Cycles in a Woman’s Life

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

How can a girl avert the ‘crisis of puberty’ through yoga?

At the time of puberty, a girl’s life changes dramatically as new hormones begin to circulate in her body. Sometimes, these hormones work in an erratic manner, affecting the behaviour of the girl to such an extent that her parents think she is mentally disturbed. The family does not understand what is happening because they are not aware of the great change that is taking place within her body.

Instead of helping the girl, the family prevents her from expressing herself and suppresses her shouting. They may send her to a mental hospital, consult holy men, or try all sorts of magic on her. When none of this works, she is taken to a doctor and given tranquillizers, tranquillizers and more tranquillizers. The poor girl is dosed with drugs and becomes very dull even at the young age of nineteen or twenty. But, if parents are careful and informed, they can avert many potential crises in the girl’s life. When a girl has this problem in India, everything is concealed to avoid any difficulty in getting her married.

In the renowned Sanskrit classic Abhijnana Shakuntala by the poet Kalidasa, it is said that there was a time when girls, along with boys, at the age of twelve or thirteen, used to live in an ashram and be educated by the gurukul system for twelve years. At the end of this period they were initiated into upanayana, a sacred thread ceremony where they were taught the Gayatri mantra, pranayama and surya namaskara. Because we have forgotten these practices over the last few centuries, we have lost our higher consciousness, and that is why young girls are suffering today. Through the practices of surya namaskara, pranayama and Gayatri mantra, girls are able to stabilize their emotional life and improve their mental and physical health.

—11 February 1982, Prema Samajam, Visakhapatnam, printed in YOGA Vol.20, No.10 (October 1982)

Should women practise asanas during the menstrual cycle?

Women, who experience periods with little flow, may practise hatha yoga. However, if they suffer from excess flow they should not practise asanas during the time of menstruation. Instead, yoga nidra, antar mouna and other yoga practices not involving the body can be practised.

Any asana which has an effect on the hormonal system should only be performed after assessing one’s menstrual quality. So long as the flow is normal, there are certain asanas which can be done by anyone, such as those of the pawanmuktasana series.

The period of menstruation indicates the period of ovulation, when the ovaries begin secreting the ova. During this period, these hormones affect the nervous system and, in most cases, there is general imbalance. This imbalance can even project itself into the experiences during meditation. However, each case is individual in nature, so one should seek personal guidance pertaining to yoga practices during the time of menstruation.

— 14 May 1980, Copenhagen, Denmark

Various traditions say that during the period of menstruation women are forbidden to go to temples, into the kitchen, and to do this and that. Are there any scientific or other reasons for these restrictions, or is it just the prejudices of a male-dominated society?

Women who experience menstruation are not unholy, from the scientific point of view and the perspective of common sense, and there cannot be any two opinions about it. They are not unholy. Menstruation is a natural process which is taking place in the body, and nothing should disturb it, neither heavy work, exposure to chill and cold, involvement in sexual affairs, nor emotional or nervous breakdowns.

It has been seen that prior to, during, and sometimes a little after menstruation, a psychological change, disturbance or tremor can occur in some women. Some experience a lot of emotional seizures, while others small ones; some women may be a little upset, while others experience annoyance. These factors have to be taken into account.

In ancient days in every society, the woman had to do a lot of work, both in the family and outside. It became necessary that some sort of method be found where, at least for those five or six days, she could have complete rest. Our ancestors figured that the only way to manage this was by saying that the menstruating woman was unholy, but I think they knew that she was not. There is no question – she can go to a temple, she can go to a swami, she can do worship, she can do anything.

There are a lot of taboos from the old society which had some relevance in their own time, because people were not as informed as we are today. But now we understand what menstruation is, whether it is loss of blood, hormones, or the cleaning of the uterine walls.

It is important that this hormonal cycle – I do not even call it menstruation – should be understood as a very natural state. It is a condition in a woman’s life, and there is no religious or spiritual function which she cannot perform during this time.

In the past, there have been hardly any priestesses in the temple, church or mosque. There were priests, mullahs, pundits, high priests, but they were always men, not women, because people thought, “How can a woman be a priestess, how can she be a guru, if she becomes unholy for five days every month?”

These were the concepts of the people in the past; they have become so deeply engrained and imbedded in the mind that it will take quite a few generations to wipe out these taboos, not only about the hormonal cycle. There are millions of beliefs in our human society in many different areas. They have to be properly understood and the superstitions relating to those beliefs should be wiped out in total. People must accept the truth as truth, no matter how dangerous it is. If we follow the truth, if we are always trying to discover and understand the truth behind everything, then we have to understand it as it is.

—11 December 1985, Ganga Darshan, Munger

What exercises can be done during pregnancy?

The recommended exercises for pregnant women differ from woman to woman. However, some of the exercises, like dhanurasana and makarasana, are completely prohibited. In the first three to four months of pregnancy, no such restriction is necessary, but in the last few months, it should be known which exercises are prohibited and which ones are to be added.

During pregnancy, it is best to practise the entire series of pawanmuktasana, and, in many cases, more exercises can be added. Therefore, it is necessary that the woman consult her teacher.

What is the role of the yoga teacher when a woman is pregnant?

It is of utmost importance to note the reasons why pregnant ladies practise asanas. Some women practise to counteract the effects of prostaglandins and other hormones that are destructive to the foetus; some women practise to have a normal delivery; some women practise to overcome the possibility of a miscarriage; other women practise to better meet the needs of the baby. When a woman becomes pregnant for the first time, so much fear, anxiety and psycho-emotional problems have to be overcome.

