Living with a Menstrual Cycle in a Yang World by Jennifer Iliffe, 2017
For my British Wheel of Yoga elective paper I have chosen to write about living with a menstrual cycle in a Yang world. I have chosen this topic because I feel yoga is an exercise that speaks to and encourages Yin aspects of life. However, with modern day life being as busy as it is and the encouragement to be as yang as possible, some qualities of yoga that are practised and taught have become more Yang to fit with the world’s fast pace. With women being the majority clientèle of the yoga industry, ignoring the Yin phase of the menstrual cycle (the bleeding phase) can have serious health implications for women and world-wide imbalances.
In this essay I discuss the following; firstly, I give a brief meaning of the title and the basic structure of the menstrual cycle, hormones, energy and mood, adding here other examples of natural cycles that flow in the world. I compare this to the advertisements that are presented to women in modern day life and the products that are available to them.
I designed short questionnaires to gather some opinions of women and men on how they think and feel about the menstrual cycle, and I present the results and noteworthy/reoccurring comments. I then continue with an explanation on why I think women should live with their cycles, why it’s important, how living with the cycles affects the world, and proactive ways to develop a life living with the cycle to promote better health.
I conclude with a yoga session plan and description on how to bring the menstrual cycle into a yoga practice. The plan is structured around the four stages of the menstrual cycle energy pattern and poses that complement each stage.
Meaning of the Title
There are many ways of looking at this subject, such as living as a woman in a man’s world, living with a natural cycle of energy when the world appreciates high energy at all times, or naturally bleeding every month but not feeling comfortable to talk about it.
There are many ways this topic could have been approached. For this paper (and the reason I chose this title), I want to focus on the energy cycle aspects of the menstrual cycle in contrast to the biased appreciation which society has for high energy, continuous activity and continuous stimulation – the Yang side of the Yin and Yang.
Basic Structure of the Menstrual Cycle
Let’s start with the bleeding phase, the most Yin part of the menstrual cycle and the most acknowledged yet tabooed part of the woman’s monthly cycle. During these few days up to a week (in general) the body is shedding the uterine lining of the womb that it has taken the last few weeks to create, and releases it along with the unfertilised egg from the uterus and body.
It is the time of the month when the hormones oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest and energy levels are at their lowest (that, plus the heavy duty muscle work it takes to shed the uterus’ lining). With such busy work going on within, a woman can feel the need to withdraw and go within herself (or be with other women who are feeling the same).
When oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest, the pituitary gland is signalled to release a hormone called follicle stimulating hormone to begin the process of maturing the next egg, as this month’s egg was not fertilised. It can take between 3 – 7 days for a bleeding phase to complete, after which the post menstrual phase begins. In this phase the body continues to produce and mature a new egg from the ovaries. As the egg matures, the hormone oestrogen rises. This signals to and prepares the uterus for pregnancy. Giving the woman more energy and the feeling of waking up to the world with new ideas and the need to explore.
At ovulation time, with oestrogen rising to its highest, luteinizing hormone is released from the pituitary gland to signal and cause the newly matured egg to be released from the ovaries. With the high levels of oestrogen, and an added hit of testosterone release, the woman feels at her liveliest. This is the time of the month when the woman can feel her most social, outgoing and confident. Once the egg has matured and been released from the ovaries the body continues to release oestrogen and progesterone to continue to prepare the uterus for pregnancy.
If the egg is not fertilised, the oestrogen and progesterone levels drop dramatically, causing a drop in energy levels and the bleeding phase to begin.
The menstrual cycle is one example of many naturally occurring cycles in the world. In the next section I will list other examples of these cycles, their connection to one another and discuss the importance of having cycles in nature.
Other Cycles of the World
Natural cycles happen all around the universe. The Chinese describe and categorise these cycles with the Yin and Yang symbol. Yin is the calmer, gentler, darker side of the cycle and Yang is the much more active, energetic and bright side. Each side has the “seed” of the other within (the spot in the middle of the teardrop shape). Cycles in nature can be broken up into these two sides with ever flowing movement and exchange between them. Cycles like the examples listed below are part of how nature continues to evolve and develop further. Without both sides of these cycles nothing would change and life would not be able to sustain itself.
The continuous flow of natural cycles should be a good indication of how humans should live. The next section looks at how advertisements influence women’s minds on menstrual cycle awareness.
