Is it beneficial or harmful to practice yoga during your menstrual cycle?
Samuela wrote in with this question:
“What about contraindications about doing inversions during the menstrual cycle? I’ve been practicing ashtanga for 11 years now and have heard different opinions and indications about that. Some say to completely avoid them during the period, also no salamba sarvangasana and halasana. Others say to simplify the practice during the period, but you can do the finishing sequence. What do you think about it?! It’s a dilemma since I also teach yoga and I’ve always been in doubt about it! My experience is that I can do a simplified ashtanga practice, finishing sequence included, without any menstruation blockage. But, it’s just my experience. We are not all the same.”
Samuela asks a great question and David has graciously turned the writing reins over to me, a long-time student (Christine) as it really doesn’t make sense for someone who doesn’t actually experience a menstrual cycle to comment on the experience of practicing during one!
Some history and context
This points out one of the difficulties with all of the ideas about what you should or should not do with respect to yoga during your menstrual cycle that are all floating around out there…yoga practice in India was historically done by men. And, certainly one of the reasons behind the idea that women shouldn’t practice during the first three days of the menstrual cycle is likely related to anachronistic cultural and religious beliefs that women were somehow “unclean” during this time. As we now live in the modern era, complete with sanitation and hygiene, this definitely doesn’t hold true as a reason not to practice.
So once we get past the archaic ideas by men about what women should be doing in their yoga practice, we can look more closely at what the actual effects are of yoga during the menstrual cycle. It’s a fairly new experiment to have so many women world-wide doing a consistent yoga practice for many years. But, this is a great development, because now we finally have a few decades of women’s collective experience to draw on as we seek guidelines to share with newer female practitioners.
What does the research say?
Firstly, there is no actual research that I have found that actually looks at the effects of a long-term yoga practice on menstrual function or dysfunction. What research there is out there reports some positive effects of doing a yoga practice on maintaining regularity of a cycle and reducing the symptoms of PMS (Oates, 2017; Tsai et al., 2017). But, even that research doesn’t report on whether the sample populations practiced during their menstrual cycle or not. And, all of those studies were conducted using study participants who had no yoga experience. So, as there is no research on this topic yet, our best resource is the collective of women’s actual experience.
What are women experiencing?
So, we are dealing with people’s collective individual experiences when we make suggestions or hypotheses about how practicing asana might affect you if you choose to practice during a menstrual cycle. It’s important here to remember that each person’s individual experience could vary a lot and that each person’s experience is equally valid. What works for one person may not work for someone else.
What it seems likely may affect women who practice yoga is the intensity of the practice. There is research reporting that regular intense athletic activity can cause menstrual dysfunction if the energy intake in the form of calories consumed and nutritional balance of food is insufficient to support the activity (Melin et al., 2016; Marquez and Molinero, 2013). However, this research on athletics is reporting on women participating in intense athletic activity in general. It’s not reporting specifically on participating in athletic activity during a menstrual cycle. Also, it’s important to point out that the cause of menstrual dysfunction was not the athletic activity itself, but rather the insufficient energy intake (calories and appropriate nutritional balance) to support it.
Making informed choices
So we can use that information and recognize that we certainly have choices in yoga about how intensely we practice. We always have the choice to practice more gently and do postures that are less on the edge of range of motion. Similarly, we can choose to do less of a high intensity vinyasa practice if we’re having the experience that high intensity yoga practice negatively impacts our cycle in some way. We can also pay attention to our diet to be sure that we’re taking in sufficient nutrition to support our activity level.
What may also affect women just before and during a menstrual cycle is the change in hormone balance. Hormones are released in varying proportions during a menstrual cycle to drive the development and release of an egg (if not fertilized). The balance of these hormones can affect the laxity of ligaments and tendons as well as the mobility of muscle and other connective tissue. Some women have reported (and I have certainly experienced this myself) a feeling of being a little too flexible just before and/or at the beginning of a menstrual cycle. The joints might feel a bit unstable and it can be hard to connect to subtle muscular engagement like drawing in the transverse abdominis or lifting the muscles of the pelvic floor.
As these muscular engagements are important for stabilizing the body in order to more safely do dynamic movements, it might be a good idea if you’re having this experience, to back off in some way during those times. Depending on your experience, you could take a rest day, do a more restorative style practice, or just do a gentler version of your regular asana practice, whatever seems the best fit.
How should you practice yoga during your menstrual cycle?
Some amount of exploration is necessary for each woman to find the right practice for herself as there are so many variables that come together to create the practice experience. Each person’s body varies, our cycle varies each month, and it varies as we move through different ages and stages of life. Asana practices also vary, both the actual postures and the intensity with which we practice.
Melin, A., A.B. Tornberg, S. Skouby, S.S. Moller, J. Faber, J. Sundgot-Borgen, A. Sjodin. 2016. Low-energy density and high fiber intake are dietary concerns in female endurance athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 26:1060-1071.
Tsai, F-H., I.-H. Chu, T.-Y. Lin, J.-M. Liang, H.-T. Hsu, W.-L. Wu. 2017. Preliminary evidence on the effect of yoga on the reduction of edema in women with premenstrual syndrome. European Journal of Integrative Medicine. 9:63-68.