Spring is a transformational season of the year, when aspects of ourselves that have been lying dormant come back to life. The weather is warmer and it’s time to shed the layers of excess often accumulated during the hibernation of winter. Detoxifying our bodies will create a feeling of lightness and increased energy, and yoga is a beautiful way to do it.
Yoga detoxifies us physically, emotionally and mentally. By spicing up your yoga practice with asanas that target detoxing specific areas of the body, you could be well on your way to feeling a new-found exuberance and glowing health.
This practice is intended to kickstart your internal “spring cleaning”. It stimulates the circulatory system to feed your body with nourishment and remove wastes; facilitates the flow of lymph, which is important for the smooth operation of the immune system; and assists the functioning of the kidneys.
The kidneys perform several complex and life-essential functions in the body. Healthy kidneys act like filters to make sure the correct amount of wastes and fluids are removed from the body, and that our bodies maintain a healthy pH level. They also regulate our blood pressure. The major role of the kidneys is to remove waste from our blood and eliminate it in the urine. Each day our kidneys process up to 200 litres of blood, eliminating 1-2 litres of urine per day.
This sequence includes several inversions that boost the function of the circulatory and lymphatic systems. It culminates in Salamba Halasana (Supported Plow Pose) in a sustained hold to facilitate detoxification of the kidneys. You can start by holding the pose for 2 to 5 minutes as you cultivate the necessary flexibility in the spine and shoulders, and strength in the neck. You may like to build up to a maximum of 15 minutes over time, and facilitate not only a deep cleanse of the kidneys, but a feeling of whole-body rejuvenation. Focus on feeling the internal sensations in your body and be particularly aware of your upper back, neck and shoulders as you move towards greater freedom in inverted poses.
Before You Begin
Warm up and prepare for this with 10 to 15 breaths in Balasana (Child’s Pose), followed by six to eight rounds alternating between Bitilasana (Cow Pose) and Marjaryasana (Cat Pose). Continue with 3 to 5 cycles of Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A), followed by 3 to 5 cycles of Surya Namaskar B (Sun Salutation B); then take 5- to 10-breath holds in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) and Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) on both sides.
1 Prasarita Padottanasana: Wide-Legged Forward Bend, variation
Stand with your feet parallel, about 120cm apart (it will depend on your height), facing the long edge of your mat. Reach your arms behind your back and lightly interlace your fingers, keeping the elbows bent. On an inhale, lift your shoulders up toward your ears and as you exhale, relax your shoulders back and down, squeezing your shoulderblades towards the spine. Squeeze your fingers tightly together and straighten your elbows. If you are tight in the shoulders and across the front of your chest, holding a strap between your hands will give you a little more freedom.
Energise your legs and feet by lifting your inner arches and pressing down into the outer edges of your feet. Imagine your heels are pulling in towards one another, but keep them firmly rooted into the mat by pressing down into the mound of the big toe—this will give you a slight sense of external rotation of your leg bones and create a contraction of the muscles of your inner and outer legs. Focus on engaging the thigh muscles and keeping the kneecaps lifted, but without pushing your knees backwards into hyperextension.
On an inhale, lengthen the spine, creating a slight lift in your sternum. On an exhale, hinge your torso forward at your hip creases, keeping your lower belly drawn towards your spine. Allow your spine to fold down until you are fully inverted, and let your head relax down so that your neck is completely free of any tension. Let your arms come forward so that they fold over the back of your head. Be patient and let gravity do the work rather than trying to force your arms, especially if your shoulders are still in need of some opening.
Focus on maintaining the stability and grounding of your legs and feet. Keep your thighs engaged, the outer edges of your feet pressing into the floor and your inner arches lifted. If your hamstrings tend to be on the tighter side, a slight bend in the knees will prevent an uncomfortable pulling sensation where the hamstrings attach to the bottom of your pelvis. This will also give you more anterior tilt, making the forward bend easier. Notice the tendency to shift your weight back towards the heels, and aim to keep the four corners of your feet pressing evenly into the floor.
Once your lower body is grounded, the upper body is able to move towards more freedom with the assistance of gravity. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths. Focus on long exhalations for greater relaxation of the mind and body. To release, engage your lower belly and come all the way up on an inhalation.
2 Ardha Matsyendrasana: Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
Sit on the floor in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Place your right foot flat on the floor at the outer edge of your left knee. Place your left foot on the floor near the right hip. If you experience tightness in your hips, you may like to do this pose with the left leg remaining straight. If your hamstring muscles are tight, you can sit on the edge of a folded blanket to give more forward rotation of the pelvis. If you are doing the full variation of the pose, you’ll have your right knee pointing up towards the ceiling and your left knee pointing towards the front and centre of your mat. Ensure both sitting bones are firmly anchored to the floor so that you can maintain a straight, upright spine.
