We’ve been assigning emotions to our digestive system for centuries. Phrases like “gut reaction” and “butterflies in the stomach” have been part of our language for centuries. But what about referring to the gut as another brain? With recent revelations of the enteric nervous system, which governs the gastrointestinal system, the idea of a second brain, or stomach brain is gaining wider acceptance.
To understand more about these connections, writer Elysha Lenkin sat down with yoga and anatomy teacher Sarah Barnaby to learn more.
EL: How did you first learn about the second or stomach brain?
SB: About five or six years ago, I took a series of weekend workshops called Practices In Embodied Teaching with Amy Matthews at The Breathing Project. As part of these workshops there was always a book discussion, and one of the books we read was The Second Brain by Dr. Michael Gershon. One of the questions we had was what does this have to do with either the practice, or the teaching of yoga.
EL: Does it?
SB: One connection I made is that there is so much happening in our body that we don’t have control over, and most of the time it’s working really well. If things are going well, we don’t feel our digestive system. So I think it’s an invitation to appreciate how much is going on in our body without us having to notice, manage and take care of. It raises interesting questions about mindfulness and consciousness. Sometimes I think there’s an idea about awareness that the more aware we are all the time, the better. I think we wouldn’t be functional if we were aware of so much all the time. Can we let go of thinking we must control everything?
EL: What do we do if our digestive system is not running properly, and there is discomfort or other issues?
SB: That’s where things like mindfulness, biofeedback and yoga might come in -- everything affects everything. And even though they call the enteric nervous system the second brain, or the stomach brain, there is two way communication between that part of the nervous system and our central nervous system, and they have ways of influencing each other. So it certainly affects us - our emotions, our sense of our overall self - if things aren’t going well in our digestion.
EL: How can we influence it with yoga?
SB: I think it’s very personal. I think where we can enter is through our paying attention to how we feel overall, and paying attention to what helps us feel better, and being in a dialogue with ourselves about that. For some people it may be a very active style of yoga that helps them feel an overall sense of wellbeing, however that person might define that. For another person, it may be restorative or yin. Or maybe hot yoga. I don’t think that a pose, or a style of yoga is going to have a particular effect on everyone, because the effects depend in part on our personal ideas about the yoga style or pose, and our beliefs about what the yoga is going to do for us. Our expectations are a big part of how we engage with and interpret what happens.
EL: How do you suggest trying to fix an upset digestive system?
SB: I don’t think we necessarily have to go directly to the digestive system because it might be an overall issue, and our way into it can be through some kind of overall way of dealing with ourselves, or figuring out how we can regulate ourselves. There’s an approach that comes from Body-Mind Centering, and we use it in the developmental movement work I do with Amy Matthews with babies, and it looks at how we cycle between being active and resting. How do we get enough comfort? How do get enough stimulation, but not too much? And those questions play out in our digestive system. How much do we eat and when? What is our sense of wellbeing? We are our own best teachers. I don’t think there are any right diets or wrong diets. Can I find a diet or a digestive pattern that works for me whether it’s lots of meat or a vegan diet, or paleo.
There is a materialistic approach to fixing things, and by materialistic I don’t just mean consumerist. I mean we put a lot of power in the thing itself -- in the food, or in the yoga pose -- this pose will fix this condition, or this food is good for this. But I think again, it’s also what we think of this food, or this pose, or this meditation practice, or this mudra that can have a big influence on it. How we approach it, what our attitude is, and what we believe about it.
EL: Regarding the name, would you prefer to call it the stomach brain or the second brain?
SB: I’d rather call it the enteric nervous system. I see a problem in the packaging of ‘stomach brain’ or ‘second brain’, and I want to pick apart the term. It encompasses this very black and white idea that there’s intelligence up here, and we have our guts down there. And the guts are dumb, and the brain is smart, and the brain is running everything. And that sets up a big surprise when we discover that, oh my goodness, the gut isn’t so stupid. It can actually make decisions on its own. There’s a lot that can be said for simplifying because it makes information accessible. But when it’s over simplified and dumbed down, and we take on these simplistic ideas it can enter into how we think we should live our lives and experience ourselves.
Sarah Barnaby teaches yoga, anatomy and developmental movement at