Any home or car owner understands the importance of filter maintenance. You clean your lint filter each time you use your dryer, you change your oil filter in your car multiple times a year, and if you have ever had to change the filter in your dishwasher, it is a small trauma you won't soon forget! Lately, I've been thinking of my yoga practice as filter maintenance: working with the physical body to clear away unwanted substances as well as the mental and emotional body to rinse sticky thoughts, memories and emotions.
Lymph nodes act like sponges
I didn't know much about my lymphatic system when I began working with people who had cancer. I knew that when I got sick, a lump near my jawbone would appear and sometimes I could feel a similar lump in my hip crease. I first asked my mother about the one in my hip crease because I thought it might be a hernia; I was around ten years old and she had just her second hernia operation, so it was on my mind. She laughed and taught me about my lymph nodes. It would take me over three decades to understand these masses and the vessels that connect them.
The lymphatic vessels are ubiquitous - no part of my body is any farther than just three cells away from some part of the lymphatic system! They collect waste fluid and encourage it to drain through the nodes located in the face, neck, armpits, chest, abdomen and leg pits. On its own, the encouragement to drain through the nodes is quite subtle, but can increase if I move my body around, even a small amount. When I'm under the weather, I continue to make small, gentle movements and massage my skin, because my shifting moves the lymph through my nodes, which is exactly what I want in order to feel better.
The nodes are like little sponges that trap any substances in the fluid; once trapped, these substances can be examined by immune cells that live in the nodes. If the immune cells discover something nefarious, they will isolate and destroy the cell, then share with other immune cells the formula for combatting this particular threat.
I applaud this work and want to encourage it as much as possible, which is why I move my body, even a small amount, every day. Moving just one part of my body effects the lymph in all parts of my body, to some degree. My asana (physical posture) practice becomes maintenance for these intelligent sponges, and by reaching, stretching, sweating and massaging, I am pushing the fluid through these sponges and helping my immune system clear away the debris.
Just as the lymph nodes collect substances that might be harmful, my mind tends to collect thoughts, stories and ideas that do me no good. Mainly my mind tries to collect everything that passes by, and the work of clearing the filter with my thoughts is to let them move on without clinging. Each morning when I sit, I go through a little routine: first I feel the evidence of my body and breath; then I settle my body and breath; then I let the thoughts build up for a while, just noticing them without trying to do anything. They are a bit like children waiting for attention and once they receive it they settle down a little. After a few moments the volume of my thoughts turns down and I run through my forgiveness practice (asking forgiveness for those I may have harmed, offering forgiveness for those who have harmed me and then forgiving myself), and then on to whatever flavor of meditation feels necessary that day. No matter how long I sit, I feel clearer when I'm done. The screen through which my thoughts flow has less sticking to it and feels more porous now. This is good because it means I will have fewer things to distract me and (hopefully) will be able to remember what I was doing or saying from one minute to the next!
What happens when the filters won't clear? Find out in Clearing the Filters Part 2...