I’ll dive into this post with a personal story – about digestion, my bodies, and what brought me to yoga therapy.
When I was about 8-years-old I came home from soccer practice one evening with debilitating cramps in my abdomen. I remember the feeling well: it was as if I had eaten a bowl full of broken glass, and the jagged pieces were now piercing my gut from the inside out. The pain was manageable, and lost its intensity after eating a big bowl of pasta, but didn’t completely go away until the next morning. I didn’t think much of it, but the feeling would return intermittently over the next fifteen years.
Over those next years, other symptoms of IBS, allergies, and stress also showed up in my gut, mostly manifesting as the broken-glass cramps, heartburn, and wildly erratic appetite. At one point I was encouraged to go off dairy, at another I was prescribed prescription-grade antacids for the heartburn, and finally referred by my physician to get an ultrasound because ulcers were suspected. Nothing abnormal, however, showed up: the symptoms remained with no clear link to diet, eating habits, or disease.
From a yogic perspective, of course, this all makes sense. In yoga, we view health not merely as the absence of disease, but the harmony and balance of bodily systems at the physical – as well as subtler – levels.
We can refer to these levels here as pancha kosha, or five bodies: sheaths of the human being that communicate between each other. These are outlined as annamayakosha (physical body), pranamayakosha (vital life-force body), manomayakosha (sensory mind body), vijnanamayakosha (superior conscience body), and anandamayakosha (bliss body). Yoga recognizes that when there is dis-ease in the human being, it can originate and manifest through one of many of these bodies.
I became interested in yoga as a teenager, and by the time I was in my early twenties, I had started to notice some clear links between my gut, digestive issues, and other aspects of my life. For example, whenever I had a big transition coming up (like moving to a new place), there was an onset of heartburn and I wasn’t able to eat for 2-4 days. During extended periods of high stress, the broken-glass cramps in my abdomen came on strong (my junior year of high school I had AP exams, SAT testing, and a big track and field competition within one week – I remember going to the back of the library and instinctively laying on my belly in bhujangasana while reading People magazine to calm myself down…it worked, for a bit!)
What I learned a few years later in my first yoga therapy consultation was that, yes, there was a clear disruption and imbalance in the functioning of my digestion, but the cause was not structural. What did become clear by my yoga therapist was that there was stress, emotional suppression, and a chronic monkey-mind that was manifesting as dysfunction in digestion.
According to the Yoga Vasistha, a philosophical text that includes yogic perspectives on pathophysiological diseases, psychosomatic diseases “originate from the mind, percolate to subtle energy called the vital life-force, and settle in the physical body, inflicting damage to the weakest organ affecting the physiology and functioning of those organs” (Kavuri et al). In other words, a main source of disruption and dis-ease in the physical body (annamayakosha) originates in the mental body (manomayakosha) and filters through the energetic body (pranamayakosha), indicating aggravation in not one but three of these sheaths. And while symptoms are most clear in the grossest of the bodies – annamayakosha – the source of dis-ease must be treated in the other bodies as well for a complete approach to healing.
Digestion itself is a fascinating and complex aspect of health to dive into via the 5 bodies, not only because it is so integral to physical health, but because it touches most of us deeply.
Have you ever experienced loss of appetite after getting a disturbing phone call from a friend, or noticed constipation when you’re holding onto a stressful moment? The links are clear through lenses of common sense as well as science. And a yogic approach through working with pancha kosha helps lead to healing.
While yoga therapy addresses each client individually according to their specific symptoms and health and wellness history, here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to working with disturbed digestion on the 5 bodies:
Annamayakosha (Physical): Tension, pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhea can be addressed through gentle moving practices and relaxation of the abdominal cavity.
Pranamayakosha (Energetic): Tense or erratic breathing and energetic blockages can be addressed through slow, rhythmic breathing to remove blockages and balance the vital force.
Manomayakosha (Sensory Mind): Stress, anxiety, monkey-mind and mental tensions can be addressed through focused meditation and mindfulness to calm the mind
Vijnanamayakosha (Superior Conscience): Distorted perceptions of one’s higher self can be addressed through self-inquiry practices to develop awareness of the higher mind.
Anandamayakosha (Bliss): Lack of joy or sense of purpose can be addressed through selfless service and devotion, exploration of and surrender to universal love and wisdom.
As I started working with an asana, pranayama, and meditation program that addressed the roots of my digestive issues, I noticed imbalances starting to regulate, suppressed emotions coming to the surface, and physical symptoms disappearing. It’s been a long process, and it continues, but cultivating an awareness of health and dis-ease in my own five bodies has been a crucial aspect of moving into a healthier state of being.
I encourage all who are interested in understanding their own digestive processes to also look through the lens of their five bodies: they are likely ready to tell you a lot of precious information about what’s going on in the gut and in the other complex digestive processes of life.
Ref: Kavuri, Vijaya et al. “Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Yoga as Remedial Therapy.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 2015 (2015): 398156. PMC. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.