Looking at advertisements for feminine hygiene products, it is great to see them everywhere, on TV, magazines, websites, social media and bill boards. This exposes everybody, female and male, to the importance and necessity of these products. It has now become the norm in the western culture to have these adverts presented to all on a daily basis. Approaching the adverts from an energy cycle view point, the campaigns do not seem to incorporate the natural cycle of energy that can decline during the bleeding phase of the menstrual cycle. Most, if not all, adverts for feminine hygiene products present women in their most active state (partying, running, high adrenaline activities) with the promise that the product will help to “hide” their period and make them feel “secure” so that they are able to continue with their daily lives or even add more adventurous activities during this time. This can create and, I believe, has created a view that women are just as active and energetic during the bleeding phase of their cycle, giving women the impression that they should feel energetic and active. However, if a woman feels the shifts in her hormone levels and has the reaction of having less energy, wanting to be alone, and feeling low enthusiasm, she could feel pressured and/or even insecure that she is unable to fulfil the expectations of keeping high levels of energy throughout the monthly cycles. Causing low self-esteem as they may feel like they cannot “keep up” with the busy pace of the modern world. As a result a woman could learn to work through the cycle, creating more energy by drinking coffee or with other stimulants to keep her going and seeing the bleeding phase as an inconvenient part of life. Possibly developing into more severe symptoms such as period pains, muscle aches, fatigue and PMS.
“Somewhat incredibly, many menstrual researchers have discovered that PMS is a condition almost exclusively found in the Western world. Indeed, it is a complaint that women and medical professionals alike in other cultures have no comprehension of.”
– Moon Time by Lucy H. Pearce
Having looked at how advertisements play a part in how women see their menstrual cycle, I will now discuss the results of the questionnaires, which both women and men have filled out, in the next section.
How Women and Men think and feel about the Menstrual Cycle (Questionnaire results)
I created an online questionnaire to find out how/what women and men thought and felt about the menstrual cycle. The women’s form had 17 questions, most being multiple choice answers. Whereas, the men had 11 questions with all but one question being multiple choice.
My aim was to get as many different opinions and view points to see where the majority of feeling was towards the menstrual cycle.
The results were very interesting. Below I will summarise the outcome and most common comments from both women and men. Please see data results attached for result breakdown.
Women’s Survey Results –
I shared the link to the survey on social media and among friends, asking them to send the link on to their friends. With fifty women responding to the questionnaire there was a good range of results and comments.
Out of the fifty results, 66% of them being between the age of 31 – 45 years, 40% being mothers, only 1 woman put that they were a “stay at home mum”. The rest of the women almost equally divided between “9-5”, “part-time” and “self-employed” jobs.
The average general feelings the women had towards their menstrual cycle was a 5.10 out of 10, with energy levels dropping an average of 1.93.
58% of the women suffering from period pain, and 54% say they take pain killers to help alleviate the symptoms.
When experiencing drops in energy levels when their period starts or just before starting, 62% say they tend to “rest (pamper/”me-time”)” but also 66% saying they would rather “continue day-to-day activities” during the bleeding phase.
84% of the 50 women who responded said they did not think advertisements for menstrual cycle hygiene products were a good representation of how to live life with their menstrual cycle.
When asked to give general comments on how they feel about their menstrual cycle, “It’s just part of life” and “It’s annoying” or “gets in the way” were recurring comments. Others wrote that it makes them feel feminine and without it women would not be able to have children. Sadly, most women wrote that their period causes them anxiety with low mood and energy levels and the want/need to stay at home.
I also asked what they thought men thought of the menstrual cycle. The responses were quite mixed. Most comments were feelings that men do not understand, think it just effects women’s moods, or that they don’t care and don’t want to know. On the other hand, some women wrote that they feel when the man loves the woman he can be very supportive and caring.
A lot of the comments to the last question about how they feel the menstrual cycle fits into the work environment were that they feel it does not fit for various reasons. Some say they’d like to take the time off or be able to work from home. Others say they would like or are happy if female hygiene provisions are provided. Only a few wrote they feel fine with their workplaces attitudes to the menstrual cycle.
Having had 50 women fill in the survey, I received a good range of opinions and experiences of the menstrual cycle. It was incredibly interesting to read the variety of comments that were written and see overall views and recurring view points. The results, as a whole, show how women are not happy experiencing their cycle and do not feel fully respected or understood with this natural monthly cycle.
