Whether or not, and to what extent, women should practice asana during menstruation can be a polarizing subject. It shouldn’t be. And in fact, for some women, it’s not even a choice. Luckily for us gals, we have teachers like Kristen Krash who took some time and put together a practical guide for practice, when locks and seals just won’t due.
A Monthly Practice, Unsealed
By KRISTEN KRASH
For some of the fortunate women who do not experience pain or heavy bleeding during their periods, the rest periods and restorative practices of the Ashtanga and Iyengar methods, respectively, can feel like an intrusive reprimand. Yet, for the millions of women who suffer from one of the myriad health concerns (endometriosis, ovarian cysts, uterine fibroids, dysmenorrhea, etc) that can make menstruation a week-long bloody painful mess, rest and restorative practices are both necessary and beneficial. For those of us who endure the pain and suffering every single month, there are times when four or five days of rest and/or restorative practice is absolutely needed. Then there are times when we feel ready and able to practice more rigorously by the third or fourth day, but a full practice sends us right back to the turmeric tea and the heating pad–and the bottle of Advil, let’s be real. These are what I call the “in-between” days where the body is asking for some more invigorating movement, but not too much.
So what to do?
I originally designed this modified series for a sensitive Ashtanga teacher who asked me how to help a student returning to practice from a surgery for endometriosis. Having personal experience with endometriosis (since the age of 13) and surgery (twice), I gladly agreed. And as I wrote out the modifications and reasons for them, I realized I was also codifying the ways which I’ve learned through experience and training to modify my own practice on those “in between” days where I’m feeling I don’t quite need another rest day or restorative practice, but I know there are certain asanas and transitions I need to avoid that can trigger another round of cramps and inflammation.
I thought this could be worthwhile to share as a resource for all the dedicated women practitioners who love their Ashtanga practice but need something a bit kinder to the belly following a difficult period.
As you practice the modified series, you’ll notice the focus is on keeping the abdominal/pelvic area both quiet and spacious while keeping with the flow and spirit of the Ashtanga primary series. My hope is this will allow women who have painful/heavy menstruation to return to the routine of their regular home practice or Mysore room on the “in between” days and feel empowered to practice in a way that embodies ahimsa, that very first limb we sometimes forget also applies to ourselves.
Practice for the first 48 to 72 hours of menstruation:
Rest as much as possible.
Eat highly nourishing, easily digestible foods. Kitcheri is excellent, make sure the daal is cooked really really well with fennel, coriander, turmeric, and ginger to aid absorption. Avoid hot spices, fried foods, refined flours, and raw food. Poached eggs, puréed vegetables, baked apples, and soft rice are good choices. To keep the bowels moving regularly, stir a tablespoon of flax seeds into warm herbal tea, wait until it gets goopy, and drink before bed.
Asana and Pranayama. I can’t recommend Judith Lasater’s book Relax and Renew more highly. The sequences for painful menstruation and reproductive health issues are soothing but also return energy to the body. For a bit more invigoration on the third day of rest, smooth Sivinanda style sun salutes can be done. They bring back circulation and energy flow without jarring or overstretching the abdomen.
Another invaluable resource is Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga: A Gem for Women
Exercise. For the stir-crazy, taking a walk at a moderate pace (in nature if possible) can be helpful.
Modified Primary Series for those in-between days:
Modify Surya Namaskar A and B by lowering all the way to the belly and rising to either sphinx, low bhujangasana, or shalabasana. I would recommend stepping back to plank and lowering down rather than jumping, depending on your energy level. More importantly, the transition from chaturanga to urdhva mukha svanasana should be modified to one of the other backbends listed above.The chaturanga/urdhva mukha transition can over work/stretch the abdomen and pelvis while you are still menstruating.
Modify utthita parsvakonasana by placing the front hand on a block or the elbow on the thigh.
Modify parivrtta trikonasana and parivrtta parsvakonasana by placing the front hand INSIDE the front leg, not outside, and keep some space between the abdomen and the thigh. Keep space in the pelvis and work the twisting from the mid-spine upwards.
Modify parsvottanasana by focusing on bending forward and keeping the keeping the abdomen long instead of “chin to shin.” Place hands on blocks for support if needed.
Modify Prasarita Padhottanasana by relaxing the pelvic floor and abdomen during the series. I know this is big time for mula bandha engagement, but let it go for now. Work the legs strongly though.
Omit the pick up and jump back vinyasa in between the forward folds/seated twists. Lolasana is too much abdominal contraction while menstruating. Instead lie back in between performing each posture and do a simple vinyasa of inhale/bridge pose-exhale/knees towards chest (not pulling with hands). This will give the spine a symmetrical extension/flexion similar to upward dog/downward dog in effect without squeezing the belly.
