Four Pillars of promoting Lymphatic Health
The Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is a network of lymph nodes, vessels and organs that help to transport fluid throughout our body and is a very important component of the immune system.
How to Stimulate the Lymphatic System
There are four main pillars involved used to stimulate the lymphatic system: breathing, movement, massage and compression.
Breathing to Stimulate the Lymphatic System
One of my first yoga experiences was a Bikram style yoga class. If you haven’t heard of this style it is a very hot class (typically over 100 degrees) that is extremely structured and can be quite intimidating. If you like to sweat, this is the class for you.
I completed the class (stayed in the hot room the whole time) and was rewarded with a piece of fruit after class. As I stood eating my fruit, leaving large puddles of sweat where I stood the teacher came up to me. She kindly but abruptly said, “I noticed you don’t breathe correctly.”
She then asked me to breathe. Awkwardly I took a large inhale. “See...” she said pointing to my stomach “You suck in your stomach instead of inhaling to expand your stomach.”
That slightly embarrassing but awakening experience began my journey of understanding the mechanisms of the diaphragm, or in other words how to do lymphatic breathing.
Breathing happens automatically, as part of the autonomic nervous system. But we can also breathe intentionally and voluntarily to create lymphatic movement in the body.
How to Do Lymphatic Breathing
Lymphatic breathing is also called Diaphragmatic Breathing or “Ocean Breath”
Start by laying down or finding a comfortable seat
Place both hands on your stomach
Imagine your abdomen as an ocean and your chest as the shore
Your breath becomes a wave, inhaling the abdomen expands
Apply a little pressure on the abdomen with the hands on the inhale
Exhale the wave crashes on the shore of your chest
Release and relax the pressure of the hands on the exhale
Allowing abdomen to rise and expand during inhalation, deflate and relax upon exhale.
Complete for about 10 breaths, repeat a few times per day.
Deep abdominal breathing helps to create pressure on the thoracic duct to move the lymphatic fluid throughout the chest. The up and down movement of the diaphragm during deep abdominal breathing is creates pressure which pumps lymphatic fluid to the heart and into the bloodstream. Essentially, with every deep breath you take, you are assisting your lymph fluid to move.
Movement to Stimulate the Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system does not have a main pump to move the fluid like the heart does for the cardiovascular system. As you move your body, you become the pump for the lymphatic system.
The more muscle contraction you can create, the more lymph flow is achieved. Yoga is one movement that can create this flow. Dancing, walking, running, and many other forms of exercise will also improve the lymphatic movement.
However, yoga has a concentrated focus on connecting your breath to movement so unlike other exercises yoga is constantly encouraging deep breathing with muscle contraction.
Many yoga poses also position your body where gravity is assisting the lymphatic flow. If you have upper body lymphedema, and you inhale as you reach your arms up to the sky, then exhale and reach the arms out and down while imaging pushing the walls away, you are using gravity to help you.
By reaching the arms up above the head and heart, you are promoting lymphatic fluid drainage back towards the body, from your fingertips down through your arm.
You can also use gravity to assist lymphatic movement in the legs. A simple pose, like placing your legs up the wall, promotes lymphatic drainage utilizing gravity to flow the fluid down towards your inguinal (groin) lymph nodes. As a lymphedema therapist and yoga teacher, I combine the two sciences to promote maximal lymphatic drainage.
Self Lymphatic Massage
Lymphatic massage, which is more accurately called manual lymphatic drainage or manual lymph drainage (ML) not the same as traditional Swedish massage. It uses gentle pressure to move lymphatic fluid.
You can combine MLD with yoga and breathing. Prior to a lymphatic yoga session you can begin with deep diaphragmatic breathing and MLD to help recruit and clear large clusters of lymphatic nodes.
You would do a series of manual lymphatic massage movements in a specific order, which is called a sequence. Performing the sequence in the neck area opens up the lymph nodes to get ready to receive more fluid.
In all of my lymphatic yoga classes we begin by stimulating the nodes in the abdomen, chest and neck. These are the main areas of lymphatic nodes in the upper body. This clears the path for arm and leg lymph drainage to occur.
Lymph node stimulation prepares for fluid filtration from our arms, hands, chest and back.
Here is an analogy that can help you to visualize what this manual lymphatic drainage is doing. Imagine you are in a car and approaching a stop sign. There are five cars ahead of you – you must wait for each car to stop, look both ways and then continue. You cannot plow through the cars ahead, you must wait for your turn to go. So too, we must move the fluid from the lymph nodes closest to the stop sign first. Then, move to the next in order for the lymph fluid from your furthest point to pass through.
Stretching your skin is the most important component of the massage. Unlike a deep tissue spa massage, lymph drainage is best achieved with a light, gentle touch. I like to best describe it with using the visual representation of a freckle on the skin. Find a spot on your arm (could be a mole or freckle or place a dot with a pen) and stretch the skin before or after this freckle. If you can see the freckle move and then relax - you are doing it right.
Lymphatic Compression is a medical device, prescribed by a certified lymphedema therapist. The compression is designed to control the lymphedema. There are many options for both day and night compression garments so consult with your lymphedema therapist or physician.
Your compression garment should fit properly and you should not feel uncomfortable. The fit is important as ill-fitting garments could cause skin breakdown or irritation. Be sure to work with your fitter to get the best garment and the right fit for you.
Yoga for Lymphatic System Bottom Line
In conclusion, if you are battling with lymphedema or you are at risk it is very important to reach out to your health care providers and find out if gentle lymphatic yoga is appropriate for you.
To get you started today you can begin with the three techniques series, I mentioned in this blog:
1. Ocean breathing technique to elicit diaphragmatic breathing a few times per day to stimulate abdominal lymphatic nodes to improve drainage.
2. Engaging in a yoga practice or simply lifting arms over head to encourage gravity to assist arm lymphatic drainage several times throughout the day.
3. Legs up the wall for lower body lymphatic drainage for 2-5 minutes per day.