Yoga and my girl parts: the great debate

I’ll never forget that bitter-sweet day when my body decided it was time to step over the threshold into womanhood. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and I was at my grandmother’s house with my 30-odd cousins and 18 aunts and uncles. I was thirteen. I’d had an awful, cramping stomachache most of the day. That evening, I was wrestling on the living room floor with my cousins and and realized that something down there didn’t feel right. Later that night, I told my mom. She gave me a handful of plastic and said, “Welcome to the real world.”

That was 1994. I was taught by my mother and the other women around me to treat my time of the month as an inconvenience to be recognized but hidden; it was not something to keep me out of my activities or hinder my involvement in sports. In fact, as I grew older and began participating in male-dominated sports, I came to think of my accomplishments while on my cycle as making me a super-woman. Hell, I thought, if I can keep up with these eight men post-holing up a mountain to ski down while on my period, what can’t I do? My period was like my chance each month to do a little more, just to prove to myself that it wasn’t anything that could hold me back.

So it’s no surprise that when I read yoga text after text explaining the rules of yoga while menstruating — rules that limit what postures are appropriate, especially invertions — I regarded the information as outdated, anti-feminist and insulting. I never followed the guidelines. Many yoga teachers and western doctors would back me up on this — why take women back centuries because of something they can’t control? One of my yoga instructors has spoken to several physicians about this issue and came to the conclusion that there is no medical reason for women to stop doing inversions during their cycle if they feel good.

However, because of the hormones associated with menstruation, several researchers are noticing a pattern in the timing of injuries in women. Several European researchers have found that women may injure themselves more frequently at certain times during their menstrual cycle. During menstruation, the female body does change, largely due to increased hormones in the body. At the most basic level, these hormones can soften and weaken muscles and ligaments, especially around joints, a process which prepares the body for potential pregnancy. During this time, a woman’s body may be more prone to injury. Most noticably, studies found more ACL tears (a ligiment surrounding the knee) during this time.

So what is right for your body and your practice? It’s up for each woman to decide for herself. I am not the type of instructor to ask menstruating women not to turn upside down in class, because I prefer inverted poses during my cycle. However, I believe that the decision requires an honest assessment of how a woman is feeling. So often in our culture, women feel pressured to perform in sports at a rate equal to men. But during a woman’s cycle, her body is physically different from a man’s, with differences in hormones that could make her more prone to injury. Having a relationship with your body to assess your physical well-being, each day, is important.

Usually, I feel okay during my period. I still crave my handstands, but can’t hold them for as long. My shoulders want to roll in instead of out, and my structure feels a bit wobbly. This month, I was completely wiped out on day one of my cycle. I was able to teach through my cramps, and took a gentle, Happy Back class that felt okay until I strapped up a yoga wall harness that pressed against my cramping belly. By three o’clock in the afternoon, I was spent. Instead of mowing the yard and cleaning the house as planned, I took an assessment of what my body needed and instead decided on a hot bath and nap. The water soothed my aching joints, low back and cramping belly, and when my head hit the pillow, I fell instantly to sleep.

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