Hmmm, yes. Yoga and Tao and periods. Sounds quite ambitious to treat, isn’t it? Menstrual blood in itself already seems to create immediate oceans of confusion, silence, veneration and sometimes disgust, which all vary according to cultures, countries, time period, age, personal perceptions – and an extra dose of very complex and subjective parameters that would probably be endless to list.
Therefore, here comes a warning. This article won’t work as an instruction of things that you should or shouldn’t do when you are on your periods. Every woman experiences menstruation differently and in fact, even each cycle is different according to the months. To acknowledge and respect this special time doesn’t mean going through the same routine every month or following the same advices scrupulously. It’s rather a good occasion – and maybe the best! – to listen to your body more closely and give it what it needs more whole heartedly. It is my hope this article can help you what works best for you.
In traditional Hindu philosophy including yoga, many references are made to Prāna – this cosmic force that permeates through all living and non living things – and its 5 subdivisions, the 5 ‘vāyus’ or winds. One of these 5 winds is said to be a downward flow or force called ‘apāna vāyu’, responsible for the elimination of waste inside the body through the lungs and bowel movements.
For yoga traditionalists, menstruations are a part of this natural ‘apāna vāyu’ flow and one should not be restrict it while doing yoga not to create unbalances in the body. According to some Ashtangi practitioners strictly following K. Pattabi Jois words, women should not even practice at all as long as they are bleeding.
However, that’s for the purity of the tradition. And Yogic tradition, let’s not forget it, often goes with male perspective. Even Pattabi Jois’s daughter, Saraswathi Rangaswami who still teaches at his father’s shala in Mysore, is less rigid. In an interview given in 2007, she advises female Ashtangis not to practice during the first 3 days of the menstruation process, especially if they have pain or bleed a lot. The body is in need for rest and asking to slow down, whether on the mat, working at our job or at home. She also notes that the practice of Primary series should be enough for busy women on their periods – only yoginis that already have a long regular practice would be best suited for the Intermediate and more advanced series. Regarding asanas that should or shouldn’t be practiced, Saraswathi explains there are not many postures need to be avoided while menstruating. But – and here starts the main yoga debate – she advises to stay away from Salamba Sarvangasana or Sirsasana.
Inversions and a bit of polemic
Many women have been told practicing inversions while menstruating is to be absolutely avoided. On the con side, inversions are said to be potentially dangerous for the female body, increasing the risk of retrograde menstruation and thus, endometriosis. Endome – what, may you ask? Endometriosis, my friend. Endometriosis is a condition as painful as its name is mysterious: the heart of the matter lies in the fact that what makes the inner tissue lining found in the uterus goes outside the uterus – mostly in zones it should not be found such as the pelvic area and lower abdomen. This can result in painful periods and sexual intercourse.
However, if it’s the first time you hear about endometriosis and inversions, you can wipe away the sweat that started to appear on your forehead when you remembered all the time you had your pelvis suspended in the air while bleeding. In fact, relax. There have not been any studies until now that have been able to make a direct link between endometriosis, inversions and menstrual blood. But of course wise one, if your family history makes you sensitive to this condition, turning your body upside down during these days may not be the safest option.
On another disagreement note, some doctors also claim inverting might not cause any serious condition but in fact, cause vascular congestion which is nothing more than heavy bleeding. Sounds like something we’d all like to avoid, right?
But, here is a twist to the story. Most of the teachings we received regarding menstruations are based on the principle that menstrual blood is a natural purification process and that we should not disturb it. With or without yoga, with or without inversions, pranayama, cup of tea on a sofa, we should always let it flow. And this is what traditional Indian yogic philosophy supports with the ‘apāna vāyu’ downward flow that should not be disturbed.
However, some other traditional philosophies give a totally different perspective that might make you reconsider the perspective you have on your periods, your practice and…your inversions. According to Chinese Tao mystic teachings, menstruating is not a time to let go of negativity, releasing dirt or ‘detoxifying the body’. Quite the opposite, they consider female menstrual blood as something to be preserved and kept inside the body as much as possible. In fact, periods are not seen as a natural purification process but as an immense reservoir of life force to be tapped into – for spiritual and healing purposes.
Contemporary Taoists such as Mantak Chia explain periods are responsible for a woman’s major loss of energy – while on the male side, ejaculation during intercourse would be the main responsible. Women and men are said to be born with an abundance of creative or sexual energy. This sexual energy, which menstrual blood is part of, is then converted into ‘Chi’, the life force energy in many ways similar to the Indian conception of ‘Prāna’. Point is, unlike previously mentioned, headstands, shoulder stands and even pranayama techniques such as uddiyana bandha are seen as a very positive way to keep this energy inside and reduce menstrual flow. It would help move the blood flow upward and to limit the loss of energy contained in the blood; more than that, it would enable us to tap into an energy that is only present during our special time of the month.
If you are frowning at that point, it has to be said that scientifically, the blood we lose is a huge source of minerals and nutrients, containing 7 times more iron and 30 times more calcium than regular blood.. Until now, a few original doctors have supported the idea a small or inexistent blood flow would be to extremely beneficial to the female health, reducing feelings of fatigue, depletion, weakness or even conditions such as anemia. Some observed women living very close to nature, eating fresh and holistic foods and living simple lives menstruate very little, unlike women living sedentary and stimulating lives in urbanized cities like most of us do. This perspective is based on the idea that menstruating is not as natural as we have been conditioned to think. But don’t be surprised if you realize how little menstruation has been investigated in medicine. This is another long debate to have – that I really believe is worth mentioning – and you can now deepen your search on the Great Internet Library if you feel like it. Why not start with that?
Listen to your body
Best advice? Try everything out for yourself and see how you feel. Inversions and strong breathing techniques may not be very comfortable but why not try a few headstands on the 3rd day, just as an experience? Or maybe a few yin yoga postures? But who am I to judge if you only feel like laying your attractive body in a starfish position, ice cream on your belly, locked up in a dark room for 4 days in a row?
Whatever you chose, be sure that yoga is way more than practicing or not practicing asana. Don’t limit your experience to a physical level only – no need for guilt or perfectionism here. A non physical yoga, or a more meditative one, might be helpful on your periods. You might be surprised to learn in 2011, the Indian Industrial psychiatric journal published a research led on 150 women for 6 months practicing regular meditative yoga nidra. The results showed they had less painful periods and decreased cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disorders.
If you are feeling confused after reading this article: good. Periods are still a very mysterious and taboo topic and it is my pleasure to throw a few alternative thoughts on the matter. If you are not, good too! You probably know your body enough to give it what it needs. But whatever you are now feeling or thinking, it is my hope that next time you’ll have your periods, you will consider them as a new unveiled territory to explore and not a curse that needs to pass. Happy bleeding!