In the West, we’ve adopted yoga as a physical practice to combat decreased physical activity, and as a lightly spiritual panacea to remedy the stress delivered by our hectic lifestyles. With a smorgasbord of types of yoga to choose from – the gentle, deeply meditative practice of Yin, through to the more formulaic physically demanding Ashtanga system – there is a practice to cure every modern malaise.
Most students in the west are female, influencing an emergence of myths and misleading information about how yoga affects female health – specifically, the menstrual cycle and your period.
Setting spirituality aside and focusing solely on the science, we’ll unpick a few common misconceptions about practicing yoga during the first phase of your menstrual cycle: the period.
Myths and legends
Many myths circulate the health and wellness paradigm, and female health is no exception. Our periods and menstrual cycles attract more mystery than any other subject. And, when we throw yoga into the fray, it gets curiouser and curiouser. But myths are just that – curiosity born out of intrigue and mild observation.
Fortunately, the spread of credible scientific research and information is helping to demystify these myths, that can cause confusion and exacerbate health anxiety. But we still need to be our own guardians and understand what exactly happens in our bodies every month, so we can adjust our practices to how we’re feeling, physically and emotionally.
Phase 1: your period
The average menstrual cycle is 28 days, but this can vary from 21 – 35 (anything shorter or longer should be discussed with your health care provider). You should have a pattern and a range that is regular for you. The first day of a new cycle is marked by the beginning of your period – no matter how light it might be.
The menstrual bleed (period) is the uterus shedding its lining. It signifies that the egg we released at ovulation hasn’t been fertilised and a pregnancy hasn’t happened. Our body uses chemical messengers, called hormones, to relay this information and start the process of shedding the lining of the uterus. To start our periods, the hormones oestrogen and progesterone are needed. They encourage the uterine lining to break-down, which leaves our body via bleeding.
During this phase, most women experience a set of symptoms. As the uterus contracts to shed its lining, we might get cramps. The drop in oestrogen and progesterone may cause headaches, and elevated levels of inflammation markers, called prostaglandins, can cause a series of aches, pains, and digestive issues.
Symptoms vary, but there’s a fairly common set that most women experience each month. The intensity of the symptoms can vary and even inhibit our physical abilities, cognitions, and confidence. Activities like exercising and socialising may suddenly drop on our list of priorities for those reasons.
Clinical evidence is now starting to show that low intensity exercise, like yoga, can be beneficial in alleviating some of the physical and emotional discomfort that comes with menstruation. Low mood, low energy, fatigue, and cramps particularly benefit from gentle movements and targeted breathwork.
Myth #1: Yoga is bad for your period
There’s no scientific evidence to show that yoga is detrimental to your period. Research and evidence show that it has a positive effect on physical and mental health, especially during your period. From increasing mental acuity to regulating moods and emotions, the physical practice of yoga is hugely beneficial to female health. The only time it might be problematic is if you have an underlying health condition. In this case, you should always consult your doctor before taking up new exercise or changing your current regime.
It’s worth noting that your body may feel and perform differently during your period. The drop in hormones may influence fatigue, cramps, changes in mood and headaches. And like with any type of physical movement, these can be contraindicated in certain yoga postures.
Myth #2: Yoga cures period headaches
Not quite… and definitely not for everyone. Our brain chemistry can vary by as much as 25% over the duration of our cycles. It’s thought that the majority of this happens during your period. The sudden drop in hormones has a significant impact on the function of the brain, as well as factors like blood pressure, which can cause pressure headaches.
The thought that increased blood flow to the head will alleviate headaches isn’t quite true. Headaches are a by-product of nerve activity and inflammation. Inversions, backbends, and postures like Rabbit Pose can increase pressure in the head as the head is positioned to encourage this extra blood to pump to it.
Pranayama can increase oxygen flow without the intensive pumping action. Equalised breathing and Alternate Nostril breathing are particularly conducive in focusing the breath, the mind and creating a sense of emotional space away from the headache.
If physical postures are more your thing, stay grounded. Lying prone or supine on the ground eliminates the impact of gravity and keeps the head in a stable, secure position. Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana), Extended Child’s Pose (Utthita Balasana), Wind Relieving pose (Apanasana), and even a Supported Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), can be soothing. It’s important to do what feels right for your body. These postures and pranayama practices aren’t a prescription for a splitting migraine but may help ease the discomfort of some headaches. If the pain is causing too much discomfort, rest. Your yoga mat will still be there tomorrow, and resting is a key principle of the wider concept of yoga.
Myth #3: 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 may slow down a little, momentarily, but it will self-regulate quickly afterwards. And, realistically you won’t spend enough time in an advanced inversion like Headstand (Sirsasana) or Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana). 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.
The reason we’re led to believe inversions slow or stop periods may be because they 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.
This benefit isn’t replicated in the uterus. The legs contain major veins and arteries that create a lot of work for the heart as we stand up, walk, jog, and do all the other activities that we do. The uterus doesn’t work this way. It’s governed by the automatic nervous system and is stimulated by hormonal changes. In other words, our bodies know what to do and being upside down for 30 seconds shouldn’t change that.
Advanced inversions can be problematic during the period due to distention in the abdomen and pelvis – the pull of gravity has a weighting effect that can cause discomfort. Inversions may also exacerbate cramps due to this position shift in the abdominal and pelvic area. Transfer of weight to this area may cause additional pain and gripes.
Inversions can be fun even when you’re on your period. 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 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.
Myth #4: Twisting increases blood flow
Again, this isn’t scientifically accurate. Like with stopping your period, speeding it up isn’t going to happen with yoga. Certain areas of the body proximal to the uterus may be influenced by movement (the bowels, for example), but the positioning and twisting of the abdominal region won’t increase the flow rate of your period. Motility and mobility don’t work the same here but, what might really be going on is similar to the issues with inversions: abdominal discomfort and increased inflammation. 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 have digestive issues related to the period (diarrhoea, constipation, IBS, and trapped wind) as increased prostaglandins and lowered oestrogen and progesterone influence digestion.
Whilst some twists might work to increase bowel activity and period pain, others can be very soothing. Try steering away from deep seated or standing twists and opt for a Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana), or twist other areas of the body, like in Thread the Needle pose.
Above all, listen to your body. You know what is best for you. Only you know how you feel doing certain postures at certain times of your cycle. It may be consistent, or it may vary, but you’ll always know. It’s ok to work hard on the mat, but it’s also ok to stop and honour your body with rest. After all, it’s doing something miraculous.
Main photo by Tim Samuel