Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Menstruation and Yoga

Yoga and menstruation: do you practice or not? In order to set the stage for this discussion, let me retell an experience I had about two weeks ago visiting my best friend in Moncton. Her friend, a 24yr old man-boy, was hanging out with us, drinking beer and chatting. Seemed like a relatively smart dude, not too immature, clever... that sort of thing. For some reason the conversation turned to male parts in puberty (seriously, don't ask) and his response:
"Well, I would trade having a penis any day over having to deal with "you know what" for the REST OF YOUR LIVES" (cue poignant and slightly disgusted look on his face for the PAUSE).

I think I actually said: "Do you mean menstruation? I'm sorry I didn't get the memo that we all die at menopause. Shitty"

So where does yoga come in on the topic of menstruation and asana practice?

Although you can find differing versions, they all come from similar themes: "A woman menstruating should restrict her yoga asana practice" in some way, shape or form. Why is that?

First we need to be honest and frank about the historical and cultural machinations at work here. For centuries female menstruation has been reviled, deemed dirty, evil, shameful and often women were segregated from public events during this time. Up until a few short decades ago, women didn't talk about their menstrual cycles and surprise surprise- medical science wasn't that concerned with understanding it until the 1990s (Angier, N; Woman an Intimate Geography 1999, p. 111).

Until and I would argue, to this day, menstruation is seen as visual evidence that our uterus is injured. It's an "other" non-natural event and should be treated as such- a time to recover.

So- that said- what are the two main reasons for "special yoga menstruation" treatment?

The first is obstructing or changing the flow of energy during inversions (or other asanas). The idea is that during menstruation our energy is "downward flowing" and that changing this direction could be harmful. I've often heard it explained that during this "difficult" time our female bodies require all the healing energy we can provide.

I would just like to point out that menstruation isn't an injury to be recovered. I'm also curious as to why other, more fragile and essential aspects of a woman's monthly cycle aren't addressed in nurturing energy flow. For example, when women ovulate. An essential part of life creation that is also characterized by a downward movement of the ovum through the fallopian tubes.

What about the energy, or chi, required to create sperm in the male testes? (Since we're chatting about procreation here). I'm just pointing out that it seems fairly convenient that what has been stigmatized for centuries in various cultures as being "other" and "injurious" is categorized as requiring special treatment during asana practice.

The second set of reasoning is more anatomical and physiological. Despite this article's dire warnings of "heavy bleeding" during menstruation, during the average period women cast off about six tablespoons (or three fluid ounces) of material, only half of which could be considered "blood" (although it's not exactly normal blood- since it doesn't coagulate).

Further, instead of being exhausting and draining, scientists have actually calculated that the uterine lining at it's richest is actually 7 times more energy costly than the act of menstruative destruction. From that logic, we should be tired and drained when we're most fertile (Strassman, B. as cited in Angier N 1999 p. 115).

It's argued that during inversions women are more at risk for tearing or increased blood flow.
The thinness of the uterine veins makes them susceptible to collapse when excessive pressure is applied to them.
During inversions, the uterus is drawn downwards by gravity resulting in a pulling motion on the broad ligaments containing the uterine arteries and veins. This pulling or stretching motion of these ligaments can also act on the uterine veins potentially leading to partial collapse or occlusions. Since the uterine arteries contain thick, muscular walls, they can resist collapse and continue to send blood flow into the uterus. Without a proper exit of blood out of the uterine veins, vascular pressure arises leading to an increase in menstrual bleeding.
(article: My Yoga Online)

Interestingly enough, this implies that during a woman's period her "uterine veins" and arteries simply continue to gush blood- causing menstruation.

Unfortunately, this is misleading. Each month the uterus may find itself with a non fertilized egg. As previously stated, instead of keeping up an endometrium lining rich with nutrients, it's much less costly to shed and move onward, start from scratch. Therefore, spiral arteries (named because they look like corkscrews and main function to supply the placenta) swell with blood and become tightly coiled. Circulation to the endometrium slows down and the cells are starved of oxygen. 24 hours before menstruation the spirals constrict sharply and circulation is completely stopped, causing the endometrium cells to die.

Then, just as abruptly, the spiral arteries open up, blood is supplied behind the endometrial lining with blood pooling in pockets temporarily- causing the cells to actively be removed. I say temporarily because shortly after the arteries close again (Angier, N 1999 p.110).

No constant blood flow to exit (that would be a lot more than six tablespoons!) but a squeeze, open, squeeze, open, stop sequence of temporary active blood flow.