Replace the postures where the heel presses the belly and/or modify by:
Replace ardha baddha padma paschimottanasana with a repetition of either janu sirsasana A or triangmukhaikapada paschimottanasana.
Omit janu sirsasana B. Think. Your body is trying to shed tissue and blood through an opening where in this posture you would place your heel. How could this be good?
Modify Marichyasana A by keeping a hip-width distance in between the legs, focus more on folding forward and keeping the abdomen long instead of getting the head down.
Modify Marichyasana B by tucking the leg that usually goes into ardha padma into a janu sirsasana position.
Modify Marichyasana C by twisting the other direction AWAY from the bent leg if the abdomen feels bloated, tender, and/or sore. If you are feeling all right (be honest with yourself), then resume twisting toward the bent leg, but with a hip-width distance in between the legs. Focus on keeping space in the abdomen, the sacrum broad, and working the twist from the mid-spine upward. Do not bind until menstruation stops.
Modify Marichyasana D by tucking the leg that usually goes in ardha padma into a janu sirsasana position, or replace with Marichyasana E (the ardha padma leg is folded back as in triangmukhaikapada paschimottanasana. Focus on keeping the spine erect, space in the abdomen, the sacrum broad, and working the twist from the mid-spine upward. Do not bind until menstruation stops.
Navasana. I adore Navasana. It tones, it invigorates, it challenges. But it’s also a posture that in my experience really inflames and cramps me up when endometriosis/dysmenorrhea is symptomatic. To strengthen the abdomen with less pressure on the spine and pelvic floor, you can skip the navasana/upward lift series on “in-between” days by lying back supine and alternating between low “crunches” and slow alternate leg raises.
Omit bhujapidasana thru kukkutasana. If your body is just getting back to feeling normal, I recommend skipping these postures and proceeding directly to the more palliative postures ahead. The arm balancing, belly-squishing, rolling around nature of this sequence is fun and challenging, but can over-work and over-heat an already distressed belly. Best left alone until menstruation stops.
By all means, do baddha konasana and upavistha konasana A. They are wonderful postures for pelvic floor health and releasing tension. Take any support needed, like a folded blanket under the buttocks or placing the hands on blocks as you walk them forward. Relax the pelvic floor and abdomen, breathe slowly and softly. As with the other forward bends, focus on lengthening forward rather than putting your head down. Stretching the arms forward on the floor in front of you (or on to blocks) is a good variation to lengthen and relax the belly.
Omit upavistha konasana B, ubhaya padangusthasana, and urdhva paschimattanasana.
Do supta padangusthasana sequence as normal, keeping the abdomen relaxed.
Substitute ustrasana for urdhva dhanurasana if your blood flow is still moderate to heavy. Take ustrasana with your hips against the wall with hands on your sacrum or place them on blocks next to your feet. Blocks are better because you can push in to them with your hands to lift the chest. The point, like substituting upward dog with low cobra or locust, is not to overstretch the abdomen. If taking urdhva dhanurasana, do it with your feet on low blocks. It helps if the blocks are against the wall. This will allow you to lift the pelvis up without over stretching the lower abdomen. And builds some upper body strength lifting up as well.
Omit inversions until blood flow is very light or stops altogether and there is no pain or soreness in the abdomen. Menstruation and recovery is not a time not a time to learn these poses. If you are working on alignment and balance in these poses, wait until your body feels normal and strong to resume. Take a restorative posture such as supta baddha konasana or supta virasana to finish.
And all the time you are practicing, breathe slowly and softly with the lightest of ujjayi. Do not strain, be soft and yielding at this time, so strength and firmness can more quickly and easily return.
(Image above by Kate Van Genderen)
Kristen Krash has been a dedicated student of yoga for sixteen years. She began practicing Ashtanga and vigorous vinyasa yoga seeking relief from severe spinal injuries as a result of a car collision and (perhaps sub-consciously) a troubled early life. The early adrenalized years of practice had a galvanizing impact, but the true healing began when Kristen’s curiosity about the the more subtle aspects of asana led her to the exacting alignment and discipline of Iyengar Yoga. She immersed herself in the Iyengar method, the intricacies of asana and pranayama, and the Yoga Sutras by studying consistently with some of the most senior and experienced teachers in the world. Her own style of teaching, however, is grounded in practicality: how to bring the subtle awareness gained through years of focused study to the beginner, the power yoga student, the injured athlete, the “regular Joe” who just wants to feel better. In 2016, Kristen took leave from her fourteen year post as a full-time yoga teacher to bring a yogic vision to a wider world. She currently lives in Ecuador where she and her partner are building an ecological retreat and sustainable living center.