Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land shares a short, incredibly simple practice that you can use to support your lymphatic system (the body’s first line of defense against disease).
Editor's note: This article contains general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. It is not a replacement for the personal advice of a health professional. Yoga teachers should remain within their scope of practice: This means not attempting to diagnose, treat, or offer medical advice to students.
Yoga has the potential to influence pretty much every physiological process in the body—from muscle contraction to breathing, digestion, blood flow, and circulation. Yoga can even influence the function of the lymphatic system, which, while perhaps one of the least known and appreciated systems of the body, is also our first line of defense against disease. Lymph transports a range of antibodies and specialized white blood cells designed to fight disease, flowing through nodes that filter out bacteria, foreign matter, and dead tissue.
Healthy lymph flow is a key component of a strong immune system, and fortunately yoga asana can help that flow. Unlike the circulatory system, which is driven by the pump of the heart, the lymphatic system depends on gravity as well as on tissues contracting to squeeze fluid through its vessels. This makes yoga poses like twists, forward folds, side bends, and inversions the perfect tools to boost lymph flow.
This quick practice starts with an inversion, then squeezes and stretches the tissues surrounding lymph node clusters in the neck, armpits, and groins to support a healthy lymphatic system and boost our immunity. You’ll need a blanket or towel, and a yoga block if you have one.
Lie down on your back, with your block or firmly folded blanket or towel at hand. Bend your knees, plant your feet, and lift your hips high enough to slide your prop under your sacrum. Your hips should be a little higher than your heart.
Once your hips are stable on the prop, lift your feet off the floor and up toward the ceiling. Allow your knees to soften, and stack the weight of your legs over your hips or lower abdomen so you can relax your hip flexors and abdominal muscles.
Stay here for a minute or two, slowly pointing and flexing your feet or circling your ankles, contracting and relaxing the muscles in your lower legs to help gravity draw the lymph out of your legs.
When you are ready to move on, bend your knees and slowly return your feet to the floor. Stack your feet under your knees and lift your hips to slide your prop out from under you. Using your hands, squeeze your knees into your chest, creating gentle compression in your groins. Then round your back and roll to an upright seat.
Come to an easy cross-legged position, sliding your blanket or towel under your sitting bones if that’s more comfortable.
Sweep your right arm up and overhead and slide your left hand away from you to deepen the side bend. Stay here for a full inhalation, creating space between your right side ribs.
As you exhale, bring your right hand to the floor behind you and turn to the right, bringing your left hand either to the floor or your feet in front of you. On your next inhale, lean your left ear toward your left shoulder and lift your chin until you feel a gentle stretch in the right side of your throat.
Exhale back to center, ready to lift your right arm overhead with your next breath in.
Flow through the sequence twice more on the right side, using the smooth, rhythmic movement to stretch and squeeze your neck and armpit. Then swap the cross of your legs and do the left side. When you have moved through both sides make your way through to all fours.
Roll one end of your towel or blanket until it’s roughly three to four inches in diameter, and set it at the top of your mat. Take a long step forward with your right foot, coming into a low lunge with your right knee stacking over your ankle and your left knee behind your hips.
Pick up your blanket or towel roll and wedge it into your right hip crease. Bring your hands together and move into a twist, rotating your torso toward your right thigh until you can bring your left forearm or elbow to your right knee. You can keep your hands in a prayer position or make a fist with your bottom hand and press it into your top palm. Use your position to gently compress the right side of your groin.
Take four or five long breaths here, using the rhythmic movement of your abdomen to increase the compression. When you are ready to move on, rotate your torso back to center, remove the rolled towel or blanket, and return to all fours ready to move to the other side.
We are drawn to our yoga practice for many reasons—spiritual, mental, energetic, and physical. Perhaps you’ve not yet considered the impact of yoga on circulation, but improved lymph flow is a worthwhile goal of its own. Because the lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pump, it is particularly vulnerable to stagnation and benefits hugely from the ways we use yoga asana to stretch, squeeze, and alter our relationship to gravity. And as our first line of defense against disease, maintaining a healthy lymphatic system feels particularly relevant right now.