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to practice or not to practice: ladies’ holiday

menstruThere are as many takes on yoga asana practice during menstruation as there are euphemisms for it. Ladies’ holiday, your moon (not to be confused with the moon), ladies’ days, your flow, the curse, crimson tide, the rag, that time of the month, and, refreshingly, your period, are a few you’ll hear in wider yoga discourse.

The official line in Ashtanga is not to practice at all during your “moon.” Iyengar discourages twists, inversions, deep backbends and binds, and suggests specific practices based on what you’ve got going on (e.g. heavy cramps, bloating, no period at all). You can find these in Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga, A Gem for Women. Many schools advise not to invert, while others say listen to your body and figure out what’s best for you. I’ve heard Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga advise that women should invert, because it’s only a patriarchal edict that tells women they can’t. Honestly, I see the logic in all of it.

Don’t practice at all? This is the Ashtanga way, as K. Pattabhi Jois told women not to practice during their periods, and for traditionalists, what Jois says, goes. Yes, it’s easy to forget that is Yoga is a tradition developed by and for men. In India, women write books with lengthy introductions to convince readers that yoga is something women can and should do (e.g. Yoga, A Gem for Women). It’s hard to imagine in the female-majority yoga rooms of the west, but yoga is not historically a women’s endeavor.

I didn’t even have to add “yoga” to the “tampax” image search.  Of course she’s wearing white pants. And yes, it really says, “Who would have thought a tampon could get me to that Zen place?” Nothing like a mixed metaphor for ragtime practice.

While not practicing might sound silly to you, understand that Ashtanga is an intense practice that demands mula bandha, which is quite difficult to do during menstruation. I find it’s quite hard to pull up and in when I’m a bit swollen and tender. Do I practice? Usually, yes, but it depends on how I feel. There are some days a year I wake up and say, “No way will that feel okay right now,” and I go back to bed. But often (like last week), I feel great when I’m able to move and stretch my body, which actually seems to tighten and lock up in the days before, but relaxes again when my period starts. I like to practice.

To invert of not to invert? This debate has been going on for quite some time, and it seems to have three camps. The first: Traditionalists who believe that inverting interferes with apana, the downward flow of energy in the body. It is advanced in a retro-ditz-delicate-flower piece by Kathryn Budig on elephant journal. “I officially mark myself as senseless during the preceding days as the first few of the actual holiday. When you can normally find me working flips in a handstand till I can’t see straight, this time of the month it’s more common to find me propped up on the couch, my handy Jane Austen novel du jour next to me, and an artillery of spoons ready to attack a fresh mint and chocolate chip gelato.” Senseless, eh? Hmmm. What exactly is a Jane Austen du jour? Doesn’t she only have 5 or so novels? And Ms Budig reads one every day? How many spoons does one need to “attack” fresh gelato? I prefer to let it warm and soften a bit, so that it glides from bowl to spoon to mouth. In fact, I like to lounge about reading and eating chocolate every day of the month. I certainly don’t limit it to that time.

classygalBudig goes on to say that she believes not practicing on her period is a form of respect. For what? Her teacher? The moon? Patriarchy? Jane Austen? While she doesn’t like the suggestion that “blood will get stuck” if you invert (I’ve never heard it put quite that way before), she does argue that, “logistically speaking if something is trying to get out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to turn it upside down. Or twist it. Or strain it. Or do anything more than supine postures, snuggling a bolster, light walks and all those bites of chocolate.” Well, logistically, if something is trying to “get out,” it makes a lot of sense to twist it, no? If you wanted fluid out of something soft, you’d twist, right?

This careless argument doesn’t do much to convince me to lie around during my period. And many are turned off by the red-tenting of women around the time of our periods. This second camp is well-covered in this Go With the Flow article on Jezebel. The medical risk of inverting involves retrograde menstruation, which some argue causes endometriosis. While most doctors say this myth has been debunked, Kathleen Lea Summers, MD, PhD, argues that as of 2011, “Retrograde menstruation remains the prevailing scientific hypothesis for what causes endometriosis. It’s complicated, and other factors play a part—things like genetics, epigenetics, immune function, environmental toxins, etc.”

Wow! Crazytown ad from the 1950s.
Wow! Crazytown “feminine” ad from the 1950s.

“For sure women who have more frequent periods, those that bleed heavier, and those that have a blockage to normal flow through the vagina are the most likely to develop endometriosis. That indicates the amount of backward flow is important in development. While there are no studies looking specifically at whether or not women who practice inversions during their periods are more likely to develop endometriosis, prudence is wise. Anyone with a personal or family history of endometriosis should never do inversions while on their period. Other women need to be careful too, especially during the days of heaviest flow. If they choose to invert during menses, then time in the posture should be limited to 30 seconds.”

That said, there are doctors, including Mary P. Schatz, M.D., who state that inverting won’t cause endometriosis, but it can cause vascular congestion (heavy bleeding). I’ve talked with a number of teachers and students who have found this to be the case. We are of the third camp—try it out for yourself and see how you feel. I inverted when I started years ago, but on several occasions got really intense cramps afterward. I’d never heard anyone else complain of this until a commenter on the elephantjournal article said the same thing. I also tend to bleed more. Further, I just really don’t feel like spending ten minutes upside down when my belly is heavy. So, while once is a blue moon (sorry), I will feel up to inverting, I usually don’t.

Wow! Crazytown "Outsmart Mother Nature" ad from 21C
Wow! Crazytown “Outsmart Mother Nature” ad from 21C.

