Purifying the body with the breath

I had a kind of eureka experience recently. I have been taking a route to yoga through breathwork. My Art of Living apprenticeship opened me up to the potential of daily pranayama. AoL pitches the technique as a kind of cleansing of stress and toxins from the body. During the initial training, the instructors say that the lungs expel 80 percent of the body’s toxins. That seemed like an exaggeration. Today, I was exploring the website of Kelly McGonigal’s Open Mind Open Body website, and discovered that they may have been closer to the truth than I thought.

Kelly, who has a PhD in pyschology with a concentration in Humanistic Medicine, says in Breathwork for Enhancing Immune Function:

The body’s biggest lymphatic vessel is the thoracic duct, which begins near the lower part of the spine. The thoracic duct collects lymph from the lower limbs, pelvis, abdomen, and lower chest. At the thoracic duct, the rate of flow of lymph is proportional to the depth of inhalation. The total volume of lymph that enters the central veins depends on both the depth of inhalation and the overall breathing rate. The respiratory diaphragm is the main pump of the lymphatic system. Strength training for the diaphragm helps you increase the depth of inhalation, and also improves your ability to breathe deeply when you need to breathe more quickly (i.e., during strenuous exercise).

Kelly explains gives some exercises to strengthen your diaphragm, but it lags behind my daily routine of pranayama. When I saw this article, I thought I had discovered gunpowder because I suddenly realized why a regular practice of pranayama and yoga help clean out your system in multiple ways. I did more research, however, and discovered that yoga’s benefits on the lymphatic system are known, though not emphasized. The contortions that we get into help move the lymphatic fluids through our body.

Yoko Yoshikawa explains in a Yoga Journal article Everybody Upside-Down:

The lymphatic system is responsible for waste removal, fluid balance, and immune system response. Lymph vessels arise among the capillary beds of the circulatory system, but comprise a separate system that transports stray proteins, waste materials, and extra fluids, filtering the fluid back through the lymph nodes and dumping what remains into the circulatory system at the subclavian veins, under the collarbones. The lymphatic system is analogous to a sewage system — an intricate, underground network tied to every house in town that keeps the citizens healthy.

The effect on my practice is that I will pay a lot more attention to moving my diaphragm, rather than pushing as much as air as I can through my chest.