Menstruation: Embracing Cycles, Adapting Practice
“What lies before us and what lies behind us is nothing compared to what lies within us.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Inside every woman lies the most extraordinary resource: her menstrual cycle. It holds the keys to her wellbeing and the answers to the deepest questions she can ask about herself.
But I appreciate that this is not generally how menstruation is viewed.
So I invite all women of menstruating years (with a regular cycle) to engage in an informal experiment: attend the same yoga class, with the same teacher and the same sequences for four consecutive weeks and note how you are before, during and after. If you did this for several months, whilst also noting the different phases of the menstrual cycle, I guarantee that interesting patterns would start to show themselves, patterns that reveal a more intimate portrait of who you are and how you function.
In the ovulatory phase mid cycle, for example, energy levels are likely to be high, with challenging practice welcome and sought after. In the pre-menstrual phase three weeks in, there could be a lot of self judgement and fractiousness. During the bleed, a desire to turn inward and engage in spiritual connection could be pressing, whilst the time between bleeding and ovulation could feel tender and uncertain, or could be crowded with new ideas and plans.
Therapist and menstrual authority Alexandra Pope likens these different phases of the cycle to the seasons of the year and talks of women experiencing an inner spring, summer, autumn and winter in each menstrual month. Just as in nature, a woman's inner spring (pre ovulation) is full of promise, with shoots of possibility rising from deep within. Her inner summer (ovulation) is a moment of maturation, a time for getting things done. Her inner autumn (pre menstruation) is a time for shaking off old, dead energy and her inner winter (bleeding) the moment for withdrawal and rest.
Unfortunately, in a culture bent on constancy and endless forward momentum, the subtleties of this cyclical impulse have got lost. Women have become confused. We metaphorically go out in winter wearing summer clothes thinking it is the right thing to do, then wonder why we feel uncomfortable and exposed. Yet when we learn to reclaim our inner ecology, to harness the energy inherent within it and to cooperate with the potential to be tapped, then the menstrual cycle becomes not only an important inner resource (who am I today, who can I be tomorrow?), but a keen and attentive ally (how can I look after myself better, what do I really need?).
But how do we begin this daunting process of reclamation?
One of the beauties of yoga practice is that it offers psychic space in which to explore alternative ways of being. Thus if we feel under pressure to be a high achiever in the wider world, for example, we could play with the notion of being an 'under achiever' on the mat, not always working to our edge, or not striving towards what we may consider to be more accomplished or advance postures. Similarly, if life requires that we often override our inner prompts (to rest or be quiet, perhaps), yoga class is the perfect place to experiment with giving ourselves exactly what we require instead. In other words, with a sympathetic teacher, yoga can become the safe holding space in which we can explore the notion of being fluid, ever-changing cyclical beings, rather than constant automatons. It can become the language through which our body is able to express moment-to-moment reality.
Having engaged in the experiment suggested above, a woman might realize that doing the same practice week in, week out may not be serving her spirit in quite the way she thought. If she authors her own sequences, she may now choose to introduce variety. Sun Saluations and powerful vinyasa flows can be saved for her inner spring/summer, Yoga Nidra for her inner winter and perhaps postures that require precision and balance (such as Warrior variants) for her inner autumn - depending on her personal experience of the seasons. If she attends class, then maybe Yin is good for spring, Hot for summer, Iyengar for autumn and Meditation for winter. But these are just rough guidelines, there are no fixed rules. What is paramount is that a woman understand the complexity of her inner rhythms and that she give herself permission to respond to them. That way lies the path to freedom.
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To explore your own yoga practice in relation to menstruation, you can book a private session with me, or attend one of my seasonal workshops.
For a deeper understanding of menstrual cycle awareness, I strongly recommend the courses run by redschoolonline.net.
For a complete reframe of yoga from a woman's perspective, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli's astonishingly comprehensive book 'Yoni Shakti' is a fascinating read.
First published in 2016