Bring your right hand around behind your back and place it on the floor at the base of your spine with your fingers facing away from your body. Keep your arm as close to your spine as possible. On an inhale, press down into the palm of your hand and extend up through to the crown of your head, lifting your sternum. Raise your left arm high above your head, extending the whole left side of your body, then turn your torso to your right and hook your elbow over your right knee with the palm of your hand facing away from you. As a stronger variation of the twist, straighten your left arm and reach down to hold the front of your left knee. Now we begin to rotate the spine, coming fully into the twist. Ensure your lower belly is drawn in towards the spine, as a safe and healthy twist must be initiated from the contraction of your abdominal muscles.
On an inhalation, press down through your right hand and foot and the sitting bones, while lengthening your spine up towards the ceiling. As you exhale, slowly twist your torso to the right, starting at your abdomen. Keep your torso turning slowly to the right as your right shoulder pulls back behind you. Keep both of your collarbones parallel to the floor, ensuring that your spine is rotating evenly. Look over your right shoulder, keeping your chin parallel to the floor and the back of your neck long and free of tension. Continue for 5 to 10 breaths, with each inhalation being an opportunity to lengthen your spine and create more space, while each exhalation adds depth to the twist. You may use the left elbow as a gentle lever to facilitate a deeper twist, but be mindful not to crank the body around forcefully. You should still be able to breathe calmly as you twist. Release from the pose on an inhalation, unwinding slowly starting with the head. Repeat on the second side.
3 Setu Bandha Sarvangasana: Bridge Pose
Lie on your back, then bend your knees and place the feet on the floor with your heels directly under your knees. Ensure your knees are hip-width apart, your feet are parallel and your toes are relaxed and spread evenly. Place your arms beside your body on the floor with the palms facing down. Slightly tuck your tailbone under, lengthening the spine, and lightly engage your lower abdominal muscles. On an inhale, slowly roll the spine up off the floor, maintaining an awareness of your core. Keep lifting your hips up as far as comfortable; imagine that you are lifting the tailbone up through the centre of your pelvis towards the ceiling. Keep your buttock muscles firm (but not clenched) and thighs engaged. Ensure your thighs and feet stay parallel, and avoid any splaying of the knees and feet by internally rotating your thigh bones and pressing the four corners of the feet into the floor. Keep moving your knees forward towards your toes while lengthening the tailbone towards the back of your knees. If you have a tendency for the knees and feet to splay outwards, you may place a block in between the thighs and squeeze it to activate your legs. If you feel discomfort in your neck, you may like to place a folded blanket under the shoulders to allow more space (see Salamba Sarvangasana, below).
If you feel comfortable here, interlace your fingers under your hips, straighten your arms and press the hands into the floor. See if you can lift up on to the backs of the arms and shoulderblades a little more. If your shoulders are tight, this might not be possible, so keep your palms flat on the floor. Keep lifting your sternum towards the chin while easing the chin slightly away from the chest to maintain length in the back of your neck. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths, keeping your shoulderblades moving towards the back of your rib cage. Notice any sensations in your neck and shoulders, especially if you are feeling a lot of pressure in this part of your body. If there is any discomfort you may need to adjust by not going as deeply into the pose or by placing another blanket under your shoulders. You may feel restricted by tightness in your shoulders and thoracic spine, so be gentle with yourself and allow the body to open up slowly.
Release from the pose on an exhalation, slowly rolling the spine down to the floor. Repeat Setu Bandha Sarvangasana 2 to 3 times, slowly building up the length of time holding the pose. By practising with awareness, you will start to develop the opening required to maintain the pose for longer periods of time, while preparing you for the next two inverted poses.
4 Salamba Sarvangasana: Supported Shoulderstand
This pose is best performed with two or three firm yoga blankets folded for support under the shoulders. Fold the blankets into rectangles wide enough to create a base for your arms and shoulders, making sure the top edges are even. You can also place a mat over the blankets to stop your elbows from slipping. Lie on the blankets with your shoulders in line with one of the longer edges of the blankets, your head and neck on the floor. Set yourself up as you did for Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms on the floor beside your body.
On an exhale, press your hands into the floor and roll your hips up off the floor and your knees towards your forehead, keeping your knees bent. Stretch your arms out as far as possible, keeping them parallel to one another and lift more onto the back of your arms and shoulders.
