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  • Katie-Marie Fuller Ba Hons, MA, PgDip

Feminine frequencies: yoga and your period

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

What you need to know about practicing yoga at each stage of your menstrual cycle. Phase one: yoga and your period.

Women are pretty extraordinary beings. We have a sophisticated, efficient biology that prepares to create another human being every month. But, as miraculous as this process is, it has become a complicated topic that makes many of us feel like aliens in our own bodies.

As we see increased research committed to the long-neglected paradigm of female health, we have massive amounts of new information available to us. But, with new information comes many new words, terms, rules, and myths to get our heads around. How do we know we can trust what we read? How can we tune into the rhythm of our bodies and increase our wellbeing?

We need to start with what makes us female. Our primordial biology: our menstrual cycle. Governed by our Infradian Rhythm (we'll cover this another time), the menstrual cycle dictates much of our unique female physiology - and should be honoured and celebrated, not feared or shamed.

In this series, we will refamiliarize ourselves with our miraculous female forms and discover how we can adapt and optimise our yoga practices in harmony with what is really going on inside us.

The miracle of menstruation

Our menstrual periods are one of our ‘vital signs’ – they are indicators of the overall health of our bodies. The menstrual cycle significantly influences both our physical and mental wellbeing. Brain chemistry, for example, can fluctuate by as much as 25% in its activity levels throughout the menstrual cycle; and metabolic function can also vary at different points of the cycle.

The menstrual cycle is miraculous and has two major phases: the uterine phase and the ovarian phase. These two phases dictate where certain reproductive stages originate or take place – in the uterus or in the ovaries.

Within these two phases, the cycle is further divided into four key sub-phases:

  • Menstrual phase (days 1 -7*)

  • Follicular phase (days 1 - 14*)

  • Ovulatory phase (day 14*)

  • Luteal phase (days 14-28*)

These phases can then be grouped and further divided, but we will keep it to these four more familiar phases.

(*The menstrual phase typically occurs between days 1 – 7 and is when we have a menstrual bleed. Our follicular phases also start on day 1 and continue up to the ovulatory phase. On an average 28-day cycle, we then enter the follicular phase (also known as proliferative phase) and ovulation happens around day 14. If the matured egg is released and not fertilised, we then enter the luteal phase from day 14 – 28. The luteal phase is when our body prepares to have another bleed.)

During each phase, two hormones are playing a significant role: oestrogen and progesterone. Depending on their levels, they encourage our body to perform actions, like releasing an egg or proliferating the uterine lining. Their levels at each phase also have an impact on our general health (e.g. mood, appetite, and energy levels). So, understanding their fluctuations during each phase may help you understand your symptoms and how to better respond to them.

Phase one: menstruation

The day your bleed starts marks the first day of your new cycle. From (approximately) days 1 – 7, your body is expelling the lining of the uterus because an egg has not been fertilised and a pregnancy won't happen this time.

During this phase, most women experience a set of symptoms as the body goes through this process. As the uterus contracts to shed its lining, we might get cramps. The drop in oestrogen and progesterone may also cause headaches, and our elevated levels of inflammation markers, called prostaglandins, can cause a bevy of aches, pains, and even digestive issues (this is why period-poops are common).

Symptoms vary, but we can identify a super common set that most women experience on a moderate level each month. The intensity of the symptoms can vary each month and can inhibit our physical abilities, cognitions, and confidence. Activities like exercising and socialising may suddenly drop on our list of priorities for those reasons.

Recently, clinical evidence has emerged stating that forms of exercise like yoga can be highly beneficial in alleviating some of the physical and emotional discomfort that comes with menstruation. Low mood, fatigue, and cramps particularly benefit from gentle movement and mindful breathwork.

Yoga and your period

Whether you've only taken one yoga class or are a devout student, you'll have heard locker room badinage about yoga and female health. Many myths exist but they are just that: myths.

Usually born from archaic postulation, myths and wives tails were created in days gone by, and comprised educated postulation with little background knowledge.

