AUTHOR: COURTNEY AVERY
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARI SAPERSTEIN
Crimson tide, moon time, shark week. Whatever you call it, many of us have a love/hate relationship with our periods. Sometimes it is painful, sometimes you don’t even see it coming, and sometimes it is a relief! For some, it can be a celebration that you don’t get your period anymore and other times, for those that are trying to have a baby, it’s a reminder of how badly you want to conceive.
You have the choice to adopt a positive outlook on this cycle of life. Each period is an opportunity to celebrate your ever-changing body. It is up to you to explore ways to support your physical and emotional health throughout this cycle, so have fun with it!
In addition to the recommended remedies for period discomfort discussed in Periods Part 2, tuning into your body and breath with yoga can be extremely helpful when all you want to do is stay in bed eating chocolate. In this essay, ’ll break down the physical and energetic aspects of your period, and give you yoga poses to help support your flow.
What is a period?
A healthy functioning egg-producing body that is not on hormonal birth control goes through a monthly cycle, typically around 28 days (but can vary between 24-38 days. If your cycle doesn’t fit into this parameter— it’s OK! We all bleed to our own tune and stress, diet, medication and hormones play a role in determining where you are in your cycle.) Day 1 of your period is considered the first day of your menstrual cycle.
After your ovaries release an egg into the fallopian tubes to be fertilized, higher estrogen and progesterone levels trigger the endometrium to thicken (the lining on the inside of the uterus). This makes a comfortable and nutrient-rich environment for a fertilized egg to implant in the uterus. If fertilization does not happen, estrogen and progesterone levels then drop, triggering the release of this thickened endometrium tissue. The tissue leaves the uterus, accompanied by nutrient-rich blood, through the cervix, emptying into the vagina where it goes out into the world….hello period! In 3-7 days, this layer is completely cleared from the uterus, ending your period. The cycle starts over, preparing your body to release another egg from the ovary in hopes to be fertilized
Why does it hurt?
Your uterus is made up of muscle tissue. Prostaglandins are hormone-like structures released by uterine cells just before and during your period to stimulate muscle contractions in the uterus.
The uterus contracts and releases to squeeze the thickened endometrial lining out. If your body creates more prostaglandins, you will feel more uterine muscle cramping. Just like any other muscle in your body, it hurts when it is overworked. These prostaglandins also stimulate the muscles along the digestive tract to contract and relax, causing loose stool, aka “period poops.” This is why period cramps commonly begin a few days before your period, and the first few days.
Energy of Your Period
It shouldn’t be a mystery that your period can dramatically impact your mood and physical energy. You can blame hormonal changes for this.Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) causes symptoms such as exhaustion, bloating, craving certain foods, swollen or tender breasts, acne, headaches, nausea and more. Emotional symptoms can include: mood swings, weeping, insomnia, sadness, depression, or anxiety. This may seem like a long list of worries, but if you feel any of these symptoms, try to pay attention to what your body needs. If anything, menstruation is a time to slow down and rest. Even a few moments of mindfulness, movement, and soothing alone time where you take excellent care of yourself can do wonders. Instead of fighting against your body’s signals to slow down, listen by taking a deep, centering breath and then decide whether rest or action is what you truly need.
While your uterus is working hard to squeeze out period blood, there are a number of factors that cause some periods to be more painful than others. Stress, diet, and hormonal changes can cause pain to vary from month to month. Since everyone is different, the way one person experiences period cramps can be very different from someone else’s experience. When we go against our period’s body signals, and instead choose to work extra hard, pile on stressful tasks, and ignore the physical tension in our body, it can feel extra terrible. Overall body stress can also impact pelvic floor tension, which can add more stress to an already overworked uterus.
Yoga For Your Period
In hatha yogic philosophy, there are five energy pathways, or ‘prana vayus’ that flow in specific ways to govern physical and energetic well-being. Apana Vayu is the energy around the pelvis that controls elimination and moves in a downward flow. We want to encourage apana vayu in the body to help shed the ovarian lining down and out.
There is some debate in the yoga community around whether or not to practice inversions (like headstand or handstand) during a heavy menstrual cycle. It is unlikely that an inversion alone would cause retrograde menstruation, or when period blood flows back up the fallopian tubes leaking into the abdominal cavity. While retrograde menstruation is unlikely, there is simply not enough research to prove that inversions have this effect on the body. Most yoga teachers recommend a gentle practice that encourages apana vayu just before and during your period.
