The Role of Ayurveda and Yoga in a Healthy Menstrual Cycle
Before Ayurveda entered my life, my menstrual cycle used to wreak havoc on my life every month. About ten days before my flow, nearing the end of ovulation, my demon side would appear with swollen breasts, a bloated belly, an insatiable appetite, and cravings for all the wrong foods (usually salty, oily potato chips and beer). One moment I would be calmly going about my day, and the next minute I’d be raging (or sobbing) about having dropped said bag of chips all over the floor.
Once Ayurveda and yoga entered my life, a gradual change began to occur. What was once the cause and perceived source of my stress and debilitating emotions became a time of expression, gratitude, and eventually, expansion. This ancient wisdom of Ayurveda and yoga transformed my monthly menstrual cycle into a ceremonial release of the old me and a revival of fresh, positive energy. Instead of hating on my period and ignoring my body’s need for a change of pace, I became grateful for it. I started respecting its role in my health and learned to harvest its powerful energy to enhance my self-knowledge. Ayurveda helped me to understand my demon side not as an evil, overpowering force over which I lacked control, but as my beautiful, necessary shadow self that helped me heal and become a better me.
The Menstrual Cycle and Stress
The North American lifestyle puts a significant amount of stress on our physical and mental bodies every day. Our culture values the ability to push through obstacles, to fight the fight and resist what tries to hold us back or slow us down, rather than respect that necessary changes need to occur. The general Western attitude toward menstruation is one of tolerance and the uniquely feminine experience of the menstrual cycle is often viewed negatively and anticipated with dread. Furthermore, more than 90% of women experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS), characterized by headaches, mood swings, bloating, weight gain, and difficult emotions like sadness, anger, irritability, etc. (1). Western medicine even categorizes several extreme symptoms as premenstrual disorder (PMD), which is often treated with medication. Such labels and unnatural therapy do little to support women’s ability to listen and respond to their bodies with love and insight. Instead, from the time we’re young, we’re taught to plug up and push through this monthly occasion for greater insight into our bodies. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With The Wolves, writes, “much of the modern women’s premenstrual crankiness is not just a physical syndrome but is equally attributable to her being thwarted in her need to take enough time away to revivify and renew herself.”
Ayurveda views every change that occurs during the menstrual cycle as a window to the female body’s health and inner balance. It gives us an opportunity to become more closely in touch with our emotions, physiology, and to cleanse our bodies naturally with yoga, meditation, pranayama, and herbal therapies. This starts with an understanding that no two women are the same. We must become familiar with our own unique cycle by observing and slowing down our busy lives, if necessary, to address our need for rest. Rest is not just about getting a lot of sleep; nor is it about sitting on the sofa watching television for an hour. Gentle yoga, contact with nature, and meditation are conscious, healthy ways to relax your body and still your mind.
The Moon, the Menses, and Folklore
The average length of a woman’s menstrual cycle is 28 days, coinciding with the lunar cycle, which is 29.5 days. Ovulation occurring at the same time as the full moon indicates the healthiest menstrual cycle as the moon’s full energy encourages the egg out of its ovary. Flow begins at the time of the dark, or new moon. However, this doesn’t mean that a menstrual cycle misaligned with the moon is unhealthy. It may simply mean that you’ve fallen out of balance with nature for any number of reasons, including stress or drugs that manipulate the natural menstrual cycle, such as birth control pills. Interestingly, during a year of travel in which I spent about 90% of my awake time outside in natural spaces, my menstrual cycle aligned with the phases of the moon and I felt much less discomfort than is normal for me–another indication that contact with nature inspires balance and wellness. Since I’ve deepened my yoga practice, the physical symptoms of my period, such as bloating and cramping have almost completely disappeared.
In her book, Red Moon, Miranda Eve Gray describes the phases of the menstrual cycle through the lunar cycle and folklore depicting archetypes of the Divine. The preovulatory phase represents the Innocent Maiden, the waxing crescent moon, and the energies of inspiration and renewal. The full moon aligns with the time of ovulation, inspiring empowerment and sustenance through the archetype of the Good Mother. The sexually-charged Enchantress (or Witch) of the premenstrual time coincides with the darkening, waning moon, withdrawing of energy, and destruction (this sheds a whole new light on PMS). In many traditional cultures, women were dismissed from their duties to the family and community during this premenstrual phase to conserve their energy and respond to their innate need for solitude. The Hag represents the period of blood flow when the moon is dark and the woman’s energy is withdrawn to support the energy required for menstruation.
