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This week was a rough week.
I felt totally hideous. I sh*t you not, I actually asked the Circle K attendant not to serve me if I tried to pick up any mini Snickers. Bloated and grumpy, I did not feel good.
The chocolate inhalation is always the giveaway. The essence-of-sloth possessed me on Wednesday; the only practice I was doing was giving my yoga mat the side-eye for judging me. (Boy, was my self-talk good that day—not.)
Then the lower belly pain set in, and my cerebral lights went on with an oh, yeah! It’s that time of the month.
Periods suck. They are a source of annoyance. Sure, we can deal with feeling like sh*t, but the necessities (tampons, etc.) are still an expensive punishment. (Side note: I am grateful for access to sanitary products when so many women around the world still struggle. I am just expressing my current mood.)
We, the collective, men and women, need to be a bit kinder to ourselves—myself included. But try as I might, I can’t be shiny, smiley, sporty-spice every single day. The possibility of cramps, bloating, mood swings, lower back pain, fatigue, or pain beyond our pain thresholds, for some us it can be downright distressing.
Sometimes we need to hide from the world, but your practice may be a saving grace and super helpful to let the flow go.
So, yoga, what’s the period deal?
Roll out your rubber rectangle, my yoga friends; it may provide you with some much-needed relief. Each of us is different, so our requirements and responses will be different.
Apart from that one Snickers-sloth-day, I love to practice a strong, sweaty flow (pun intended to get me back to feeling normal). It also helps me ditch the bloat. Some of us need a softer practice like Restorative or Yin Yoga to rejuvenate weary bodies and pain-distracted minds; some of us are inbetweeners, and for some of us, it just doesn’t feel good at all, and that’s okay too.
There are plenty of yoga poses you can do when you’re on your period. They can improve circulation throughout your body, (possibly) decrease bloating, and ease cramps. The meditative nature, the mind-body experience, of yoga can enormously assist in getting rid of hormone-induced moodiness. (Note to self: it may also diffuse the cravings for anything and everything containing sugar.)
Going upside down was always a question for me. I was uncomfortable with non-menstruating humans (men) telling me not to shoulder or headstand, asking us girls to opt-out if we were bleeding.
To be fair, they generally and genuinely had a nicer way of wording it. But I also never want to be singled out as “Period Girl” when I am trying to be normal or at least period neutral.
I felt like doing headstands, why shouldn’t I be able to? The answer is that there is no reason why you shouldn’t if you feel up for the inversion. One day post-sloth, I was doing a handstand in my Vinyasa, and (wo)man, it felt good.
Yoga, technically speaking, however, advises not to invert during practice while menstruating. When we menstruate, the flow of our energy is downward. In yogic terms, this is known as Apana. Traditional practitioners believe that by physically flipping the body upside down, we disrupt apana energy’s downward flow.
Historically, yoga was only passed down from man-to-man. Bingo; no “bloody” issue there. So I guess they had to make a call on it at some point? I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in those discussions!
Was it genuine apana concerns, or fear and control?
Previously, some practitioners thought that flipping upside down when Aunt Flow was trying to go could lead to retrograde menstruation, leading to endometriosis.
Inversions do not change the flow of how our body functions. In contradiction to this, inversions are recommended in some yoga systems to assist in the elimination of excess apana.
B.K.S. Iyengar, author of In Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, recommends practicing inversions to help alleviate period woes like heavy flow and irregularity. Obviously, he was one of the good guys!
This division of opinions stems from a cultural stigma in India, the birthplace of yoga. There is a long-held belief that a woman menstruating is in a cleansing period. Therefore, women should not participate in any spiritual practices. This is still a pretty commonplace practice. In earlier days, and still in some rural villages today, menstruating women were seen as impure. They were often not allowed to engage in prayer or any other religious activity. Some even stopped cooking, believing that this impure spirit leaving the body should not be given access to mealtime preparations.
Entering a temple while menstruating was considered a sin. Women were commonly asked to leave their homes and stay in huts outside the village for the duration of their period.
Even today, there is a stigma for many girls around menstruating. Much of the female population doesn’t have access to pads, tampons, or menstrual cups. (And even if they did, how would they pay for them?) Thankfully there is some good news. In the form of a docu-movie made for Netflix, Period End of Sentence is a fabulous story. It’s totally worth the watch, and you can support their amazing story and business in India.
Back to our Western World sufferings:
What about twists, you ask? I like to do twists on my period; they help wring or flush out the internal organs. But an intense twist can put a lot of pressure on your abdominal area, which is probably already hurting a bit (thanks a lot, PMS).
First, see how you feel; if you’re moving into a deep twist, back your truck up a bit before going too far. Listen to your body; modify your movement accordingly. Is your body telling you to skip it? Listen.
These few days may offer up moments where we are gifted an opportunity to learn the art of self-compassion. Try moving differently, like water, instead of pushing yourself to the edge or beyond. See how you feel and go at 60 percent instead of your regular nothing’s-gonna-stop-me 99 percent, or max power. Don’t let your ego drive your practice—be guided by how you feel.
No yoga teacher’s word is the gospel truth, so don’t just do what we say because we say it. Be confident enough to modify when you need to. Remember, it’s your practice—your rubber rectangle. And believe me, we modify stuff too.
Periods are also an awesome excuse for home practice. Perhaps a pajama flow or restorative hug-the-pillow practice! At home, you can make all kinds of noises—burp and fart as required. Groan, if need be. You can even whinge out loud or go to the loo mid-practice without any side-eye!
Let’s look at some good-for-us asana (yoga shapes) and modifications. This list is not the be-all and end-all; it’s just a few suggestions that might help:
This pose can combat PMS symptoms. Pop this posture into your practice until your period is over.
>> Setu Bandha Sarvāṅgāsana (Bridge pose)
Use the regular bridge pose to relieve period symptoms. You can be a little more restorative, supporting the body with a bolster block or some cushions to elevate the butt.
>> Dhanurasana (Bow pose)
You can use this to massage your belly and relieve cramping and bloating.
>> Ustrasana (Camel pose)
Replace Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel pose) with this gentle pose. Keep your toes tucked so that your lower back will get some relief and hopefully feel cramp-free.
>> Downward Facing Dog
You can use a pillow under your head so that you have a supported variation. This also may help relieve some of your annoying symptoms.
>> Uttanasana (Standing forward fold)
Bend a little in the knees and lay your body over your thighs, feeling the lengthening through the back body and hamstrings. This is my personal favorite.
>> Upaviṣṭa Koṇāsana (Wide-angle seated forward bend)
You might like to do the supported version (the upper body on a bolster) if you are not up for attempting to be a full pancake.
>> Bālāsana (Child’s pose)
Whether your knees are apart or together, pick a variation that feels good. Maybe even do a whole Child’s pose sequence; rest and breathe as much as needed for the ultimate act of kindness to the self.
Happy bleeding practices, my yogi friends! I genuinely hope that you don’t suffer too greatly. And remember: it’s your body and your practice—you get to choose. (There might be a bigger political message intended there, wink.)