Should you do yoga during your period? Genny Wilkinson-Priest explores how doing yoga whilst on your period affects your body
This week, British tennis player Heather Watson (pictured above) blamed her first round loss at the Australian Open on her period. For some menstruating women, energy is low and strength diminished, affecting their physical abilities whether it’s a professional tennis match, a 3km run or what they do on the yoga mat. So, should you do yoga during your period?
In yoga class, you nearly always hear the instruction: don’t practice shoulderstands or headstands when you’ve got your period. Perhaps you’ve raised a quizzical eye at the seemingly random instruction for what does one necessarily have to do with the other? The explanation I give, as a teacher, is on three fronts:
1. inversions might lengthen the time that you bleed
2. inversions flout the body’s need to rest and let go during this phase of a woman’s cycle
3. some doctors say turning upside down can possibly cause retrograde menstruation where some blood flows back up the fallopian tubes, though there is no scientific study to back this up.
But, perhaps most importantly, there are no real benefits to going into a headstand when you have your period.
In the Ashtanga yoga tradition, women do not practice yoga at all during the first three days of their period
‘What I’ve observed over yoga practice of forth-five years, and from sharing yoga with thousands of women and teachers, is that it is a kind of craziness to believe that inversions have any value at all to menstruating women,’ said Uma Dinsmore Tuli, a yoga therapist and author of Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom Through Yoga and Tantra.
Risk of increased bleeding
During a period, blood enters the uterus from the right and left sides of the pelvis via blood vessels that are located in the ligaments that suspend the uterus from the pelvis, according to Dr. Mary Schatz, a pathologist and certified Iyengar yoga teacher in the U.S.
When you go up into a headstand or shoulderstand, the uterus is pulled toward the head by gravity, causing the ligaments to stretch, putting pressure on the thin-walled veins that are in danger of partially collapsing or occluding. Meanwhile the thick-walled, strong arteries continue to pump blood – hence the risk of increased menstrual bleeding.
‘Hindu philosophy teaches that during menses the direction of energy is down and out of the body. This flow should not be obstructed or reversed as it is in inversions,’ Schatz wrote in a medical paper on the subject.
Honouring the rhythm of your menstrual cycle
Dinsmore Tuli, an experienced, high-profile yoga therapist, has observed longer bleeds first-hand in students who practice shoulerstands, headstands or handstands during their yoga.
But beyond the physical affects, turning upside down does not pay respect to a woman’s energetic, emotional and psychic bodies – menses is a time for turning within, and fully experiencing different aspects of a woman’s nature, she explains.
‘During menstruation, the downward moving energy is giving women the opportunity to rest and clear out, to cleanse, to free ourselves of what’s been building up in the previous month,’ says Tuli. The bleed is just one part of a cycle that includes moments of growth and high energy and moments of letting go and low energy. If we don’t respect the need for quiet during this bleed time we pay for it later in the cycle.’
The theory of retrograde menstruation
Some degree of retrograde menstruation (this is when the womb lining or endometrium flows backwards through the fallopian tubes and into the abdomen instead of leaving the body as a period) is not uncommon in most women no matter what you do when you have your period – and in most of those cases the body reabsorbs the blood that finds its way into the stomach, according to Nitu Bajekal, consultant gynaecologist at Spire Bushey Hospital in Hertfordshire.
But there are some women who are unable to clear the blood efficiently, and can experience stomach pain and cramping even after the period ends. Though the exact cause of endometriosis is unknown, the NHS theorizes that retrograde menstruation might lead to the condition where the endometrial cells lining the womb migrate to other parts of the body causing infertility, painful periods, fatigue, bowel and bladder problems.
Some doctors say turning upside down might reverse the flow of blood – especially when the uterus is full. Yet other doctors say that is unlikely as the uterine contractions push the flow downward. To date, there has been no scientific study done on the subject.
Ms Bajekal prefers to err on the side of caution and advises her patients to avoid inversions in the first few days of a period. ‘We can’t prove inversions cause retrograde menstruation, but nor can we prove it doesn’t. With so much unknown, why would you risk it?’
Hindu philosophy teaches that during menses the direction of energy is down and out of the body
In the Ashtanga yoga tradition, women do not practice yoga at all – let alone inversions – during the first three days of their period. There’s something to be said about recognizing and honoring the menstrual cycle – in the West, we treat our periods as a nuisance that disrupt our busy lives in the workplace, in the home, or at school.
Perhaps we should more fully recognize this aspect of womanhood by resting and skipping that shoulderstand.
Do you practice yoga during you period? Tell us in the comments below
Genny teaches Vinyasa Flow Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga at London studio Triyoga.
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