If you google the words “detox” and “yoga”, the results on how certain yoga moves can help you flush toxins out of your body continue on pages (ranging from books promising the best detox yoga moves to blogs using clinical terms). that are not based on science). Or maybe you’ve heard your yoga instructor proclaim that certain twisting movements or poses “cleanse our bodies” or are “good for detoxification.”
It’s over scientifically proven that yoga is beneficial: It does wonders for our mental health and general well-being, is good for cardiovascular health, and may even play a role in weight loss.
But there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that individual yoga maneuvers are detoxifying. Jonathan Crane, an exercise physiologist and trainer from New York City, says such claims are inaccurate and hyperbolic. “I think we’re past the hyperbole,” adds Crane. “There are some layers of nonsense, to be perfectly honest.”
The detox myth
Research suggests that this particular myth was born out of what has been called the “squeeze and soak” theory, coined by internationally renowned yogi BKS Iyengar, who founded his yoga style of the same name in the 1960s. He also popularized the idea that twisting can cleanse and that certain movements that tighten the internal organs can help with detoxification. Essentially, Iyengar likened what happens inside your body during a spin to dirty water being squeezed out of a sponge to make room for clean water.
But our bodies don’t need extra pressure to do what they already do. To better understand why, we need a better understanding of the clinical definition of detoxification and a brief physiology lesson.
According to the national Cancer Institute, detoxification can refer to the “process of removing toxins, poisons, or other harmful substances from the body.” Fortunately, we are born with organs assigned to do this job: the kidney and the liver. The kidney is a blood cleanser, removing excess fluid, chemicals, and waste from our blood before it is carried out in our urine. The liver also plays a key role in filtering and removing toxic substances. When both organs are healthy, they work together to detoxify materials that are not meant to be in the body.
Can’t these organs use a little push?
There is no research to suggest that these organs need outside help to do their job. In other words, neither the kidneys nor the liver require twisting, squeezing, pushing, or bending to be most effective at cleansing. “Maybe this twisting plays with your abdominal cavity in such a way that it compresses your liver. But so what?” Cane says. “The suggestion [is] which is now going to increase blood flow. […] There is nothing that I am aware of that says that a liver with increased blood flow is a more effective detoxifying organ; who does his job better.”
Cane calls the use of the word detox in exercise circles “informal language.” In other words, it is not used clinically or medically and therefore should not be heard or interpreted as such. “I do some yoga here and there and roll my eyes every time I hear stuff like that,” says Cane.
That said, all the twists and turns you’re doing during your yoga practice are still good for you. Twisting can help promote your spine’s range of motion, says Cane. And twisting helps you move your spine in ways that are often neglected. “One could argue that ‘active’ twisting helps strengthen the obliques and aids in spinal mobility,” adds Cane.
So until the science catches up with all the yogis and yoga instructors who misuse the word “detox,” consider rolling your eyes and remember that it’s the physical part of your routine, not the verbal part, that’s the part key to your practice.