Therefore, prior to giving any practice, yoga teachers must investigate and understand the reasons behind the woman’s desire to perform yoga asanas. It is necessary to understand the woman’s hopes and expectations for the outcome of the yoga practice.

Once, there was a lady who wanted me to suggest a few yoga postures. I asked a swami to teach her. After the class, the teacher told me which asanas she had taught. I asked, “For what purpose did you teach those asanas?” The swami said, “Because the woman was pregnant.” I said, “Why did the lady come?” The teacher could not answer. The next day, I discovered that the practitioner’s first child was a caesarean delivery, and that she wanted to avoid having another caesarean.

There is another instance of a lady who had conceived three times and all three times experienced miscarriage in the sixth or seventh month of her pregnancy. When I asked her why she wanted to learn yoga, she said to give birth. It was then that she revealed to me that she had suffered miscarriages. It became necessary for me to understand the impact of hormones on the foetus and, according to that, the postures were selected and taught to her.

Another lady wanted an asana practice. She had delivered twenty-two babies, eleven had died and eleven survived. She was afraid regarding the uncertain survival of the baby she was carrying. She was not at all worried about having a normal delivery. She came to yoga to overcome the fear and worry she was experiencing. I did not teach her any asanas. I gave her a mantra instead. I instructed her to practise this mantra half an hour in the morning, half an hour at night, and to see me from time to time to let me know what was happening to her. She came, and was happy and not at all fearful about the survival of the child.

—2 September, 1981, Sivanandashram, Paris, France

What do you think about abortion?

The question of abortion has become a religious matter controlled by the church, but abortion has to be understood and dealt with from a practical and scientific point of view. Therefore, I do not speak from the religious point of view.

If abortion is prohibited, what will happen? Women are going to become pregnant, and then what will they do? They will be forced to do something hidden, which is not a good and hygienic solution. This happens many times in primitive societies. Sometimes, a quack doctor does the operation and if it becomes septic, the girl dies. Sometimes the tool is not sterilized properly, and the girl can get tetanus, which is risky and dangerous. The matter should be left open for the girl to choose, and proper care should be ensured. Those who need an abortion, let them do it. And those who don’t need it, let them not.

Abortion is safe for the body during the first two to three months of pregnancy. People think that an abortion interferes with or kills a soul. However, during the first three months of pregnancy, the foetus is really nothing more than a tumour. It has no separate life, no separate mind, no individual consciousness.

In the fourth month, the pranas enter into the mother’s body, and the soul follows. Then the foetus is no more a tumour; it is alive and is a soul. It starts developing within as an individual being attached to a mother. For the health of the mother and for the soul, an abortion should not be done. But, if the health of the mother is poor and an abortion is necessary from a medical point of view, it should be done.

In my opinion, one should not be rigid on these points either. For those people who would like abortions to be avoided, there is a way. If an unmarried girl becomes pregnant, she should be received with dignity and acceptance. Then, it won’t be necessary for her to have an abortion. In many countries, an unmarried girl who becomes pregnant has only two options – either abortion or suicide.

Because modern society is based on primitive roots, we live a very hypocritical life. Society has to accept whatever is happening. Boys and girls go out to work. They don’t live behind cloisters. Pregnancies are bound to happen. This makes it is so difficult for unmarried girls in India. They go to college or school, and something happens. There is a law that controls abortion and the girl ultimately has to commit suicide, because society doesn’t understand or accept her situation.

Therefore, I say, “Yes, there should be a free law.” The girl goes to a doctor, he keeps her for a few hours and then everything is okay. Her future husband doesn’t have to know what happened, and it doesn’t affect her marital life or social status.

This problem is not only prevalent in India, but in many countries. Gradually, societies have to become less rigid and more open, but the laws and beliefs surrounding abortion can only be changed if you first change your society, your outlook, your philosophy or your judgements.

—28 June 1984, Chamarande, France

How does yoga help during menopause?

Like puberty, menopause is an important turning point in a woman’s life. When undergoing puberty, a new emergence of hormones in the body is experienced; whereas, at the time of menopause, one is faced with the cessation of that experience.

The system of hatha yoga contains many practices that are beneficial during menopause, such as the practices which control prana.

The shatkarmas, the purificatory system of hatha yoga, must be done at least once every week. During menopause hyperacidity takes place causing headache and migraine. Hatha yoga has a beautiful practice called kunjal to overcome hyperacidity.

To overcome the body’s tendency to retain or assimilate fat, the more dynamic yogic exercises must be practised, such as trikonasana and surya namaskara. The woman must also eat carefully, and a light diet is important.

During menopause, the body is no more that of a young girl. It does not need the hormones anymore which cause restless energy. These thyroid and gonadol hormones may be necessary for young girls, because they need the excitement; however, when a woman has lived that kind of life, naturally, these hormones gradually need to diminish. If a woman still eats food which stimulates the functioning of these hormones, then she is going to experience problems.

Emotional stress is also experienced during menopause and is dangerous. Therefore, a woman should devote more and more time to the calm and quiet practices of concentration and meditation. At the onset of menopause, every woman should do an important practice known as antar mouna, inner silence. In antar mouna, she tries to see the thoughts that are coming into the mind. When she is able to witness every thought with total impartiality, then peace is attained in the body and in the mind.

—11 May 1984, Toulon, France