To be born female is to be born under a curse, or at least it seems so to all those women who suffer the monthly misery of painful periods. This problem has become so widespread over the last few generations that it is now regarded as 'normal' for menstruation to be accompanied by a variety of physical ills and emotional distress. We do hear stories of rare women for whom menstruation is not a burden, we might even know such a woman, but these few are regarded as fortunate to be somehow spared the usual agonies of womanhood. Yet 'normal' is not ideal- it is only an index of what happens to most people, and in acquiescing to the norm we have forgotten that things could be otherwise. Period pain, like any other pain, is a sign that there is something amiss in the body and it will not do to accept this recurrent torment like mere dumb cattle. Through yoga we can take positive action to eliminate period pain and rediscover our womanly heritage of health.
Menstrual difficulty (dysmenorrhoea) spawns as much wretchedness as the common cold and medical insight into this problem is equally limited. However, one of the few researchers in this field, Dr Katherina Dalton (USA), has established that 'woman's pain' is not one, but two distinct problems. Spasmodic dysmenorrhoea is characterised by cramps and acute pain in the lower abdomen, with perhaps nausea or shakiness at the beginning of the period. It generally appears in women under twenty-five and usually clears up when the first child is born. Congestive dysmenorrhoea is associated with the terrible tension that doctors call the 'premenstrual syndrome'. A heavy, dull aching in the abdomen and lower back may begin up to three or four days before the bleeding itself. Some women notice swelling and tenderness in the breasts, swollen abdomen or a generally bloated feeling. Greater fluid retention may be reflected in a temporary weight increase of up to three kilos, and there may be some nausea. Headaches, general stiffness and constipation are common. The worst aspects are the irritability, depression and lethargy that make this time of the month so emotionally debilitating. Both the physical and psychic congestion lessen in intensity when bleeding begins, and are relieved when the blood flow is most profuse. This kind of menstrual problem is common to women of all ages from puberty to menopause, and seems to get worse with every pregnancy.
Although medical science has not been able to detect beyond doubt the cause of this pain, Dr Dalton's evidence, and that of Drs Carey and Pinkerton in Australia, indicates that both spasmodic and congestive dysmenorrhoea are due to hormonal imbalance. With spasmodic pain there is too much progesterone in the body, while congestive problems are due to an excess of oestrogen. Another researcher, Dr Elizabeth Connei, suggests that uterine cramps could be due to high levels of prostaglandins. These are hormone-like substances produced by the lining of the uterus in great quantities just before it is shed. Lack of progesterone (that is, too much oestrogen) also causes the body cells to retain sodium and lose potassium. This has severe consequences, for the transmission of impulses throughout the nervous system and brain depends on the correct sodium/potassium ratio. It seems then, that hormonal imbalance is also the physiological root of our emotional vulnerability during the menses.
Doctors usually treat menstrual difficulties with pain-relievers and hormonal supplements (birth control pills) and a certain percentage of women on oral contraceptives find their period easier and the flow lighter. However, the pill is, at best, a risky business and increasing numbers of women prefer not to use it. Yoga, on the other hand, offers natural and effective methods without toxic side-effects and with benefits that extend far beyond the physical. Many women ask if it is safe to perform asanas during their periods. It is essential not to strain at any time, but apart from this usual precaution there is absolutely no reason to abandon your practices. One reporter comments: "A majority of doctors now believe that not only can women participate in any strenuous activity at any time, but that they actually benefit from it. A 1965 study comparing 65 women swimmers with 138 non-athletic students revealed that the swimmers had far less menstrual difficulty."
Sirshasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand) are not advisable during menstruation, but vajrasana, shashankasana, majariasana and abdominal breathing in shavasana help to relieve cramp. Congestive period pain is relieved when the menstrual flow is at its peak and this flow is quickened by contractions of the uterus such as those in orgasm. This suggests that moola bandha could be particularly beneficial, although you must discontinue this practice at the very first suggestion of faintness or other unpleasant effects.
During the rest of the cycle a balanced program of asanas will harmonise hormone production through their subtle manipulation of the glands. Asanas massage and compress the glands and internal organs, forcing stale blood out and allowing fresh blood to circulate. The glands and the whole reproductive system are toned and strengthened. A good program would include surya namaskara, sarvangasana, halasana, kandharasana, matsyasana, bhujangasana, shalabhasana, dhanurasana, paschimottanasana, moola bandha and vajroli mudra. Meditation practices, notably yoga nidra and antar mouna, are also ideal for relieving the tension that disturbs our physical and emotional harmony.
