What happens when I say period in class and why I keep doing it anyway…
I came away from my Well Woman Yoga Therapy training empowered to make changes to the language I used and how I spoke about the female experience in class. I could see how this could help reduce the risk of injury and empower people to make informed choices about their bodies and their energy.
I wasn’t planning to tell people what to do, that’s simply not the way I choose to teach but I planned to expand my permissive language to include the female experience rather than denying what was happening to a huge proportion of the room.
I’d like to say to my surprise but in this period denying world of course it wasn’t, the response was often negative but more often just uncomfortable. People pull faces that range from embarrassment to disgust and fairly often choose not to come back. I’ve had angry women come and tell me after class and even in the street that they could do whatever they wanted and their periods didn’t affect them. I’ve had people tell me that periods are a private thing not to be spoken about. The list goes on.
The other side of the story is that I also have people come and whisper to me that they want to learn more, I receive countless messages from people telling me how profoundly life changing it has been to live a more cyclical life. I even had a woman completely cure her PCOS by simply using menstrual cycle awareness and knowing how to adapt her practice! THIS is why I do what I do.
Stepping outside of cultural norms invites criticism and outrage but I choose to keep going because people with periods everywhere deserve to have their experience normalised, to be informed. I wouldn’t ignore a pregnant woman in class or deny a person’s experience of back pain so why should periods be any different? Just because what you’re saying makes people uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong. Uncomfortable truths are often the ones that most need to be heard.
In a dream world women, girls and people with periods would be informed and educated about their bodily functions and have a good understanding of the hormonal shifts and changes and their potential impact on the mind, body and emotions. They would be taught how to read their menstrual cycles symptoms as a tool for health and wellbeing and in turn know what is normal and therefore what is not normal and be empowered to take action.
But sadly in 2020 we still don’t provide adequate menstrual education to women, girls and people with periods and the doctors and gynaecologists that take care of them.
Society considers our high literacy levels as a sign of how advanced we are but most of half of the population are being raised body illiterate. And this lack of education and information is keeping us firmly positioned as second-class citizens.
‘When we are taught to suppress, deny and ignore our menstrual cycles it serves only to reinforce the already ever-present feeling within so many women that something is wrong with us, that suffering and discomfort are a normal part of being a woman and should be expected and endured.
Rejecting the menstrual cycle is a rejection of ourselves, our bodies and our emotions and acceptance of a lack of congruency as our status quo. It perpetuates the idea that women’s needs don’t matter. To ignore and deny a natural menstrual cycle is to accept suffering as a normal experience, to suppress it with medication is to feel that numbness is the only option.’ ~ from blog post Rejecting the Menstrual Cycle is a Rejection of Ourselves
To understand what is happening in the body and why is a basic human right and self-understanding is a precursor to self-love. Keeping women uninformed of their choices and uneducated about their bodies is a sure fire why of keeping us small. We have to know what we need in order to be able to ask for it.
What does this have to do with teaching yoga? Here are a few ways the menstrual cycle can impact the female experience of a yoga practice:
The body releases a hormone called relaxin after ovulation during the premenstrual phase. Relaxin is the same hormone that is released during pregnancy to make the ligaments more lax particularly around the pelvis.
If we are doing deep stretching work I might mention this by saying: ‘exploring your edge and staying just behind the strongest sensation where the muscles have the most potential for change. And being particularly mindful if you’re working with an injury or in the premenstrual phase of the menstrual cycle as your ligaments can be more lax at this time.’
Menstrual cramps can often be made worse by contraction and tension of the abdominal muscles. This is why clitoral orgasms and heat can often help to relieve pain. People often come to yoga on their periods because amongst other reasons the gentle stretching can be supportive and soothing. But if they come on a week where we’re doing a lot of core work I like to offer options by using language like:
‘If you don’t feel like doing core work today for any reason, you might be tired, menstruating, pregnant, trying to conceive or digesting a big dinner’.
This language doesn’t spot light any person who chooses that option as ON THEIR PERIOD which is still considered to be a taboo and an embarrassing thing to be identified.
Exhaustion and depletion
Not everyone feels like resting during their periods and light exercise can help relieve pain but over exertion at this time can be depleting. The body often needs rest in order to replenish the lost red blood cell count and to use all of the body’s energy elsewhere can lead to a crash after ovulation or intense premenstrual symptoms later in the cycle.
I might honour this using language like: ‘If you are tired or in the restful phase of your menstrual cycle you might like to…’.
Some people are more than happy to go upside on their periods, some people fervently aren’t. There’s differing views and research on this but for me it’s less about the facts and more about offering options so that people can make choices.
I choose not to because through my own experimentation and experience I’m looking to have an efficient bleed and in order to do this I choose to direct the flow downwards rather than upwards. Inverting and withholding (core work/mula bandha) can often lead to old brown blood showing up at the start of my next cycle.
If I offer inversions I often use language like: ‘If you are working with un-medicated high blood pressure, glaucoma, a sinus infection or anything thing else that might be negatively impacted by having the head lower than the heart you might like to take X as an alternative. I choose not to invert on my period and if you do too then you’re welcome to skip it out and choose the alternative’
Covert vs. Overt
It would be possible to mention all of these things covertly but due to the lack of information and education received by many of us, it might not be clear that the cues relate to you. So I choose to share this information overtly, I choose to normalise periods and other phases in a female life cycle. For example from my experience menopausal women often really, really appreciate being given the option of being in front of the air con or window in summer and the ones who don’t want to be identified simply won’t take the option.
Another way I choose to normalise periods in class is by being open about my own. My regular classes know that when I’m premenstrual I get tongue tied, when I’m bleeding we take it fairly easy and I won’t demo inversions or core work and when I’m ovulating we work hard, laugh a lot and I’m often a bit cheeky. By choosing to be open about my menstrual experience I offer others the space to do the same. I am offering a more congruent approach to practice and life where a person’s inner experience can begin to match their outer expression.
I don’t expect all yoga teachers to do this, everyone has a passion and this is mine. But if you have ever considered it or even tried it and received a negative reaction know that there will most likely be women sitting there feeling quietly so god damn glad to finally be seen and heard.
Photo: @ellieindyablack (c). 2019