Let’s compare this view with the views of the men…
Men’s survey results –
Sharing the men’s survey had interesting responses even before there were any results. As with the women’s survey, I shared a link on social media and among friends, also asking them to send the link on to their friends. A few of the men wrote back to me that they felt they need to select the appropriate friends, explaining that some of their male friends would be too “immature” and possibly not write serious answers. I found this interesting as I was hoping to receive a variety of responses to the survey, but as some men were considered to be so uncomfortable with the topic of menstrual cycles they would not partake in the survey.
As a result, I received half the number of results as I got for the women, with most men quite comfortable with the subject.
Out of the 30 men who filled in the survey, 53% were between the ages of 31 – 45 years, with 87% of them saying they were in full time jobs.
90% said they know that the menstrual cycle effects a woman’s energy level and 60% feel they know when a close female relative/friend/partner is experiencing their menstrual period.
When asked if they feel comfortable talking about a female’s menstrual cycle, the average score out of 10 was 7.77 with two men having put 2 out of 10. With that, 77% of them said they think they could tell their daughter (if they currently had one or not) about her menstrual cycle.
When asked if they knew men also had hormonal cycles that could effect energy levels the results were almost balanced.
The last question I asked them was to write their general feelings or thoughts towards the menstrual cycle. In the question, I gave examples of what they could respond with – “it’s gross!, never thought about it, I feel sorry for girls, it’s just life”. I noticed that the first few results I received, most of the men wrote “it’s just life” and as I read these comments I realised I wasn’t sure what this meant. When I asked others what they thought “it’s just life” meant, everyone felt differently. Some were positive about the phrase and some felt it was negative in this context. So I decided to take this example out of the list given in the question. After I took it out, the responses became more detailed and nobody wrote “it’s just life” as their answer. The following answers were mainly; “I feel sorry for girls” with a few saying they’d like to be more educated on the subject.
I would have liked to have received more results for the men’s survey, however, I feel the responses I did receive and the reaction I had when asking to share the link was interesting and shows that the topic can be a difficult one for some, both male and female.
The results above give an impression of general attitudes towards the menstrual cycle. The next section describes why women (and men) should embrace this cycle.
Why Women should live with their Cycle and Why it’s Important
Everything in the world lives in varying time lengths of a cycle, such as the examples I have described above. As humans have developed and created a modern world of central heating, indoor lighting and all year round food production, the understanding of things having a cycle, when it concerns humans, has been lost. Most foods are available to us all year through, lighting in houses means we are able to stay up longer and central heating keeps us cosy and warm even in the coldest days of the year. However, even with such advantages as these, the human body is still a natural product and flows with nature no matter the technological development.
Looking again at the hormones that increase and decrease in a monthly cycle, affecting energy levels, there is no technology that can stop this natural cycle without having other symptoms and side effects (e.g. the contraceptive pill) and possibly causing other conditions.
As with all the natural cycles, there is a natural low productivity stage (winter, hibernation, night time) humans (men and women) have the same yin phase that is determined by hormones. Women, having a menstrual cycle, get a natural alarm clock for when this time of calm should take place. With peak oestrogen levels at ovulation and steady oestrogen and progesterone release at post ovulation only lasting a week, the best time to be active and energetic is during this phase as the hormones are acting as a helping hand. Then, oestrogen and progesterone drops just before and during the bleeding phase, dropping energy levels and giving the woman the cue to enter the yin, introverted, calm state.
The hormones and natural flows in the body for the menstrual cycle are not there just for the creation, maturing, releasing and expelling of unfertilised eggs or developing and nurturing of a fertilised egg. Not only do these hormones affect the energy levels but flow through and affect the entire body, affecting concentration, muscle strength and tension, digestion, hair growth and many other areas. By ignoring and/or blocking these hormones from their natural cycle the system can become confused and disorientated, showing up as seemingly “unconnected” symptoms, such as loss of hair, mood swings, muscle ache, “fuzzy head”, low self esteem, depression, and “burn out”.
“It seems that it’s no longer adequate to be a True Individual, or even a Hero; now one needs to be some sort of Superman, living an overinflated life punctuated … with explanation marks.”
– The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff
Embracing the menstrual cycle is clearly important. What happens when we ignore it is discussed in the next section.
