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Digest This

Need a stronger lift in your asana? Surprisingly, your ability to accomplish this could be related to how well you can sense the support of your own digestive tract from beginning (mouth) to end (anus).

It isn’t something that we usually hear about in yoga workshops, but of course that doesn’t stop well-known Iyengar yoga teacher Genny Kapulerwho taught an all-day workshop at Yoga Union, “Embodied Asana of the Digestive Tract.”

Despite the title of Kapuler’s class, I expected to learn about asana and pranayama to improve and support digestion: twist this way to squeeze out the transverse colon. Instead, erudite Kapuler inverted the paradigm. We learned how to use our sense of—and support from—our digestive organs to improve the efficacy of our asana, and therefore our health.

What organs are those, exactly? And why bother going down there?

In her methodology, understanding itself can be corrective and healing. According to Kapuler, our inner sense of being is determined by our organs (all of them, but in this case, those comprising the gastrointestinal tract), which also “sense” the deeper meaning of reality. Once you know directly and intimately—through feeling rather than through intellect alone,what your inner reality consists of, you have the possibility of freeing yourself from patterns that distort and unbalance you. What does my stomach, rather than my head, tell me about my condition? What nourishment can my small intestines assimilate without balking?

Using this orientation, we also might correct for back pain not only by using our postural muscles to lengthen the spine, but by feeling for the inner support of tissues already perfectly positioned to buttress length. Our oldest allies line up as follows: mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine—duodenum, jejunum, ileum—and large intestine—cecum, the ascending, transverse, descending, and sigmoid colon, and rectum.

Kapuler reminded us that each part of this sequence and its valves, the closable flaps between or within organs, cues and influences every other. Therefore, regulation or disregulation at any point along this “string of pearls” affects all other

The twenty students practiced primarily standing poses in the morning and restorative/pranayama, in the afternoon. Kapuler opened both sessions by narrating the pathway our food (exterior) takes to become part of us and then released again, a journey through organs, ducts, and selective membranes. Not all of them are available to be palpated, nor should they be. During her tour of this system, we colored in the corresponding gastro-intestinal sections from anatomy books to help connect to the material, which proved as slippery as the organs. It turns out that the digestive tract perfectly supports and is nested against the front of the spine. Thus, we have support we don’t even know is there. We don’t consider it as a resource to avail ourselves of, if we even consider it at all.

To skip out, unconsciously or otherwise, on properly utilizing the support of this tract is like sleeping with your head awkwardly suspended in the air when you could use a pillow. But unless something is jammed up or causing pain, our duodenum gets about as much attention during practice as an expired metro card.

Kapuler’s pedagogy is structurally precise but poetic. When we practiced trikonasana, we could use our 25-ft of intestines as a prop for the elongated rotation the spine. She cued us to feel for the support of “the intestinal bouquet” where the mesentery, a folded membrane that connects an organ to a body wall, attaches to the lumbar vertebra. Kapuler noticed this critical shape-shifting quality of the small intestines when she manipulated the tissues of a cadaver in a lab.

We were repeatedly encouraged to feel and visualize the length of this hollow digestive tube, the first aspect of the tract to develop as embryos, running from the opening of our esophagus at the 6th cervical vertebra at the base of the neck all the way down the midline of the body. This “lumen” or cavity—notably, also a Latin word meaning “light”—terminates where ligaments join the sacrum to the “anus-flower.” Kapuler coined this pleasing term after studying Da Vinci’s almost unrecognizably beautiful drawings of the region, which she also provided for us.

Kapuler admits that the leap from thinking intellectually about the anatomy to feeling it with sense perception is a big one, but nonetheless she encourages it because “we’re just talking about you, what’s right there, not far off, like Myanmar.”

Although the G.I. tract has gotten much less attention and respect than the skeletal-muscular system in yoga practice, it could possibly turn out to be the true arbiter of our well-being from the inside out. If so, it’s worth learning to feel for its organic uplift of body, mind and spirit.

My jejunum and I have a lot to digest.

-Sara Nolan - to read more of Sara's writing go to her blog by clicking here.

-illustration Kris Mukai

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