Inversions stop your period

When we consider what our bodies do every day without conscious control, we can assume that they’re pretty adept at what they do and knowing where things go.

Your menstrual bleed won’t flow back into the uterus if you do an inversion. And your bleed won’t stop. It's not physiologically possible for your period blood to flow backwards. The reason we’re led to believe inversions slow or stop periods may be because inversions otherwise slow the downward pumping action of blood from the heart. When our hips are above heart level, or our legs are up in the air, the heart doesn't have to work as hard to continuously pump blood down through the legs. When we consider that the legs contain the longest vascular system, and largest muscle group in the body, it's understandable that raising them above heart level might take some of the pressure off our little tickers.

This effect isn’t replicated in the uterus. It simply doesn’t work in this way. Our menstrual flow is governed by the automatic nervous system and is stimulated by hormonal changes. Our bodies know what to do, and which way to send menstrual blood. It won't flow backwards. Any episodes of lighter bleeding are usually just part and parcel of the natural ebb and flow of the period.

And, realistically you won’t spend enough time in a full inversion, like Headstand (Sirsasana) or Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana), to have any detrimental effect on your period...but it doesn't anyway, so that's fine. And, if you did experience a brief cessation in flow…this is probably just the normal ebb and flow of the period. It’s not always consistent and can stop and start.

Advanced inversions can be problematic during the period due to distention in the abdomen and inflammation in the pelvis. The pull of gravity can cause discomfort. Inversions may also exacerbate cramps due to this gravitational shift and obscured positioning of the pelvis and abdomen. If you're already a bit swollen, this adjustment might not bring you any benefit.

If you are feeling up to it, gentler inversions can be fun while you're going through this phase of the menstrual cycle. Try Dolphin Posture or Downward Facing Dog (Adho Muka Svasana) with knees bent, to limit the height of the hips and abdominal pressure. If you’re happy to completely abstain for a couple of days, Supported Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) and Melting Heart Posture (Anahatasana) may deliver the same benefits as their inversion counterparts.

Twisting increases blood flow

Again, this isn’t scientifically accurate. Like with inversions stopping your period, twists speeding it up isn’t going to happen.

The bowels are proximal to the uterus and may be influenced by twisting movements, but this won’t increase the flow rate of your period. Our bowels are flexible, malleable organs. Their contractions and ability to push food and gas through them, (known as motility), can be manipulated by physical movement and pressure.

Motility isn't identified like this in the uterus. If you find twisting uncomfortable while you're on your period, it's likely attributable to abdominal swelling and increased inflammation in the pelvis.

You may feel very tender in a wide-reaching area during your period. Pain and tenderness can emanate from underneath the breasts, down to the tops of your legs. Twisting may exacerbate some of this pain and discomfort. You may also experience digestive issues (diarrhoea, constipation, IBS, and trapped wind) due to an increase in prostaglandin levels. Lowered oestrogen and progesterone influence digestive activity during the period.

Some twists can influence an increase in bowel function, and may exaggerate period pain, but others can be very soothing. If you want to maintain twists even while you are bleeding, try steering away from deep-seated or standing twists, and opt for the more gentle Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana), or twist other areas of the body, like in Thread the Needle pose. Incorporating more revolved versions of postures, like Revolved Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana) provide a gentler alternative to full twists.

Practicing on your period is bad for your health

Unless you have an underlying health condition, this isn’t true. The reason this myth exists is based on the spiritual conception of what a period is. In ancient times, the menstrual bleed was considered to be a cleansing process within the body. It was a ritual for the body to shed the old and make way for the new. This concept aligns with the science of the process. Technically, we are excreting something old, and making space for regeneration and the potential for something new to grow.

But, if we just focus on the science, yoga has no deleterious effect on your period.

If you have acute period symptoms, it’s ok to abstain from your practice for a couple of days. But you might find that particular yoga postures give provision to a little more comfort during this time. It’s also perfectly ok to carry on with your regular practice if this feels right for you.

