Yoga to Banish Menstrual Pains — What Every Woman Should Know

Yoga prescription

I know there have been times in my life when being a woman has really been a pain, literally, but I am not alone! Over 75% of women of childbearing age are affected by PMT.

Period pains, premenstrual tension (PMT), monthly water retention… and all that is before the indignities of dealing with the bleeding. It is truly hard to love your body when it seems to have a hidden agenda that seems hellbent on ruining your life, but I have some good news: yoga can help to get your body back on an even keel.

PMT: Premenstrual Purgatory

Some women suffer terribly from irritability, mood swings, anxiety, depression and anger — with the whole lot being labelled premenstrual tension or simply PMT. This can really make life a misery for the sufferer, as well as family and friends, and is the butt of many a comedians jokes. It’s no joke though when you have to live with it.

The first piece of good news is that PMT really does exist. A 2013 study showed that women had higher sympathetic brain activity during their premenstrual phase than after their period, in other words their body was more stressed. They also demonstrated increased body weight, more anger, worse anxiety and depression scores and a reduced sense of wellbeing when measured by validated questionnaires.

As I spoke about in my previous article on the nervous system, the sympathetic side of the nervous system is the one that is stimulated by stress and involved in the fight-or-flight response. We know that yoga stimulates the parasympathetic side of the nervous system and cancels out the bad stuff caused by overactivity in the sympathetic side of the system. This same study showed that daily āsāna, prānāyāma and meditation reduces sympathetic activity and increases parasympathetic activity. In addition, wellbeing, anger, depression and anxiety scores all improved heaps and premenstrual body weight dropped when the patient started practising yoga.  

Another recent study also concluded that:

The result suggests possible benefits for yogic techniques (Asanas, Pranayama and Dhyana) in reducing premenstrual symptoms and preventing suffering from premenstrual tension and syndrome.

In short, yoga directly counteracts those negative aspects of PMT that get in the way of you living your life to the fullest!

Easing The Pain During Your Period

Over the last few years, studies are also showing that yoga can also ease period pains. They have found that:

  1. 6 months of yoga nidra for 35 minutes 5 times a week reduced period pain, tummy upsets and cardiovascular symptoms like fainting and dizziness.
  2. Practicing cobra, cat and fish pose during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (i.e. the premenstrual bit) reduced period pain.
  3. 3 months of yoga 3 times a week increases blood flow to the uterus and the authors proposed that this could be how period pain is eased.

Good news for women: scientists are unanimously agreeing that yoga assists pain during your period as well. But does this mean you an do your practise as normal?

To Invert Or Not To Invert? That Is The Question

Traditional wisdom is that a woman should not perform inversions during her period as this reverses the natural flow of the menstrual blood. It is almost going against nature.

These days female gymnasts do not abstain from handstands during their period. Women acrobats don’t avoid back flips and lady swimmers do not eschew tumble turns just because they have their period. So who is right?

Mark Stephens in his book Yoga Sequencing offers a common sense approach to this conundrum and states:

As the NASA Medical Division has confirmed through studies of women in zero-gravity environments, medical science in general has established that menstrual egress is caused by intrauterine and intravaginal pressure along with peristaltic action of muscles, which are not measurably influenced by gravity.

In other words, turning ourselves upside down will not make our menstrual blood flow back into the uterus because our reproductive muscles pump the blood out rather than just relying on gravity.

How To Practice Yoga During Your Period

Where does this leave us? Well, yoga in its many forms really does ease the pain of menstruation: especially āsana, prānāyāma, meditation and yoga nidrā. Yoga nidrā and āsāna ease period pains if done premenstrually and potentially during your period to get that increase in uterine blood flow that is thought to help relieve pain.

The studies I looked at used a range of poses including forward folds, back bends, twists and hip openers with no one sequence being superior to another. So what to try? Do what feels good — during your period you are unlikely to want a strong practice and some yin or restorative yoga may suit you better. Premenstrually, a strong practice may help to vent any pent-up feelings of anger or a grounding sequence may help with anxiety. Listen to your body — it’s your wisest teacher. 

All that being said, do remember that yoga is not a quick fix for menstrual problems. The science tells us that practice needs to be sustained and regular (at least three times a week) to be effective. In most studies, effects showed most positively after three to six months. You need to be patient, but yoga teaches us patience in all things so that should be no problem for a yogini like you.

If you have any particular poses or sequences that you find particularly helpful, I would love to know. Let’s pool our knowledge and see if yoga can make womankind suffer less — we really don’t deserve it.

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