Ask the Teacher: Is Yoga Good for Kidney Health?
Experts explain how yoga practice may impact kidney function—directly and in subtle ways.
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Ask the Teacher is an advice column that connects Yoga Journal members directly with our team of expert yoga teachers. Every other week, we’ll answer a question from our readers. Submit your questions here, or drop us a line at [email protected].
What yoga poses support healthy kidneys?
—Kathy in Lucas, TX
Yoga devotees often look to the practice as a solution for many health concerns–and, in fact, yoga can have a direct impact on specific conditions such as back pain, menopause symptoms, and hypertension. But sometimes, yoga’s effect is more subtle. That may be the case with yoga for kidney health.
Your kidneys, a pair of fist-sized organs located under the rib cage and on each side of the spine, control a number of vital functions, including removing waste and fluid, producing red blood cells, helping regulate blood pressure, and filtering the blood.
“Healthy kidneys filter about a half cup of blood every minute, removing wastes and extra water to make urine,” according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Your kidneys also remove acid that is produced by the cells of your body and maintain a healthy balance of water, salts, and minerals—such as sodium, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium—in your blood. Without this balance, nerves, muscles, and other tissues in your body may not work normally.”
The diagnosis of chronic kidney disease (CKD) means the kidneys cannot effectively filter waste. Kidney function is also affected by kidney stones, cysts, infections, or other injuries.
Yoga and kidney research
The impact of yoga on kidney health may be indirect. Kinjal Patel, MD, a Los Angeles-based kidney specialist who is also a registered yoga teacher, says studies show yoga helps alleviate conditions that can lead to kidney disease.
“So what are the most common risk factors for [kidney diseases]? Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity,” she says. “All those things we know are impacted positively by having a yoga practice, or by working to develop yoga tools in your life.”
A study published in the International Journal of Yoga, supports this assertion. Researchers asked participants to practice yoga five days a week for six months. The regimen included asanas, pranayama, and stress-reduction exercises. The results: The yoga group showed improved renal function and decreased need for dialysis. Their blood pressure was lower and they reported a better overall quality of life. The control group had higher blood pressure and lower kidney function.
Another study in Journal of Nephrology and Therapeutics cites studies that found a “strong association of oxidative stress, chronic inflammation and psychological stress with CKD.” Controlling physical and mental stress and inflammation can affect the treatment outcome in CKD.
More study is needed on the long-term effects of yoga practice. But yoga’s positive effect on diabetes and hypertension—causes of kidney disease—suggest that it could have a positive impact on CKD, experts say.
Yoga for kidney health
Marcel van de Vis Heil, based in Amsterdam, is a yoga teacher and an acupuncturist. His experience with Traditional Chinese Medicine allows him to see kidneys as more than organs. In TCM, they are energy centers or meridians. Kidney energy can be drained by anxiety or stress, he says. That’s where yoga comes in.
Because of the kidneys’ location, asanas that help the back will also help the kidneys, van de Vis Heil says. He recommends forward bends to strengthen the muscles and connective tissue in the lower back and surrounding the kidneys. These poses also open energy meridians important to the kidneys. He says Yin Yoga, developed by his teacher Paul Grilley, might be especially helpful because the practice, which holds poses for at least two minutes, allows for a deep stretch.
“I would say a more passive forward bend… because that is stretching the fascia in the lower mid-back, and that is stretching the fascia in front of and behind the kidneys,” he explains. He also recommends twists in Yin Yoga, such as Twisted Deer, because they provide a passive stretch for the lower and mid back.
Benefits of a healthy lifestyle and confident attitude
Van de Vis Heil is adamant that yoga alone will not guarantee healthy kidneys. A healthy lifestyle is also important.
“Yoga can actually do a lot of good things for the body. But especially for the kidneys, you have to do more. If a person doesn’t take care of themselves…you can do a lot of yoga, but that probably doesn’t help you,” he says.
Patel says patients’ adherence to their health-care regimen is important. She says yoga promotes well-being and confidence—emotional benefits that contribute to better patient compliance.
“It’s really stressful and emotionally taxing to have a diagnosis like chronic kidney disease,” she says. “If yoga even helps with ameliorating that, then that’s an abundance of good that we can’t do with the pep talk we give in the office.”
Afi Scruggs is a freelance writer based in suburban Cleveland.