As with inversions and twists, you might notice that some postures feel different during your bleed. Now might be a good time to embrace some new poses, or modifications, and be a little more experimental. Dedicating time to focus on just two or three poses can be rewarding and a mini project for when you’re not up to your usual asana practice.

If you’re tired you should practice hard

This is based on the theory that using energy creates energy. Yes, to an extent. With a caveat that while you are mid-menses, fatigue can take over and it's difficult to shift. Conscious awareness of how the physical body is feeling should be honoured during this time. You may have endless energy some days, and abject exhaustion on others. Honour the ebb and flow of energy. Be a witness to the physical self and honour those tired days with a more dedicated, purposeful practice that works to serve an intention or mindfulness practice. Focus on pranayama exercises. Sama vritti pranayama is my personal favourite for achieving the same meditative state that a physical yoga practice can bring.

If you are lacking energy but still want to take a physical practice, Yin-based sequences will help to restore the body. Yin yoga prescribes a portfolio of poses that are held for up to five minutes. They include Pigeon pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotanasana) and Dragonfly posture. The intention of Yin is to deepen physical ability by working deep into the tissues, and achieve a deeper meditative function. Yin profoundly releases tension and trapped emotions, achieving a more peaceful, restful state.

Yoga can help you get your period

No, unfortunately not. Yoga can't influence biology, so it will come when it comes. And, if it doesn’t, that’s nothing to do with your yoga practice itself, but could be due to pregnancy or another underlying health condition. There are no miracle postures or flows that will initiate your flow. Previous postulations that prone postures (lying on the abdomen) and back bends can increase pressure and blood flow to the pelvic area simply aren’t tangible. There’s no evidence to suggest that this influences the period bleed to start. What yoga can do is provide you with a wellbeing system that encourages you to move your body and manage stress levels through pranayama and conscious awareness.

Combining low intensity stretching with some more active, cardiovascular flows, and weight-bearing exercises for strength and tone contribute to positive mental and physical health outcomes. Ashtanga and Vinyasa type sequences can provide fantastic cardiovascular workouts, whilst Hatha can provide the benefits of weight bearing exercises. Try a few rounds of Sun Salutation A & B (Surya Namaskar A & B) for combined cardio and strength work. Weight bearing postures like Chair (Utkatasana), Plank (Phalakasana) and Dolphin (Ardha Pincha Mayurasana) reap massive rewards for overall muscle health and increased bone density.

A regular yoga practice can also provide a practice for restoration and mindfulness, all of which are crucial pillars to building good health. And a regular period is a key indicator of good health. If you are concerned about erratic or missing periods, speak to your GP.

You’re more flexible during your period

For the most part, yes, you most likely will be! There is substantial evidence that suggests we have more elasticity in our tissues and around the joints (known as ligamentous laxity) at this time. Our periods might also reduce stretch reflex sensitivity and affect our general motor control, resulting in a more flexible body. However, treat this with the caveat that you should still stay within a comfortable range of motion, so as to not risk overstretching muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

If you are feeling more like a rubber band, you might want to take this time to explore more YIn based postures or progressing on the foundations you might have already built in your general yoga practice. Moving through Pyramid pose (Parsvottonasana) to Monkey posture Hanumanasana), or Pigeon pose (Eka Pada Rajakopatasana) to Mermaid posture are great examples of yin based challenges that can help you explore your body whilst you're a bit more bendy!

The takeaway

Science is an amazing factual moderator, but there is still so much to discover about female health. Your body is your best guide when it comes to your period. If you listen closely enough, it will tell you what it needs.

Society pressures us in to constantly achieving results and staying in a hyper-stressed state so we don't miss out - when really all we want to do is eat chocolate and watch Gilmore Girls. And that's ok. The hardest part of yoga for most students is self-realization and giving in to what we really want - regardless of what we think we might miss out on. But, by "missing out" on other things, you might gain a lot of insight into yourself.

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