5 Ways To Cultivate More Balance (Sattva) To Improve Your Digestive Health & Your Life
We don't just consume food, we also consume thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Like food, these need to be digested before we can release what we don't need from the body. This is how you can cultivate more balance to improve your gut & your life.
We are familiar with the digestion process that takes place when we consume food; we ingest, we digest, we absorb the good, we eliminate the bad. Without effective digestion of food, we can't absorb the good nutrients or eliminate the toxins, or maybe both.
Ineffective digestion leads to common digestive disorders such as Indigestion, Gastric reflux, Hiatus Hernia, Constipation, Haemorrhoids, Gallstones, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) etc...
These disorders are very common, if we haven't experienced it ourselves we will know many people that have. IBS impacts 2 in 10 people in the UK; two of those people are my best friends.
Digestive problems can occur for many reasons whether it's genetic tendency, following
illness, antibiotics or other drugs, food intolerances, poor diet, microbial imbalance, and/or ageing.
But there is another major factor which involves the emotions we consume, not the food. All of our thoughts, emotions, and experiences are also ingested. In the same way as our food, these require processing and digesting. After processing, ideally we would absorb the good elements, and 'let go' of the negative difficult ones.
Heard the saying "hard to swallow" about an experience? That's because processing emotions is not easy, and quite literally can be hard to swallow. Ineffective processing means that we 'hold on' to emotions. This greatly impacts our digestive issues.
We can use the ancient teachings of yoga to help understand our imbalances in our digestive health
The ancient teachings of yoga (such as the Bhagavad Gita) tells us about the Gunas ("Gunas" in Sanskrit means a strand or a rope).
All of creation ("Prakriti" or universal nature) is made up of the Gunas; the Gunas are comprised of three essential qualities of nature - Tamas, Rajas, and Sattva.
We (as all living things) are composed of the three Gunas in different proportions. Each of the three Gunas has its own characteristics and we need all three qualities in our life. However, sometimes Tamas and Rajas might dominate, bringing an imbalance, impacting all areas of our lives including our digestive health.
Firstly, let me tell you a little more about each Guna and what you may experience if one becomes is imbalanced:
What is it: Tamas manifests as darkness, lethargy, dullness, and heaviness.
When dominating: When we feel tamasic energy dominating we might feel lethargic in the day, find it hard to get out of bed, feel unmotivated, and/or feel 'stuck in a rut'.
Impact to our gut: In a digestive sense, if imbalanced, we might suffer from constipation, piles, or gallstones. These are conditions which are commonly caused by blockages in the digestive tract.
What is it: Rajas manifests as the energy of passion, emotion, desire, and activity.
When dominating: A dominating rajasic state means you might feel erratic, you might not being able to stop thinking, and might have trouble sleeping.
Impact to our gut: In digestion, too much rajas energy leads to conditions like acid reflex, stomach ulcers, and diarrhoea.
Unfortunately people who suffer from IBS usually fluctuate from too much Tamas AND too much Rajas energy.
What is it: Sattva is associated with harmony, knowledge, happiness, goodness, and balance. It is the balancing force between Tamas and Rajas.
When dominating: When we feel sattva energy dominating we feel harmonious, calm, balanced.
Impact to our gut: In digestion, this translate to healthy gut, healthy digestion, free from digestive issues.
Some Tamas and Ragas is a good thing - in fact, it's required! We need some Tamas to make us stop and rest, and we need some Rajas to get us going in the morning and give us motivation. Most of us need to cultivate more Sattva in order to balance the other two Gunas.
So how do we cultivate more Sattva in order to find balance? Here are 5 ways that helped me:
1. Reduce external stress factors
Before becoming a yoga teacher, I worked in corporate jobs which were high pressured, goal orientated, and horribly stressful. During that time, I suffered from uncomfortable sometimes painful bloating nearly every time I ate.
Having quit corporate life and removing that huge stress factor, I no longer suffer from the digestive problems! But why did stress impact my digestion?
When presented with a potentially threatening situation (including stress situations), the sympathetic nervous system —which regulates bodily functions like the heartbeat, breathing, and blood pressure — responds by triggering a “fight-or-flight response". The body releases the stress hormone cortisol to make the body alert and prepared to face the threat, causing changes like increased heart beat, muscle tension, and increased acid in your stomach (hello gut problems).
