The universe sings and dances to a multiplicity of rhythms the long, slow wearing down of mountains; the steady march of the seasons; the staccato alternation of day and night; the wheeling of the sun, the advance and retreat of the moon. To live in a woman's body, especially, is to share in this flux and flow of the cosmos because a woman's awareness is constantly drawn to the natural pattern of fertility reflected in her own menstrual cycle.
This heightened awareness is a constant quiet theme of appreciation of our links with the infinite, and we should not allow it to degenerate into a morbid preoccupation with the body. An observant attitude to our bodies is an aid to health, but it must be based on proper knowledge and confidence. We must learn to trust our bodies. Our physical frame is a masterpiece of nature's handiwork, amazingly strong and gracefully integrated. It functions harmoniously under most circumstances, even difficult ones, without any interference from ourselves. The human body is a self-regulating mechanism that is constantly adjusting itself in tune with its own needs and capacities.
The menstrual cycle is a sequence of events that occurs once in a month in a sexually mature female. From menarche (first menstruation) to menopause (cessation of menstruation) it is a constant repetitive pattern. Menstruation is no more than the process in which the unwanted lining of the uterus is passed from the body. First menstruation usually begins between the ages of ten and fourteen, although it may not occur until age seventeen or eighteen years. The menstrual cycle continues to operate for as long as thirty to thirty-five years, during which time it may be interrupted by pregnancy or illness. The cessation of the cycle comes as part of the ageing process. The ageing body normally produces smaller quantities of the hormones which control the cycle, and ultimately it ceases. This time is known as the menopause or 'change of life'.
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 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. Through yoga we can take positive action to eliminate period pain and rediscover our womanly heritage of health.
Medical evidence 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. Uterine cramps may be due to high levels of prostaglandins, 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. Sirshasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand) are not advisable during menstruation, but vajrasana, shashankasana, marjariasana and abdominal breathing in shavasana help to relieve cramp. Congestive period pain is relieved when the menstrual flow is at its peak and the flow is quickened by contractions of the uterus such as those in orgasm. This suggests that moola bandha could be particularly beneficial.
During the rest of the cycle a balanced program of asanas will harmonize 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.
Period pain is not imaginary, it's very real and often there are definite physical reasons for it. One Australian study involved young women who reported that they suffered 'very severe' pain and spent one to several days in bed each month as a result. These women were given individual interviews and a series of relaxation sessions using a technique similar to yoga nidra. The therapist would guide them through several rotations of body awareness and then evoke a series of appropriate images to desensitize the subjects' reaction to the pain and to menstruation itself. Results were most successful, with all subjects reporting a reduction in tension, pain and time in bed. Six months later more than half reported that they were still having pain-free periods and they showed an improved attitude to menstruation generally.
In some primitive societies a girl's first menstruation is regarded as the sign of sexual maturity and is celebrated as the coming of womanhood. However, in most cultures it is surrounded by shame and secrecy, if not outright taboo. Even in the 'liberated' West, women are still regarded as somehow unclean at this time and this attitude is explicit for Moslem, Hindu and Jewish women who must be ritually purified after each period. This attitude is largely based on ignorance and superstition and it makes it difficult for women, especially young girls, to accept the natural functioning of their bodies. Biological facts are often unknown and the general taboo on discussion of this subject deepens the mystery. This is a major contributing factor to the 'women's pain' and tension that so often accompanies menstruation.
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 pooja room, nor do they touch any member of the family. Traditionally they retire to a special 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 then returns to the kitchen and her 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. 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 practise 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 spring time. By adopting a positive attitude to this most natural of 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.
Extract from Nawa Yogini Tantra, a Bihar School of Yoga publication