Imagine you're a flower. It might sound funny, but just go with it. So you're this flower that's been quietly hibernating all winter long, waiting for the sun to come out and the temperature to rise so you can blossom again. The weird thing is that when the sunshine and spring conditions finally arrive, you're not growing—not an inch. In fact, you're drooping a bit and your head is low. It turns out that the groundwater you've been taking in through your roots is loaded with toxins, and now there's a buildup of some bad stuff in your stems. Though your body has a self-cleaning process, it's overloaded right now. What you need is a detox.
"Detoxification" means the removal of toxins from the body. Just like flowers, humans absorb toxins—preservatives, pesticides, stimulants, and heavy metals—through food, water, and air. Also, your own body produces toxins, called metabolic waste products, as a natural result of processes like digestion and respiration. Luckily, your digestive, endocrine, and circulatory systems come equipped with a complex set of mechanisms designed to eliminate these toxins through your mouth, eyes, skin, colon, urinary tract—even your breath. The trouble is that too much sugar, caffeine, and processed foods, little to no exercise, and stress can slow the body's natural detox function to a sluggish pace, says Peter Blumenauer, a yoga teacher, holistic chiropractor, and co-founder of Clear the Toxins, a detox program based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The result is a buildup of toxins that can leave you fatigued and suffering from poor digestion, and that may even lead to disease. But, according to Mark Hyman, MD, a faculty and board member of the Institute for Functional Medicine in Gig Harbor, Washington, you can help boost your innate detox functions by practicing cleansing yoga sequences and following a simple plant-based diet during a multiday detox plan. "Pretty much everyone carries a huge load of petrochemical and industrial toxins," Hyman says. "They come from plastics, pesticides, flame retardants, you name it. Then there are heavy metals and allergens from food or the environment, and internal toxins like bacteria, fungus, and yeast. Most people need to detoxify to get these things out of their systems in order to feel healthier." Some benefits of an occasional detox, Hyman has found, include having a lowered heart rate, clearer eyes and skin, better memory and concentration, and improved digestion. Good health invites a calm, clear mind that is free of many of the habits that often lead to toxin buildup.
While there are many approaches to detoxing—including the asana and food guidelines presented on these pages—they aim for one simple thing: to help the body do what it's already trying to do. "Your body is always getting rid of toxins," Blumenauer says, "but you can aid that natural process by making detoxing a practice." Then, like a flower, you can blossom again.
The major detox players in the body are the lymph, blood, liver, kidneys, colon, and parasympathetic nervous system, says Darshana Weill, a hatha yoga teacher, nutrition counselor, and founder of the Fruition Women's Health Program in Santa Cruz, California. She designed the asana sequence on these pages and the food guidelines, which help revitalize these organs and systems. Lymph and blood deliver metabolic waste products to the liver, kidneys, and digestive organs. There, those toxins and any others absorbed from the environment are filtered and packaged so they can be eliminated through urine, sweat, exhalation, and solid waste. Weill believes that an active parasympathetic nervous system supports these functions. If your body is compromised by an overload of toxins or fatigue, a buildup occurs in the organs of the abdominal cavity, the fat, and the blood.
A yoga sequence like the one suggested here can support the natural detoxification process by increasing circulation, compressing and twisting internal organs, and encouraging relaxation, says Weill. Inverted poses like Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) use gravity to stimulate lymph and blood circulation. "Inversions help to drain lymphatic and venous fluids from the legs and pelvis, and so enhance detoxification," Blumenauer says. "Really, any muscular contraction will stimulate lymphatic flow. Inversions also send new blood to the liver and kidneys, giving them a rush of energy that helps get them detoxing."
Twisting poses, Weill says, are also thought to increase blood circulation, which is why she includes two in her sequence. In Iyengar Yoga theory, twists isolate and compress digestive organs to squeeze and soak them. "The belief is that blood and impurities are squeezed from the tissues; then, fresh blood and nutrients are delivered to the organs to be soaked up," says Blumenauer. "Twists dislodge particles throughout the colon and enhance organ health and digestion."
That's a good thing, since the digestive system is your body's main method for eliminating waste, Hyman says. "The liver has a very effective system for removing garbage from the body, so you want to help the liver along. Twists enhance digestion and boost the flushing ability of the liver and kidneys."
