There is a lot of information on yoga to be found on the internet, in books and/or magazines. So much information actually, that it sometimes gets confusing since you can find every advice and its contrary.
One of the “hot” topics is if and how to practice on your period. To be honest, when I started practicing I did not understand why I shouldn’t do inversions on my period or a strong practice. I thought it was an old-fashioned tradition coming from a misogynist culture, like this lady or this one (who clearly misunderstands Iyengar, btw. He does “recommends practicing inversions to alleviate menstrual problems such as heavy flow and irregular periods” but that’s in your regular practice, not on your period). And as a strong woman, I was decided to show that I was as able as a man and not a sick person on my period, so I could have a strong practice. I don’t have much period ache (except during pelvic displacement cf previous post, but that is another story) and generally still quite a lot of energy so I would go in a 100%.
My teacher at the time wasn’t highly concerned with this and simply told us that if we felt fine doing it we should just keep on doing it. On the one hand, I do understand her point of view since it is always a good idea to listen to your body. On the other hand though, most people starting yoga are pretty bad at reading their body’s messages, me included, and it’s the role of the teacher to guide them.
There again, I truly regret that there is little scientific research on the topic (and that the little there is, is rarely linked to opinion pieces like this endometriosis article that I just spent 15 minutes tracing back and is likely the one every article talks about – relevant article on endometriosis and inversions). I thus have to write from what I know, which is my own practice and body. It’s now been four years since I started practicing yoga, and three since I practice daily. My view on yoga practice has greatly changed since then.
I have to note that I have not been on hormonal birth control since I started yoga so my period is not externally regulated. This allows a direct monthly feedback on what is happening in my body.
Many women see their period only as an inconvenience but in fact it is a very accurate health marker. Having a regular, painless period off the pill is a sign of good health. And as with many medication, taking the pill will likely treat the symptoms but not the underlying causes – so if you stop taking it, for ex. if you want to get pregnant, all your issues will come back at you.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not against taking birth control at all; I have formerly and will certainly take some form of birth control in the future. However, I do believe that taking birth control is not a cure-all and does have consequences that most women are not aware of.
The first asanas I stopped practicing on my period are inversions. At the time I wasn’t practicing inversions everyday, but I wouldn’t care whether I was on my period or not and would do sirsasana for a couple of minutes (I couldn’t hold it for that long at that time but it always brought me a peace of mind). Until I started noticing that when I would hold sirsasana during my period, it would get irregular.
I have the habit to track my period on my calendar (which, by the way, I think every woman should do) and while it never got completely out of hand, I would get cycles ranging from 22-35 days, which is not exactly regular. On top of that, my period would stop and start again if I would practice inversions in the middle.
I am happy to say that since I stopped practicing inversions on my period as well as a couple of other poses, my cycle has been regular as a clock – 28 days, the only exception being when I take a plane which can delay for a couple of days (which is apparently due to the change in the circadian rhythm); and no more interruptions.
My case is not an isolated one. I have heard that women practicing in the early years at the RIMYI were practicing inversions and it was common that they would not get their period. Geeta Iyengar, who worked on the practice of yoga for women for years and is an ayurvedic doctor, says that inversions should be avoided because inversions, as their name indicate, inverse the flow of the blood which you want to get rid of (this follows the principle of apana) . Now, I’m a healthy skeptic when it concerns either traditional or modern medicine. I don’t want to do something simply because Geetaji said so. However, I also know how uncomfortable it is to hold headstand when your bladder is full. I think it is the same idea – if you want to get rid of bodily fluids, inverting the direction they should go to sounds like a bad idea; it’s like wanting to pour a liquid out of a bottle by holding it upright.
Other poses that should be avoided are strong twists; the reason why is quite straightforward: you may want to avoid putting pressure on your abdomen when it’s already dealing with a whole lot of pressure and swelling due to internal cleaning. Now is also NOT the time to work on getting flat abs. Yoga asanas are meant to balance your body (and your mind, but let’s focus on the body here), so that it is both strong and flexible. It is unlikely that putting pressure where there is already an excess of it is going to help. On the contrary poses where the abdomen is soft (supta baddha konasana <3) will counterbalance the gripping of the lower belly and should be practiced without restriction.
This morning I was doing some self-practice at home when I finally understood why some poses are off limits while you’re on your period. It made much sense but I didn’t realize it before because my practice wasn’t deep enough yet.
I recently started practicing mula bandha (“root lock”, i.e. using the pelvic floor muscles). Unlike Ashtanga teachers, Iyengar teachers rarely talk about mula bandha. I think I may have heard my teachers talk about it twice in three years. Somehow Matthew Sanford talked quickly about it, and I remembered my first yoga teacher telling us how important it was, so I started trying to use it. Needless to say, I realized I had been practicing many poses incompletely because I was not using it. Funnily, many instructions that my teachers previously gave me now made sense! I guess they were indeed trying to teach me about mula bandha, but it did not reach my brain until I “got”the idea of mula bandha.
It has not only improved my headstand, but also opened new dimensions in the practice of seated poses and arms balances.
So this morning I was practicing malasana and thinking of bakasana, when I realized that arms balances where theoretically off-limits because if you’re doing them properly, you’re activating mula bandha. Which means you’re locking the pelvis floor – thus preventing the menstrual flow to, well, flow.