Your period and yoga: A very healthy friendship
Does this sound familiar? It is day two of your period and the struggle is real! You have just about seen off the pre-menstrual migraine and brain fog, but now your arch energy, the piercing stomach cramp, is paying you an unwanted visit. Great. You have been told that exercise will help with your period symptoms but, going to the gym? Seriously?
Can I do yoga while I have my period?
Yes! My own yoga practice, teaching yoga and Reiki, has proved to me that taking time for slower, mindful movement found within some styles of yoga asana (asana means 'seat' in Sanskrit and today refers to the yoga poses you might recognise, like the tree pose or downward-facing dog) is one of the most helpful things women can do pre-period and during bleeding.
Many specialist yoga teachers have written books about women’s yoga, exploring in-depth information that will go beyond the scope of this article, but I hope to provide both practical and philosophical insights here.
Asana, accompanied by the awareness of breathing, along with dedicated time for rest, can make a significant, positive difference in how you navigate not only your period but your entire menstrual cycle. It’s also good news (trust me, there is good news when it comes to periods!) that, because we bleed generally every 24-28 days, you have the opportunity every cycle to hone what kind of self-care you need to love yourself up during each cycle.
Patriarchal society has tricked women into believing that we have to be on our 'A-game' all the damn time, that without us being in 'go mode' day after day, the house of cards which is the work/life balance (or lack of) will come crashing down. Well, I am inviting you to see what you can say 'no' to and cancel this week in favour of some calming yoga, a lie down, or whatever you want to do to help ease you toward your next bleed.
When it comes to our periods, of course, women experience the menstrual cycle differently and it is your prerogative to do what you want to do during your bleed time. However, this means doing what you authentically want to do, not what society has told you should do, which is anything from carry on as normal, pretending as if there is no blood coming out of you, and as if your energy level is high, to crushing it in the gym or rollerblading down a sunny boardwalk in the tightest white hotpants. Thanks, Bodyform, for that unhelpful trope.
I am guessing that during your period you do not feel enamoured by a HIIT workout, or have the energy to go running? You would be right to follow your body’s wise intuition about that because energetically and hormonally your body is not primed for a tough gym session while you have your period.
Why do yoga during my period?
In the first half of your cycle, you have higher levels of testosterone and higher blood sugar which makes intense exercise more accessible because your hormones will help you to have more stamina. In the second half of your cycle, the luteal phase, estrogen, testosterone, blood sugar, and therefore energy levels, drop significantly. This means that your body cannot exercise intensely so efficiently and will benefit far more from movement to suit your natural energy level as your approach your period, such as yogic movements based on improving balance, and flexibility, easing tight muscles, and for downregulating a tired, yet wired, nervous system.
What are the benefits of practising yoga during my period?
So much of yoga is about connecting to your breath which is key to helping to soothe any kind of chronic pain. Yoga is just as efficient at taking the edge off period pain because many asanas create space where there was once tension in the body, while we pay attention to our breath.
Yoga generally sees us breathe in and out of the nose, rather than nose and mouth. The more regularly we can connect with nose breathing, the greater chance we have of staying within the calming tones of the autonomic nervous system, within rest and digest, rather than spiking into fight or flight.
Nose breath is a go-to method for calming our intimately linked mind and body. This is brilliant news for women who suffer with heightened anxiety or even panic attacks, whether this is during period time or not.
If you are in the cohorts of women who suffer with anxiety or pre-menstrual depression disorder (PMDD), which I used to be, then your yoga mat can be a place of refuge where you can develop a kinder relationship with yourself.
One of the many things that I am grateful to yoga for is the gift of compassion for myself, developed though listening to my body and feeling how my body wants and needs to move. The meditative movements so fundamental to a yoga class are a chance to let ourselves witness and soothe the over-activity of the mind.
Yoga is not all asana though. Over time as we practise the spiritual path of yoga, we learn that our body and breath are the doorways to releasing our long ingrained thoughts and beliefs. If we follow the yogic observances of ahimsa (non-violence), santosha (contentment/satisfaction), and aparigraha (non- grasping), we can experience glimpses of liberation from the beliefs which keep us bound with suffering and dissatisfaction. Beliefs like 'I cannot make time to rest', 'I need to control my body with intense exercise', 'people will think I’m selfish if I say No to stuff', and 'I should just suck up my PMS and get on with it'.