How not Living with the Cycle affects the World
The modern world is continuously growing and expanding, in technology, population, choices and knowledge. With such advances its easy to get lost in the busy, highly stimulating, power and money driven aspects of society. Feeling a strong pull to constantly be busy, in a good mood and have high levels of energy. However, without the yin, quiet moments of resting and digesting, the high energy is not sustainable.
Ignoring the call and feelin,njfdjyrgthyñghvft5rd6fc gs to go quiet and turn within during menstruation time can cause fatigue and burn outs in the long run. For the women who suffer from menstrual pain and PMS this call can be very difficult to ignore, but in today’s world, is expected to be ignored. Making the woman feel grumpy, short tempered and tired, creating tension in her day-to-day activities and interactions with others. If the woman were given the space, mentally, physically and without the pressured feeling, to be able to rest and nourish herself during menstruation she could allow her body to run its natural cycle and in turn avoid the feelings of frustration and tiredness around this phase and possible burn out in the peak energy phase.
Expecting women to ignore this natural cycle (by using pharmaceuticals to cover the discomfort, continuing daily activities at the same energy level, not having time to rest and digest) creates this force of ever rising and expanding energy that cannot be sustained and resulting in only coming down with force; i.e. burst of anger, fatigue, sickness.
From woman to woman the experience of the menstrual cycle is different and with varying degrees of “inconvenience”. However, en masse, and lets bring in the males hormone cycle (which is more of a 24 hour cycle), this unacknowledged need for the yin phase causes world-wide PMS. Frustration within (e.g. being tired) showing as an outward frustration, i.e. road rage, aggression, arguments and miscommunication, need for power over others and war!
Women not following the natural yin and yang cycle within, that is such an obvious clock and call, gives the impression and permission to others and the world that we can take advantage and keep pushing. Not allowing for the yin to have its time and place in our world causes hyper activity, the need for stimulants, burn outs and the feelings of frustration exemplified above. Bringing a world out of cycle that is natural and is part of the flow of the universe, and will need to happen even if it is by force – because nature will always win.
“High winds do not blow all morning;
Heavy rain does not fall all day.
Are not these made by heaven and earth?
If the power of heaven and earth
Cannot make violent activity last,
How can you?”
– Tao Te Ching (Quoted from The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff)
We know the importance of the menstrual cycle and the consequences of ignoring it. The next section proposes some ways to live healthily with the cycle.
Proactive ways to live with a Cycle and promote better health in a Cycle
The thought of trying to live with the flow of energy within the menstrual cycle can be, understandably, daunting for some women in this yang world. Some find it difficult to stop the energetic flow and others feel they are just unable to stop, whether because its a job that is 9 – 5 with deadlines or a mother raising children and running a household.
Below are examples of ways a women can incorporate tactics to live with their flow and ease the symptoms of ever changing energy levels.
Diet – Throughout the cycle the needs of the body change. The food that is eaten can make a big difference to mood and self esteem before and during menstruation. The body becomes more sensitive at this time, both outside (touch, pain, temperature) and inside (muscle ache, nutrition, etc). As much as women might feel the want to eat comfort food (crisps, chocolate, etc) at this time, the food can create and emphasize the low and emotional mood. Nourishing foods, fresh foods and home cooked food would be more beneficial at this time and help lift moods and cleanse the body.
Socialising – A woman may naturally feel the need to be alone during the bleeding phase. The desire to be cosy, read, journal and go within can be strong – and are encouraged at this time! To make sure not to feel lonely at this time, using the peak energy time (ovulation) to see friends and to be outgoing can fulfil and satisfy, saving the quieter times to the bleeding phase.
Work – Much like socialising, work can feel like it easily piles up and becomes too much during the bleeding phase. If possible, a woman should organise a big work meeting and peak project activity around ovulation time. Leaving the fine tuning, and idea brainstorming to around the menstrual time, with (if possible) rest on the first to the third day of bleeding.
Feminine Hygiene Products – Sanitary towels and tampons are a necessity for women. However, most main stream, highly advertised brands and products tend to be made with synthetic material added, chlorinated to be perfectly white and synthetically scented. All of these interferes with and irritate the delicate PH balance of the vagina. Using organic, no plastic, unscented products can seriously reduce problems such as period pain, thrush and discharge.
