We all get swollen ankles — or ‘cankles,’ if you will — at some point don’t we? Maybe on those hot summer days or after a long day on your feet. Some women suffer terribly when they are pregnant and other people after some types of surgery. Older people’s legs can get swollen too when they aren’t up and about as much as they would like. And the solutions? Putting your feet up, maybe. Elasticated stockings – urgh! Or maybe, oh right, yoga!
Why Do We Get Cankles?
Well, it’s all down to lymph, or more correctly, because the lymph goes down! Never heard of lymph? Let me explain. In a previous article I explored the cardiovascular system with it’s loop of heart, arteries, veins and capillaries carrying oxygen-rich blood around our bodies to fuel our muscles and organs. What I didn’t tell you then is that another part of our circulation flushes out all of our soft tissues. That is the lymph system and it works like this:
As our blood passes through the body, it ‘leaks’ a fluid called plasma to your connective tissues. Once the plasma is in the tissue, it’s called lymph and it looks like the clear liquid that oozes out when you graze your knee. The purpose of lymph is twofold: it clears toxins away and carries nutrients and infection-fighting white blood cells around the body.
You could say that lymph is like your body’s custodial staff!
At various places along the lymph system (near the heart and lungs, the arm pits and the groin) the body has service stations called lymph nodes that filter the lymph and clean it before it drains back into the circulatory system. So, we have circular leaking of lymph into our tissues which then drains back into our blood stream once it’s cleaned as much as it can.
When There’s More Leaking Than Draining
As long as the rate of leakage and the rate of drainage are the same, everything stays in perfect balance and we are pretty much unaware that we have a lymph system at all. We start having a problem when the rate of lymph entering the system is more than the drainage can cope with, resulting in a surplus. Since lymph is a liquid, and liquids usually flow downhill, the surplus lymph gathers in our feet and ankles or hands and wrists and they start to swell. Ta-da! Cankles.
3 Ways Yoga Stops Swelling
Yoga helps the lymph system in three ways: helping to boost the immune system, improving drainage and by acting as a pump to the system.
1. Boosting Your Immune System
As I said, the lymph is part of the immune system and helps to provide the body with white blood cells when it needs them. The hormones your body releases when we’re stressed reduces white blood cell production, and fewer white blood cells means you are less able to fight infections.
How can yoga help? To throw back to my article about the nervous system, prānāyāma breathing exercises and meditation stimulate the calming side of our autonomic nervous system to cancel out the effects of stress. As we reduce the effects of stress on our body the immune system has the chance to, literally, fight back so we don’t get ill as often (perfect if you’re fighting a cold!) and our lymph system can leak and drain more efficiently.
2. Inversions Are The Way Forward
When our bodies are fighting the battle with gravity, and lymph is swelling our hands and feet, it’s easy to change the flow. Simply reverse gravity! Every time you do a headstand or shoulderstand you’re relieving the pressure of the swelling and giving your lymph system a chance to catch up. Try spending some time with your legs up the wall in viparīta karani at the end of long day — not only is it relaxing, it will help to keep your ankles slim and beautiful too.
Even raising our arms in warrior one helps to clear any build up of fluid in out hands which can be really helpful if you have carpal tunnel symptoms caused by fluid build up in your wrists.
3. Pump It All Away
Last but not least, your muscles can actually help pump the swelling away. Working our muscles, particularly in standing poses and vinyāsa, has a pumping effect on the surrounding tissues. This speeds up the passage of lymph through the system and back into the blood stream. If it spends less time in the tissues, it has less chance to settle in our hands and feet and results in less swelling!
So, yoga really does make our lymphatic system more effective. Every time we settle down to meditate or roll out our mat to practice it gets better and better.
Isn’t it amazing the different ways that yoga benefits our health? And on that note, I am off to do some sun salutes and maybe a bit of prānāyāma to fight off the cold that is going round and get my ankles beach-ready. Fancy joining me? Your lymphatic system would love it if you do! Let us know in the comments what you do when your ankles get sore, and if any of these worked for you!