Fibromyalgia patients are often told to exercise, but characteristic symptoms like chronic pain, inflammation, and fatigue can make the art of movement difficult for some people. Standing for long periods of time or holding static postures may pose a challenge to fibromyalgia patients, so what’s a person supposed to do? Focusing on restorative yoga postures that simultaneously enhance lymphatic drainage and reduce undesirable muscle tension may be the key to unlocking movements that makes you feel better, not worse.
What is Lymph, and How Does it Assist with Fibromyalgia Symptoms?
When we think of our fluid systems, most of us think of our blood. It’s easy to be aware of our blood flow – at least to a degree. We can feel our heart pumping; we can see the veins in our arms. But there is another fluid system, arguably just as important, that is hard at work keeping us healthy: our lymphatic system.
Our lymphatic system is less obvious than blood flow. We can’t see lymphatic vessels, or feel our lymph pumping. But lymph flows throughout the entire body day and night, including the brain, and is a major component of our immune system.
Lymphatic fluid scours cellular debris, toxins, and pathogens from our tissues. Then, it breaks them down, destroys them, and returns the remaining waste to our blood to be filtered and excreted. Lymph is responsible for removing bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, mold spores, damaged cells, and any other debris not conducive to our health. It’s a critical system for reducing the inflammation and chronic pain common to fibromyalgia.
As it passes through tissue, lymph deposits debris and pathogens into lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small, round vessels that create and contain armies of lymphocytes, or white blood cells — the body’s defenders. (White blood cells are also produced in the spleen, and mature in the thymus gland.) Lymph nodes are found throughout the body, particularly at the base of the jaw and throat, in the center of the torso, the armpits, and the groin. People with fibromyalgia often experience painful, swollen glands or lymph nodes in these areas.
How Does Lymph Move Through The Body?
Unlike the heart and circulatory system, the lymphatic system has no internal pump to keep it moving — it moves with movement as you contract your muscles. Therefore, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to sluggishness in the lymphatic system and less effective cleansing of pathogens and debris. This is one of the reasons why regular exercise is so fundamental to restoring health in people with chronic illnesses.
Fibromyalgia patients are often told to exercise regularly, but it can be challenging to find ways to exercise that don’t increase chronic pain. If exercises like walking, jogging, or standing yoga poses make you feel worse, it’s okay to find other, gentler ways to move your lymph. Restorative yoga is a wonderful alternative for you to consider.
Below are two restorative yoga poses that encourage lymphatic drainage throughout the body, and even through the brain. They are easy and almost effortless — even if you’re spending a lot of time resting. With any luck, they will lessen fibromyalgia pain and inflammation.
Gentle Yoga to Move the Lymph
1. Feet up the wall
Lymph can tend to pool in the lower extremities if you are not getting enough exercise. This easy, restorative yoga pose uses gravity to encourage your lymph to flow upward and recirculate.
Lie down on your back, either on a yoga mat or in bed, close to a wall. Scoot your rear end as close to the wall as you can, and extend your legs up the wall. Your body will form the letter “L” with your tail to the wall, your hip joints as close to a 90-degree angle as possible, and your feet in the air.
If you like, have a friend place a 10 pound yoga sandbag on the soles of your feet. This will help you maintain the position, and will give you a better stretch in your calves and hamstrings.
Let your arms open out to the sides, palms facing up. This gently opens your chest, stretching the muscles in your armpits, around the lymph nodes located there. Play with turning your head from side to side or resting in a gentle stretch for the sides of your neck (another place rich with lymph nodes).
If you’d like a variation on this restorative yoga pose, try opening your legs into a wide “V” against the wall (without the sandbag). This will stretch your groin — another site for clusters of lymph nodes.
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You can rest in this position for as long as you’re comfortable. Deep breathing encourages the gentle circulation of lymphatic fluid. It also softens the vagus nerve, allowing the central nervous system to relax and return to a state of “rest, digest, and heal,” lowering systemic inflammation.
Imagine your lymph circulating gently, cleansing and cleaning your entire body of waste, encouraging it with your breath.
2. Forward fold
Lymphatic drainage in your brain is of critical importance to brain function, lowering inflammation and chronic pain, and healing in general. It’s safe to say if your brain is clogged with debris, it’s hard for any other system to work efficiently, paving the way for fibromyalgia brain fog or cognitive symptoms to emerge.
The brain contains both lymphatic drainage vessels (discovered only recently) and a system called glymph as well — a combination of cerebrospinal fluid and interstitial fluid. Both systems work together to keep the brain cleansed of pathogens, toxicity, and debris, though the glymph system is pumped by arterial motion, and it works primarily while you are asleep.
The forward fold posture can facilitate lymphatic drainage in the brain: Sit on a yoga mat or your bed with your legs extended out in front of you. If this is uncomfortable, try sitting on a pillow to raise you up a bit, or try a pillow underneath your knees.
Gently and slowly, let your head nod forward, and roll down your spine as though you could place your forehead on your shins. Almost no one can actually do this, so be easy on yourself! However flexible you are is just fine. Remember that the point isn’t to cause more pain, so only go as far as you can comfortably handle.
Rest in this forward fold for a bit to get used to the stretch along your legs, back, and neck. Use deep breathing, and imagine the lymph circulating gently through your brain.
Once you are comfortable, begin a very slow nod yes, without changing the position of your body. Only your head will be moving. You can hold a position along the way whenever you like, but be mindful of your breathing by deeply inhaling and exhaling. If you are comfortable, you can experiment with small, gentle side to side movements of your head as well.
Over time, you’ll get better at imagining your brain’s lymph gently circulating, cleansing and cleaning your nerve tissue. It may help to look at images of the lymph and cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. As you practice, it may help to listen to recordings of rain falling or ocean waves.
Experiment with yoga and movement meditation. Ultimately, any gentle exercise or yoga pose that feels good to you will assist with moving lymphatic fluid. Feel free to experiment and find poses or meditative movements that work for your unique body. The only thing that truly matters is that the practice feels pleasurable, and that afterward, you feel relaxed and calm, with a decrease in pain. Any practice that works this way is beneficial for lymphatic drainage and may serve as an integral part of your fibromyalgia treatments.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
Jessen NA, Finmann Munk AS, Lundgaard I, Nedergaard M. The Glymphatic System – A Beginner’s Guide. Neurochemical Research. 2015 Dec; 40(12): 2583–2599. doi: 10.1007/s11064-015-1581-6