Periods and the menstrual cycle!

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Once seen as a shameful curse, periods are very much in the ‘field’ at the moment, with women openly talking about them. I recently recorded a podcast with Michelle Johansen of Female Potential entitled Positive Periods, and with good reason – it is my experience that the menstrual cycle should be embraced for all it reveals to us and the manner in which it supports us in living fulfilled and balanced lives. 

My first period arrived on 26 April 1988, when I was 13 years old and at school -  I can still picture the moment, because it was both exciting and a huge relief - my cousin and I had spoken at length about our impending (or so we hoped) first period and as she was older than me, hers had already started.  I was delighted to share with her that I too had now started getting my periods!

 There followed the drama at home of trying to insert tampons, because I found it painful and I still clearly remember my Mum trying to help me; it’s a tricky transition that one of being a child, to one who takes responsibility, and I was keen for her assistance. Once that was sorted, life carried on fairly much as it had done previously; I wasn’t aware that anything had shifted other than the fact I now bled once a month and my breasts were getting a teeny tiny bit bigger.

Fast forward to age 17 and the beginning of an eating disorder, which found me starving myself, and in the process my periods stopped altogether.  This was the sign my Mum needed to know that something really was out of kilter and with that I was marched to the doctor for help.  The help came in the form of a psychologist, but I was not in the slightest bit interested in talking about my diet issues and promptly refused to attend any further sessions. I slowly started eating again and in the process my periods returned. 

 However, the eating disorder didn’t go away, they rarely do, at least not without many years of hard work to get to the root of the problem and learning to eat properly again. The eating disorder at that time was one of starvation and binge, and while this inevitably stressed my body, my periods continued in their monthly order, albeit I gave them very little awareness, other than the need to insert tampons so that I could continue playing competitive netball and all the other competitive sport I played back then.

 Fast forward again to my mid twenties when I was unconsciously working my way up the corporate ladder, living a life that didn’t quite fit who I was on the inside, but I didn’t know that there was any other way. At that time, I was spending two weeks of every month feeling fairly horrible - depressed, emotional and with fluctuating mood swings, which found me moody, angry and irritable. 

In the last week pre-period, I’d crave carbohydrates and binge on them given the chance, which meant that I was often bloated and constipated. The waistbands of my work suits would cut into my tummy making me feel really uncomfortable in my own skin. I was also full of self-loathing, which was compounded by the demands of an office job, which meant I had to show up every day even though all I wanted to do was retreat from the world. 

There were times when I took a sickie because I felt so rotten – tearful and vulnerable - and I just couldn’t face going into the office. I doubt very much my bosses at the time would have been sympathetic if they’d have known, and I’m sure holiday would have been deducted instead. I was lucky really though, as I rarely suffered with physical pain, and I have no idea how women manage this in the work place, it’s bad enough having to manage menstruation itself (always fear of leaking and others finding out as you sneak sanitary products into the toilet). 

I knew that my life couldn’t continue like this. While the arrival of my period would ease the tension and pre-menstrual symptoms, this was only for two weeks, before my moods shifted all over again. I was stressed and depressed and would smoke cigarettes, chain drink black coffee and consume wine to supposedly ease this – I now recognise that this was compounding matters, but at the time I felt trapped by my life, paying a mortgage as I was, and trying to fit in.

 Finally, it got to the point where I couldn’t ignore the fact that life had lost all joy – it had become too painful and I wasn’t sure that there was any point. Events led me back to the doctorsand a prescription for Prozac was written. I had been prescribed Prozac previously but had stopped taking it on account of the fact it made me feel woolly. This time, I recall holding the prescription in my hand and deciding that I would not be beaten, I would find another way to ease my depression, I just didn’t know how.

I started running, as if to run my life forward, and this certainly shifted something in me, even though I still suffered with depression and monthly tensions. I ended up running the London marathon and it was this that led me to yoga, because my body was a mess and because everything I read suggested depression could be helped by yoga. There was something about yoga that made me feel better immediately, and I was hooked from that first class.

Not long after discovering yoga, I met the nutritionist, Carol Champion, who introduced me to the concept of healthy eating.  At that point, I was still suffering with an eating disorder and tried my best to avoid eating, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes instead, only to then lose control and binge eat on all the foods I had denied myself previously; it was exhausting. The idea of eating for health rather than for one’s weight was a huge perspective shift for me.  

