“Reach the crown of your head forward,” the yoga teacher intones soothingly. “Keep your back leg long and strong. Now, twist! Rinse out those toxins! Sweat them out! Detoxify your organs!”
Chances are that if you’ve ever been in a yoga class, you’ve heard something like this. You’ve probably also heard the exact opposite—that practicing yoga and signing up for all of those juice cleanses your studio offers actually doesn’t “detox” anything at all. What should you believe? And why has yoga become so associated with detoxification? “Detox” has become a hot term for peddlers of cleanses, juice fasts, and, yes, yoga, and there’s enough misinformation out there to keep most people confused about what benefits these practices actually have.
On one level, the answer is straightforward. Doing twists and yoga poses does not detoxify organs. Rather, according to scientists, the concept of cleansing and detox that yoga teachers talk about is actually a metaphor for practices that improve already existing detoxification processes of your body’s organs by contributing to your overall health.1 Our organs, including our liver, kidneys, and even our skin, are perfectly capable of detoxing on their own if they’re not compromised by severe illness.2 These organs filter toxins from our blood, including substances in food, alcohol, and medications.3
While organ detoxification during a yoga practice is not actually a real thing, the connection is there for a reason. In yoga and Ayurveda traditions, yoga techniques known as the Shat Kriyas (or Shat Karmas) serve as practices for cleansing your internal organs and, by extension, your subtle and spiritual bodies. Six practices are outlined: Kapalabhati, a breathing technique believed to cleanse the skull; Trataka, eye exercises said to improve eyesight and stimulate tear production; Neti, cleansing the nasal passages and sinuses; Dhouti, cleansing the intestinal tract by drinking liquid until purging occurs; Nauli, contraction and release of the abdominals, particularly the rectus abdominis; and Vasti, rectal cleaning.4 While the scientific jury is out on many of these practices, some, including Neti and Kapalabhati, have real benefits.5,6
The history of these techniques and their strong link to asana practice make yoga poses and internal cleansing natural bedfellows. When this system meets modern forces of commercialization and the contemporary health and beauty industry, cleansing becomes more than just a practice of self-discipline and purification—it’s also a money maker. And while the information we’re given can lead us to healthier habits, it’s often not the whole truth of the matter.
So why do we get told that “sweating it out” in yoga class or signing up for that studio “superfood” cleanse will make us feel better? Well, to some extent all of those things will contribute to optimal health. If we’re sweating in our yoga practice, we’re probably also moving, and physical activity has obvious health benefits—as long as we stay properly hydrated.7,8 Choosing healthful foods also has obvious benefits for overall health, including cholesterol levels, insulin and hormone production and regulation, and inflammation.9 Interestingly, some “superfoods,” including broccoli and other brassicas, actually contain cyanide. Eating these foods actually “primes the enzymes” in our livers for dealing with other poisons, according to Guardian writer Nicole Slavin.10 Other cleansing practices, like colonic irrigation, may actually have very negative consequences, particularly if you already suffer from a digestive disorder.11,12
Next time you hear your yoga teacher beckoning you more deeply into a twist by promising detoxification, know that what’s actually happening is not detox, but something just as important that you can control: you’re challenging yourself physically, lowering your stress level (stress is a major contributor to slowed detoxification processes in your body), activating your lymphatic system, and working towards optimal organ functioning, which ensures that your body’s natural detoxification methods are going to work at their highest level.13 So go ahead and take that twist. Your body will thank you.
*Note: While most toxins are filtered from our bodies without our conscious efforts, it’s important to reduce exposure to more serious toxins, like asbestos and high levels of heavy metals in the environment, which might actually be there for the long-term.14
1. Colon cleansing: a popular, but misunderstood natural therapy
2. Information on Detoxification
3. Can A Diet Clean Out Toxins In The Body?
4. Ayurveda Yogashram
5. Alternative Medicine: The Truth About the Neti Pot
6. How to Practice Kapalabhati Pranayama in Yoga
7. Sweat and detoxification – a yoga mythbuster!
8. It’s Getting Hot in Here
9. How Your Diet Affects Your Hormones During Menopause
10. Demystifying detox: Can yoga really cleanse the liver?
11. Is colon cleansing a good way to eliminate toxins from your body?
12. Dangers of Colonic Hydrotherapy
13. The Lymphatic System
14. Can A Diet Clean Out Toxins In The Body?