Exercise is good, but yoga is better! We always emphasise how important exercise is for a healthy gut microbiome. But did you know that yoga in particular is popular with your microbiome and can positively influence your gut health? We wanted to explore this further and asked Eva Maria Hoffmann-Gombotz, PhD microbiologist and yoga teacher. Eva herself says: “Yoga is not a trendy starlet that flickers briefly in the fitness sky. Yoga is a sound science that goes back thousands of years.” She uses yoga specifically to improve the gut health of her clients and tells us in this article how it came about. You’ll also get exciting exercises to implement right away!
“Why do you practice yoga as a scientist?” I hear questions like this a lot. Very often, in fact. And the answer is: because it makes sense. But first things first:
My name is Eva Maria Hoffmann-Gombotz. I have a doctorate in microbiology, I am an independent speaker on gut health and a yoga teacher. For many years I researched the development of colon cancer at the Medical University of Graz, until my love for the gut made me change fronts. Today I dedicate my life 100% to the topic of gut health. I deal with gut-friendly nutrition. The influence of lifestyle on our digestion. The connection between stress and intestinal colonisation.
With my knowledge I support companies in strengthening their employees from the centre out. In seminars and workshops, I bring the latest findings of microbiome research, packaged in more easily digestible morsels, into the working world. Making people fall in love with their gut – that is my mission. In my courses we pamper the gut, with massages, gut-friendly foods and through a focused yoga practice.
Om, for the microbiome
When I offered my first yoga classes years ago, my students came to me because of their neck tension, back problems or shoulder pain. It is noticeable that in recent months more and more participants are coming to me because they suffer from digestive problems. Of course, this is no coincidence.
Corona and home office leave their mark – also on the gut
For one thing, the Covid19 pandemic is still causing fears and worries. Working in a home office tempts people to feast without restraint. And this combination not only affects many people’s moods, but also their stomachs and intestines.
Yoga therapy for gut health
On the other hand, word has spread about my approach to work. Over the past three years, I have pooled my skills and meticulously studied scientific articles. I trained in “Yoga Therapy for Digestive Health” and was able to experience first-hand the amazing effect a mindful yoga practice has on the body, mind and gut microbiome. That was the birth of “Strong from the Middle”. A programme that combines gut health, nutrition and yoga.
Yoga is a sound science that goes back thousands of years
Yoga is not a trendy starlet that is briefly flickering in the fitness sky. Yoga is a science that is thousands of years old. More and more studies show that the regular practice of yoga has a positive influence on health. For example, inflammation markers are lowered, sleep quality seems to improve, the immune system benefits enormously. One study found the same benefits as a low-FODMAP diet in patients with irritable bowel syndrome.
If you have an irritable bowel, yoga can relax you in different ways:
In times of stress, breathing becomes shallow and rapid. It mainly takes place in the chest area. It is difficult to breathe deeply. It is the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for fight or flight, that chases us through everyday life. The muscles of the arms and legs are well supplied with blood. The same goes for our heart. All this is important if we want to run away from danger. Our intestines, however, are looking through our fingers. Because there is no chance for adequate digestion, the supply of nutrients to the intestinal epithelial cells, leaning back and digesting. If this stress situation becomes the “normal state”, people and intestines suffer. In my experience, this leads to flatulence, constipation, diarrhoea. Or a combination of all of these.
Take a deep breath!
The good news: conscious deep abdominal breathing can now bring calm. This mindful breathing wakes up the chilled brother of the hyperactive sympathetic nervous system: The parasympathetic nervous system. Your tasks are: Rest and Digest. In my gut-healthy yoga classes I teach my students the so-called Ujjayi breathing. This involves placing the inhalation in the abdomen. The aim is to completely relax the abdominal wall and arch it forward. During the exhalation, one visualises fogging up a window pane with the breath. The breath is breathed with closed lips. This causes the glottis to vibrate. This vibration activates the vagus nerve, the permanent connection between the intestines and the brain. We come to rest. We have energy to digest. Abdominal breathing massages the abdominal organs and can counteract digestive problems.
Breathing exercise for a good belly feeling: Lie down on a yoga mat or blanket. Support your head with a flat pillow so that your neck is not overstretched but can relax. Place your palms on your belly. Close your eyes. Separate your teeth from each other and your tongue from the roof of your mouth. Feel curiously towards your breath. Does the abdominal wall rise? Let the abdomen become completely soft with the exhalation. Notice how the abdominal wall sinks down again. Practise for 2 minutes. Then stretch and loll.
“Yoga for the gut” is a practice for the gut-brain axis. The brain and the intestine are in constant exchange through more than 100 million nerve cells. The two communicate, non-stop. Constant stress has been shown to change the composition of the intestinal microbiota. If the residents in the shared flat in our basement change, this is noticeable in the composition of the microbial metabolic products. Our gut bacteria play a decisive role when it comes to the balance of brain messengers. These include serotonin, noradenalin, and also dopamine.
