The Menstrual Cycle
by
Swami Muktananda Saraswati
from YOGA Magazine, May 1999, London England
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.

















...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.

Menstruation

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 'climacteric'.

Painful menstruation

"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 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 dysmenorrhea 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 estrogen)
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.














The Yogic approach

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 cramps. 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 mulbandh (root lock, contraction of
pelvic floor) 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.Meditation
practices are also ideal for relieving the tension that disturbs our physical and emotional
harmony.

Negative attitude

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
.

A hint from the past

In India it used to be the custom, and in orthodox Brahmin families it still is, for the women
of the household to seclude themselves during the menses. They do not go into the kitchen
or spiritual 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 meditation 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.

The earth has her seasons when the 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.