I'm not a gynecologist, but it just appears strange that since these arteries only provide periodic blood flow in order to detach the endometrium lining from the uterus (from all sides I would point out, not just up and down), that the risk for engorged artery collapsing, tearing or occlusions seems fairly minimal. Especially since, for the most part, I don't spend more than a few seconds up in shoulderstand.

From the article description, it would appear that these arteries are fragile things that can tear or break at any moment. I'm almost inclined to stay seated or upright only during my periods, in case- ya know... tearing. I can't even imagine these poor arteries and how they survive providing blood to the placenta during the entire 9 months of pregnancy....(just a little bit of snark there).

I'm all for taking it easy during your moontime because you feel it's what is best for your body at that time. Or if you strongly feel that your energy doesn't enjoy inversions (I really don't enjoy shoulderstand in general as well!). However, I do feel that we can't honestly take a look at restrictions without taking into account cultural and physiological confusions and history.

Just a few thoughts :)

article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. Just finished reading Angier's "Woman" as well, so it's a kind of neat coincidence that you sited her here :)Excellent thoughts!

  2. When I was young, I didn't pay much attention to the idea of conserving one's self during "that time of the month", but I have found that as I am the downward spiral of perimenopause that the hormonal surges and drops are exhausting. I have also noted that strenuous sequences - like say the Ashtanga primary are not the best idea during the first days of flow and that inversions can make my period last several days longer than they would be normally.

    I agree that every woman should listen to her own body, being aware that the needs of the body can change over time.

  3. Thanks for this great post. I often feel so confused by menstruation "issues" and yoga, and the My Yoga Online article only added to it. But my YTT was co-taught by a nurse, and her theory (not surprisingly, the one that makes the most sense) is that you should limit the amount of time you are in an inversion. If you normally only do shoulderstand for a few seconds, you should be fine. Thus, I do much shorter inversions while menstruating, but I still do them. Also, you make a really good point about when our bodies are tired. Very often, I am too tired to do inversions, and it's rarely when I'm menstruating, but often right in between. Our bodies know what to do when we listen. Thanks!

  4. I don't let being on my "time of month" stop be from doing any poses I want to do. Are gymnasts supposed to stop doing back flips or handstands during their cycle? What about women in martial arts? They get kicked/punched in the abdomen, should they stop as well? As long as you feel up for doing headstand then why not just do it? That's how every practice should be, not just when your menstruating.

    Thanks for the information though. I never actually knew what happened during menstruation. :)

  5. @Candice: fun!! i want to reread it actually... it was SO GOOD. :)

    @Annie: yes definitely! As our bodies change, so should our practice.

    @Rebecca: I love that one of your YTT instructors was a nurse! very neat. Interesting that you're more tired between, I wonder if the logic of energy needed during ovulation pans out!

    @Christine: those are good points- do their uterine veins rupture, collapse or tear??

  6. i think a) the response you had to the doofus guy was awesome, and b) the most important piece for any woman to take away is what you said about listening to your body, not being afraid to do things if you feel comfortable with it. i find hatha to be perfect when my body is renewing at this time of the month, because i'm tired but do need to still use my body and stretch it and nurture it. sun salutations are a bit much for me but individual poses are still gorgeous (i'm a triangle girl...).

    ps you had mentioned in a prior post about going off the pill being the best thing you've done - do you have a post about this? i'm curious as i've gone off it but find it gives me cramps and the things that i happily avoid for the 21 years i've primarily been on the pill...

  7. @EcoGrrl: I posted about it two years ago (wow already!) I guess I've been off the pill for almost three years....

    I'm so happy not being on the pill, but i do agree with you- i get cramps sometimes, soreness- but it's actually been all pretty manageable. my acne hasn't even been that bad. I've also felt that after the first six months or so, everything kinda evened out....

    but- there definitely are other contraceptive options, like the non-hormonal IUD. :)

  8. I really found this to be quite timely- as Annie said above, the older I get, the more I feel my cycle in a physical way. I am most tired the 24-48hrs before my flow, and the first day is pretty tough as well. I practice and teach power/vinyasa flow so I just slow down a bit on those days.
    I also think the "no inversions" while mensturating pretty silly. Almost as silly as the "don't life your arms above your head while pregnant" idea (cuz you might tie a knot in the baby's cord?!). Most of us are inverted for 30 seconds or less....I can't see some sort of damage being done in that short amount of time.
    I really do think the whole thing is a holdover from the days when yogis were all men. Just one more way for them to prove that women shouldn't practice yoga (like the myth that women can't be sushi chefs cuz their hands are 'too warm'?! wth?!).
    Totally agree that the key to a practice that matures with you is to practice mindfully and listen to your body.