Although I personally recommend light and restorative poses, I am of the belief that everyone should listen to their own body to decide. While strenuous physical exercise can sometimes feel good during your period, even light movement can break up the sluggishness of a heavy flow.
Try the following yoga poses to help manage your period cramps and encourage relief from tension and stress. Remember:only do what feels good in your body. These poses are gentle and restorative, so there’s no need for a yoga mat.
Cat-Cow Breathing (Marjaryasana Bitilasana)
The movement to breathwork here is fantastic for waking up stagnant energy and moving it through the spine, while gently stretching and compressing the belly. The action reduces bloat, alleviates period cramps and aids digestion. The gentle movement promotes spinal flexibility and encourages deeper breaths into full lungs. Energetically, this stimulates your sensual and creative energy so you can bring more joy, art, and aliveness into the world while releasing that which blocks you.
1 blanket or a yoga mat to protect your knees (optional)
1-4 minutes of self-love
Start on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders, and knees hip-distance width apart directly under your hips. Your index fingers point forward with the rest of your fingers spread wide to distribute pressure evenly throughout both hands. If your knees are sensitive- add padding with a folded blanket or yoga mat.
As you inhale, drop your belly and let your spine bend in a smiley-face curve towards the floor, while you draw your shoulders back to expose your collar bones and tilt your booty up. Look forward, not up, to avoid crunching the back of the neck. The inhale should fill the lungs and stretch the entire abdomen.
As you exhale, pull your belly button in towards the spine while you lift your mid back up towards the sky, reversing the curve. Drop your head to look down at your knees and tuck your tailbone towards the ground. The exhale should empty your lungs to compress the entire abdomen.
Continue moving with your breath, and work to slow it down. This breath with movement technique calms the nervous system. You may even add a slight pause at the beginning and end of each breath, holding the pose and feeling into it. Moving this way compresses and releases the internal organs, including the uterus…imagine you are massaging your hard-working uterus.
Envision energy flowing into the body and moving along the spine with every inhale, and energy flowing out of the body along the spine with every exhale. This watery movement can be felt throughout your entire being.
After 10 or so breaths, you may want to add other movements that your body is craving- like bringing the hips side to side, bending the elbows, dropping your head to stretch the back of the neck. Get creative here and allow yourself to do whatever movements feel good.
Whether you practice this for just a few breaths, or a full 4 minutes, you should start to feel relaxed and flowy, stretching the crampy front of the body.
Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
This is a more active pose that requires a bit of back flexibility. It opens the front body, stretching the entire belly to help with digestion and bloating. Energetically, it opens your heart, and helps fight fatigue when you’re feeling sluggish.
1 blanket or a yoga mat to protect your knees (optional)
1-2 minutes of self-love
From all-fours, come to stand on your knees, keeping them hip-distance width apart, with your hips directly above them. Point your toes so that the tops of your feet rest on the floor. If your knees are sensitive- add padding with a folded blanket or yoga mat.
Press your palms into your low back by your hips, with your fingers pointing down just above your glutes. Pull your elbows back, like you’re doing the funky chicken, and puffing out your chest.
Press your hips forward, and send your gaze up to the ceiling. Avoid dropping your head completely to prevent a crunching feeling in the back of your neck. Keep pressing your hips forward and your chest up towards the sky.
Hold here for 5-6 deep breaths (roughly 30 seconds). Stop if you get lightheaded or feel any sharp back pains. To come out of it, simply return to a straight back, and bring your hands in front of your chest to help straighten the spine and relax the shoulders.
Repeat this pose up to 3 times, or until you feel some relief.
Envision your heart bursting open with every inhale, and with every exhale imagine groggy or stuck energy leaving the body. Feel the lower abdominal muscles stretching to calm the crampy feeling in the uterus, giving it a break from working so hard.
If it feels like you can go deeper in a backbend, tuck your toes under and try bringing one hand to the heel of the same foot, while extending the opposite hand upwards, gazing past that hand. Hold here for a few breaths, come back to center, and repeat using the other hand. To go even deeper, bring both hands to your heels, one at a time.
