Yoga teachers and yoga students like to be proactive when it comes to our health – we have strong opinions about what we should put into the body, how to improve its functioning, and how to cleanse it of unwanted stuff. Unfortunately, in our quest for conscious living we sometimes make far-fetched assumptions.
Case in point – a widely spread idea that twists help “detox the liver.” I believe the thinking goes like this: liver removes toxins from the body + twists squeeze the internal organs (including the liver) -> this increases circulation to the liver -> this makes the liver work better = twisting helps remove toxins.
Intuitively it makes sense; it’s too bad that it doesn’t work like that in real life. Let’s explore this interesting equation one part at a time.
Statement 1: The liver removes toxins from the body. Yes, this is true. The liver is a remarkable organ that has many different functions (come to think of it, which organ isn’t remarkable?!) One of those functions is toxin removal. The liver does it in two ways: the toxins that are water-soluble are removed from the blood stream and are either broken down or excreted in the bile and urine. The toxins that are lipid-soluble are “absorbed by the liver and stored in lipid deposits, where they do not disrupt cellular functions.” (1) This means that it is your liver’s job to remove the toxins that are possible to remove, and store away the ones that cannot be removed so they don’t cause harm. Any healthy liver will do that.
Statement 2: Twists compress internal organs. Yes, this is true (to a degree). Certainly, when you twist, the contents of the abdominal cavity are compressed, but it isn’t like you put your liver in your hand and squeezed it. The liver can move upwards to accommodate for the abdominal compression, similarly to what it does when abdominal contents are compressed during pregnancy. (Read about the difference in organ mobility (ability to shift position) and motility (the movement within the organ).
Statement 3: Twists increase blood flow to the liver. There is no proof of that. Organs are not muscles; they do not work the same way. We contract the muscles to increase circulation within them, but you cannot contract your liver at will (thank goodness!).
Statement 4. Increasing the blood flow to the organ will improve its function. There is no proof of that. In fact, increasing the blood pressure within the liver is not a good idea. The blood pressure within the liver is usually low (averaging 10mm Hg or less). If the pressure rises, “small peripheral veins and capillaries in the portal system become distended; if they rapture, extensive bleeding can occur”(1) Now, twisting won’t cause that, of course. This sort of pressure increase is usually a result of a blood clot or damage to the organ. It just proves that we need to let go of this idea that we need to increase circulation to the organ any way we can to improve its function.
Sometimes we forget that the state of homeostasis (internal balance) within the body hinges on a delicate interplay between different forces, including pressure changes, fluid regulation and waste removal. It seems pretty cavalier to think that we can just barge in and begin to manipulate organ function, telling the body how to do its job properly or rushing the process.
Voice of Young Science (a network of early career researchers) investigated the claims of detox and concluded: “Detox products claim to help you counteract a busy lifestyle by removing ‘toxins’ that have built up in your body. The human body has evolved to get rid of unnecessary substances through your liver, kidneys, and colon. It isn’t possible to improve their function without medical assistance.”
Nicole Slavin, a yoga teacher with BS in physiology and pharmacology says: “Will practicing yoga, or exercising in general, get your cardiovascular system working? Yes. Does this have an impact on blood flow? Yes. Does change in blood flow impact on the other organ systems of the body? Yes. Can eating healthily, avoiding fatty food, alcohol etc. give the liver a “break” from the demanding work of detoxing? Yes, it can. Does this mean you can make your liver work faster, better, stronger through an exercise or specific product/food/ritual? No, you can’t.”
So when it comes to using yoga to detox, it boils down to this comment to the above article:
“In my case yoga acts as a detox because it keeps me out of the pub where I tox up” 🙂
It appears that the term “detox” is being widely used in yoga classes in metaphorical sense.
Shirley Archer, an author and spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) says: “Better circulation equals better health. If detox means to eliminate from the body what it no longer needs, then certain yogic practices can help.” She talks about emptying the lungs of unneeded carbon dioxide and detoxing one’s attitude by staying in the present moment, as other methods of “cleansing”.
If we do that, we need to be sure that our students know that this is a metaphor. Otherwise we are spreading misinformation and undermining the depth and substance of this great tradition. There is no need to “oversell” yoga by making far-reaching claims – it speaks for itself for those who practice consistently.
Another comment from the article above: “The bottom line is: does yoga do you any good or not? Personally I have found it extremely beneficial, and when the teacher launches into all the mumbo-jumbo about massaging the ascending and descending colon and detoxifying various viscera I just switch off. What’s important is how I feel when I leave the session: improved posture and muscle tone, fewer clicking joints, and a generally more positive attitude more than compensate for all the claptrap they come out with.”
It is kind of sad that students tune us out. After all, we say those things for their benefit (or so we think). Next week we will explore the claims about twists and digestion, and for now what if we cut down on the “claptrap” and focus on the things that a student can actually experience?!
1. F.H. Martini Fundamentals of Anatomy & Physiology (9th Edition)
Subscribe to Blog via Email