Deep forward bends also promote good digestion by helping with elimination, says Weill. Although helping the digestive organs to move (or flush) toxins toward elimination is very important, so is stimulating the para-sympathetic nervous system, which activates what's known as the relaxation response. Restorative poses, such as Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), are designed to do just that, Weill says.
The parasympathetic nervous system provides deep relaxation and counteracts the release of stress hormones like cortisol, which can slow down the detox process, says Blumenauer. He, Weill, and Hyman all agree that when cortisol is not taxing the body, detoxification happens more effectively and with greater ease. "Once there's a cortisol break," Blumenauer says, "everything, all the toxins, look for a way out. The digestive, lymph, and circulatory systems can work efficiently again."
Feed a Detox
Another way to reduce cortisol during a detox, Weill says, is to avoid stimulants like caffeine, and also sugar and simple carbohydrates, since the body converts them into glucose, another form of sugar. When you consume a lot of caffeine, your body becomes less sensitive to its own stimulants, like cortisol. When the perk-me-up effects of caffeine end, a sudden "crash" is common, leaving you fatigued. The same thing happens after eating sugar. The subsequent drop in sugar levels is stressful on the body, causing it to release extra cortisol to help you bounce back. Consuming sugar and caffeine throughout the day, then, can lead to more cortisol circulating, slowing the natural detox process.
During your detox, Weill suggests sticking to a seasonal plant-based diet and replacing caffeine and sugar with more-nutritious whole foods. To avoid withdrawal headaches, begin eliminating stimulants gradually several days before your detox.
Taking your time to transition into the cleansing routine is important, Weill says. Ease your body and mind into the detox program—and out of it. "If you don't take time to think about how you're going to come out of your detox and what you're going to take back into your life, it's too easy to jump right back into old habits. It's really about lightening up and giving yourself a fresh start."
You might surprise yourself and find the food component of a detox practice to be a good motivator for making lasting changes in your diet. "People can feel the difference in their bodies and minds within just a few days," Hyman says. "Then they want to keep it up because they can feel the difference."
Because relaxation is such an important part of detoxing, Weill says, have all your groceries, props, and other supplies ready so that you can start fresh and be at ease on that first morning. Similarly, be easy on yourself the morning after the detox ends, so you can make a gradual reentry into your regular schedule.
Throughout the detox, powerful feelings and insights may pop up during meditation or your asana practice, or while you're sitting down for a meal. "You might experience a lot of anger and grief. You want as much clarity of mind as possible to be present for those feelings and process them as they come up," Weill says. You may find it helpful to schedule regular times to journal, perhaps noting three things that you're grateful for and three things that you want to clear from your mind and heart as you cleanse your body.
"The most dramatic effect that people notice is mental clarity," says Aadil Palkhivala, the co-creator of Purna Yoga and an Ayurvedic practitioner who has led detox asana classes around the world. "At first the mind may become a little fuzzy because of the toxins being released and excreted. But soon you'll notice a definite increase in mental clarity. Your skin will become radiant, and you'll have profound deep sleep. You'll have much more energy and a feeling of being more alive."
So enjoy it. Notice any changes in mind and body during and after your detox. Are there areas that feel revitalized? Renewed? "You'll be amazed at what you can accomplish in three days," Weill says. "You release and let go, so you can grow."
Clean Sweep: Instruction by Darshana Weill
This sequence compresses, twists, relaxes, and creates space in the abdominal area for a deep detoxing experience.
Detoxing can bring up emotions as well as inspiration. Keep a journal next to your yoga mat and write down feelings, thoughts, or ideas that come up during your practice. Begin with a seated or supine meditation for at least five minutes to clear the mind. As you breathe, begin to relax and scan the body to see where you are holding tension, and invite it to let go. Feel what is happening as you relax; notice any shifts in the body and mind and allow them to lead you deeper.
When you feel ready to move your body, place your hands in Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal) and set an intention for your practice, such as nourishing your whole being. Consider doing a few rounds of your favorite Sun Salutation. Since cleansing can make you feel less energetic at first, pay careful attention to your physical needs. If you do not want to do Sun Salutations, that's OK. Just go straight to the main sequence—or even to the final restorative poses. This practice can be done at least once a day throughout a detox.
1. Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch)
From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), step your left foot back about 3 and one half feet and rotate it out about 45 degrees. Keep both legs straight. Place your hands on your hips and extend up through the side body. On your next exhalation, fold forward over your front leg. Place your hands on the floor (or on blocks if needed) in line with your shoulders. Take 5 breaths, imagining that your internal organs are compressing and squeezing out toxins on each exhalation. As you release the pose and move into Downward Dog, visualize the toxins flushing out of the body. Repeat the pose on the other side.
2. High Lunge
From Tadasana, step the right foot forward and come into a lunge. Press back through the lifted back heel, and hug the muscles of your legs onto the bones. Raise your torso and arms overhead, and lift through your side body. Slightly bend your left knee and draw your tailbone toward the ground. Notice how this creates length in your lower back. Slowly straighten your back leg, keeping the tailbone long, and press out through the back heel. Take 5 breaths, and focus your attention on the internal organs, including the kidneys and adrenal glands, in the back of your body. Lower your hands to the ground and step back into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Repeat the pose on the other side.
3. Utkatasana (Chair Pose), variation
Stand in Tadasana with your feet together and your hands on your hips. Lift through your side body. As you begin to bend both knees, keep in mind the idea of creating space in the abdomen. On an exhalation, bring your hands into Anjali Mudra and hook the right elbow to the outside of the left knee. With each inhalation, create space and length in the spine. Deepen the twist on the exhalation. The movement will be very subtle. Hold for 5 breaths and feel the sensations in your abdomen. To come out of the pose, release the twist and fold into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Rise up to Tadasana, and repeat on the right side.
4. Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
Lie on your belly with your arms at your sides, palms down, and chin on the floor. Inhale and lengthen from the top of your head to your toes. As you exhale, engage your core and press down through your pubic bone. On your next inhalation, lift your legs, arms, and head off the ground. Arms can be down by your sides. Hold for 5 breaths. Breathe deep into your belly to massage the organs. As you inhale, lift a bit more; as you exhale, relax into the pose and allow the sensations of the breath to bring you deeper into your experience.
5. Reclining Twist Pose
This pose removes tension in the abdominal region and, like all twists, creates a "squeeze and soak" action that yogis believe can improve the functioning of many internal organs. It also stimulates digestion and relieves gas and constipation.
Lie on your back. Draw your right knee into your chest and extend your left leg on the floor. Place your right foot on your left thigh just above the knee. Drop your right knee to the floor on the left side of your body. Open your right arm into a T position in line with your shoulder. Rest your left hand on the outside of your right knee. Turn your head to the right, bringing your gaze over the right shoulder. With each inhalation, lengthen up through the sides of your body, and with each exhalation, deepen the twist. Close your eyes and allow the power of the breath to release your right knee and your right shoulder toward the floor. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths. Release the pose and pause for a minute to take in the sensations. Repeat the pose on the left side.
6. Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
After the twist, come up to a seated position, place the soles of your feet together, and allow your legs to open up into Bound Angle Pose. Slide a folded blanket under each thigh for support. Lie down over a bolster to support the length of your spine. Place a blanket under your neck and an eye pillow on your eyes. Relax and stay in the pose for several minutes.
7. Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)
Place a bolster or a stack of folded blankets parallel to, and about 4 inches away from, a wall. Sit on the end of the support with your left hip close to the wall. Using your hands to support you, lean back onto the bolster and bring one leg up and then the other. Keep your buttocks close to the wall. If they've moved away from it, bend your knees, press your feet into the wall, and inch yourself closer. Ideally, the back of your pelvis and lower back will be on the support and your sitting bones and tailbone will descend toward the floor. (If you have tight hamstrings and a tight back, feel free to have your hips away from the wall on an angle.) Place an eye pillow over your eyes. Now completely let go. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly, and settle into your body. Watch the rise and fall of your breath. Stay in the pose for several minutes.
8. Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Lie down on your back. Place a blanket under your head to support your neck. You can also place a rolled blanket or bolster under your knees and blankets under your arms for more comfort. Cover your eyes with an eye pillow or even a folded T-shirt to help you relax more deeply. If you are cold, place a blanket over your body. Completely let go and relax, taking a longer Savasana than you might be used to—stay for at least 5 minutes and up to 20 minutes. When you've finished, take your time to slowly awaken the body, roll onto your right side into a fetal position, and pause for a few breaths before pressing your hands into the floor to come up to a seated position.
Melanie Haiken is a freelance writer in San Rafael, California.