Frequentlly I’ve been asked by women and trans* persons about practicing yoga during menstruation. Their first concern laid in the fact that they’ve been advised not to practice postural yoga while on cycle. Their second concern laid in the fact that this advice would often come from a male yoga teacher who does not menstruate. Confusion laid in the fact that they actually felt good doing some of the postures while menstruating. They felt relief and ease. They felt the pain and the cramps go away. So why shouldn’t they do yoga during cycle if it only makes them feel better? What bad could happen? Are there certain postures that should be avoided? Or should the postural practice be avoided in general?
Well, there are scientific studies looking into postural yoga and menstrual cycle. There is a complex relationship between the two. In some cases postural yoga has been proven to regulate the cycle in a stabilising way and in some cases it was destabilising. No two bodies are the same and no two cycles are the same. Therefore there are no rules, but there are some general guidelines.
I’ll share my opinion based on my own experience as someone who practices ashtanga yoga five or six days a week. Most of the times I’m really looking forward to that time of the month. I would let go off my practice for about two days and I would enjoy the ongoing process of change. Wherever you are in your practice, be it primary or intermediate series, it is still physically challenging, considering that your practice matches your level. So if it’s a long practice – meaning up to two hours a day and if it’s a continual practice – meaning up to six days a week, it only makes sense to stop and rest for a day or two or even longer. Give your body a chance to go through the uninterrupted cycle. Menstrual cycle is a natural apanic flow, which gets countercurrented by properly engaged mula bandha. Mula bandha is the root bandha, root energetic lock. It refers to the root of the spine. Within female anatomy, mula bandha is being located in the pelvic floor, between the pubic bone and the tail bone. Practically it is associated with the pubo-coccygeal muscle. Those are common and general guidelines for locating it, and although they’re quite good, they’re still not quite precise. Properly engaged mula bandha would do the work of energetic lifting by creating the pranic movement from the pelvic floor upwards. This countercurrents the menstrual blood flow. Similar associations could be drawn for uddiyana bandha which literally means lifting, elevating or flying up. Anatomically, uddiyana bandha is located in the lower abdomen, with the part of the transversus abdominis muscle below the navel. To engage it would mean to slightly suck the lower abdomen inward and upward. It is not my intention for this article to go into too many details regarding energetic subtleties on the work of the bandhas. My intention here is to contrast the menstrual blood flow as apanic and downward to the pranic upward flow initiated by the bandhas. However proficient our bandha technique might be, whether we’re performing suctions or contractions to already cramps exposed areas of your body, it is not a good idea to stay persistent with it as it will only make them even more stiff and tense, cramped and painful. Even if we’re engaging the bandhas purely mentally, we might consider releasing during those days as prana goes where mind goes. Therefore, should one engage in postural yoga practice during the menstrual cycle, my number one advice would be not to engage those two bandhas.
Second would be to refine the movement through the vinyasa, or even skip vinyasa. Avoid heat building type of practice. Soften the breath and the performance of the postures. If your cycle flow is already intense, avoid the compression of the abdominal organs and the organs of the pelvic floor, which could forcefully stop then drain the blood out of the vessels. Such are the twists. On the other hand, if there are difficulties in your cycle gaining the flow, within premenstrual period, appropriate compression could be quite beneficial.
Some schools and teacher will make strict instructions to avoid all inverted postures as they would energetically countercurrent the menstrual flow. Some will instruct to shorten the duration of the inverted postures. Do what you like as long as you’re doing it mindfully. Your body will communicate with you, all you have to do is to actively listen. But then again, active listening is an advanced technique by itself. Whatever we decide to do, we should make sure to take full responsibility for our action. An advantage can be taken of body’s increased sensitivity during the cycle to provide us with some extra clarity.Taking an advice coming from a competent teacher could be an easy way of transferring the accountability for our own actions onto an external source. Some contraindicated effects might arise and it could be evermore beneficial to constructively work around them. No real damage can be done as long as we don’t turn off our radars.
Similar conclusions could be applied regarding the spinal extensions, back bends and chest openers. Those postures tend to move prana upward, again countercurrenting the natural apanic flow of the cycle. But then again, mild and gentle extensions could help relief menstrual back pain.
Coming from ashtanga yoga background, the practice I find suitable on my period is a cooling practice of longer held postures. Postures that mostly focus on the hips, pelvis, lower back and lower abdomen. Seated postures, forward folds, reclined and supported postures done with no manipulation of the breath. Menstrual yoga practice is a what-feels-good-practice. Included postures are meant to immediately bring about at least the smallest amount of relief of the cramps, pain, bloating and swelling. They’re not meant to build heat, strength and stamina. They’re also not meant to actively work on muscular flexibility. They’re only meant to be therapeutic mean in respect to the downward grounding flow of the menstrual cycle. 5 to 30 minutes shavasana can be greatly therapeutic.
There is one really nice way to see into the complexity of this matter and that is through the practice itself. Another way would be sharing our experiences within our relationships with friends. Being reluctant with taking on an advice coming from a male yoga teacher in this case is understandable. In a yoga practice, one’s own experience should always be the main resource. And one certain thing is not to be reluctant to explore the matter ourselves and feel free to make our own missteps. Things that are being mystified and not argumented by the practice tend to keep us stagnant.
More to come.