Wide-legged forward fold (Upavistha Konasana)
This pose is all about that apana vayu downward flow of energy. Forward folds are grounding poses that are excellent to soothe anxiety and stress while stretching the legs. For the purposes of relieving period pain, you do not have to get into the deepest forward fold of your life, we’re just looking for a gentle release that you can hold for a while.
1 bolster (substitute 1-2 couch cushions or lots of pillows)
For tight hamstrings, 2 pillows to fit under your knees
2-10 minutes of self-love
Take one folded blanket (a few inches thick) and sit on it. The tighter your hamstrings, the higher you want your hips. This is where 2 blankets may be better for you.
Separate your legs wide- as wide as it feels comfortable for you. We’re not too concerned with how wide you can bring your legs, so find your edge, and back off a little so it feels ok.
Place the bolster on the ground between your legs. Lean your chest forward on top of it. Do not panic if you can’t reach! Create a cozy tower in front of you with as many pillows, rolled up blankets, towels, or cushions necessary to support relaxing your body forward without intensely straining your legs. Ain’t no shame in grabbing a chair, coffee table, or that oversized amazon box that arrived yesterday.
Either let the forehead touch the bolster in front of you, or let one cheek fall to the side, switching half-way through to balance it out.
If this still causes too much strain on your inner thighs or hamstrings, add pillows underneath your knees so they are supported in a gentle bend.
Envision your worries, stress, and mental tension melting into the ground. Inhale deeply into the low belly expanding it out, and relax the body completely with every exhale. You can imagine energy and/or period blood flowing freely into the earth, releasing and cleansing your body and soul with every exhale.
Hold this pose anywhere from 2-10 minutes as you deeply relax.
If this hurts your heels on the hard floor, add a blanket underneath your feet.
Put another blanket on your back so you feel warm enough to melt into the pose.
If you just feel way too bloated in your belly, you may want to avoid this pose, and try another one to open the front body rather than fold forward.
Reclining Supported Butterfly (Restorative Supta Badha Konasana)
This classic restorative pose encourages the hips and inner thighs to relax without straining the pelvic floor. It brings blood to the pelvic region, increasing circulation to the reproductive and digestive organs. The gentle stretch of the lower abdominal muscles helps relax uterine cramping. Energetically, this encourages apana vayu, or downward flow of energy to release emotional and physical tension.
1 yoga bolster (substitute 1 couch cushion, or 2-3 pillows to fit under your back)
2 yoga blocks (substitute 2-4 pillows, or 2-4 rolled up blankets or towels)
2-20 minutes of self-love
For extra self-care: heat pack or hot water bottle, and eye cover
Sit on the ground. Place the bolster down behind you with the short end touching your back so it will support the entire length of your torso (it must be long enough for your entire torso). Make sure your hips are on the ground so that the bolster creates a gentle curve in your low back to stretch the lower abdominal muscles.
If it feels like you need more support under your head, add a block under the top of the bolster, or another pillow or cushion to create a ramp-like structure that raises your head higher.
With bent knees, bring the souls of your feet to touch and let your knees drop open to either side.
Place 1 block under each knee to support them, avoiding any sharp strain in the inner thighs or groin. Straining this area will put unnecessary tension on the pelvic floor when we’re trying to get it to relax, so use whatever rolled up blankets, blocks, or pillows you need to keep the knees comfortably supported.
Extend your arms out long by your sides with your palms facing up, and bring your shoulder blades together to open your chest just a tiny bit more.
Place a blanket on your lower belly and hips. We want this area to remain nice and warm during your period to relieve cramps and allow energy to flow.
Take deep breaths and let the belly really expand with the inhale, allowing your pelvic floor to relax, sending blood to the organs. Put on some relaxing music and focus on your breath as you meditate.
Envision energy, light, and even your period blood flowing out of your body with ease. This is all about letting go of what you don’t need in your life, and releasing it so you won’t carry it into the next month.
You can place a heat-pack or hot-water bottle over your low belly, and a mask over your eyes to make it extra-special. Heat is an excellent natural remedy for period cramps.
Hold this pose, anywhere from 2-20 minutes as you deeply relax.
If bending your lower back is not an option, either add more support under the head to elevate the torso, or lie completely flat on the ground with a pillow under your head.
Try this in bed. Instead of sleeping in a fetal position and clutching your cramps in an even more tense state, try lying on your back with a pillow or two under your head and shoulders, and get into the same pose using pillows under your knees. This is great when you’re trying to fall asleep with cramps!