With a mindful yoga practice, it is possible to turn more towards the central axis – to connect with one’s own centre – the intestine comes to rest and it is possible – at least temporarily – to give the drivers in our brain a break. The aim of the conscious intestinal yoga practice is to perceive the pain in the belly. Without stiffening. Without holding your breath. But to accept what is there in a safe space. This relaxation is a “reset” for the gut-brain axis.
Meditation for a good gut feeling: Find a comfortable sitting position. Lean against a wall if you like. Close your eyes. Concentrate on the tip of your nose with your eyes closed. Breathe in and out evenly and calmly through your nose. Remain for 3-5 minutes. Then blink into the room, shake yourself and enjoy the pleasant feeling.
Lack of exercise, an unbalanced diet low in fibre and this combined with insufficient fluid intake makes the intestines sluggish. In yoga, one also speaks of the digestive fire Agni, which goes out. Regular digestion requires muscular strength. Yoga for the intestines influences our digestion in many ways: on the one hand, we strengthen the muscles, the lymph flow is stimulated and the blood circulation is promoted. The fascial network that holds us together is moistened and gains new flexibility. Through targeted, mindful spreading, stretching and stretching, we keep our fasciae supple and create more space for our organs.
In addition, a gut-conscious yoga practice takes care of the strongest muscle in the human body: that of our jaw. When we work with concentration, we frown. If we are fully committed to something, it is easy to get “stuck”. From a yogic point of view, the energy now stagnates in the head area. The neck becomes stiff. The shoulders hurt. In my classes, every yoga session begins with relaxation exercises for the face – in the spirit of intestinal health.
Last but not least, the psoas major muscle (The muscle of the soul) plays a supporting role. The psoas lies hidden in the lower abdomen, connecting the upper and lower body. It is the strongest hip flexor of the human body, with many important functions. It stabilises the spine and the organs in the abdomen. It promotes blood circulation there, it controls the diaphragm, it massages the lumbar spine and ensures relaxation of the internal organs.
The name “muscle of the soul” comes from the fact that the muscle tenses during stress. This can be traced back to the good old “fight or flight” reaction. Sitting in an office chair all day also causes this muscle to atrophy and shorten. Breathing stops, the stomach twinges. That’s why my bowel-healthy yoga classes focus on relieving the psoas. If the muscle of the soul feels good, the intestine and the person join in.
Classic exercise for a good gut feeling: Sufi circles: Sit cross-legged on a mat and start circling the spine. Start with small circles, allow them to become larger. Also change the direction. Very slowly allow the movement to become smaller and smaller. Especially enjoy the tiny circles that are not seen from the outside.
When I started looking into a gut-friendly diet, I was excited and fascinated. Until that moment, I lacked the awareness that with every single bite that ends up in my mouth, I am responsible for trillions of bacteria. So it’s not just about our human cravings!
Our gut microbiome needs fibre. The bacteria love a Mediterranean diet. They have a huge party in the intestine when they are nourished with predominantly plant-based foods. As a “thank you” they produce substances that strengthen our intestinal barrier. Benefit our immune system. Boost our mood. Personally, I was most surprised that there are so many parallels between this gut-friendly diet and the dietary recommendations of the ancient yogis. The ancient scriptures also advocate a plant-based diet, advising to fill the stomach only 80%.
So eating for well-being is possible!
And to see what effect this has on our intestinal co-inhabitants is also possible. I did a microbiome analysis by myBioma and am very proud of the diversity of my microbiome.
Favourite food for a good gut feeling: “Eat the rainbow”. Avoid convenience foods. Watch out for hidden sugars. Drink enough water. Include nuts and pulses in your diet. The more varied, the more you will please your bacteria.
In my many years of working with the intestine and people for whom it causes trouble, I have seen many people (dis)doubt. There is a lack of trust in their own body. There is great frustration because, for example, visits to restaurants have become impossible due to stomach complaints. Or doing one’s job. Maintaining social contacts. My yoga sessions for the gut are not only about movement and breathing, but also about mental strength.
Together we create a safe space where everything is allowed. Anger, resentment, gut sounds, regeneration and the joy of all that the body – despite gut pain – is still capable of.
She has been giving lectures in Austria, Germany and Switzerland since 2013 on the topics of intestinal health, nutrition and hormones. With her gut-healthy seminars and workshops, she takes care of the good gut feeling of employees in Styrian companies. She runs an online yoga studio (Kakini-Yoga), has a podcast (Mittel.Punkt) and reads everything she can get her hands on. But cookbooks are her favourite. Eva Maria Hoffmann-Gombotz likes to talk, laughs a lot and still likes people better than bacteria.
We thank you for the exciting information and are ready to roll out the yoga mat! Are you also interested in an individual gut-healthy yoga programme? Contact Eva at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find more information on her homepage. Well then, Namasté for a happy gut!