Ayurveda and the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle
In Ayurveda, one of the doshas–the subtle energies in each of us–governs each of phase of the menstrual cycle. Kapha dominates the first half of the cycle from the end of the flow when the endometrium starts to thicken to ovulation. Many women experience a sense of calm and ease with oneself, highlighting the essence of kapha.
The pitta phase of the menstrual cycle takes place throughout ovulation up until flow occurs if the egg is not fertilized. This is when the fiery signs of pitta appear more strongly. Pitta operates through the blood tissue and causes the blood vessels of the endometrium to swell. During this phase, many women feel bloated, sensitive, have heightened emotions, and may feel the desire to withdraw into solitude.
Vata dominates the final stage of the cycle, which Western medicine designates as the beginning of the cycle. During this phase of the menstrual cycle, vata’s moving energy kicks in causing the endometrium to shed and leave the body. Many women experience a sense of relief during this stage.
Characteristics of the Tri-Dosha Cycle
Depending on your constitution, your environment, and the fluctuations of the tridosha within you, one of the doshas may dominate your menstrual cycle. If you don’t know your dominant dosha, take our quick dosha quiz to discover your body type in Ayurveda and how to care for yourself during your menstrual cycle.
Vata Flow: Anxiety, tension, fluctuations in mood, and the feeling of being spaced out may occur if vata is imbalanced premenstrually.
Tips for Vata: Vata needs particular attention because its energy governs movement in the body. Rest, meditation, and routine help to achieve the balance necessary for a healthy flow to occur. Avoid yoga inversions.
Pitta Flow: Anger and irritation, characteristic of pitta’s fire, may occur there is an imbalance of pitta through the menstrual cycle.
Tips for Pitta: Cleanse your digestive system by adding kitchari, a healing Ayurvedic stew, to your diet. (Click here for the recipe). Do gentle, non-competitive yoga focusing on the inner self and how your body feels in each yoga posture (rather than how it looks).
Kapha Flow: Kapha is prone to lethargy during a premenstrual imbalance.
Tips for Kapha: Take herbal supplements and eat a supporting diet. Organic ashwagandha is an excellent herb for whole body rejuvenation when taken daily.
Find Comfort With Ayurveda and Yoga
In addition to adequate rest and a diet that supports your constitution, certain Ayurvedic herbs can mean the difference between energy and total fatigue during your cycle. To help regulate the cycle, reduce pain, and detoxify the female reproductive system, try shatavari, ashwagandha, or tulsi. In addition to supporting the menstrual cycle, these three Ayurvedic herbs have numerous health benefits for the entire body. Find out more about these herbs here.
Yoga For Balance, Comfort, and Relief – Child’s pose soothes lower back stress and discomfort. Bridge pose, bound angle/butterfly pose, reclining hero pose, bow pose, and camel pose open the hips and encourage the flow of energy through the pelvic area. Follow this soothing 15-minute yoga sequence during your menstrual cycle to relieve uncomfortable physical symptoms. Note: There is some speculation that yoga inversion poses may interfere with apana vata (the energy responsible for the downward movement of body fluid), causing retrograde menstruation, in which the blood flows in the opposite direction. It is important to understand your body’s natural rhythm during your menstrual cycle to determine if inversions are right for you. If you’re unsure, consult your doctor.
In Ayurveda, breath, or prana, is the source of our energy and survival. Pranayama or yoga breathing techniques, help restore a balance of energy to the female body and reduce uncomfortable symptoms of menstruation. Yoga instructor Grace Wathen, recommends three yoga breathing exercises for painful menstrual cramps.
Respecting Your Body’s Need For Rest and Routine
The menstrual cycle holds the essence of our femininity, from our first flow in late childhood or young adulthood, through the postmenopausal years. Devoting time to ourselves each month is a necessary part of respecting our body’s need for solitude, cleansing, and rejuvenation. In the context of our busy and fast-paced lives, it is even more critical that we respond to ourselves with care and compassion throughout the menstrual cycle. Each phase of the moon affects the feminine body with a different energy, and each month, our physical body responds to this natural change of cosmic energy with fluctuations in mood, stamina, and appetite. Avoiding overstimulation during the premenstrual days from ovulation to the end of your flow is particularly important as your body goes through a period of downtime, necessary for cleansing and reenergizing the reproductive system. In Ayurveda, this is especially important for vata. A bit of “hermitting” also supports our need for quiet solitude as we reconnect with our inner selves and tend to the parts of ourselves that need extra attention (yoga is especially good for this). You may feel a heightened need for creative expression during this time, so dance, draw, write, paint, connect with nature, and allow yourself to retreat and feed your feminine spirit for a few days (or all month long!). You, more than anyone, know how best to care for yourself. Ayurveda and yoga simply pave the way.