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We’ve all experienced it. While deep in a twist or a challenging, sweaty yoga practice, the teacher reassuringly mentions that twisting and building heat will release toxins from your body.
But can yoga actually help detoxify the body?
The short answer: We don’t know.
“Sometimes yoga instructors mention that twists or other poses might be helpful [for detoxifcation], but there’s no scientific basis for that,” says Herpreet Thind, PhD, MPH, a researcher at UMass Lowell who studies the benefits of physical activity and yoga for chronic disease prevention and treatment.
Can you twist out the toxins?
The idea that twisting poses in yoga—such as Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)—can detox your body was popularized by B.K.S. Iyengar, who described their “squeeze-and-soak” action. According to Iyengar, during a twist, the abdominal organs are compressed, which pushes out toxin-filled blood. When you release the twist, fresh oxygenated blood flows into the organs, which is thought to aid in tissue healing and cleansing. (In a similar fashion, forward bends compress the abdominal organs, so these types of poses could potentially offer the same benefit.)
This idea sounds reasonable, but Thind says there’s little evidence to back it up.
“These poses do have some benefits,” adds Thind, referring to the enhanced muscle flexibility that comes with regular practice. “But they may not be benefiting the body the way they’re being described by the yoga instructor. We don’t know whether twisting or inversions are actually stimulating our internal organs.”
Yoga Medicine founder Tiffany Cruikshank agrees that science is not yet able to tell us how much twists actually stimulate the elimination of toxins and wastes. But Cruikshank explains there are still benefits to the stimulation of the digestive organs and organs of elimination that occurs in twists and forward folds. The action is similar to what takes place in a type of traditional Japanese abdominal acupressure, known as ampuku, which is meant to stimulate the very same organs, explains Cruikshank.
What about sweating it out?
Heat is another aspect of yoga that is often said to promote detoxification, whether the external heat in some power and hot yoga classes, which range from 85°F to 105°F, or the internal heat created through rounds of Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A).
The logic behind the detoxification theory is that heat causes sweating, and sweat carries toxins out of the body. Some research has, in fact, found that certain heavy metals—such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury—can be excreted from the body in sweat. Studies suggest that this route is more effective in people who have been exposed to higher levels of these toxins.
However, other research suggests that the amount of waste products and toxins eliminated by sweating is minor compared to what the body gets rid of via the kidneys and intestines. Sweating more won’t necessarily help with ridding the cells of toxins, and could actually be harmful. When you sweat, you lose not only water, but also minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. These—as well as the water—need to be replenished or physical repercussions can ensue.
See also: 6 Tips to Stay Safe in Hot Yoga
Can yoga detox your liver?
In addition to the skin, kidneys, and intestines, the liver also plays a large role in detoxification by converting toxins into waste products that can be excreted from the body. When healthy, the liver is very efficient at detoxifying the body. It can do this work even without the benefit of twists, forward folds, or excess heat.
However, “we do need to be physically active so the body can perform these normal functions,” says Thind. “So in that way, [physical] yoga, like any other exercise, can help our body to perform its normal functions.”
See also: Yin Yoga Poses for the Liver Meridian
The toxin release system no one talks about
In addition to the organs of elimination, the body also has a “waste collection” system, explains Cruikshank. This network of organs, tissues, and vessels—known as the lymphatic system—collects fluid from the tissues and returns it to the bloodstream.
“Many people think of the lymphatic system as the second branch of the circulatory system,” says Cruikshank, “because it takes all that leftover fluid, along with toxins and metabolic byproducts, and clears it out of the tissues.”
Toxins and wastes collected by the lymphatic system still need to be eliminated from the body by the liver, kidneys, or intestines.
Unlike the circulatory system, which has a heart to pump blood through the blood vessels, there is no lymphatic pump. Instead, the lymphatic system depends on movement and exercise to make the fluid, known as lymph, flow.
Yoga, with its emphasis on deep breathing, can enhance this action. “If you take the physical movement and muscular contractions associated with asana, and then add diaphragmatic breathing,” says Cruikshank, “you really magnify the lymphatic circulation and the flow of lymph.”
Some research shows that yoga may be beneficial for managing lymphedema in breast cancer survivors. This condition is a build-up of fluid in the tissues that occurs when the lymph system is damaged or blocked. However, there’s not much research on how well the lymph system actually removes toxins from the tissues.
A different kind of yoga detox
While a lot of emphasis on detox is placed on physically eliminating toxins, Thind offers the reminder that yoga is more than just physical exercise.
“With the traditional yoga that is done in India, in addition to the postures, breathing exercises, and meditation, there is also an emphasis on a complete lifestyle,” she says, including an “emphasis on a plant-based diet.”
Thind says traditional yoga also mentions practices—known as shatkarmas or shatkriyas (purifications of the body)—that are meant to cleanse the body. They include netī (nasal wash), dhautī (cleansing of the digestive tract), naulī (self-massage of the abdominal organs through manipulation of the abdominal muscles), kapālabhātī (“breath of fire”), and trāṭaka (gazing at a fixed point). Some, including nasal irrigation, are sometimes recommended by physicians for people with certain medical conditions, such as sinusitis.
Cruikshank says yoga also provides us with tools—such as mindfulness and self-awareness—to shed “toxins” emotionally and energetically from our life. These practices can help us not only recover from stress, but also stay balanced going forward.
“Self-awareness is one of the main tools of yoga, and a really important one for regulating our system,” says Cruikshank. “Whether that’s physically, mentally, emotionally, or energetically.”
See also: A Mindful Digital Detox
About our contributor
Shawn Radcliffe is a yoga teacher and writer who explores the world through words and movement. His personal practice and teaching are influenced by the Viniyoga style of T.K.V. Desikachar, and he continues to study with teachers in this lineage. He also draws on the power yoga and vinyasa flow of his early yoga years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Portland, Oregon., as well as Buddhist-based meditation practices. At university, he studied both science and writing, which eventually led him to his current job as a science journalist. Shawn lives near the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada, where he teaches online and in-person yoga classes.