Be forewarned! Lots of girl talk below.
The topic of the “Ladies Holiday” (to use Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ parlance) can be a bit provocative and controversial for yoga practitioners. Most people don’t like being told what to do, or more accurately, what not to do.
Some woman are offended by the thought that they aren’t “allowed” to practice because of their natural cycles, that this is some way that the Brahmin patriarchy is trying to “control” or “punish” them. But I firmly believe the the traditional teachers of yoga gave specific instructions for women on how to restrain the practice during their moon-time in order to best serve women and protect their health.
At most Vinyasa yoga classes these days, there is never a single mention of modifying the practice for your cycle. This might be because the classes are busy and full and the teachers don’t want certain students to feel singled out. Or maybe they themselves don’t think of it as a necessary inclusion in their instruction. Most Vinyasa (and all the multitudes of hybrid) classes out there are more about having fun or doing what “feels good” than actual instruction, in my opinion.
But me? Well, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. On my “moon” (as many yoga-folk call the menstrual cycle), I sleep in – happily! I go for walks, I roll around on the floor and stretch, I meditate, but I do not practice Ashtanga. I do not do any inversions or anything that squeezes on my belly like ab work, navasana, crunches or Pilates or any strong breathing practices like Breath of Fire.
In my classes, on the rare occasions that I teach inversions such as headstand and shoulderstand, I always present the alternative of legs-up-the-wall as the appropriate pose for menstruating women.
Following the rules works for me. In so much of my life I am a spontaneous, freewheelin’ gypsy who hates to be put in a box (or at a desk!) but when it comes to certain things (yoga, sobriety and diet in particular), I do best when I follow the rules – and quite strictly too. That’s one of the reasons Ashtanga fits me so well. There are a lot of rules!
Guruji instructed that women to rest for the first 3 days of her moon. B.K.S. Iyengar has made similar recommendations. Geeta Iyengar, who has spent her life studying yoga for women in particular, says to avoid all seated pranayama, bandhas, strong backbends and all inversions especially.
Why? Well, basically, the practice of yoga – the use of bandhas, strong deep breathing and tapas-creating asanas – directs prana upwards. This cleanses the nadis, balances the nervous system and elevates your consciousness. Prana flows upwards, towards the heavens. Apana is the downward energy that is prana’s counterpart.
When you are on your moon, you are in a naturally apanic state – everything energetically is being drawn down towards the earth. Engaging bandhas and practicing the strong asanas when you are in this state is really working against yourself. It’s like trying to swim upstream, and your body – in particular your energy body – doesn’t like it.
I fully understand that correlation does not equal causation, but I want to share with you a few examples about female Ashtanga practitioners that I know/know of.
A female Certified Ashtanga teacher died of Ovarian Cancer recently. She struggled with her cancer for a long time and stayed alive for a number of years using a strict macrobiotic diet and yoga practice as her medicines. She had practiced Ashtanga at a very advanced level for many years and for most of these years she continued with her full practice (inversions and all) despite menstruation. She claimed with conviction that her cancer was directly related to practicing on her cycle.
Another woman I know who has been practicing Ashtanga now for 30 years hit menopause when she was 40 years old. She too always practiced on her cycle and never took a ladies holiday. She is one of many intense Ashtangi women I have heard of who had early onset menopause. And to be perfectly honest, despite her lean limbs and bendy body, she does not look like the most nourished or vibrant woman (no judgement here, just a statement) and I can’t help but wonder if there is a connection there.
In my personal experience, practicing strong asana and inversions on your cycle is a bad idea. Some gentle asana can feel very nice and help you find balance and comfort during your cycle. I personally enjoy spending a good 20 or 30 minutes on my sheepskin or mat, moving slowly in a way that feels soft and lubricating to my joints. I do long passive supine twists, supported supta baddha konasana, supported supta virasana, upavistha konasana, spinal flexes, ankle/wrist/neck/shoulder rolls, and always a long time in viparita karani and savasana. If they are available, I adore the weight of sandbags on my feet with my legs up the wall, or on my hips in supta baddha konasana – so grounding and restorative!
But, occasionally I get a bit antsy and so I practice hard anyways (minus headstand and shoulder stand). When I’ve done this, I’ve always gotten bad cramps. The cramps come immediately – during practice and then they last for hours afterwards. It’s virtually impossible to do any bandhas and so you really aren’t even doing Ashtanga anyways! But, it’s hard not to at least try to hold bandhas because that’s what your body has been trained to do in that setting.
I also find it really distracting to be in a vigorous yoga class when I’m bleeding. I find that my attention is too drawn in by my moon, by the sensations, and so it’s harder for me to feel engaged and comfortable in the class. It’s not worth it.
Taking time off from asana to rest and restore actually benefits your practice. Even if it feels crazy-making not to exercise for a few days, let that judgement (or fear of laziness or whatever it might be) go! Sometimes taking a few days off is just what your body needs.
When I return from my ladies holiday, I feel reinvigorated to work harder and go deeper in my practice.
Our lives in the modern world are very hectic. We as women juggle a lot of activity and responsibility – in our families, relationships, careers, our homes. If we never-ever stop to just chill and rest, our bodies (our adrenal glands in particular) get too worn down and we become less productive, peaceful and literally and figuratively, less fertile!
Taking time to compassionately and gently care for yourself helps you be a stronger, healthier and happier person in the long run.
So next time your moon rolls around, shrug off any feelings of guilt, and let yourself be lazy!
Your body, and your practice, will thank you!
Alright – floor is open – tell me what you think? Do you take your ladies holiday off? Or do you think I’m old-fashioned and silly?
♥ Love Frances ♥