Bodies are all extremely different, from person to person, but also from cycle to cycle. The only way to know what’s best for you is to pay attention. I find I’m often (but not always) extra stiff before my period starts. Some months I don’t even expect it (meaning no PMS) and other months, I do. Sometimes I feel tired and heavy, sometimes I’m energetic. I notice, and behave accordingly. The reason the Budig piece grates? It advances the notion that women are “senseless” and unable to work during their “moon.” In once sentence she tells her students, “Notice what is happening in your body and mind before you race past it to where you think you should be.” Then she races past everyone to tell us how we feel and where we should be—on the couch with bon bons. “Same goes for ladies’ holiday. Don’t ignore it by trying to keep life the way it is everyday.  Stop, acknowledge, observe, respect and rest. Honestly ladies, we’ve earned it. Period.”

We’ve earned it? What does that even mean?

An old friend, Lena Kim, MD and Assistant Professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UCSF, advised: “There is no evidence that yoga and/or inverted positions are harmful during menstruation. If anything, exercise in general decreases menstrual cramps.” If you have personal concerns about irregularities, definitely seek out the advice of your doctor.

Do consider how you feel when you practice and invert every day of the month, and make your decisions from there. Yes, oddly, there is a huge social and political lens that will color how we look at this, instead of just feeling our bodies. It’s kind of weird, really. Having experienced everything from light, unnoticeable periods to some extremely intense cycles, my only advice is to pay attention to your body and do what feels right. You’ll know what that is in the moment.

Soon I’ll give some ideas as to what asana and pranayama help me at the more difficult times. They aren’t what I expected, but the doctor was right!

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asana favorites yoga habits

how to do headstand (sirsasana)

In comments past, Merka asked:  “My vinyasa instructor LOVES inversions and headstands. However, I am slightly terrified of headstands because my arms are quite shaky when I do them. Do you recommend any arm exercises, in addition to downward dog, that would help build muscle? How do I encourage my body to relax when I’m in this position?”

I’m going to backtrack on this, because it also relates to M’s comment on virtual yoga, and because it seems to me that there is a lot of mystique and self-worth tied up with sirsasana and other inversions in a yoga practice. For some reason, many people seem to feel that if they can’t or don’t do headstand, they aren’t really doing yoga. I’m not suggesting this is you, Merka. It just reminds me that I know so many students who are fixated on it to the point of taking away from their overall practice. Yes, it’s cool to go upside down and there are many benefits. But it’s also very dangerous to do improperly because it can put so much weight on the neck, and those dangers can far exceed the benefits.

Sirsasana1
BKS Iyengar in headstand. Photo from haxoyoga.com

When I started doing yoga, I was quite weak. I did yoga because it relaxed me, and I had no designs on ever doing headstand, armstand, or anything I deemed fancy. But over the years (two?), a regular, well-balanced yoga practice gave me the strength and balance to do them easily. It was a natural progression that felt neither dramatic nor effortful.  And while I do practice headstand, I know much more accomplished practitioners than myself who don’t do headstand because of neck issues or other concerns. My point: if you don’t feel solid and safe in headstand, don’t do it. In this case, not doing headstand is being kind to yourself, and much more yogic.

So what do you do in class if everyone else is going up, and you feel inferior because you aren’t? Or feel like your being a wimp because you could, but…? Find your breath. It’s much better to feel comfortable where you are then to hurt yourself. Headstand does not make you a better yogi or a better person. Practice dolphin to forearm plank, which most instructors teach as a strengthening option for students not going up. If you are going up, use a wall. If the teacher doesn’t provide that option, and you don’t feel comfortable going to the wall anyway, then skip it and practice at home.

I often skip headstand in class if the teacher doesn’t know me well (or vice versa) and it’s taught in the middle of the room because I have a subtle twist through my body (because of dominant sight in one eye since birth. It’s been there through development) that often isn’t noticed until headstand, and I’m not interested in having that conversation or being misguided while upside down and unsupported in the middle of a stranger’s class.  So instead I do dolphin or whatever feels appropriate to me. And no one cares.

scorpion
If you fixate on headstand without looking at why you so desire to master it, as soon as you have, you’ll forget that accomplishment and chase after the next impressive pose. Image from dharmayogacenter.com.

Different schools have different ideas about how headstand should be done. Where I first trained, it was said that students shouldn’t be near the wall because they’d come to depend on it. I thought that was silly (training wheels, anyone?) and never tried headstand there for that reason. No way was I trying that in the middle on the floor. Other schools, like Iyengar, believe that it’s fine to have the wall behind you and come up one leg at a time when you are learning, as long is it is slow and careful, the abs are engaged, the forearms press down, and there’s no hopping. (I don’t mean press your body against the wall. I mean the wall is a few inches a way in case you fall back.) This is how I learned. Then I switched to a school that insists on coming up two legs at a time to protect the neck (which took some acclimation) but walls are fine. Yoga Journal advocates the two leg method, but suggests that hopping is okay: “Take both feet up at the same time, even if it means bending your knees and hopping lightly off the floor.” After years of safely lifting on leg at a time, I hurt my neck by “hopping lightly” with both legs. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Neither is throwing one leg up at a time, of course, or letting your head and neck take the weight.

I’m not interested in saying one way is right and another is wrong. All schools and methods are valid for their own reasons. Find one (one) that works for you and a good teacher who can guide you. Personal issues and injuries aside, you will progress to headstand when you have the strength, and you will move that into the middle of the room with the confidence and grace that come from a regular yoga practice. As they say, “Chit happens.”