If you Google the words “detox” and “yoga," the hits about how certain yoga moves can help you rid your body of toxins go on for pages. (These range from books promising the best detox yoga moves to blogs that use clinical terms that are not based on science.) Or maybe you've heard your yoga instructor proclaim that certain twisting moves or postures "cleanse our bodies" or are "good for detoxification."
It's been scientifically proven that yoga is beneficial: It does wonders for our mental health and general wellbeing, it’s good for cardiovascular health and can even play a role in weight loss.
But there's no scientific evidence to support the idea that individual yoga maneuvers are detoxifying. Jonathan Cane, an exercise physiologist and coach based in New York City, says such claims are inaccurate and hyperbolic. "I think we're past hyperbole there," adds Cane. "There's a few layers of nonsense, to be perfectly honest."
The Detoxification Myth
Research suggests that this particular myth was born out of what's been dubbed the "squeeze and soak" theory, coined by internationally-known yogi B.K.S. Iyengar, who founded his eponymous yoga style in the 1960s. He also popularized the notion that twists can cleanse and that certain moves that squeeze the internal organs can help with detoxification. Essentially, Iyengar compared what happens inside your body during a twist to dirty water being squeezed out of sponge to make room for clean water.
But our bodies don’t need extra squeezing to do what they already do. To better understand why, we need a better understanding of the clinical definition of detox — and a short 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." Luckily, 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's carried out in our urine. The liver, too, plays a key role in filtering and removing toxic substances. When both of these organs are healthy, they work in tandem to detoxify materials not meant to be in the body.
Can't These Organs Use a Little Push?
There is no research that suggests these organs need outside help to get their jobs done. In other words, neither the kidneys nor the liver require twisting, squeezing, pushing or bending to be more effective at cleansing. "Maybe this twisting plays with your abdominal cavity in such a way that it compresses your liver. But, so what," says Cane. "The suggestion [is] that it’s now going to increase blood flow. [...] There's nothing that I'm aware of that says a liver with greater blood flow is a more effective, detoxifying organ; that it does its job any better.”
Cane calls use of the word detox in exercise circles “casual language.” In other words, it’s not being used in a clinical or medical way and therefore shouldn’t be heard or interpreted as such. "I do some yoga here and there and I just sort of roll my eyes every time I hear stuff like that,” says Cane.
That said, all that twisting and folding you are doing during your yoga practice is still good for you. Twisting can help promote the spine's range of motion, says Cane. And twisting helps you move your spine in ways that are often neglected. "An argument could be made that, ’active’ twisting helps strengthen your obliques, and they help your spinal mobility,” adds Cane.
So, until the science trickles down to every yogi and yoga instructor who incorrectly uses the word “detox," consider an eye roll and remember that it's the physical portion of your routine — not the verbal portion — that's the key part of your practice.