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Get Your Juices Flowing

 

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”

-Benjamin Franklin

 

The Winter months are notorious for lowering our immune systems. Cold temperatures can slow the immune system, coupled with more time indoors in close spaces with others during peak virus season.


Yoga has been known to increase immunity, lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and rev up the cardiovascular system. Studies have shown that a regular yoga practice resists the impairment of cellular immunity under the impact of stress, including decreased viral reactivation, decreased upper respiratory infections and faster wound healing time when compared to a control group.  But certain practices are specifically geared toward strengthening the lymphatic system, an essential component of the immune response.


The lymphatic network is a network of vessels that drain fluids, but the lymphatic system operates completely separately from our circulatory system and cannot benefit from the pumping of our heart.  Instead, the lymphatic network benefits from specific movements, compression of lymph nodes and diaphragmatic breathing.  


This invisible network has been poorly understood over the centuries.  Because of its elusive nature, precise information on lymph vessels was not collected until the 1990s when lymphatic-specific biomarkers were discovered that helped in cancer research.  Lymph cells include T cells and B cells, powerful cells that attack foreign invaders (think bacteria and viruses). Keeping the lymph flowing is critical to our immune response, whether against the common cold or aggressive cancers.  When the body is sickened by cancer, lymph node involvement is a sign that the cancer is moving through the body, carried by the lymphatic system to infiltrate other organs.  We sometimes feel our lymph nodes in our neck, for example, when coming down with a cold or flu.


The lymphatic system moves throughout the whole body, but we have an especially rich collection of nodes in our neck, shoulders and groin where it is easier for us to squeeze and create flow through movement.


Yoga is one of the leading exercises that encourages proper lymph drainage.  Asana (physical poses) can keep joint capsules supple while deep belly breathing pumps the lymph.  Specific poses recommended in a lymphatic practice include child’s pose, supine twists, happy baby and bridge pose-all of which compress the shoulder and hips where large collections of nodes reside.


Inversions also help lymph flow, since the lymph system has no natural pump.   Shoulder stands and headstands are especially recommended, but even for beginners the “legs up the wall” pose can be practiced by anyone . Simply lie on your back and place the legs vertically either in the air or resting against a wall.  Inversions are especially effective at night before going to sleep.




Diaphragmatic breath (belly breathing) is one of the best immune supportive yoga practice that differentiates yoga from other exercise. The best way to learn this technique is to lie on your back placing one hand on the belly and one on the chest.  As you inhale deeply, direct the flow of air to your belly and notice your hand on your stomach rising before the one on your chest.. Inhale through the nose and exhale through either the nose or mouth, noticing the navel descend to the spine.  If this is new to you, you may be surprised to find that your natural inclination is to inhale into your chest. Eventually you can find a pattern with belly expanding first, and then perhaps moving up to your chest.  You can try sitting up as well, but lying down may be easier when you’re first starting.


Scientific literature is varied, but studies that show improvement of lymphedema with yoga specifically instructed patients to breathe deeply with focus coordinated with poses, exhaling longer than the inhalation, a practice that I encourage and that anyone who has practiced with me has learned.


Ring in the New Year with a lymphatic flow practice that will get your juices flowing!

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