It was Carol who helped me to realise that my symptoms were cyclical and linked to my menstrual cycle. I had PMS! This was a revelation and empowering too, because I had something to work with.  I started following the ‘diet’ plan that she gave to me, and religiously took vitamin B supplements as well as those to support the liver and ease PMS. As a result, my weight stabilised for the first time in a long time and I felt so much better, I couldn’t believe it; we really are what we eat.

This realisation and increased body-mind awareness, coincided with me meeting Alyssa Burns-Hill, who was advertising her new meditation classes at one of the yoga classes we both attended. I had been told that meditation would also ease depression and PMS, so I went along to her first meditation class. It was at this class that I first met Michelle Johansen, who was the only other person in the class! I remember Michelle and Ally talking about Reiki, crystals and angels and wondering what they were on about; little did I know it at that time how much these things would become an integral part of my life and my healing of PMS. 

I started seeing Ally for intuitive life coaching sessions using Reiki, which were life changing. I was 28 years old by then and I hadn’t realised that I had a choice in how I might live my life and that I was allowed to have dreams that I might one day fulfil. This was another revelation! The sessions helped me to connect with my heart and soul and, for the first time in a long time, I started to listen to what my heart was trying to tell me. 

 I had always been passionate about writing, but had never believed that it might be possible to pursue this. But the sessions helped me to recognise that this deep inner yearning needed to be given expression. By then I had become passionate about yoga too. So with the insight, strength and courage gained from the sessions, I sold the house I co-owned with my brother, left my permanent finance job and went off travelling to immerse myself in yoga and write about it. 

Interestingly, albeit unsurprisingly, as I aligned my life more closely with my heart, and as I tapped into my creativity with the writing, and ate healthily (letting go of coffee and excessive wine drinking) my PMS dropped away. This was supported by the yoga and Reiki, both of which shifted stagnant energy and helped me to recognise the depth of my imbalance and in this recognition, do something about it. 

It became clear to me that PMS had showed up every month as my body’s way of trying to get me to listen, to tell me that something was very much out of balance in my life. After this, my relationship with my menstrual cycle improved considerably, I was no longer fearful of it, and slowly came to recognise the blessing in the curse. In having PMS, I had been encouraged to acknowledge my heart and soul and learn to heal myself. As a result, my whole life and perspective on life changed.

Fast forward 18 months, and a few months after my 30thbirthday, I embarked on an intensive 7-week yoga teacher training course in Byron Bay, Australia with a dynamic male yoga teacher, followed by an unofficial apprenticeship for 3 months with another dynamic male yoga teacher. During both the teacher training course and the apprenticeship, I was practicing between 2-6 hours of dynamic yoga asana every single day. I was also following a restrictive raw vegan diet in an effort to increase my sense of lightness both on and off my mat, and also try to be the perfect skinny yogini – ha, how funny is that!

 It is perhaps not surprising that during this time my periods stopped. My approach to my dynamic yoga practice and my relationship to my body, was one of yang energy – masculine. I was actually relieved when my periods stopped because it meant I had absolutely no signs that my period was coming (that slightly clumsy, vulnerable and irritable feeling pre-period) and didn’t have to concern myself with tampons during my monthly bleed so I could carry on my yoga practice throughout - isn’t that crazy!

Up until that point, and for years afterwards, I made little allowance in my yoga practice for my monthly cycle and made little reference to the menstrual cycle during the classes I taught.  I would continue to practice in a strong and yang manner at all times.  I didn’t know what it meant to be yin and gentle. If I wasn’t practicing a handstand or headstand and a strong backbend, let alone numerous planks during my daily practice, then I didn’t feel like I’d practiced properly. It wasn’t necessarily the poses either, but my mental approach. It was all about pushing and pulling. 

