Lymphatic congestion, or lymphedema, occurs when fluid accumulates in your lymphatic system, causing a build-up of cellular waste and other toxins. The most common symptom is swelling in one or more of the arms and legs.
The most common cause of lymphatic congestion is the removal of or damage to lymph nodes from cancer treatment, but it can also be caused by infections of the lymph nodes, other kinds of surgery and cancer cells that block lymphatic vessels. It also can occur on its own. For milder cases, compression, light exercise and massage can do a lot to relieve the discomfort. Therefore, it's not surprising that yoga has been recognized for a number of years as an effective way to treat a stagnant lymph system.
What's more, you need not have been seriously ill to benefit from yogic stimulation of the lymphatic system. Boosting lymphatic health is actually an underlying goal of many yoga poses.
How Yoga Helps Lymph Circulate
While the heart pumps blood through the vessels, lymphatic circulation depends on muscular contractions. That's why physical movement such as yoga can do a lot to keep the lymph circulating.
Lymph also goes with the flow of gravity. Therefore, any inversion pose that puts your head lower than your heart -- such as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) or Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand)—will move lymph into the respiratory system which is where germs usually find their way into the body. And when you're right-side up again, the lymph returns to the nodes where it's filtered and cleansed.
Also, poses that involve twisting the core, along with bends in all directions, and working the abdomen with twists (as well as forward, backward and side bends) will pump lymph throughout the core organs.
Asanas for Lymph Drainage
The fact is, if you're up to a full 60- to 90-minute yoga class, you're sure to be put through any number of moves that will help with the drainage of lymphatic fluid. But here are a few specifics to get you started or help you prepare for taking on a full class.
When you inhale, lymph drains back into the lymphatic vessels and when you exhale lymph flows inward from the extremities. Combining deep breathing with contraction of core muscles in Bellows Breath create differences in pressure that allow lymph to drain toward the thorax. This and other Pranayama exercises can help maximize drainage of the lymph fluid.
According to a 2016 report in the International Journal of Yoga, the most effective poses for lymphedema stemming from breast cancer involve chest expansion, maximizing the flexion of all joints, and activating large muscles as well as the muscles around the armpit and cervical lymph nodes.
Sun Salutes are a great way to cover the whole gamut. As mentioned, inversions can do wonders, so incorporate Supported Shoulder Stands and Downward Facing Dog into your routine. Finally, you can round things out with your choice of twisting poses to wash your trunk with detoxifying lymphatic fluids.
If you're thinking about taking up yoga for lymphedema, it's advisable to first consult a certified lymphedema therapist. If you are already living with lymphedema, you should wear a compression garment while doing yoga or any other form of exercise.
This is not a "no pain-no gain" scenario; ease in gently. Even basic poses such as forward folds and low-intensity breathing exercises will do a lot to activate lymphatic circulation. If the muscles in your legs start to ache, elevate your legs right away. Over-exertion can cause fluid build-up.