Whether you attend yoga classes or not, you will probably be savvy to the demographic of people that attends yoga and will be aware that it is saturated with women. Before I divulge further, I must note that yoga is also for men, and many men do attend. Though as a teacher and student of yoga and a regular attendee at yoga studios I cannot help but continuously think of how it is probably the activity that has the highest female domination with a rapid growing rate. Yet many of the practices where designed for the male body and the male hormonal system. Things are changing I must say, but there are some practices that might actually be dangerous for a woman at different phases of her life, and some different practices that can support her best health.
The yoga practices I have previously studied and practiced have been intense, 6 days per week practices with one day off per week and the new moon and the full moon days off. The full and new moon are widely respected in India and when I asked why we take those days off from practice I was told that the moon effects the body and makes you more flexible on these days so it is much more dangerous for the body. However something tells me that maybe these days off where put in place as women often bleed around the new moon or the full moon, so maybe some consideration has been taken in regards to the female cycle. Mostly though, other than inversions not being advised, in my personal opinion, the menstrual cycle is not discussed enough in yoga classes and we need to open up the conversation. I mean, it is not discussed enough in the world, though I’m speaking on yoga here so I will stay on topic.
Given the fact that female hormones change on a weekly basis, and our energy levels rise and fall, you would think we should most likely adapt our physical practices accordingly, rather than repeating the same physical practice every day with no break.
If you have ever spent any time in Mysore, India then you will have heard the conversation amongst many women that they haven’t had their cycle. *note* if you haven’t spent time in Mysore it is the home of Ashtanga Vinyasa - a popular yoga system made famous in the 1980s. Last time I was in India completing a 2 month TTC I didn’t get a period for the full amount of time I was there, when I asked the teacher why his response was “we have this feedback often from many women, we are not sure why it happens maybe too much heat in the body”. In India a lot of reference is made to Ayurveda and the elements so for reference that is what the ‘too much heat in the body’ meant. My question was though, why is this really happening to so many women and why is nobody concerned about it?
One of the main reasons I think many women are not concerned about it is because of the language and experiences we have always had around our bleed, periods are considered an ‘inconvenience’, especially in a practice such as the ones described, if you can avoid having a bleed then thats great isn’t it? We can remain disciplined. We can remain focused. We can continue to wake up at 5 am each day, we can fast throughout the day, we don’t require water.
When you get a bleed though, you’re tired, you require food and rest, your external focus isn’t as strong, you want to internalise and move in. Which doesn’t really fit into the narrative of doing more is better. So when your period suddenly dries up - great right? You can practice everyday with no problem, inversions too!
I had this view, I was so delighted when I didn’t bleed for 2 months, yes I had questions about why but nonetheless, I was ecstatic with my ‘Superwoman’ status that my fellow students had given me, I practiced yoga 5 hours a day and ate only one meal per day. When I arrived back home, my cycle was extremely erratic, sometimes I would not bleed for three months at a time. Eventually I was concerned, I became increasingly aware of how my cycle was a marker for my health, if I wasn’t bleeding then I wasn’t ovulating and if I wasn’t ovulating then I wasn’t fertile and that was a concern to me. I decided I needed to do something about it, so I began to investigate further, I found the book Wild Power which opened me up to the wisdom of the menstrual cycle and the different phases, naturally I began to adapt my practice, I then discovered Uma Dinsmore-Tulis book Yoni Shakti and went on to complete her Well woman Yoga Therapy course.
A healthy reproductive system is indicative of overall health, so our lifestyle and yoga practice should honour the natural cyclical phases that we experience in our monthly cycle. Yet, most popular yogic practices are focused onto upward energy.
In yoga there are many concepts and understandings and we have what is described the 5 Prana Vayus, these are Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana, Vyana. These are the 5 functions of Prana as defined in the traditional Hatha system. They each govern different parts of the body and different subtle activities. The full functioning of all the vayus assures health and vitality of the body and mind. They are the five major currents in the body of vital energy.
To give you a brief understanding of each of the 5 Pranic Vayus I have included this chart below.
