This post is for every woman but I wrote it with my women friends who practice and teach yoga in mind. It represents some of my observations and practices in supporting my own menstrual health and honouring the sacred wisdom of my cycles.
What We Have Inherited, And Where We Are Now
Let me start by saying that I realize how very fortunate I am to have been born in a place and a time where this topic can be addressed in a positive way. I know that in my own mother’s generation this topic was fairly taboo and it was common to refer to menses as The Curse, the bane of women’s existence. The idea that the monthly cycle was painful and messy, and brought forth uncontrolled emotions was something that wasn’t really questioned deeply and the belief that this was something that women had to endure or that we somehow deserved for some ancient sin of ours was just below the surface in our collective consciousness. I myself, like many of my generation, have inherited all this and yet there has been so much work done by visionary women (and men!) to undo it in recent years and for that I am grateful and I am simply offering my own experience forth in the hopes that it may support others who wish to re-frame their own attitudes, or shift their experience of their menstrual cycle.
My Initiation Into Menses Wisdom
I struggled with my own monthly rhythms until I was about 19 years old or so, when I took a couple years out to live in enforced simplicity. For about two years I lived in a cabin on the Island without the interference of electric lights and soon discovered that my cycle (unhampered by hormonal birth control) began to come regularly, and that it was a rhythm I could not only chart, but one that I could work with in a way that empowered me in accessing different aspects of my physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional bodies. This was a wildly exciting time of my life as I was initiated into the magic of my own body, while at the same time coming to the recognition that my cycles were a microcosmic pulsation of the larger cycles around me. The pull of the moon as it waxed and waned and the colourful dance of the seasonal changes all exerted their unique influence on me and I began to know for the first time in my life that I truly was part of something vast and mysterious, and yet I could know this mystery intimately through the responses of my very own body.
Yoga and Menstruation
When I came to the practice of yoga a few years later I appreciated the way that women’s cycles were sometimes honoured in classes where modifications and alternative options were offered for those who were currently menstruating. Though at times I found myself challenged when these modifications were given as hard rules to be followed, regardless of how the woman might feel on that day. I especially remember being frustrated by a visiting male teacher who was offering a workshop and who announced at the beginning that any woman who was menstruating was not to do physical practice but could watch from the sidelines. This is how his own Indian teacher had taught, and he was continuing in the same way. While I was menstruating at that time I resented being told what I could or couldn’t do with my own body and being visibly excluded from participating in practice. Now I am not sharing this story to bash male yoga teachers but rather to tell of my experience of being told by an outside authority what to do with my body during my own personal cycle, and while I will address the idea of taking rest during menstruation I don’t believe this is something that should be enforced from the outside in, like some kind of religious rule of conduct for women practitioners, but rather should be a choice that arises from within based on an understanding of what that woman’s body needs that day. I prefer to encourage my students to start to pay more attention so they can make these wise choices for themselves. As well I do want to address the fact that much of the yoga that has come to us from India has been brought to us by teachers of the priestly or brahminical caste, and that within that culture there has historically been very strong ideas surrounding the concept of ritual purity and impurity. A woman’s menstrual cycle is generally seen as a time of ritual impurity, so this is worth taking into account when we hear rules of conduct given for women during that time. In the same way that our own cultural/religious heritage has left us with some unconscious and perhaps unexamined perceptions around the topic of menstruation, so too with the yoga tradition we have received from India. With all of this in mind I will share what I have found to be wise practices for my own menstrual cycle, separate from any kind of yogic dogma.
Waning Moon: Wise Practices Post Ovulation to Menses
Understanding our monthly cycle in relation to the cycle of the moon is a simple way of relating our cycles to larger cosmic cycles and can give us an idea of how we might optimize our inner rhythms. The time from ovulation to menses can be related to the waning cycle of the moon, as the energy current available to us moves from strong and extroverted towards internal and below the surface. Understanding this can help us make adjustments to the way that we practice, as well as how we give our energy outwards in other areas of our lives. Ovulation will generally occur at the midpoint of our cycle and if we do not conceive during that time then the cycle will move towards menses. This shift can often be felt as an increased sensitivity to external stimulus and a desire to begin drawing our energy inwards.
