Yoga for your Period
managing cyclical trends
It lasts through the course of about 28 days, it's divisible into four distinct phases of about the same duration, it's directly experienced by half of the human population, and nowadays in this country, it gets a pretty horrendous reputation. Yeah, I'm talking about a woman's period, affectionately and pragmatically called moon time. But before my male-identifying readers close their browser, I'd like to address them directly: This article is about human cycles, and guys, you've got those, too. This brief article may also serve as a good reference the next time you wonder why the women in your life seem inconsistent in their moods, their energy, and their way of relating to you and their world. It's because they are. Every 7 days or so, a woman's hormonal make-up shifts as she cycles through the process of creating, hosting, preparing to shed, and finally shedding an egg. These internal changes go hand-in-hand with changes in her comportment. If this makes you feel weird in any way, I might remind you that the menstrual cycle is a major reason why 100% of us are here right now.
And yet, many people, men and women, young and old alike, cringe when they so much as hear the word “period.” For many it has become an inconvenience at best and a miserable, crippling pain at worst. I've experienced it as both.However, in recent months I've experienced cycles that have been insightful, interesting, and even downright enjoyable. Ladies with painful moon times, I hope I haven't got you rolling your eyes in disbelief. It may make more sense if I tell you that I've also had days when I've missed work, pre-menstrual episodes of sudden onset frustration and depression, and one particularly brutal afternoon spent curled up on a public couch when I was in college, unable to move from cramps. When I started to pay closer attention to the other phases of the menstrual cycle, namely pre-ovulation and ovulation, I also noticed sharp changes in my libido, my charisma, my creativity and focus, and in how other people seemed to receive me.
I began to ask myself “why?” That question is an important first step. Millions of women note the negative aspects of their cycle and go to their doctor and say “no more of this, please!” Sadly, their doctors all-too-willingly oblige and offer them synthetic regulation of their hormones, or even complete removal of their uterus. Chances are you could easily name someone you know who has utilized one or both of these options. These have helped many people, and in the case of birth control, have the added benefit of helping to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
However, neither of these options address the underlying cause of issue, which in the case of difficult, non-existent or irregular menstrual cycles, is hormonal imbalance. Luckily, there are ways to bring yourself back into balance that are, as I hope you'll find, practical, non-invasive, cheap and holistic.
Dial down during the days immediately leading up to your moon time, and during the first couple days of bleeding. Instead of taking a sweaty, fast-paced vinyasa class, try restorative yoga. Many a cramp has been alleviated by propping knees up on a bolster in supta baddha konasana (reclined wide angle pose.) Use lots of props. You should feel like you're completely surrendering all effort so as to allow gravity and soft, rhythmic, belly breathing to inform the release of all bodily tension. With this, mental effort should also become relaxed. If you do decide to attend a vinyasa-style class, make it a gentle, slow class if possible. Do not engage the bandhas, which contract the reproductive organs and their surrounding musculature. Instead, you want to think about creating space, softness and openness within the pelvis. Rather than squeeze the low belly in and up, allow it to drop down into the pelvic bowl. Cramps happen when these muscles overly contract, constrict blood flow, and deprive the surrounding muscles and organs of oxygen, so imagine that you can actually breathe into the places where you normally experience menstrual pain. Do this in a completely relaxed manner, not ever forcing the breath. Do not employ Ujjayi pranayama, which is that audible, fiery breath often taught in vinyasa classes. In its place, take slow, gentle breaths, focusing on the exhale. Relax your jaw and feel free to let a breath escape out of the mouth when that feels good to do that. It is generally advised that women on their period do not invert at least for the first 1-2 days of their period, as this is counter-productive to the downward release experienced during menstruation.
Meditation, in Sanskrit called dhyana, is an incredibly useful tool for holistically and effectively dealing with what western medicine has pathologized as pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS.) When you start to notice that sudden onset of seemingly inexplicable sadness, or irritation, or insecurity, or rage, stop what you're doing. Be still for a moment and notice that you didn't have this emotion yesterday, and recognize that you may not have it tomorrow, or even in an hour. Give yourself the space you need to process strong feelings. Your intuitive, subconscious mind becomes activated during pre-menstruation and menstruation, and you could learn a useful thing or two. By over-ridding or resisting this phase, you can miss out on valuable messages your body is sending you about changes you may need to make in your life, such as in relationships, work or creative endeavors, personal priorites, or even regarding your perspectives on the world. Sit alone in a quiet place. Ask, with an open and curious mind, what your emotions are trying to tell you, and listen to the answers.
You may notice strong cravings for a variety of foods, herbs and drinks throughout your cycle. These can be divided into two categories: cravings based on your body's actual and ever-changing needs, and cravings for non-nutritious foods. For the latter, you can again use mindfulness. Ask: “Does my body really need this food, or will I forget about it once I've exited the ice cream aisle? How will it benefit me right now, aside from gratifying myself? Is there something more nutritious I could have in its place?” For the former, you'll be surprised how wise the body is when it comes to knowing what it needs. If you can really listen in and satisfy those cravings, you'll also work toward bringing your hormones back toward balance. I recommend reading up on how to eat during the four distinct phases of your cycle. For this check out WomanCode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive, and Become a Power Source. Under-nourished or malnourished women often experience amenorrhea, a temporary absense in her period, from nutritional deficiencies and/or working out too much. That happens for a few reasons, one of which is that nutritional deficiencies throw our hormones out of wack. Even if you never get to the extreme of experiencing amenorrhea, just imagine what a vitamin or mineral deficiency can do to your mood and energy!
Like the cycle of the moon which we've meticulously noted and adored for millenia, the woman's cycle is not a mistake committed by nature.Take your moon time as an opportunity to review the past month's happenings. We, men and women included, get out of balance when we experience significant and/or stressful changes in our lives. These changes may be immediately positive, like a promotion, or immediately negative, like a break-up. We get out of balance when we are not nourishing ourselves enough or in the right ways: by eating an improper diet, working too much, exercising too much or too little, staying in unsatisfying or harmful relationships, and from inadequate sleep.The difference is that, for women, we get a mandatory check-up every month to let us know how we're doing in handling these stresses and changes. For me, the worst periods I've ever had have been on the heels of a big move to another country (a seemingly positive change) and the end of a romantic relationship (a seemingly negative change at the time.) I used the literal, physical pain as am impetus to get educated about the menstrual cycle and how we can get back in sync with our mind-bodies, through restful yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. I invite you to do the same.
Wishing you joy in your cycles,
Originally published with adaptations by Fit+Flow Yoga