When I first started practising yoga, I was told not to do any inversions (headstands, handstands, shoulder stands) when I had my period. Going upside down, it was said, would inhibit the flow of menstrual blood. So I dutifully went on to avoid inversions once a month. Periods are bad enough without wilfully complicating matters, right? And because that’s what my early teachers told me, I went on to give the same advice to students in my early days of teaching.
But instinct led me to change my thinking and teaching over the years. If nothing else, getting on the mat daily teaches you to tune into your body. When I listened to mine, it usually told me it wanted to go upside down, even when I had a period. Often, I felt pretty good, and after a long practice, I craved that lovely feeling of turning the world on its head and the way it would make me feel for the rest of the day.
In strictly traditional Ashtanga environments (and other yoga traditions, too), women are encouraged to avoid asana practice altogether during menstruation. The term “Ladies’ Holiday” is yoga-speak for taking a break during the first few days of your period. While I went along with this in my early days of practice, it never felt quite right. For starters, the term “Ladies’ Holiday” always grated. The men at the top of the yoga tree decreeing when the women should absent themselves from the shala, designating this a “Ladies’ Holiday”? Was there a whiff of misogyny in the air? There’s a powerful notion prevalent in certain cultures, including some branches of Hinduism, that women are somehow unclean when menstruating. There was even a belief that having sex with a menstruating woman would lead to the birth of evil-minded, villainous progeny. Is it possible that women were banished from the shala every month because of a lingering belief in these ideas?
In a recent Instagram post, @jenni_rawlings, a self-described “science-minded yoga teacher”, explains that contrary to the idea that turning ourselves upside down will somehow stop menstrual blood flow, astronauts in zero gravity have normal periods. The downward flow of menstrual blood has nothing to do with which way up we find ourselves. It’s created by muscular contractions in the uterus. These contractions have a mind of their own and don’t rely on gravity to make the blood flow.
There’s simply no truth behind the idea that inversions are dangerous during menstruation because we need the apanic (downward) energy to allow the blood to flow. As Jenni points out, you’re also pretty much upside down in Padhagustasana, Halasana and downward dog. Yet all of these poses are given the green light by the traditionalists during menstruation.
Indeed, if there were a genuine health concern about going upside down when we had periods, would we not have been warned about it by our mothers and grandmothers? Never mind our PE teachers or the family doctor? After all, many of us were still happily turning cartwheels in the garden when we first had our periods. That’s even more likely today when research suggests that girls are menstruating earlier than previous generations.
If for reasons of tradition or otherwise, you prefer to take time out from inversions, or your entire practice, during your period, then of course that’s what you should do. Menstruation, like menopause, is not a one-size-fits-all experience. While some sail through, many women struggle through the first few days. If that’s you, then it makes sense to go easy on yourself and take a break or enjoy a slower, yin-like practice. And anyone with an intense, 6-day-a-week practice could probably use a good excuse to ease off for a few days. It’s no harm for the addictive personalities (a healthy cohort within the Ashtanga community), totally hooked on their practice, to know that the world won’t end if they do things differently for a few days.
Some people like (even need) to be told what to do. But your teacher should be a compassionate facilitator of the practice (which is your real teacher) rather than an authority never to be questioned. Maintain autonomy over your own body and practice, and decide for yourself what works for you. And if you do choose to take a few days off or stay the right way up once a month, consider the first of the 8 limbs of traditional Ashtanga Yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas (ethical guidelines for life). The second Yama is Satya or truthfulness. The world is already full of fake facts. Let’s not add to them by spreading fake news about what happens to women’s bodies when we’re upside-down.