My introduction to yoga was in college. To fill in my physical education requirement, my friends and I signed up for yoga. Why not? It should be an easy class, right?
The instructor filled every single stereotype of a hippie-dippy yogi that I’ve ever heard of; she smelled of patchouli oil, with straw-like long wavy hair straight out of a Woodstock movie. She preached about the benefits of vegetarianism and filling your soul with a “complete protein” of beans and rice. She wore tie-dye and long skirts that jingled.
Needless to say, as a college student, I would simply fall asleep during the 20 minutes of ‘corpse pose’ during her long diatribes. I hated the slow pace of the stretches and poses. I didn’t see any benefit and I didn’t see the point. I thought to myself – this certainly couldn’t be considered exercise.
Now, over 10 years later, I look forward to my yoga. I took a complete 180 turn in my attitude towards the benefits – mostly because I’ve SEEN the benefits first hand.
Shortly after I was diagnosed in 2014, I began to do yoga as part of my wellness plan. I read all about the benefits of beating cancer through connecting mind and body, and I wanted to do everything in my power to give myself an edge on the cancer.
In a way, I found yoga and yoga found me.
And since I started doing yoga, my practice has changed. At first, I just started with a few poses and breathing exercises. Then I found some online yoga teachers and classes that I really loved, (see the post about my favorite online yoga group here) and so began my journey. Now, I use yoga as my exercise routine – some days, I do an hour of “super sweaty” yoga for cardio, other days I hold poses for strength or stretching.
Since my Complete Lymph Node Dissection (CLND) to remove more of my melanoma in 2016, I’ve noticed that yoga significantly helps my lymphedema. The stretching and muscle movements help to reduce the swelling in my left thigh, meaning the lymph in my left leg is flowing rather than staying stagnant.
The trick is to use pulses of muscle tension to propel the lymph under the skin. Holding a pose only holds the lymph in one place – so when using yoga to reduce lymphedema, hold for a few seconds, release and repeat multiple times for optimal drainage.
I’ve found these 3 poses help the most with my leg lymphedema:
Downward Facing Dog
I always like to open up my yoga with a few Downward Facing Dogs. Your lymph system is like a highway – traffic upstream causes congestion downstream. Your lymph system collects lymph from all over the body, and it all converges into what’s called the thoracic duct. The lymph then drains into the left subclavian vein by your left collarbone. Standing or sitting means that the lymph has to work against gravity to get to the thoracic duct. Downward Dog helps to use gravity in your favor and clear out the congestion, thus allowing more lymph from the legs to get to the thoracic duct during the rest of your routine.
The vast majority of the lymph nodes in your leg are in your groin. Stretching the hip forward helps to massage these lymph nodes and get the lymph flowing. I personally no longer have the nodes in my groin, so it’s much harder for my lymph to cross this area. I also have scar tissue here from my previous surgeries. I find that stretching in this pose helps with both – my scar tissue has loosened up, allowing new lymph channels to form, and helping lymph to cross and drain. It has also helped to build my hip flexors, helping the muscles behind the skin to massage the lymph upwards.
Bridge Pose/Half Wheel
Bridge pose is the best of everything – using gravity, stretching, and massage to help drain lymph from the legs. It uses gravity to your advantage while building the hip flexors and massaging the lymph nodes in your groin. Use this pose with deep breathing exercises (which have been proven to help move lymph towards your thoracic duct) and you have a super combo to help reduce lymphedema in the legs.
What are your favorite poses to help reduce lymphedema?