Āsana Theory

The Empty Promise of “Sweating Away Toxins”

…and a deeper look at Sweat and its functions

In a variety of ways, we have peered into the management of health. In summary, the means to protecting your health is through your gut – by managing the proportion of space around your digestive fire, the stability of your digestive fire (Jaṭhara Agni), and the ability of “wind” or prāṇā to maintain this fire. This dialogue around Sweat (Sveda) support this process in a similar vein. 

What is the purpose of sweating?

Is it, like we have been told, to rid the body of  “toxins”? Well, like everything, yes and no. It is pretty reductive to say that sweat is the only way the body rids itself of waste – and I also take umbrage calling our bodies toxic. Regardless, there are 3 main mala’s (wastes) that the body produces. They are feces (mala), urine (mutra), and sweat (sveda). 

There is definitely obsession, I have noticed, in being empty – over evacuated bowels, over sweating to feel “light.” Ayurveda does not feel this way, however.   

Proper Timing

The three wastes of the body are deemed “healthy” when they collect and are excreted at the proper time. Forcing and suppressing urges leads to disease conditions equally. This includes putting the body in positions where it is forced to sweat or pass bowels with tonics or colonics to keep it empty. The fullness of the bowel – as a side note – is a measure of health. The colon should not be empty, except in the morning when the urge to defecate naturally comes. The continuous emptying of the bowel is very disturbing for Vāta doṣa. Similarly, the forcing of the body to sweat, without the need, at the improper time, or without the proper preparatory actions is also very aggravating for Vāta and Pitta doṣas.

The Function of Sweat

Sveda Pravartana – aka the release of sweat – generally is geared toward dilatation of the channels of the body. The function of uṣṇa guṇa (hot quality) in the body is to expand the channels and remove any obstruction to them so that whatever they are carrying can flow. This uṣṇa guṇa is also responsible for breaking down Kapha and Kleda which are both cold and heavy (śita and sthula guṇas) and turn them into liquid mala so they can be sent to the digestive center and excreted – mostly through urine and stool. Urine (mūtra) is generally responsible for removing excess water from the body – collected at the end stages of digestion. Feces (mala) is generally responsible for collecting the bi-products of physical digestion and excreting them. Thus, it is actually urine and feces that would be most responsible for removing what people often call “toxins.”

Sweat is closely linked with Pitta doṣa and Medas Dhatu (fat/liquid tissue). Excessive sweating usually indicates an increase in Pitta doṣa. People who tend toward increased Pitta doṣa will tend to sweat more and more easily. Thus, excessive sweating in such states can also cause redness, skin inflammation, burning, weak, loose muscles, and itchiness among other things. People who are trying to break an intense sweat to burn fat, often miss the mark. The appropriate amount of exercise (vyayam) according to Āyurveda is that which just stretches you past your capacity. In such cases, you might break a sweat on your forehead, back, thighs, or underarms, but you wouldn’t create a pool of sweat on the floor. The purpose of exercise is not to achieve exhaustion.

Healthy sweat also has no odor and does not stain. If a person’s sweat shows these signs, it is not sweating and more exercise that will aid the issue, but engaging in activities that will support the balance of Pitta doṣa.

Forced and excessive sweating can be caused by too much exposure to uṣṇa guṇa through sun exposure, heat exposure (sweat boxes, hot yoga, yoga in direct sunlight…), and consuming things which increase those guṇas in the body like alcohol, salt, and anger. These can all serve to contaminate the very channels we are attempting to “cleanse” because this guṇa destroys the tone of the channels causing the tissues of the body which were once firm and stable to become soft and liquid-like. 

According to the Caraka Samhita Sutrasthana 14.16-19, Intense sweating is contra-indicated for those who regularly consume alcohol, with Pitta predominance, have a history of diarrhoea, loose stools, and multiple stools per day. People with inflamed colons, prolapsed rectums, with fever, who are fatigued, people who are constantly having thirst, feel hunger, anger, depression, jaundice, ascites, injured, rheumatoid diseases, weakness, emaciation, and anyone who is highly immune-compromised. 

Āyurvedically though, sweat in most cases in rarely practiced dry. This means that one does not usually just up into a sweat box without engaging in certain activities first and/or avoiding certain activities. Most sweat should be preceded with appropriate oiling of the body. This is because the hot guṇa will allow for the pores of the skin to open, which makes th ebody more receptive to the oil and any herbs with which it is prepared. This also prevents overheating because the oil protects the body from becoming too dry, spacious, or dehydrated too quickly. Only in ver specific circumstances would a person jump into a hot box without preparing properly. They would also have not eaten or be eating any food or have or be consuming any drinks heavier than water.

The general rule is – TAKE CARE. So much of diet culture says we should be empty and light as a sign of health. But really, we should have good digestion and be stable in ourselves (svastha) – this includes our identities as well as our muscle and fat tissues, our ligaments, bowels, and joints as well. Health is measured by good hunger too. So, fasting and juice cleanses (remember the excess liquid conversation?!) would not be the way of Āyurveda – except again – in very very specific cases.

Health is unique and personal. There is no one look of health, it is just the state of Arogya.

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