Words: Anja Brierley Lange
The menstrual cycle is a natural physiological event. It is actually pretty incredible as we will explore in this article. We move through this cycle approximately every single month for most of our adult life (if you have a cycle). Yet most of us don’t know much about our cyclic nature.
The menstrual cycle manifests differently from person to person and month to month. We are all unique and we all have our own physiological, mental, emotional, cultural and spiritual associations and experiences when it comes to the cycle and specifically to menstruation. It is our individual experience. Yet, when we get educated and appreciate the powers of the different phases of the cycle we can work with our cyclical body, physiology and energy in life – and our yoga practice too.
THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE FROM A WESTERN VIEW
The cycle is divided into two phases: the follicular and luteal phases. But in most common conversations we talk about four phases.
Menstruation (the first part of the follicular phase) Menstruation happens as we shed the uterine lining that has built up in the womb during the previous cycle. Mixed with blood it becomes your period.
Follicular phase When the period ends, the endometrium is already in the process of renewing and rebuilding inside the uterus. Oestrogen is rising to support the growth of the uterine lining.
Ovulation This one-day event happens around the middle of the cycle. An egg is released from one of the ovaries and the hormones are high. This is the fertile window with the potential for pregnancy.
Luteal phase Now progesterone increases. This is the time between ovulation and menstruation. The latter part of this phase when hormones start to drop is our premenstrual time.
The hormonal fluctuations are normal and part of our natural physiology. This also means that we may feel very different as we move through these phases. Both in our physiology and mind. Again this is completely natural. Each phase has qualities we can harness to our advantage. We just need to understand our bodies better!
However, most of us have never been educated about the incredible powers of our cycle. We live in a very linear world where we are expected to feel and perform the same regardless of where we are in our cycle. This includes our yoga practice. But if you have a menstrual cycle then you are a cyclical being. It is time to appreciate our changing seasons and cycles.
Just like our outer environment moves through phases of day and night, new moon to full moon, and the different seasons of the year so does the cyclic body move through its own seasons and cycles. Ayurveda acknowledges the importance of the menstrual cycle and just like we adjust to the external seasons of the year we also accommodate the inner phases of the cycle.
THE ĀYURVEDIC APPROACH
Āyurveda is the traditional Indian medicinal system. Often translated as knowledge or science (veda) of life (ayus). Āyurveda can be traced from the ancient Vedic culture and sacred Vedic texts (classic Indian philosophy) and was originally an oral tradition. It is believed to be between 3000 and 5000 years old. Āyurvedic science is alive and continues to evolve. There are plenty of current research papers on āyurveda, āyurvedic treatments and medicines. It is a living science.
Āyurveda is often said to be the sister science of yoga. They share many of the same principles and complement each other. It makes sense for us to use the āyurvedic knowledge and apply to it our yoga practice. This includes how āyurveda views the menstrual cycle and how we can embrace our cyclical nature in life as well as in our (more Westernised) yoga practice. This is why understanding a bit of āyurveda is such an advantage when it comes to our yoga practice.
One of the principles both yoga and āyurveda share is that of the five great elements or the pañcāmahābhūta. The elements are space, air, fire, water and earth. It is said that everything in the world is made out of a unique combination of these elements. Including us human beings!
“Āyurveda is often said to be the sister science of yoga. They share many of the same principles and complement each other.”
Āyurveda takes this further and categorises the elements into functional principles called doshas:
- Space and air become vata dosha.
- Fire and water are pitta dosha.
- Water and earth represent kapha dosha.
There are Specific attributes connected with the three doshas:
- Vata: dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile, clear.
- Pitta: hot, sharp, light, liquid, mobile, oily.
- Kapha: heavy, slow/dull, cold, oily, liquid, smooth/slimy, dense, soft, static, sticky, hard, gross.
Now let’s look at how this is reflected in the menstrual cycle.
THE ĀYURVEDIC MENSTRUAL CYCLE
Āyurvedic physiology isn’t that different from how we look at the menstrual cycle phases in the Western world. Āyurveda may use different terminology or words but in essence, it is very similar.
