Yoga for Detox

Yoga teacher, author and creator of Ms. Mindbody, Kate Hanley, asked me a few questions about yoga and the idea of detoxification for an article on the subject that has just been posted at (Hop on over to Kate's site and sign up for her weekly "Vegimental" wellness newsletter.) Here is the full text of our exchange:

In layman's terms, how does yoga promote detoxification? 

Yoga promotes detoxification at three major levels. 

1. At the cellular and organic level.

The cells of the body are suspended in a gluey mix of proteins and other materials called the Extra Cellular Matrix (ECM). If this supportive, goopy mixture is not moved around on a regular basis, it tends to harden. Think of when you were a kid and made papier mâché models. When the flour and water paste was wet, you could mold your paper strips any way you wanted, but once it dried up, it set into a hard shell. In much the same way, if you lead a sedentary life, the ECM in your body will start to congeal, with serious consequences for your cells and organs. For starters, your cells will no longer have a way to expel the waste products they produce. These waste products--Carbon Dioxide, water and lactic acid from production of energy and the lymphatic fluids that are part of the immune system--then start to build up in your tissues. Furthermore, the shape of a cell determines its function. If the cells of your organs become squished and cemented into place, it can have a serious effect on the ability of the organ to carry out its intended function. Certain cells can even begin to atrophy and die if they are held in the wrong shape. In a well-rounded yoga practice, every part of the body is pushed, pulled, twisted, turned and upended. The ECM is kept mobile and the cells and organs are encouraged to function in an optimal manner.

2. At the circulatory level.

We generally have the notion that the heart is the engine of the body's circulatory system. Essential as it is to life, it only drives half the system. That tirelessly pumping muscle pushes the blood out into the arteries, capillaries and cells, but what gets it back into the heart from the extremities? Both the spent, oxygen-depleted venous blood and the lymphatic fluid travel through a series of valves that require rhythmic muscular action to propel them. Conventional forms of exercise will do much to move the fluids through the body, but the deep tissues may not get reached in the way that they might with yoga poses such as twists, inversions and arm-balances.

3. At the systemic level.

Whether you've eaten too much junk food, burnt your fingers dousing the candles on your altar, had one glass of wine too many, or been yelled at by your boss, the human body has a stock way of reacting. The laundry list of physiological changes associated with what has come to be known as the "stress response" comes from an activation of the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. What, millions of years ago, kept us from getting eaten by saber-toothed tigers can cause a systemic deterioration in modern times that has the potential to be seriously damaging in the long term if left unchecked. The quieter side of a yoga practice--inversions, yogic breathing and restorative work--helps to stimulate the counter-response, the parasympathetic nervous system, returning the body to a state of relaxation and well-being.

What does it actually help your body dispose of? 

It helps you move the bi-products of cellular and organic activity out into the circulatory system where they can be properly disposed of. It stimulates circulation of the lymphatic/immune system, helping fine-tune the body's ability to fight off illness. It stimulates the process of elimination, helping to keep the digestive system toned and regular. It helps re-set the nervous system to a calmer, steadier baseline.

How does yogic breathing assist in detox? 

The movement of the diaphragm is as crucial to life as the heart. Yogic breathing is a powerful practice that should not be attempted without proper instruction. On the crudest level, it helps clear out carbon dioxide from the lung tissues. On a deeper level, it helps to retrain the diaphragm. We tend to have as many bad habits in breathing as we do in every other area of our lives. Yogic breathing exercises properly performed can help the diaphragm to move freely, stimulating the internal organs and integrating the core to make us stronger and more vital in everything we do.

Why is detoxification something we should seek out?

Humans originally evolved to be a social, nomadic people who supported themselves through hunting and gathering, in sync with the cycles of nature. Modern life has brought us, in only a few hundred years, about as far as we can get from the optimal state for which our bodies and nervous systems developed over millennia. We live isolated, sedentary lives under continual stress often from vague sources that we are barely aware of, let alone that we can do something about. It is up to us to take our daily well-being into our own hands. Mind/Body disciplines such as yoga can help fine-tune our lives, our minds and our bodies to overcome the stresses of the modern world.

Which three poses would you recommend to promote detox?

Adho Mukha Shvanasana - for the use of arms, legs and core.

Marichyasana 3 - for the twist.

Supta Baddha Konasana over a bolster (Or Shavasana with a lift under the trunk) - for the restorative effect.

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