  9. Fascinating post! Love it. I personally don't like to invert during menstruation - mostly cuz I'm tired dealing with my cramps. LOL. I LOVE your point about ovulation, though. What a great point!

  10. Great post. Funny, I was just having this conversation with someone recently. I tend to slow down and relax during my cycle, but that's usually because my energy level drops substantially. I'll walk and do gentle stretching, but I don't practice anything vigorous. Love the thoughts that you shared! Thank you!

  11. Great topic! One thing I'm not seeing anyone mention is of a great concern to me: overstretching. Just before and during menstruation our bodies boost production of "relaxin," a hormone that makes us more flexible.

    This might seem great because we can move deeper into our poses but it is a double edged sword. During this time our SI joints are particularly vulnerable to mis-alignment. For me, Triange in particular and any asymmetrical pose in general can cause my SI joints to get out of whack.

    During pregnancy this same hormone is released and a woman can overstretch and never get her joints back to a comfortable level of stability.

    I've never been pregnant but I am hoping that I can get my SI joints back to stability someday too. Dirty yoga secret: I never had SI joint problems til I started yoga.

    As far as inversions...I don't really have an opinion but I love all the things you said and all the follow up comments.

  12. Hey! I know I'm a bit late to the party on this post, but this very subject has been on my mind lately.Thanks for re-examining the conventional wisdom on this topic. I agree, if you're not feeling squeamish or aggressive about practicing during your cycle, I say do it.It is funny that there's such a disconnect, since yoga can be so female-dominated these days.(As another poster said,other athletes don't usually stop training just because of their periods...and some women might even get some relief from practice/activity, IMHO). I don't do a lot of inverting myself, but I do like to practice with some primary series poses- because I get cramps in my back. If one thinks about it, mindfully practicing when menstruating is honoring the practitioner's body and making creative use of what she has that day to practice how can anyone say no to that?

  13. interesting article eco-yogini. i've thought a lot about this. i used to go to vinyasa classes when i was on my moon cycle, but now that i practice ashtanga 6 days a week, i've stopped practicing those first 3 days of my cycle. now i kind of enjoy those 3 days of sleeping in! sometimes when my flow is lighter i will go to the shala for mysore and do restorative poses with sandbags like supta baddha konasana - that feels really great especially when i have cramps....
    i don't really believe that notion that women are told not to practice when menstruating because it's some leftover control issue from yoga being a men-only activity. i believe there is a lot of wisdom in resting from a vigorous practice such as ashtanga during the beginning of one's cycle (my kundalini teachers affirm this as well especially regarding pranayama). when i'm on my cycle i feel the apana energy very strongly, so holding mulbandh feels really wrong.
    also, my ashtanga instructor did her full practice for years including inversions on her cycle, and she hit menopause at 42 and she claims it was from not resting on her ladies holiday.
    in addition, one of my other teachers ex-wife was a certified ashtanga teacher and she did her full (and very advanced) practice for many years with no modifications during the moon cycle until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. she claimed that not resting and respecting her body during her cycle was the cause of her cancer....sadly, she has since died as a result of this disease.
    anyways, that's enough evidence for me to honor my body and treasure my fertility (i am still young and i want to be able to have healthy children) enough to take a few days off of my practice each month.

  14. @Frances: thank you for your observations and comments. I agree- if you'd like to take a few days off because it feels good for you, then do so!
    Just please don't feel that it's based on scientific evidence (since, as I point out, currently there isn't a lot of support there).

    I still argue that a discourse of 'rest' implies that while we menstruate we are injured or hurting in some way. Yes- like many- i to get cramps, but I also recognize, as I've stated in the article, that menstruation is not an injury and my body isn't 'recovering' from something.

    I truly believe that this type of 'recovery' rhetoric is a social construct from the visual and cultural negative representations that female menstruation has in our society. We've been bombarded with language and cultural beliefs not based on science that menstruation=injury=shame so we continue to use that type of language when describing it.

    So... respecting your body and resting during a vigorous practice because you feel your body is happier that way- great. Respecting your body because you're afraid vigorous practice would harm it during menstruation- not based on available science.


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