Ally had by then become a hormone specialist so I undertook a saliva based hormone test with her, and funnily enough this showed that my hormones were all out of balance and I had excess testosterone, at least in comparison to my diminished progesterone and oestrogen levels. It turned out I also had ovarian cysts, which I wrote about in my book Dancing with the Moon, and which I now recognise from an Ayurvedic perspective as a vata imbalance (so too the loss of my period). There began a quest to heal myself again through healthy eating (no more of the raw and vegan diet, which was making me sick), Ayurvedic herbs, and a gentler approach to yoga (no more hard-core stuff!).

Soon, the combination of living back at home in Guernsey, where I was treated to my Mum’s amazing cooking each day, the lack of dynamic yoga classes, plus the fact I was now working, meant that my periods finally returned. I was grateful for this, because I had come to recognise that having absent periods (amenorrhea) was a sign of a significant imbalance in my body and my life generally. Fortunately, I was able to heal the ovarian cysts (I document this in my book), which was a relief as I was keen to have children one day. 

 That day finally arrived, or at least the day when my partner, E, and I decided that we might try for children. Then my period and my menstrual cycle became my primary focus. I grew increasingly intimate with my cycle, noticing the changes in discharge, energy levels and mood during the month, so that I would recognise when I might be ovulating.  I became increasingly aware of the link between my cycle and the moon cycle too, and it was about this time that I invited the Goddess of the Moon more fully into my life (or maybe she invited herself, I can’t be sure).

Sadly, it turned out that despite my best efforts at connecting with my cycle and trying to enhance my fertility naturally, we were destined for IVF.  You can read about this journey in, Dancing with the Moon too. This book documents the joy I felt at having my eggs collected on the day of the full moon, an omen for me.  There I was at my most fertile, with lovely ripe eggs to prove it on the day that the moon was also at her fullest, juiciest and most fertile too. 

It seemed that all the healing work I had done, through yoga (embracing a more yin approach with lots of restorative yoga and Yoga Nidra) and other healing modalities such as Reiki, had paid off. I prayed a lot to the Goddess of the Moon too and had managed to align my menstrual cycle directly with the moon cycle. I encourage any lady on a quest to conceive, to work as much as she can with her menstrual cycle and the moon cycle too.

After the birth of my son, Elijah, it took 9 months for my period to return.  I was so joyous when it did because it felt so strange being without a cycle to connect with the moon as I had done previously before pregnancy. I certainly agree with Uma Dinsmore-Tuli when she wrote that the post-natal period (and the peri-menopausal period - although I don’t yet have the experience of this to validate) can be a very disorientating time for women. 

It wasn’t long after this, that I came across Code Red, written by Lisa Lister, and Uma’s book Yoni Shakti.  Both books were life changing in their own ways.  In Code Red, Lisa writes about the four main phases of the menstrual cycle and the manner in which we can opportune each of these phases if we are aware of the wisdom contained within them. By this I mean that each phase brings with it a way of being and here I share with you myexperience.

Bleeding on the new moon potentially presents a time to retreat into our inner cave, like the Red Tent, taking ourselves away from the world and tapping into our blood wisdom. This is day one of the menstrual cycle when we are at our most intuitive so we might gain clarity on stuff that has been bothering us during the rest of the cycle. Things might slot into place with the letting go that accompanies the letting go flow of the menstrual blood, essentially shedding what is old to make way for the new to come in, with the new beginning of both the menstrual cycle and the moon cycle.

The follicular stage comes next, post bleed, when our energy levels return and we feel like we’re ready to come out of our cave and re-enter the light of the world again. Oestrogen levels are rising and we’ve potentially gained more clarity and now with our increased energy levels and sense of wellbeing, well there’s nothing much to complain about. It’s time to put into action and manifest all that has become clearer to us during our bleed. There’s a movement from connection to inner self, to refocusing on outer work and others. The moon may be waxing.

Day 14 (approximately) and we start ovulating, which may align with the full moon. We feel more attractive and confident than we might do at any other part of the cycle and we’re more sociable than we’ve been all cycle. We’re also trying to create and shape our life according to our vision now that we have a clearer sense of clarity and increased energy levels to support this. Our vaginal discharge may be heavier than at any other part of the cycle.  We might also experience pain, often one sided, an indication that we are ovulating. We might experience feelings of heightened sexuality. 

