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The sensible practice of yoga does more than slap a Happy Face on your cerebrum. It can also massage the lymph system, says Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiac surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. Lymph is the body's dirty dishwater; a network of lymphatic vessels and storage sacs crisscross over the entire body, in parallel with the blood supply, carrying a fluid composed of infection-fighting white blood cells and the waste products of cellular activity. Exercise in general activates the flow of lymph through the body, speeding up the filtering process; but yoga in particular promotes the draining of the lymph. Certain yoga poses stretch muscles that from animal studies are known to stimulate the lymph system. Researchers have documented the increased lymph flow when dogs' paws are stretched in a position similar to the yoga "downward-facing dog."
Yoga relaxes you and, by relaxing, heals. At least that's the theory. "The autonomic nervous system," explains Kripalu's Faulds, "is divided into the sympathetic system, which is often identified with the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic, which is identified with what's been called the Relaxation Response. When you do yoga--the deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release muscle tension, the relaxed focus on being present in your body--you initiate a process that turns the fight-or-flight system off and the Relaxation Response on. That has a dramatic effect on the body. The heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. The body seizes this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms."
But the process isn't automatic. Especially in their first sessions, yoga students may have trouble suppressing those competitive beta waves. We want to better ourselves, but also to do better than others; we force ourselves into the gym-rat race. "Genuine Hatha yoga is a balance of trying and relaxing," says Dr. Timothy McCall, an internist and the author of Examining Your Doctor: A Patient's Guide to Avoiding Harmful Medical Care. "But a lot of gym yoga is about who can do this really difficult contortion to display to everyone else in the class." The workout warriors have to realize that yoga is more an Athenian endeavor than a Spartan one. You don't win by punishing your body. You convince it, seduce it, talk it down from the ledge of ambition and anxiety. Yoga is not a struggle but a surrender.
It may take a while for the enlightenment bulb to switch on--for you to get the truth of the yoga maxim that what you can do is what you should do. But when it happens, it's an epiphany, like suddenly knowing, in your bones and your dreams, the foreign language you've been studying for months. In yoga, this is your mind-body language.