A Woman’s Cycle and Yoga’s Place In It

I am one of those people who pays close attention to their cycle as the changes that occur to my mood, appetite, skin, motivations and energy levels throughout the month can be quite dramatic. To help manage this, I keep a journal to track the ebbs and flows, and often plan important meetings around my cycle to ensure they coincide with high points in my confidence levels and sociability. It sounds like a lot of work, but I have found that this works really well for me. Given that yoga is beginning to play a bigger part in my life as well, I was keen to delve deep into this topic to identify the sequences and poses that work best at different junctures of my cycle. For those keen to read more on the topic, The Woman’s Yoga Book: Asana and Pranayama for all Phases of the Menstrual Cycle by Iyengar teacher, Bobby Clennell, proved to be an amazing resource.

Let’s start from day one of the cycle when menstruation starts and we would rather be lying down at home in a foetal position…

 

Day 1 – 5: Menstruation

Estrogen and progesterone have hit rock bottom, and the lack of the latter causes your uterus to work overtime as it sheds the uterine lining. The contractions from the uterus can cause discomfort, sometimes in the form of painful cramps. In short, hitting the mat is often the last thing on your mind.

While it is advised to avoid intense twisting poses (as these can interfere with the abdominal organs), inversions (as these disturb the natural flow of menstruation) and forceful breathing techniques (as these tighten and overwork the abdomen area), there are restorative poses that you can do at home to give your body the rest it needs and ease the discomfort.

 

Mandukasana (Frog pose)

This pose opens up the hips, the groin and inner thighs, helping with blood circulation to the area. To keep this as relaxing as can be, use a bolster or a pillow to support your torso.

Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Butterfly Pose) against the wall

This pose opens up the groin and stimulates blood circulation in the region. Keep it relaxed by placing your bum as close as possible to the wall and resting the legs against the wall.

Balasana (Child’s Pose)

This restorative pose releases tension in the glutes, lengthens the spine and provides the inner space for the mind to relax. Rest the forehead to the ground and just breathe – taking those long deep breaths will help with overall circulation and relax the body completely.

 

Day 1 – 13: The Follicular Stage

Once menstruation begins, the body is simultaneously commencing its preparations for the rest of the cycle. The pituitary gland releases the follicle stimulating hormone that triggers the maturing of an egg in the follicles within the ovaries. By week two, estrogen increases dramatically, peaking towards the end of the follicular stage. As estrogen increases during the second week of the cycle, energy levels increase and mood improves. The slight spike in testosterone also causes sensual desires and competitiveness to increase.

With all-round feel good vibes, this is a great time to embark on your practice as per normal, although it remains important to pay close attention to your body and its warning signals as we may try to push ourselves beyond our physical limits at the peak of this stage. Interestingly, the Iyengar tradition pays some attention to the post-menstrual stage as well, encouraging women to transition slowly and take some time to build up energy instead of jumping straight into their usual practice. These are some of the poses that you can try to focus on during the first few days post-menstruation.

 

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)

Stretches and strengthens at the same time, providing your body the opportunity to both relax and reenergise after the period of lull. Hold the pose for several minutes to enjoy its full benefits.

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)

Helps to concentrate blood flow to the upper torso and head, fighting any latent fatigue that you may feel and awakening the mind.

Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand)

In addition to circulating blood flow back to the upper torso and head, this powerful pose also stimulates the pituitary gland which releases the follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone, providing natural support to your menstrual cycle.

 

Day 14 – 28: The Ovulatory and Luteal Stages

Somewhere in the middle of the menstrual cycle, the pituitary gland releases the luteinizing hormone which aids in the release of the matured egg from its follicle. This coincides with the peak in estrogen and testosterone levels. Once ovulation has occurred, however, estrogen levels dip noticeably and a new hormone is introduced: a temporary endocrine structure in the ovaries, called corpus luteum, releases progesterone to help prepare the uterus for the implantation of a fertilised egg. Progesterone has a sedative effect and its introduction during the third week of the cycle is usually the time when brain fog and lethargy occurs. Combined with the dip in estrogen, you may also feel blue and irritable, even though it isn’t quite time for PMS yet. Towards the 23rd day of the cycle, estrogen enjoys a spike corresponding with the peak in progesterone – nature’s way of encouraging pregnancy to occur. Levels of both estrogen and progesterone then fall steadily throughout the fourth week, eventually marking the start of the next cycle with the onset of menstruation.

Suffice to say, the second half of the cycle can be a rollercoaster of emotions, moods and energy levels given the hormonal changes that take place. Every woman experiences different symptoms, and these can range from psychological symptoms, such as irritability and lack of focus, to physical symptoms, such as soreness in the breasts and migraines. I, for one, feel quite down and fatigued when progesterone levels start to increase, and experience dramatic mood swings and irritability as I get close to the end of the cycle. The poses listed below can help in easing some of these, but it is important to note that symptoms can change from month-to-month as external factors also play a big part, so the poses that you adopt during your pre-PMS and PMS stages need to be tweaked according to how you’re feeling in that moment.

 

Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand)

This restorative pose has a soothing effect on the nervous system and can help to stabilise emotions. The chin lock also encourages blood flow to the chest and neck regions, making this a useful pose to work towards in your practice if you are experiencing breast tenderness.

Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Fold)

Due to the compression of the abdominal organs in this forward fold, coming out of the pose results in a rush of blood to the general region. If you are experiencing bloating, introduce this pose and a few other forward folds into your sequence for the day.

Svasana (Corpse Pose)

We all have those dark and stormy days where our mood takes a plunge. On days like these, take some time to treat your body and your mind to a moment of complete relaxation and quiet. This is a difficult pose to get into on your own, but there are plenty of guided yoga nidras on YouTube that you can use to set the tone for the first five to ten minutes. 

 

With metta,

Ailin (200h YTT April – June 2017)