I know changing jobs or careers is much easier said then done. It took me 10 years to choose my health over my job, so if you are like me it takes a really long time. First step, just take note how stress impacts your digestion. And make a commitment to yourself to put more attention into your health and start to plan how you could change your lifestyle in the long term. Our health is the most important thing!
2. Practice slow flow yoga & restorative yoga
A slow flow yoga practice invites gentle fluidity into the body and will literally get things moving. Slow flow yoga includes a combination of deep breathing, stretches that target abdominal organs, and twists that massage and wring out anything that is "stuck".
Your blood will start to flow towards your digestive organs, your heart rate will slow, and your breathing will deepen. This creates the ideal environment for good digestion and processing as this is the environment of balance (sattva). During lockdown, I run a weekly slow flow yoga class online via Zoom which are welcome to join; more information can be found here.
If you are someone with too much rajas energy, restorative yoga will be especially helpful to activate the parasympathetic (responsible for the “rest and digest” response). When the rest and digest response is activated, the breath and heart rate slows down and the body is able to focus on digestion calmly, extracting and metabolising food nutrients. The organs for elimination are also active in this state, allowing the body to process and release.
3. Practice "being in the present moment" if you are overactive
If you find yourself rushing through the present, focusing on the future, and not enjoying your daily life, just take notice on the impact on your gut. You may feel your digestion is also overactive, fired up, and unsettled. If this is the case you may experience digestion issues such as acid reflux, diarrhoea, stomach ulcers, or something similar.
Slow down. Take more time for self care. Take more time to rest and be still. Practice being in the present moment by immersing yourself in what you’re doing instead of multitasking. When you are walking take time to become aware of your surroundings, what can you see, hear, feel, smell. When we become more present we can let go of the future and allow ourselves to be in the now. We feel more calm & peace (Sattva).
I fall into the bucket of too much rajas energy. I'm constantly trying to invite more rest and stillness to feel balanced. I wrote a blog post about the importance of rest & self care with practical examples which can be found here.
4. Practice "going with flow" if you are blocked
If you find yourself worried about the future, and constantly trying to plan and feel unsettled when plans don't go your way, take notice how this impacts your gut. You may feel that your digestion is blocked, stuck, and solid. If this is the case, you may suffer from conditions such as constipation, piles, or gallstones.
To help get your digestion moving put your plans to one side and practice "going with the flow". When you surrender to the flow of life, you let life unfold with curiosity rather than anxiety. Moving with the flow of life will help release 'stuck' digestive issues. So practice being OK with not knowing what's next in order to feel more peace and more joy (Sattva). Notice how your digestive system will also flow more harmoniously.
5. Ask yourself "What am I not processing?" "What am I holding on to?" "What am I attached to? "
It can be difficult to digest emotions, experiences, and feelings. Difficult experiences can be "hard to swallow" or "leave a bad taste in the mouth". Bad tasting food that is hard to swallow would also be difficult to digest wouldn't it!
So if you are experiencing digestive conditions, ask yourself what emotions/experiences/feelings you are you holding to and not processing.
Even if it's the last thing you want to do, can you sit with your emotion, even if it is sadness/hurt/frustration/anger. Often we end up numbing ourselves so we don't feel pain. Really feeling it, is processing it. Part of having a full life is feeling all of your emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant.
So why is important to cultivate more balance to have a healthier gut & improve our life?
Like food, we consume emotions, experiences, and feelings. We require digesting these in order to absorb the goodness and eliminate what we no longer need. When we don't process these feelings it can lead to digestive conditions.
By using the ancient teachings of yoga we can identify where the imbalances lie. Perhaps you have too much rajas energy, or too much tamas energy, or fluctuate between the two. It's likely that we all need to cultivate more sattva. Sattva is the balance, the peace, the calm, the tranquility. Sattva helps to balance tamas and rajas so that we have just enough - we do need some but in the right quantities.
We can practice bringing more sattva into our lives by limiting external stress factors, practicing yoga, and taking more time for self care. We can also look at how we approach life; perhaps you could invite more "go with the flow" or perhaps you require more emphasis on "being in the present moment".
Most of all it's about digesting what we can't see but what we can feel. Ask yourself, "what are am I holding onto and/or not processing?" Embracing all emotions, even if they feel difficult to digest, is the Pepto-Bismol we need to have a healthier gut and a happier life.