Post ovulation, the luteal phase, and as the moon wanes so too we may feel a waning in our energy and general interest in life as we are drawn back deeply into ourselves again. We are more sensitive as progesterone levels are rising and we might start to feel increasingly sensitive and vulnerable.  We might also feel confused and lacking in clarity. We may also feel angry and full of rage.

We become increasingly picky, so while this is a good time to edit, for example, this might be the time when we give our partner and family a hard time for doing everything wrong – at least wrong according to our higher standards.  We might be especially hard on ourselves too. Nothing feels quite right. Our clothes might feel a little tighter. Our job might not flow so easily. Stuff that doesn’t usually bother us, bothers us. 

It’s a potentially enlightening part of the cycle to sit with, because it might highlight all the things that are out of balance in our lives. There is much more tension and therefore creative potential, if only we get the opportunity to connect with this. During this time there may be changes in our vaginal discharge. Sometimes we may get a watery discharge that might have us thinking that our period has started, but then this will ease, and we may get nothing, perhaps, if anything, a slight burning sensation and dryness the day or so before our bleed.  

We might also experience cramps, anxiety, interrupted sleep, insomnia, nervous tension, mood swings, forgetfulness, irritability, anger, headaches, water retention, swollen breasts, bloating, lethargy and/or drowsiness. Our temperature may rise and sometimes, we may feel sexual, as if the body’s way of easing the tension created by the increasing progesterone levels and the ‘on edge’, ‘holding on tightly’ feeling this can give. This may last up until approximately day 28 and the end of the cycle. 

Many women experience pain around the time of their bleed. This is hardly surprising when you consider that the lining of the endometrium is literally shedding away. That’s a big deal! But the pain is also a messenger, literally drawing our attention into the body and away from the outer world. It encourages us to rest and retreat, perhaps taking a short break from our other responsibilities.

Sadly, we have been conditioned to overlook this pain, seeing it more as the curse of being a woman than a nudge of wisdom. So rather than rest, we may be more inclined to takeparacetamol, and carry on life as normal, battling our way through the day, drinking wine to comfort us, or binging on carbohydrates, rather than taking ourselves to a quiet space, nurturing ourselves with blankets and pillows, lighting candles, playing gentle music and listening to what with our womb is trying to say to us.

Alexandra Pope writes, “At menstruation itself a woman can potentially enter a more expanded consciousness, experiencing highly charged altered states that can be ecstatic and visionary”. The key to this, is both respect for, and awareness of, the changes that take place during our cycle. It is in this way that we come to recognise that our changing moods each have a role to play in helping us to live a more fulfilled and creative life. 

After years of yoga practice, I have come to recognise the importance of adjusting our yoga practice to support whichever stage we are at in our menstrual cycle, especially menstruation.  During menstruation the womb is influenced by apana-vayu, which is a downward and outward moving energy. Situated in the pelvic floor, apana-vayu’s energy pervades the lower abdomen and nourishes the organs of digestion, elimination and reproduction.

This is the reason that we shouldn’t invert our bodies during menstruation, as this will prevent the blood from flowing downwards towards the earth with gravity and apana-vayu. I’m not a fan of tampons or mooncups for the very same reason either – they do not allow the downward movement of the blood out of the vagina, collecting the blood inside. I prefer organic and reusable cotton pads instead (www.honouryourflow.com). The wild yogini might take a few minutes to actually bleed directly onto the Earth on the evening of her heaviest flow, to deepen her connection with the Earth, but that’s a whole other story!

Practising yoga to honour and support the menstrual cycle is what prompted me to teach yoni yoga, inspired from the womb yoga practise from Uma’s book Yoni Shakti, and from attending a couple of her training courses, including one on menstruation and fertility.  In my own life, I have found this softer and more feminine approach to yoga deeply nourishing and it has also enhanced my connection to my womb space and to my womb wisdom. This has helped me to notice when I am out of balance and need to make changes…not that it’s always easy to make the changes, or recognise the changes that need to be made!

For example, when my life was crazy busy last year with publishing books and trying to hold down an office job as well as teaching yoga and Reiki and trying to spend time with my boys, my cycle went out of kilter. Hardly surprising really. I started seeing my Ayurvedic doctor to help me address the imbalance and while this centred primarily on the solar plexus, it was addressing imbalance generally. The result was that I recognised that I needed to make significant changes to my life to de-stress (ironic as a yoga teacher!) and create better balance and more space in my life for the things that nourish me, like my boys.