A pure diet of grains and vegetables works wonders for many ills, including miserable menstruation. High protein diets, especially those based on meat, definitely aggravate the problem, and it is interesting to note that the incidence of dysmenorrhoea runs parallel to the increased consumption of meat in affluent countries. With the trend back to simple, vegetarian food, numerous women have reported dramatic improvement in period difficulties, with a much lighter and less offensive blood flow. Even those who still eat meat have reaped notable benefits from cutting down on coffee and processed foods, especially sugar, polished rice and white flour products. We should also eat very ripe bananas and fresh orange or lemon juice around period time, to compensate for the temporary depletion of potassium that is disturbing to the nervous system.
Period pain is not imaginary, it's very real and often there are definite physical reasons for it. Yet in many cases it is exaggerated by negative or unclear emotional attitudes about sexual feelings and sexual activities in general. Too often there is an underlying guilt complex, so that we feel (perhaps unconsciously) that the pain is somehow punishment for sins, real or imagined, in our sexual lives. This misconception so easily arises at puberty when the onset of menstruation coincides with the upsurge of sexual desire.
In most cultures menstruation is surrounded by myth and mystification that breed insecurity and shame. Women are still regarded as unclean at this time and this attitude is explicit for Moslem, Hindu and Jewish women who must be ritually purified after each period.
In India it used to be the custom, and in orthodox brahmin families it still is, for the women of the household to isolate themselves during the menses. They do not go into the kitchen or puja room, nor do they touch any member of the family. Traditionally, one room is set aside for them and they retire to this room for at least three days. During seclusion the menstruating woman does her own washing and cleaning, and sleeps on a woollen blanket on the floor. She puts aside her sari and covers herself with a single cloth, and if the children must come to her, they do so naked. On the fourth day the house is purified by ritual sprinkling with holy water from the Ganga or some other sacred river, the woman bathes, washes her hair and comes out of retreat. The next day she worships in the temple and after this she returns to kitchen and husband.
Unfortunately, the origins of this custom have been forgotten and it has been misinterpreted as indicating that women are defiled, impure and polluted during menstruation. This attitude is based on biological ignorance and superstition, and makes it very difficult for women, especially young girls, to accept the natural functioning of their bodies. The general taboo on discussion of this subject deepens the mystery and the whole atmosphere intensifies their pain. In fact, it was not to protect the family from the menstruating woman that these arrangements were made, but to protect the woman from her family. This period of seclusion provided women with an opportunity to take a break from household duties which, in a traditional family of up to fifty members, were frequently quite arduous. (Many a modern mother wishes she could have time to herself away from housework and children for a few days every month.) This retreat was a psychological protection at a time of heightened emotional sensitivity. Instead of aggravating any irritability or depression, which so easily flare into angry scenes or harsh words, a woman withdrew into the soothing quiet of her room, preserving her peace of mind and family harmony.
These days, women no longer take such elaborate precautions, and old customs are being abandoned as no longer practical. Despite the handicap of discomfort and tension, women have shown themselves quite capable of pursuing their usual interests or careers. Many find that this gives them a satisfaction that cancels out pain altogether. Certainly investigators are showing that women are no more handicapped at this time than men who are having a painful time with high blood pressure or peptic ulcers.
Just the same, an understanding of the rationale behind old customs shatters the misogynist myth of female impurity, and that in itself releases us from shame and much emotional distress. Even though a period of retreat is a luxury few can afford now, we can rearrange our schedules to allow for more rest and privacy if we so desire. Even just an extra hour or so to practice antar mouna can provide the opportunity to relax and get a new perspective on things.
We must remember that the problems which get us down at period time are the same ones that are always with us, only we usually push them aside to get through the day. Our increased sensitivity during menstruation makes us more aware of them, and if we take time off to examine them thoroughly, we may perhaps find a real solution. In antar mouna we simply sit quietly and watch our thoughts and feelings as they pass across the psychic screen behind our closed eyes. Provided we maintain the objective attitude of a witness, and do not judge, this practice is enormously refreshing. On the screen of chidakasha there is nothing good and nothing bad. What we see there is an expression of our unconscious mind, which manifests itself to us in brilliant colours and images that are as entertaining as any surrealist movie, but far more revealing of life's true meaning.
Antar mouna provides us with a psychological clear space, and allows us to get in touch with ourselves by acknowledging the parts of our being we often ignore. Just as our body is casting off substances it doesn't need anymore, so we too can throw off worn out ideas and self-images and make the most of this opportunity for self renewal. The earth has her seasons when the red and brown leaves fall while the vital sap is withdrawn before its vigorous resurgence in springtime.
By adopting a positive attitude to this most natural of womanly processes, we can use full awareness of menstruation and its implications to experience our bond with Mother Earth and join in the rhythms of the cosmos. Women regularly practising yoga have found that period pain is eased almost immediately and completely eliminated within a few months. They are generally more relaxed and their overall health and vitality are much higher. Menstrual problems make many women want to disown their bodies, but rejection of the body is rejection of the tangible aspect of the soul. Yoga develops a positive awareness and acceptance of our physical selves that enables us to replace self-loathing with love, and to experience ourselves as whole and holy women.