The following article was published in the August 2003 edition of 'Yoga Magazine' which is highly recomended by Alida.
Sisters, it doesn't have to be like that
by Alida Bedford
Women: what do you do on the first, second, maybe third day of a period? Do you take painkillers? Take time off work or study? Do you feel weak in mind or body? Do you stay in bed with a hot water bottle? Do you suffer from excessive flow? Or do you carry on with life as normal, with maybe a slight twinge or two just to remind you everything is normal? Would you like to answer as the 'or' woman? You can, using Yoga, some self-discipline and simple lifestyle changes.
First of all, there seems to be some sexist myth that women are frail during menstruation and because of this they shouldn't exercise, or should only do light exercise. I have practised Yoga for over 30 years and had periods for many more and I can definitely say that menstruation itself makes no difference. I have never had any terrible health misfortune due to doing any type of exercise or asana whilst having a period. Other women I have met who regularly practise Yoga say exactly the same thing. A male teacher of mine once commented that women know their own bodies and he had no right to be proscriptive. Probably the latter comment is what we all need to bear in mind and regular Yoga practice brings wisdom about our own bodies. There are times when the body says 'NO! I don't want to do THAT today.' So listen to your body, not just during menstruation and you will gain.
The reality is that women who do NOT exercise and who do not have a healthy lifestyle tend to have problems. These can range from moderate pain, to an unhealthy amount of blood loss and even to incapacity for two days each month. Severe stress can also cause problems, but the answer is to deal with what is causing stress, not to exercise less. Another problem is how society views menstruation. This is nothing new! It has been known as 'the curse' - again sexist and some societies have/have had some really odd taboos. We all need to see menstruation as a natural, healthy part of a woman's life. Indeed, it is the LACK of menstruation (except during pregnancy) that indicates bad health. Professional athletes, including dancers, can also go through times when they don't bleed, but I am unaware of the long-term effects of this on the body.
Now to move on to asanas which really work to reduce, even eliminate problems linked to the menstrual cycle. They also help to maintain good health and function in this area. I would like to point out to the less experienced that it is not a good idea to practise Yoga during the day of the Full Moon, apart from very, very gentle asanas. This is a time when the body is more vulnerable and this has been observed only too often! Keen gardeners also need to hold back, as one of my previous students found out.
The absolute Queen of Asanas for menstrual health is Sarvangasana. This should be practised every day and should be held for up to 25 steady breaths. There are two things to remember. First of all, never jerk yourself into an asana, as this can result in injury and misalignment. Patience really is a virtue in Yoga, so go as far as your body can each time, slowly. Second, you should never stay in an asana if you become uncomfortable, but come out early in the way instructed. This is a safe way to come out of Sarvangasana:
- Keeping your hands supporting your back, bring your feet back behind you into Halasana.
- Carefully remove your hands from your back and lie your arms and hands in the opposite direction of your legs. Keep the palms face down and the arms parallel. This means you can use your upper arm muscles for the next stage.
- Slowly bring your body down towards the floor, using the arm muscles to control the movement. This is easier if you keep your legs and feet as far back as possible: the legs are the heaviest part of the body. Stop once your back is flat on the floor. Have your feet pointing towards the ceiling. If you find this difficult to achieve at first, please persevere, as practice and self-discipline bring their own rewards.
- Now bend the knees and put your feet on the floor, so your knees and feet are about hip bone distance apart. (This is one of the positions used for relaxing the back in the Alexander Technique.)
- If you are experiencing any discomfort in the lower spine, hug your knees into your chest and gently rock from side to side. Then put your knees and feet back as before.
- Finally, slide first one heel then the other gently outwards, then bring the arms out from the body, so that you end up in Savasana.
After a month there will be noticeable differences. After a few months you will wonder why you didn't do this before.
For those who find Sarvangasana difficult, or for those who are suffering from severe menstrual cramps at the time of practising, there are two alternatives. The first is Viparita Karani (reverse posture), which can be done with a chair placed behind for the feet to rest on. This asana is also useful for those who suffer from any kind of physical or mental distress during the menopause. According to Sonya Richmond (1969):
"Because this posture affects the gonads it controls the ageing processes in the body and helps to restore youth and vitality and a sparkle to the eyes."
If Viparita Karani is too much, try the following:
- Lie on your back with your legs straight.
- Bring your heels back towards your buttocks, with feet apart, flat on the floor and knees bent and also apart.
- Keep your arms and hands by your sides.
- Gently push your buttocks up, with the abdomen following, but with your shoulders and neck still on the floor.
- Breathe steadily for up to 25 breaths. To add to the benefits, slowly bring your chin to meet your chest. (This works on the thyroid gland.)
- Finally, gently lower your buttocks to the floor on an out breath, then slide one foot out at a time, so you come into Savasana.
I usually do one of these asanas at the end of the asana part of a practice and then remain in Savasana for a few breaths to let the body be still.
Another asana that can be used to relieve severe cramps is Supta Konasana, but again it must be done regularly for the benefits to be felt and maintained. If you can't hold your big toes or ankles in this asana then support your back with your hands, as in Sarvangasana. Some of you may also need to practise a few times before you can get your toes on the floor. Do not try to hold your toes or ankles if your legs are still in the air, but keep your hands supporting your back. Many people find this asana easier to do at the end of the day. I actually do it after getting into Halasana and before going in Sarvangasana as I find the sequence flows well.
All these asanas bring the legs above the head, so reversing the influence of gravity upon the inner organs. This is the key. A previous student of mine used Sarvangasana and Surya Namaska to avoid having a hysterectomy when she was diagnosed as being in danger of having a prolapse. As an early hysterectomy can lead to osteoporosis, it is evident that a little regular Yoga practice can prevent invasive surgery and brittle bones. Operations involving removal of the inner organs also interfere with the spine.
Another, non-reversing asana that is generally recommended is Bhujangasana, which is particularly useful for women with ovarian and uterine disorders. It is a very easy asana, so is suitable whatever your level of ability.
Regular swimming is another great exercise for giving the internal organs a good workout. Some women find that doing a few lengths in the pool while having menstrual cramps is very therapeutic, but others don't. It is worth a try as it works quickly for those it suits.
Finally, I come to diet. The advice given to women who suffer from PMS/T is to cut back on added sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine and alcohol, particularly during the second part of their cycle. Instead, it is advisable to have more starch (not cakes!), fibre, vegetables and fruit, plus plenty of water or natural sugar-free drinks (herbal tea, pure juices). Further information on this subject can be found on:
Remember that changes in health and well-being are not achieved overnight and the benefits you receive from Yoga and looking after your diet will only remain if good practices are maintained. It doesn't matter if you miss the odd Yoga practice or have the occasional binge as long as you don't make doing either an excuse to give up!
Richmond S (1969) - Yoga and Your Health - Mayflower Books Ltd
Volin M & Phelan N (1967) - Sex and Yoga - Pelham Books Ltd