We have all had swollen glands when we were sick. Those glands are lymphatic nodes and when we are sick, they swell.  We may not have heard much about it, these nodes are part of the lymphatic system. It is important because it regulates our immune system by removing damaged cells and other waste from the body (and they swell when they are working hard to fight infection).  You can’t really see the lymphatic vessels, but they are found directly below your skin throughout your body.

The flow of the lymphatics can be impeded either by scar tissue or just fewer lymph nodes in the affected area just enough to cause a pooling of the lymphatic fluid, commonly in the hand and/or arm for breast cancer survivors, in the leg for prostate or cervical cancer survivors, and so on.

This condition is called lymphedema, and it can be primary, when one is born with the condition, or secondary, when one develops it.

According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer survivors have a 17-53% chance of developing lymphedema as a result of having some of their lymph nodes removed, or as a side effect of having radiation treatment. For some, who only had a lumpectomy, the resulting lymphedema can affect quality of life much more than the cancer ever did!

Recently, there have been some incredible medical reports that discuss major changes in the way we understand how this lymphatic system functions.  There have been new developments that now allow actual, real-time imaging of where and how the lymphatics flow that is causing quite a stir in the medical community. One article, from the University of Virginia* was titled: “They’ll Have to Rewrite the Textbooks” !!!  Here is an excerpt from this article:

“It’s a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching: researchers at the School of Medicine have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. “I really did not believe there were structures in the body that we were not aware of. I thought the body was mapped,” said Jonathan Kipnis, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and director of the University’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia.”

What they discovered is that there are lymphatic vessels in the brain! This is HUGE. The article continues by saying:

“But the true significance of the discovery lies in its ramifications for the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis.“

So, what does all this have to do with yoga? Since we all have lymphatic systems, first of all we all need to keep the flow strong and healthy.  Also, the implication is that western medicine is admitting that they do not have all the answers to questions about the body.  To realize now that there are lymphatic vessels in the brain that can be affecting our behavior is an enormous change in direction from centuries of thinking.

I have been working with lymphedema patients for about 15 years and I also run a company, called Lymphedema Seminars, that holds educational seminars for those in the medical community working with lymphedema patients. These include physical and occupational therapists, oncology nurses, oncologists, radiologists, surgeons, etc.

For yoga teachers, most likely you will have survivors in your classes at some point. They could be at different stages, recently diagnosed or many years later, and you should be aware of the potential issues this might present. It is especially important to know the precautions for lymphedema, for those who already have it or are at risk for developing it.

I have 2 older blog posts that you might want to revisit.  On OCTOBER 1, 2013, I wrote “Yoga for Cancer Survivors” and then on DECEMBER 2, 2013, “Lymphatic Flow Yoga Series”.  You can find both of these posts on my website at under OLDER POSTS to find these dates.

screenshot-0816-blogMy “Lymphatic Flow Yoga Series” is also a YouTube Video that you can access directly from my website, or from this link:  .  This video has been used by thousands of lymphedema patients and therapists. The blog explains why the poses were chosen and are done in the speicific order, as well as how to do each pose.  The video only takes about 10 minutes and is done seated, so almost anyone can follow it. Check it out and pass the info about it along to other yoga teachers and any cancer survivors you might know.

In the next years, because of the newly discovered lymphatic vessels in the brain, we will be hearing more about the lymphatic system. Learning about how to keep it healthy and flowing is important and we, as yoga teachers, can be part of this new, exciting conversation.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me at