which are out of my control. It also helps me to feel more in control mentally when feeling stressed and anxious because of my physical symptoms.
If you want to try some calming and focusing breathing techniques in your own space, you can try this 15 minute Breathwork Exercises video where I cover some of my favourite pranayama styles.
Gentle movement (yoga asana) can be really effective with some of the symptoms of digestive complications. If you are struggling with pain within the gut, or maybe pain in your joints, (I have arthritis which can flare up if inflammation increases in my gut) you may not feel like exercising. However, being active (within your limitations) can help reduce inflammation, improve your range of movement and joint mobility, increase muscle strength, reduce stiffness and boost your energy levels.
If you want to try some really gentle yoga movement I have previously recorded a Bed Yoga sequence which you can practice from your bed if you are feeling unwell.
I also have a lovely slow and soothing Yin Yoga practice which allows time for the body and mind to settle, decompress and relax.
Apanasana is a great posture, in Sanskrit the name translates to ‘Wind releasing pose’ laid on your back, draw your knees to your chest. You can hug around the front of your shins or the back of your thighs. The gentle compression of drawing your knees closer to your chest as you exhale will massage the internal organs, helps with digestion and can more gas through the body. This posture is nurturing and restorative. Hugging the knees up lengthens the spine and can relieve tension to the lower back (a place where I often feel pain if I am suffering from intestinal issues).
If both knees to the chest causes any strain on the back, you can practice this pose with one knee drawn up to the chest and the other leg bent, sole of the foot on the ground.
Supine Twists are great poses to relieve tension within the body. I usually end my sequences with a supine twist as it helps to wring out any left over tension in the body and allows students the time to start to unwind from the practice. Supine means laid on your back, twists on the back are more restorative as you can allow gravity to do most of the work within these poses taking the weight off your joints. Twists can be releasing, detoxifying and cleansing poses so great for the digestive tract. It is said that we should always twist right first finishing with twisting to the left as this is the direction of the digestive system.
Childs pose is an incredibly calming and restorative posture. If you practice this with your knees wider than your hips you will allow space for your abdomen to relax between your thighs. As this pose helps to stretch the hips, thighs, and ankles it also helps to reduce stress and fatigue. It gently relaxes the muscles on the front of the body while softly and passively stretching the muscles of the back torso. You can make this pose even more gentle and restorative by folding over a bolster or stack of pillows to completely support the weight of your chest.
I also use meditation to help calm my body and mind, I used to use an app when I first started meditating as sitting quietly with your thoughts isn’t always easy.
I also love moving meditation, so going out for a walk, leaving my phone behind and just listening to nature and connecting to my thoughts and my breath.
My tip for you when trying meditation or breathing exercises is to just try it! Keep an open mind and learn about what works and what doesn’t for you. Some days will be hard but some days will be worth it. Try not to be hard on yourself if it isn’t easy to concentrate. Come back to it when it feels a little easier.
Making the time and space for yourself to listen in is one of the most important part of practicing yoga. Take the time to observe your thoughts and feeling and also what's happening in your physical body as well as you mind.
If you want to try a meditation session with me you can try this free Body Scan.