While it took some time to step beyond the fear of the letting go that these changes required, I knew that they had to be made because my menstrual cycle was making me very aware of this; womb and blood wisdom do not lie. The fact my cycle wasn’t aligned with the moon bothered me too. Pre-children my period had been aligned with the new moon, post-children this had shifted to the full moon. And now my period had shifted to the waning half moon.

I could make sense of this though. I knew that I was going through a transition from one way of being to another. Changes were being made but could not happen over night, and for a while I felt stuck, lacking in clarity about how life would unfold, but comfortable there too, because I had a sense that things would become clearer in time. Sometimes we need to sit in the ambiguity, because everything has a timing and there is a lot to learn from the transition itself (think of yoga and how the transition from one pose to another is as important, if not more important and revealing than the pose itself).

This is probably the time to highlight that not every cycle will align with the moon. From an Ayurvedic perspective, for example, a typical vata cycle will be irregular and while pitta and kapha tend to have regular cycles these may not be 28 or 29 days in length. Furthermore, while you may read that, for example, high priestesses and healers are more likely to bleed on the full moon, I don’t think we should let our ego get too carried away with this. If women live together their cycles tend to align, but we each have a cycle depending upon what is going on in our lives, and our connection to the Earth (and moon) at any given time. 

I finally quit the office job, putting in place better boundaries, re-prioritising my time (still an ongoing process), re-connecting with the Goddess who I had overlooked in my quest to achieve all things, and quietening my home practice to embrace womb-based yoga again.

Changes made, it took a while for the effects to be felt and for me to see more clearly the root to the initial imbalance – we can make changes in our outer lives but for real change to occur, we need to make the inner shift. 

For me this meant a letting go of my ‘old’ approach to life with all its behaviour patterns and perceptions. I fought this for a while, as we do, through uncertainty, lack of clarity and fear as much as anything else. But then something finally clicked during some Scaraveli-inspired one-to-one yoga training, and I could no longer remain in denial (always finding excuses) and with that recognition, came a much needed and rather emotional deep acceptance.

Life had to change. It was time to rest into myself, and stop all the pushing and pulling and achieving and rather masculine approach to life in trying to be all things - isn’t this the irony of life for us ‘empowered’ women these days, that in our quest to be all things, we’re still denying the deep feminine and have forgotten what is important in our lives, and the need to rest. It is not surprising that so many women, mothers especially, are tired and exhausted, and so many currently questioning their role in life.   

When we reach that point of acceptance, it’s like we let go of all that we have been holding on to, and in the letting go, we experience an awakening.  Life can never be the same again, because we have awakened to it. There is no going back to sleep. It’s as if a rush of support and energy comes flooding in, and we find the courage to take the step that moves us from fear into a new territory where life is full of new potential and experiences that we hadn’t known possible previously.   

Funnily enough, once the acceptance was reached, and the shift had taken place not only physically, but mentally and emotionally, then my period aligned perfectly with the new moon and new beginnings. I was both relieved and delighted. This was proof that by working with our menstrual cycle we truly can align our lives to a more authentic and harmonious way of living, which is always changing, because we are at heart creative beings, creating and re-creating our lives over and over again. The menstrual cycle will highlight where we are stuck, or have grown stagnant, or are not listening. 

As Uma Dinsmore-Tuli writes, “Menstrual cycle awareness matters: it is the inner yoga of women (and the men who live with them), the ultimate self-care tool. As a stress-sensitive system, the menstrual cycle gives feedback physically and emotionally. By respecting and cooperating with its rhythm, we can experience greater levels of energy and wellbeing, creativity and productivity.

I encourage all women who are menstruating to become increasingly familiar and intimate with their cycles, especially those who are seeking to conceive.  It can be deeply empowering to know ourselves on such a deep level and to be able to navigate our lives in accordance with our deepest truth and insight. There is a blessing in what was once thought of to be a curse and I am delighted that ‘periods’ are being talked about so openly.

More next time on the ‘science’ of the menstrual cycle and of yoga to support the cycle. 

 

Emma DespresComment