Most yoga classes are focused onto the upward flow of energy, menstruation of course is the downward flow of energy, so Apana is responsible for menstruation. For this reason when we are bleeding we need to focus onto the downward flow of energy, practices such as Ashtanga Vinyasya that put a lot of emphasis onto Mula Bandha, restrict the flow of Apana and it is in my belief this reason why many women who practice in Mysore lose their cycle for a while, especially during intensive practices. Due to our hormonal changes our flexibility also changes throughout the month, and energy levels, so when you wonder why you killed that hot vinyasa class last week and this week you feel like you might collapse, thats because your body is asking for a different type of practice during this time.
Its not to say that the intensive practices should be totally disregarded, at different times of my cycle I can really reap the benefits of particular breathing techniques that involve the use of Mula bhanda and encourage upward flow, but I now have the tools, skills and knowledge to know when to adapt my practice and exactly how to adapt it. I also know how to support my students in what ever stage of their cycle they are in, or what ever phase of their female life they are in.
It can be overwhelming, when I started to open up deeper to the deep feminine and how many yogic systems take no consideration for our innate cyclical wisdom, it shattered a few worlds for me, and a few spiritual beliefs. That is though, all that they are, spiritual belief systems, that you have to be, or say, or do certain things in order to achieve the most high state. Let me tell you a little secret its already lying within you, and as women we have very natural yogic altered states of consciousness that occur throughout our life, without us having to sit in mediation for hours and hours, we merely have to surrender to the deep feminine wisdom of our menstrual cycle.
Anyway, let me give you some constructive information.
My first tip is; start tracking your cycle, it is the most empowering thing you could start to do for making changes in life according to your cycle. Day one will be the first day of your cycle, and on each day you will write a couple of words about how you were feeling that day. If you want more details on the different stages of the cycle, please send me an email and I will send you my FREE ebook on conscious menstruation and FREE menstruation chart.
Questions to start considering and reflecting on:
What is your body saying and how well are you listening?
Does your practice and daily life activities take into consideration the circulating hormones and their effect on your overall health?
How to adapt your practice, I have given some further information on each phase below the chart but this chart has been created by Uma and is a great resource especially if you are a teacher.
During menstruation(inner winter), both progesterone and oestrogen drop at this time, as the uterine inner lining begins to shed. this is a time for compete rest and renewal, I personally do not perform any physical activity during the first couple of days of my bleed, out side of some restorative postures to relieve cramps and breathing techniques to support to blood flow moving down. Sadly, most cultures favour pushing women to continue to keep doing, doing, doing and though you might have the choice to refrain from your gym class or favourite vinyasa class, you might not be able to avoid the daily chores that come with being a human being, however eliminating as much of the tough physical practice as you can is going to help you maintain some vital energy, and taking what ever time you can to yourself, even if it is just five minutes, make sure to prioritise yourself during this phase.
Try this breathing technique: Inhale through the nose with soft open lips and visualise a circle expanding as you breath in, exhale out from the mouth and imagine an upside down triangle opening up, and focus onto releasing completely. The visualisation helps me a lot. If you must go to class, think yin, restorative, gentle non hot classes, try a yoga Nidra online too!
After menstruation (inner spring), your oestrogen starts to rise during this time, which facilitates the development of a follicle into an egg. This is a time in your cycle when you might feel you want to explore your creativity a bit more in your practice, it is a good time to learn new things and embrace more energetic classes.
Ovulation ( inner summer), LSH and FS spike during this time to release the developed egg. Inner summer is when your outward energy will be at its most high, perfect time to work on your strength and inversions, personally I find I’m naturally more inclined to move more and attempt more strenuous things in this time, my energy feels almost endless.
Pre Menstruation (inner autumn), after all the excitement and energy pike of summer, progesterone starts to prepare the uterine lining to potentially receive a fertilised egg (of course when this doesn’t happen you will get your period). This is a time for deep inner reflection, look for sequences that support calm, and be gentle with your body, you might find you tire more easily or get more muscle soreness, I really start to slow down my practices during this time and focus onto releasing and a lot of journalling.
Wow if you have made it to the end then thank you!
I hope this information supports you in your yoga practice, as always on and off the mat!
If you are looking to start your own yoga practice then please send me an email or catch me on instagram or facebook as I have an online beginners course starting on the 1st March!