- Let yourself slow down at this time, begin wrapping up outstanding projects rather than starting new ones
- Being to increase time spent in meditation or quiet contemplation, it will nourish your nervous system so that you are less irritable and reactive if that is your tendency at this time
- Use this quieter time of your cycle to listen deeply for threads of insight that are arising from within you, this can be a time of increased wisdom if we direct our attention inwards
- Physical inflammation and old injuries in your body may tend to flare up at this phase of your cycle so be willing to adjust your yoga practice accordingly
- Slow down, move more mindfully, pay attention, let the wisdom of your body lead, and don’t force anything
- I tend to favour deeper hip opening and more grounded posture work at this time, working on regulating the downward flow on energy in my body/mind (apana vayu), and releasing tension that tends to build around my pelvis and low back at this time
- Eat clean and minimize caffeine during this phase of your cycle to minimize digestive discomfort and aggravation of negative pre-menstrual symptoms
- Get a bit more sleep if your body is asking for it, it will support you in feeling generous even as your energy begins to flow inwards
- Try to sleep in a fully darkened room as electric light can mess with your cycles of hormonal production
- For those of you who teach be mindful that you are not over scheduling yourself at this time or you may find yourself feeling overextended resulting in a lack of inspiration when teaching, and less ability to give fully to your students. As well be compassionate with yourself and don’t be surprised if you find you struggle with your words, as you get closer to your menses, this is normal. You can’t be brilliant every day of the month so take it easy on yourself.
New Moon: Wise Practices for Menstruation
The days of your menstrual cycle can be thought of in relation to the new moon, the time when the light of the moon is hidden or faint, and the energy current is most subtle. This is a key time for restoration and release and the more space you can give yourself the more energy you will be able to receive for the next, more extroverted phase of your cycle.
- Allow yourself to rest as much as possible during the days of your active flow, but remember that resting does not mean sitting on your couch eating junk food and doing nothing, instead simply move more gently, allow more time for stillness, and don’t overextend yourself
- Say no to what you can during these few days, so that you can say yes fully post menses
- Allow yourself more time for self care at this time, knowing it will nourish and support you in giving outwards the rest of the month
- I have found that emphasizing gentle or restorative types of yoga can help reduce cramping and keep my energy from getting stagnant, without depleting me
- In general you will likely find that this is not an ideal time to push yourself in overly heating sequences, nor is it a time to work on expanding your edge. You may find that slowing down now will translate into more energy later in the month (this is not a rule, this is a suggestion and one I invite you to feel into for yourself)
- Eat easy to digest foods as your digestion is likely weak during menses. I tend to favor soups, stews, and other easily digested meals (avoid too much raw or cold food as this can further weaken digestion at this time)
- This is an ideal time to do more internal practices such as mantra, meditation, prayer, study, or contemplation as you will find there is a power available to you at this phase of the cycle that lends itself to these more subtle practices
- For those of you who teach allow yourself to talk less, and choose your words for more potency and effect, as too much talking will deplete you. As well respect the fact that your energy is moving inwards rather than outwards so don’t feel that you have to do as many hands on assists if you are not drawn to. Conserve your vital energy so that you have something for yourself when you have to teach at this time.
Waxing Moon: Menses to Ovulation
This phase of your cycle can be related to the time when the moon is waxing towards full, represented by your ovulation. It is a time of building energy and if you allowed yourself to rest and draw inwards enough leading towards and through your menses then you should now feel a deep vigor returning to you.
- This is the most extroverted phase of your cycle so use the building energy to move outwards again into creative projects
- Let this be the time of the month where you challenge yourself a little more in your asana practice and work on the poses that lie at your evolving edge
- Digestion will be stronger so you may find you can be less restrictive with your diet and not suffer ill effects
- This is a great time of the month for you to schedule in more social activities or events as your stamina is generally stronger and you energy naturally begins to flow outwards towards others
- For those of you who teach you will likely notice that this is a time where you feel strong and clear as a teacher and can give more to your students. It may also be a time of increased inspiration, where the insights that came up during the inward time of your cycle can move into manifestation or expression.
Further Tips and Resources
If you find that your cycle is a mystery to you then I recommend that you start charting it. There are all kinds of great apps and other tools for this these days; I myself use the Period Tracker app on my iPhone, as well as a journal. This will help you to get more in tune with your own rhythms and start to notice your own energy flows throughout your cycle. If you have never thought of adjusting your yoga practice to suit where you are in your cycle you might want to check out The Woman’s Yoga book by Bobby Clennell which offers some amazing restorative sequences and more to support you in home practice. I also love The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health by Linda Sparrowe and Patricia Walden. In my Yoga For Life program I teach a module on this topic, which includes Ayurvedic wisdom for menses health and how to reclaim menstrual empowerment. I hope you have found this short introduction to this topic helpful, and as always feel free to reach out with comments or questions.