Exercise – Exercise can be a difficult subject for some. Some people are not active at all while others feel the need to sweat out the stresses of life on a regular basis. High energy exercise is very popular in today’s yang society, all about “sweating it out” and “feeling the burn”. As good as such exercises can be for heart and respiratory health, during a woman’s bleeding phase the body is already working so much internally, it doesn’t want the added work and stress to the system at this time. It would be better to go slower at this time, doing yin yoga or walking which are better options to be active but still nourish the body without exhausting it. Connecting to the body’s natural rhythm can help utilize energy highs. Leave the hard work out for the high energy time!
From when I started my period at the age of 12, going through teen years and early 20s, I suffered from bad period pains on the first day of bleeding every month. In my teen years I would take pain killers to be able to get through the day, and if that didn’t work, curled up in a ball (possibly crying) on the floor of the nearest understanding teacher’s office. I remember being bent over clutching my lower tummy area and squeezing my face tight whilst slowly going through the corridors of the school going from one class to the next. Wasn’t the best first impressions to womanhood.
In my late teens I realised that the pain killers may have dampened the pain but gave me other side effects that I ended up feeling were not worth it. In the end, I settled for carrying a hot water bottle with me on the first day of bleeding. The loving warm hug felt so much nicer and deeper than any pill. But still, every month on the first day of bleeding, I would be fighting through the day. Some days, sitting for hours in a hot bath to soothe the muscles.
Two and a half years ago I started tracking my cycle alongside the phases of the moon and for two years I was 100% regular. Starting bleeding on the same moon phase every month. Realising there was more power in my cycle than I realised, I started researching and reading books women had written about flowing and living with the cycle of the menstrual cycle.
As I changed habits (using the proactive examples above) slowly every month, every new book I read gave me new ideas to try, the pains have reduced, the discomfort is bearable and the best part, I started loving getting my period!
Based on my experience I want to help other women to embrace their menstrual cycles. In the next section I have described and created a yoga session plan for a class of women. To take them through exercises designed for each phase of the menstrual cycle.
Bringing the Cycle into a Yoga Practice
Yoga is about connecting to oneself, a skill that can be difficult to possess in a busy world. Creating a yoga practice that flows with the menstrual cycle is about flowing with the ever changing energy levels, allowing the body to communicate what it needs, whether that be restorative poses at bleeding time, more body awakening post bleeding, exploring and expanding during ovulation and then coming back to a more subtle practice in post ovulation/pre-bleed.
Understanding each phase of the menstrual cycle, what it does to the body, mind and moods and tracking the cycle to know what phase is when can help regulate the type of exercises to include in the yoga practice.
Connecting the menstrual cycle energy patterns to the yoga practice can help strengthen the practice by knowing when the body can be pushed to it’s full potential/energy limits, and when the body needs to be rested and nourished with gentle movements. This can result in a better base for developing, expanding and progressing in a practice because the body will be rested and nurtured and able to go to it’s full potential in a healthy way.
I have created an hour session based on the four main phases of the menstrual cycle. Splitting each quarter into one of the phases and including exercises and poses that complement that phase.
In this paper I explore what it’s like Living with a Menstrual Cycle in a Yang World. I have summarised why I chose this title, the basic structure of the menstrual cycle, examples of other natural cycles in the world and compared them with current advertisements in the western world. I have summarised the results and comments I received from the surveys I shared to find out how women and men feel about the menstrual cycle. Then discussed why I think women should live with their cycles, why it’s important, how living with the cycles affects the world and proactive ways to develop a life living with the cycle to promote better health.
I finish with a yoga session plan aimed at covering exercises which are best for all four phases of the menstrual cycle.
I believe that living in the flow of the energy cycle within the menstrual cycle is a strong step in improving overall health and well-being, not just for women but also creating a better understanding and respect for the natural flow of yin and yang.
“We dare to say that the louder the symptoms,
the bigger the roar of potential power.
Take it as a compliment as you wrestle
with what can sometimes feel like insane,
intractable suffering. You have something
important trying to realize itself.”
-Wild Power by Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer
- “Wild Power” – Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer
- “Moon Time” – Lucy H. Pearce
- “The Tao of Pooh and he Te of Piglet” – Benjamin Hoff
- “The Woman’s Yoga Book” – Bobby Clennell
- “Insight Yoga”- Sarah Powers