What’s up(side down) on Ladies Holiday?
Our menstrual cycle has many nicknames: Time of the Month, Aunt Flo, The Monthly Visitor, Moon Cycle, on The Rag, or Crimson Tide. We seem so reluctant to call it what it is, it’s no wonder there is confusion about how to address it in a yoga class. My favorite nickname, Ladies Holiday, comes from Ashtanga yoga. In this system, women take a three-day holiday from asana practice during their menstrual cycle. It was the first time I personally felt I had permission to slow down and honor my cycle.
It seems every style of yoga has its own recommendations. In the Iyengar tradition in Pune, India, an all–restoratives class is prescribed. Typically in flow classes, ladies are advised not to go upside down. This is somewhat confusing when options are given halfway through a yoga class that has been full of downward dogs. So what’s the deal?
First, all inversions are not created equally. Anatomically, an inversion means the heart is higher than the head so that their natural positions are inverted. In addition to the relative position of the head and heart, the position of the torso and legs in relation to the heart also matters. For example, in downward facing dog, the heart is higher than the head (inverted), but the legs are below the heart; whereas, in extended bridge pose, the torso and legs are in the same plane as the heart. This makes downward facing dog less intense than an extended bridge pose on the circulatory system. Likewise, when the legs are higher than the heart, as in legs up the wall pose, the work of the circulatory system is reversed, where blood easily flows with gravity down the legs and into the heart.
Fully inverted, active poses like headstand, shoulder stand, forearm balance, etc, require more work by the circulatory system. Any time a muscle is working, it needs more blood supply. It is unclear whether this inhibits or promotes menstrual blood from being released. In addition, these active inversions tend to have long holds that build heat and require lots of energy, which can be depleting. If you are already feeling overheated or fatigued on your cycle, it’s probably best to skip these poses.
Does inverting stop the blood flow? There is no hard evidence to suggest that going upside down will physiologically stop the menstrual flow, per se. Though, from a yogic subtle body perspective, it does inhibit the apana vayu, or downward flow of energy. You could argue that that’s reason enough. It’s a time of intuition for a woman, a time to honor subtle shifts.
Many back bends are also inversions. And they definitely build heat. They also may have the benefit of alleviating tension in the belly and/or the back that many women experience. If you are addicted to urdhva danurasana -- in which case it probably feels great if you have the juice for it – go for it! Otherwise, “baby back bends” may feel better. Even though it IS an inversion, supported bridge with a block underneath the sacrum felt amazing for me because it softened my lower belly.
Supta baddha konasana, aka goddess pose, is the quintessential restorative pose for Ladies Holiday. It is a (gentle) back bend without being an inversion and a hip opener. It supports the apana, downward-flowing energy, relieves fatigue and promotes relaxation on many levels. This is one pose that will get everybody’s vote. It’s a nice substitute for active, full inversions and/or backbends if you are feeling fatigued.
As you can see, it depends. If you were to ask 10 teachers, you may get as many answers of what you are supposed to do while on your cycle. Where they all agree – at least I hope this is true! – is that you should listen to your body and trust its wisdom. And it IS a time of women’s wisdom. It reminds us quite literally of the ebb and flow of life. And just as each month is different, each decade is very different!
Acknowledging our cycles by altering asana practice honors our femininity. It is a ritual of letting go and opening to what is. Embracing all of the changes of our lives is essential to the practice of yoga. And embracing change is essential to feeling empowered as women at every stage of life. Let your choice depend on how you feel as you honor yourself and the awareness that is the great gift of practicing yoga!