Do you ever sit down to enjoy a good meal and come away feeling that it wasn't worth the trouble? The first few mouthfuls are pleasant, but after that the mechanical routine of shoving the food in begins, and by the end of the meal you feel overfull and uncomfortable. The next thing most people do is to reach for some antacid in an effort to reduce discomfort. The antacid mixes with stomach acid and inactivates it. This may remove the symptoms but it does not remove the underlying causes, which are faulty habits and mental tension acting through the autonomic nervous system. For this, a system such as yoga is required.
When people talk about 'indigestion' they are really talking about dyspepsia, one of the most common ailments afflicting our present day civilization. It is a condition of the stomach in which digestive juices are incorrectly secreted and discomfort results. The following symptoms are common in dyspepsia:
Because most people are not aware of the potential of yoga to eliminate indigestion problems, a few attacks of dyspepsia take them to visit their doctor where they seek both medication and psychological support. A typical conversation goes like this:
From this sort of interview the doctor will try to find out what is the underlying problem causing the discomfort. It is important that people suffering from indigestion do visit a doctor so as to eliminate the possibility of more serious diseases. Then they can start to remove the underlying causes which can be simply summed up as 'too much, too fast, too rich, and too tense'.
Eating too much is the first cause of dyspepsia. At the physical level this is generally a case of one's eyes being bigger than one's stomach. When we have the choice of endless assortments of delicious foods, how many of us have the willpower and common sense to eat sensibly. In most cases we become a slave to the passions of our taste and overindulge by trying this or that, and 'just a little bit more, thanks, even though I'm really quite full.' Indeed many hosts and hostesses are offended if you do not show your approval of their hospitality by eating and drinking as much as you can. Under these circumstances it is amazing how much some people can pack away.
Eating too much often leads to eating too quickly, the next phase in the cause of dyspepsia. If we want to eat a large quantity of food, it stands to reason that we will have to eat it more quickly. This has a two-fold purpose. Firstly, it allows us to eat more in the same time as it would take to eat a normal meal, and secondly, it looks like 'we really didn't eat so much'.
Eating too much too quickly prevents us from really enjoying and savouring the food. It also prevents adequate mastication, which sets the digestive process off to a bad start. Saliva is not mixed properly with the food nor is the food completely broken down. Large particles travel into the stomach and require extra energy to digest. The correct quantities of alkaline saliva, acid gastric juice and enzymes are not secreted and indigestion results. Many people eat too quickly because they are not relaxed and centred in the present. They are anxious and worried about some past action or future event, and find it difficult to be aware of eating and to enjoy their food. Others get caught up in the anticipation of the 'next pleasure' and start looking forward to more food even before finishing the first round.
Rich and spicy foods may also cause dyspepsia or aggravate an already casting condition. Some foods thought by doctors to actually cause dyspepsia are chocolate, coffee and acid fruit juices. Smoking and drinking alcohol just before eating are also implicated. Usually, however, tasty foods cause indigestion through the fact that we tend to eat more of them. It is not so easy to overeat on a bland and tasteless diet.
There are three important facets of dyspepsia which lie under the surface manifestations of discomfort and heartburn. They are related to tension in (i) swadhisthana chakra, (ii) manipura chakra, (iii) the environment, usually as a by product of the first two.
Swadhisthana chakra is related to pleasure and preservation of the species. The two main mechanisms used to satisfy its innate urges are sex and food. If there is any discord in the sexual aspects of our lives and we are not deriving enough satisfaction and fulfillment, we tend to sublimate by overeating. According to yogic physiology, taste is the sensation that is associated with swadhisthana chakra.
Tension in manipura chakra can occur when energy from a blockage in swadhisthana spills over. If we cannot satisfy our sexual urge, and if at the same time we are suffering from dyspepsia because of overeating, then all avenues to swadhisthana are blocked and frustration occurs. At the same time, these frustrations spill over into the environment causing problems with family, work and so on. This results in rage and anger or in depression, which are tensions in manipura chakra.
Problems with the external environment such as quarrels in the family or with friends, troubles at work, threatened dismissal from a job or even promotion with added responsibilities, cause tension and over stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. Any physical, emotional or mental pain stimulates the sympathetic system, thereby stopping the movements of the stomach and slowing down the secretion of digestive juices. This means that any food eaten at such times remains in the stomach longer. It is not digested properly and the nutrients cannot be fully absorbed. Further more, eating under continual emotional and mental tension is not pleasurable.
In experiments on dogs provoked into rage, little or no gastric secretion could be evoked to the extent that even after the dogs had calmed down, a subsequent feeding, which usually acts as a very strong stimulus, had no effect. In this context H. W. Davenport says:
"Similar suppression of secretion in rage has been found in man and literature from the most ancient times contains anecdotes describing cessation of digestion during episodes of sympathetic discharge."*1
Some people use bicarbonate of soda to relieve their dyspepsia but this is not recommended by medical authorities because the gas it produces distends the stomach and may perforate an ulcer if there is already one there. Other antacids such as magnesium trisilicate and aluminium hydroxide are preferred. Doctors will combine these with sedatives or tranquillisers if there is an obvious emotional component and will give some dietary instructions to eliminate the causative food factors. Rarely, however, do people try to reduce their emotional and psychological problems. This is because they view dyspepsia as a physical disorder and so they seek a physical cure or means of relief. Yoga therapy stresses the mental and emotional factors as fundamental components of cure, and this is the basis of its success, for in this way it eliminates stress from the body and mind.
Each person handles stress in his own way. Some people become upset while others take it in their stride. Those people who are easily distressed get dyspepsia. For them, yoga is the best way to deal with their problems for it quickly eliminates tension and gradually strengthens the body and mind so that they are not so easily affected by stressful situations. As the health improves so does the ability to solve those problems which once were the root cause of dyspepsia.
We need to find a way to tame the animal within us which comes in the form of the autonomic nervous system. This system goes on by itself without the need for conscious direction by the will, and it reacts blindly to both joy and rage. Yoga teaches us to become aware of and then to control its function by developing the attitude of a detached witness. Experiments with biofeedback have proven this fact to the scientific world. Yoga also has been proven to consciously control the autonomic nervous system and prevent the emotional highs and lows from affecting our bodies.
By developing awareness we become sensitive to our body's needs rather than to its desires, and can then stop eating when we have had enough. Eventually the practices create a desire for more pure and simple foods which make us feel better. As we learn to balance our inner energies, we find that we need to eat less. When yogic awareness is slowly and carefully cultivated, most diseases, especially self induced ones such as dyspepsia, drop away automatically, without effort on our part. This is true relaxation.
The following practices will eliminate tension which is the root cause of dyspepsia, and help to restore the digestive system to normal functioning. Choose those which suit you best.
These practices, though sufficient in themselves, can be combined with karma yoga, bhakti yoga and gyana yoga for faster, deeper and more long term results.
NOTE: Do not practice these if an ulcer is present.
*1. H. W. Davenport, Physiology of the Digestive Tract, Year Book Medical Publishers, Chicago, 1968.