Bend your elbows, keeping them shoulder-width apart, and place your hands flat on your lower back in the kidney area. Lift your knees away from your forehead so that they are at the same level as your hips, elevating your torso. Keep your hips above your shoulders as best you can and walk your hands further up your spine towards your shoulderblades, without letting your elbows slide more than shoulder-width apart.
On an inhale, press your feet straight up towards the ceiling, aligning your feet over your hips and shoulders. Keep the legs active and strong. Press up through the balls of your feet while spreading the toes. Internally rotate your thighbones slightly, and keep your core muscles activated. Press down firmly into the backs of your arms and shoulders, while keeping your torso and legs moving upwards away from the floor. Hold for 15 to 20 breaths and gaze softly at your chest to maintain your focus. To release from the pose, exhale and bend your knees in to your torso, and gently roll your spine back down onto the mat, using your arms for support and keeping the back of your head on the mat.
5 Salamba Halasana: Supported Plow Pose
Set up near a wall for this pose, adding another blanket for support to prevent the neck from feeling compressed. Sit facing the wall with your legs extended so that the soles of your feet are pressing against the wall in a dorsi-flexed position. Take your folded blankets and place them alongside you, with the folded edge in line with your hip creases, or perhaps even slightly closer to the wall. Move to the side for a moment and slide your blankets to where you were sitting, being mindful to keep the folded edge in line with where your hip creases were. Now, turn around with your back to the wall, and lie on the blankets with your shoulders in line with the edge of the blankets, your head on the floor. Bend your knees as for Salamba Sarvangasana and place your feet flat on the floor close to your sitting bones. With your palms flat on the floor, exhale and roll your hips up above your torso and place your hands on your lower back close to the kidneys. Extend your legs to straight so that your feet are flat to the wall and your legs are parallel to the floor. You may have to gauge this through just feeling, as it’s unwise to move your head and try to look at your feet. If your feet are not flat to the wall, come back down again and move your blankets slightly closer to the wall.
It can take some time to set up properly for this pose, so have patience!
Once confident with your set-up, take your strap or belt and make a loop so that when you thread both arms through they will remain shoulder-width apart. Place the looped strap around one arm only, and lie on your blankets, coming up into Salamba Halasana again following the previous instructions. Once you have placed both feet flat to the wall, thread the other arm through the looped strap behind your back and wiggle it up so that it is around your upper arms. With your hands in position on your back, pivot your pelvis so that it is at a 90-degree angle and directly above your shoulders. Ensure your neck is comfortable and not feeling any pain or compression. Hold for two minutes or as long as you can hold the pose comfortably. Turn your attention to the sensations in your body and you will start to notice a very unusual feeling in the kidney area as the blood begins to drain. The area might begin to feel a little warm, slightly tingly and over time will develop almost a burning sensation. The first time you do this pose, start by holding it only for 2 minutes, then each time you practise it, try to add an extra minute or two. The maximum you should hold this pose is about 15 minutes, and you’ll need to build up to it over a period of time. It takes about 5 minutes of holding to stimulate the “active reversal effect”, where the organs in the abdominal cavity are toned and revitalised by holding them upside down against the usual effect of gravity. To release from the pose, bend your knees towards your forehead and slowly roll your spine down one vertebra at a time, keeping the back of your head on the floor.
As a counterpose to the long hold in both Salamba Sarvangasana and Salamba Halasana, practise Matsyasana (Fish Pose) supported on a bolster or block for at least 1 minute, or longer if it feels good to do so. Then lie on your back and practise a supine twist, with 15- to 20-breath holds for each side, to unwind the spine and create a final rinse for the abdominal organs. Finally, finish with a long rest in Savasana (Corpse Pose).
As you work with this sequence over several weeks, you’ll be able to spend more and more time in Salamba Halasana, greatly enhancing the health of your abdominal organs, particularly your kidneys, as they enjoy a thorough spring clean.
Start this practice early in spring as part of your regular routine and with time you’ll notice your body and mind feeling light, alert and rejuvenated.
Nicole Goodwin is a vinyasa flow yoga teacher and co-founder of BodyMindLife Yoga in Sydney and Jaspers Village Resort in northern NSW. Visit www.bodymindlife.com.
Benefits: Stretches and strengthens the spine, shoulders, neck and hamstrings; Improves the functioning of the abdominal organs, especially the kidneys and liver; Stimulates the endocrine system; Removes sluggishness from the cardiovascular and lymphatic systems. Contraindications: Pregnancy; Menstruation; Neck, shoulder or spinal injury; High or low blood pressure.