There is one dosha which is very active at this time: Vata dosha. Vata is about movement and mobility. It’s the instigator of releasing the menstrual fluid from the womb. Menstruation is also associated with the downward movement of prana (energy) called apana vayu. Apana vayu is responsible for menstruation – as well as childbirth, ejaculation and elimination of toxins including faeces and urination.
It’s important to allow apana vayu to flow in its natural direction which is down and out. In our yoga practice, we can consider a gentle approach to allow apana vayu to function without disturbances. This is why many traditional yoga teachers would suggest resting during the menstrual phase. However, a grounding, contemplative yoga session may be the perfect practice for you. Especially to release any tension, stress or discomfort in the body – or mind. It’s about listening to your own body. Not the ego – but the energy of your being.
Now the endometrium starts to grow again. The dosha associated with building up and growth is kapha. Kapha is about endurance and stamina too. And it’s not just an increase in the endometrial lining and levels of oestrogen. Muscles also have the potential to build up and repair easier at this time – both from a Western and āyurvedic perspective.
This is a time when we may have more energy and optimism. Enjoy a strong dynamic practice to strengthen the physical body. Include plank poses, arm balances and a creative dynamic flow. Perhaps explore new or more challenging variations of yoga poses.
Although it is just a one-day event, the energy may be felt for a few days. With the increased juiciness of oestrogen and kapha, we may experience an inner glow, radiance and confidence. Perhaps we feel more attractive and sensuous.
Every dosha is involved in each part of the cycle and here it feels like the spark of the fiery pitta releases the egg. Movement is always vata. And the juiciness and potential for implementation and fertility is kapha.
This can be a time to continue the strong yoga practice with your boosted confidence. Alternatively, you may feel like an Earth Goddess and embrace a more sensuous, fluid, creative and spiralling flow.
Now pitta dosha starts to ignite a little fire. In the early part of the luteal phase, you may still feel strong and have plenty of energy. This is a perfect time to utilise the sharp fire and clear-sightedness of pitta dosha to focus on alignment and technique.
In the latter part of the luteal phase where the hormones drop, you can find space to slow down. Pitta dosha is still dominating and it means we may feel warmer than the rest of the cycle. If we have excess pitta we can also experience irritability, anger and frustration – classical PMS. If this is the case include more cooling and calming yoga and breathing practises.
The perfect period
According to āyurveda a perfect period lasts around three to five days. There is no pain or discomfort. The classic texts say the colour should be bright red like rabbit blood or a red lotus flower. It shouldn’t stain clothes or have a foul smell (although it will have an aroma). It should be clot-free.
Pain or problems around menstruation and the premenstrual phase would be an indication of an imbalance. Our periods give us incredible insight into our overall health and well-being. Everything is connected. What we eat, drink, smoke, feel and do will be expressed in our body and the period is one of the ways our body’s intelligence speaks to us.
That is not to say that we should feel the same every day of the month. Rather we appreciate the changing phases of the cycle as we work with our body instead of against our cyclical nature. Once we start to listen to our body and how it changes through the cycle we can harness the power and qualities of each phase. We start to work with our body-wisdom rather than ignoring it or working against it. The menstrual cycle isn’t a “curse” or “monthly trouble” but rather a powerful guide and feedback system.
This article is inspired by Anja’s book ‘Teaching yoga for the menstrual cycle – an āyurvedic approach’. Anja Brierley Lange (BSc, PGDip Āyurveda) is an experienced yoga teacher, Āyurvedic practitioner and teacher trainer. Teaching since 2005 she has specialised in yoga and Āyurveda relating to female anatomy and physiology. Anja is the author of Teaching yoga for the menstrual cycle – an Āyurvedic perspective. Originally from Denmark, she moved to London and now lives on the Sussex coast where she enjoys being by or in the sea. Follow @anja_yogini and check yogaembodied.com for courses, classes and inspiration.