Taking time to move with compassion for your body during your period is a beautiful act of non-patriarchal, non-grasping, non-violence. Sounds like the luteal phase is time for yoga, hey?
Women do not need to suffer from pre-menstrual syndrome or the myriad of symptoms related to our periods. If we are not caring for ourselves appropriately throughout each cycle, we are likely to be plagued by the physical and emotional pains that have been labelled as normal for women for far too long.
I remember learning from female hormone specialist, Alisa Vitti, that PMS may be common, but it is not normal.
Let’s be real though, it is not your fault that you have PMS. It is not because women’s bodies are strange or out of control, which patriarchy has tried to tell us for aeons. Due to our hectic lives, which lack time for the rest which we can enjoy in hatha, restorative, and somatic yoga practises, plus the lies we may have grown up with that our bleed is 'dirty', 'shameful' and 'needs to be hidden', it is no wonder that our bodies react to this unkind backdrop.
It is our responsibility to get empowered to take care of our hormonal health each month and yoga can certainly support this holistic care.
Which yoga poses help to soothe period pain?
Many. Any asana that supports softness and release in the body so that your apana (Sanskrit for downward flowing energy) can ease down and out with the release of your bleed. This energy movement is prevalent in yoga shapes where the head does not drop lower than your heart, so you may want to avoid or go easy on the downward dogs when you have your period.
Again, different women like to practise yoga in different ways and it is your prerogative to move in the ways that authentically feel good for you. Here are some of my yoga teacher insights as to what may be beneficial at that time of the month.
If you were a fly on the wall at a somatic class you would see lots of ground- ased movement such as supine twists, pelvis motion, and rolling across the back of the body all with attention on breathing. Twisting helps to ring out stagnation around the whole digestive system, which your body will love.
Rolling supports lymphatic flow and stimulates all connective tissues between our muscles and organs. If you ever get a cold or sniffle around your period, know that practising myofascial release with a trigger point ball or foam roller supports the movement of interstitial fluid which is helpful for immunity.
Constructive rest position
It might not seem much to look at, which is fine because yoga is not about trying to look good! CRP helps make space in the low belly, supports the low back, and eases tightness from an overtrained psoas muscle. Make sure your heels are not too close to the backs of your thighs. You can touch your knees together to take any effort out of your legs.
Knees to chest
Knees to chest, or 'apanasana' in Sanskrit. This is a yoga class favourite! Hugging knees to the chest makes space in the low and mid-back. You could rest here for a while following your breath with the intention of letting what wants to be released with your period flow out of your body.
Again, different women like to practise yoga in different ways and it is your prerogative to move in the ways that authentically feel good for you.
Movements around table top pose
Movements such as cow and cat, or self-guided movement of the belly and spine such as circling or spiralling. Cow and cat alternate the spine through extension and flexion creating an opening for the whole belly and front body (cow) and spaciousness for the back body (cat).
This takes a surprising amount of balance and friendly effort. Bird dog to tabletop and back again makes a nice flowing movement.
Triangle Pose (trikkonasana)
This pose has both grounding and upward lift as your body leans down for the downward flow of energy. To create this shape, your feet stand wide with your toes facing the long edge of your mat. Turn your right foot to face the front (the short edge of the mat). Inhale to glide your arms up and over head, and exhale to settle your arms into a T shape. Bump your back hip slightly up, and lean out long with ribs over your front leg. Tip your front arm down as if your body is a waterfall cascading toward your front leg. Place your hand on your inner or outer shin. Rise up tall through your top arm, gather up your low waist, and lean back.
Witness a few easy-going breaths here.
Supported butterfly pose
This is a restorative version of the butterfly in which you can place folded blankets or books under your knees or thighs so your hips do not have to work hard.
This is resting time where you can let your body digest and soak up the benefits of your effort and focus in the previous asanas. You may like to focus gently on your breath or stay aware of the thoughts that pass across the lake of the mind.
My absolute fave to practise and teach for period time. Yoga nidrā belongs to a family of Yoga where there is minimal asana. This meditative practise creates an altered state which is beyond sleeping, dreaming, or waking in which the body and mind can sleep and consciousness stays awake. Utterly relaxing.
If you’d like to do yourself a favour by practising some period-friendly yoga to send PMS packing, move your body to help you feel bloody good, and/or you’d like to explore yoga nidrā do drop me a message through my Therapy Directory Profile. I have a free short video class on period Yoga which I can send to you.