Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Period of Calm

This is an article on women’s health, in particular, of dealing with physical and emotional distress that hormonal changes sometimes induce during periods. While this primarily affects women, it also has an impact on all those around them, even if just for a few days. Through this article, I hope to provide information from a few independent sources along with my own views and to mention how my Yoga practice has helped make this a comfortable process instead of an energy depleting one (as it used to be). It is intended primarily for women or those interested in women’s health or for anyone who might wish to know a little more about dealing with these issues. This is not intended to be a prescription of any kind, but an attempt to make people more sensitive to this subject and to make women think a little more about what might be going on within.

Periods come, with irritating regularity or irritating irregularity – but come they do. And often cause discomfort, stress and more, that is loosely labelled ‘pms’. This includes a range of symptoms, both emotional (mood swings, depression, irritation or anger) and physical (a sensation of bloating, craving for fried or salty foods before the periods to discomfort, indigestion, pain, cramps etc. during the periods). This is considered quite common, (within a certain range of symptoms) in mainstream medicine or conventional schools of thought and is attributed to internal changes occuring during this time. What exactly is a period? As described in texts of physiology-

Menstruation (the menstrual phase colloquially called periods) is the time during which the lining of the uterus (endometrium) is shed, resulting in bleeding. At this time also, the unfertilized egg and its surrounding cells have disintegrated and are released from the body. This period coincides with a decline in levels of the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone in the body. (These ovarian hormones are however only two of the many hormones involved in the onset and regulation of the menstrual cycle. Hormones released from the hypothalamus and pituitary glands play a key role in this process.) The menstrual phase is normally followed by the stage of preparation of another follicle (containing an egg) to be released from one of the ovaries.

Personal experience has indicated to me that how I feel during the periods depends a lot on my physical and mental condition before the periods begin. I am able to cope better with periods when I have been eating wisely and have had an uninterrupted yoga practice during the previous month, and ideally of course a period of low stress. Certainly under these conditions I do not undergo emotional upheavals and have to deal mostly with physical discomfort. I feel that many of the pms signs might therefore be due to existing weaknesses or imbalances of the system that are amplified and perceived by us in the form of excessive mental or physical stress. Over time, with regular yoga practice, I find the physical discomfort has greatly reduced. The change was most noticeable once I began trying to learn to apply the mulabandha and udyanabandha during the practice (1). Perhaps this just coincided with a having reached a stage where I was able to stay in some of the asanas and feel reasonably comfortable and focus on my breathing.

Regarding pain, I think it is important to keep in mind that it just a signal being sent by some actively firing nerves. There is nothing in there that is physically squeezing your abdomen nor is there a stone crushing your lower back. It’s the same as it always was, but small changes in physiology are bringing about large feelings of distress. You are fine and there is nothing to worry about. I also find it helps tremendously not to counter or fight the pain, both physically and mentally. It is there for a reason and it will go away. The best thing one can do (I feel) is to say to oneself, “Let me see how I can help myself in reducing this pain next time.” Fighting it (even mentally) seems to bring about a contraction and stiffness of muscles that has its own problems. As we often hear while dealing with these issues in the Yoga class, it is best to “relax and to breathe slowly and deeply”. I also find it interesting to note the changes (sometimes blocks) in breathing that begin (for me) before the onset of pain and generally vanish a little before the pain ends.

What are the recommendations for women during this time? Again, there are all kinds of views, I give a very generalized summary below.

While this is a time that the body requires rest, a certain level of exercise is found beneficial as it helps circulation. Regarding the practise of yoga, some schools advocate a break from the practice for a few days, while some say that one can do many asanas without any problem. Some systems disallow the practice of inverted postures, or those where the flow of energy or body fluids would be reversed, as this is a time when there is a strong tendency for the body to expel blood and fluid from the uterus. This simple principle appeals to common sense.

The breathing is supposed to be shallower at this time, hence while some pranayamas can be done, not all are recommended, especially those where regulation and depth of breath seem critical.

Therefore, one may conclude that a lighter, relaxed practice that helps circulation especially around the pelvis, without causing too much strain would be helpful. This is extremely subjective and a lot depends on the practitioner and her understanding of the effects of different postures on her own system. I feel that though there may be general guidelines, finally it is very difficult for a teacher to instruct anyone on which postures to try (which postures to avoid are easier to mention!) and in the postures, how much to exert. This is something the person will probably have to work out for themselves.

For myself, I find that exercise in the fresh morning air is helpful, generally in the form of a walk. I don’t feel upto doing the asanas except baddhakonāsana (while sitting) and suptabaddhakonāsana (while lying down) to ease the sensations of bleeding and discomfort. Vajrāsana is also helpful many times. I do find simple pranayamas (where one doesn’t hold the breath) helpful and indeed sometimes necessary to clear out the system. I am always more comfortable while seated on the floor and chairs seem particularly to induce more discomfort.

Classical Ayurvedic texts mention various aspects of menstruation, specifically describing normal and disordered states which can be detected by the quality of the blood shed and other signs, and accordingly treated. It doesn’t take much skill in observing the correlation between your period and your general state of health. It is easily affected especially by medication, changes in diet, travel and stress. Often, the rhythm of the body tells one things that go undetected by blood reports. Several times, periods which are delayed, long lasting or too frequent suddenly revert to normal once one has physiologically “settled down”.

The menstrual cycle is also closely linked to that of the moon – ovulation occurs quite frequently around full moon and periods begin close to new moon. However when the cycle is disrupted, I have often noticed that there is a shift in phase- with ovulation occurring close to new moon, and then it slowly reverts back to the full moon time. I do not know if this is a general phenomenon.

Eating well and wisely before and during this phase helps tremendously. Raw foods (juices, salads, fruit and nuts) strengthen the body and supply it with a host of vitamins and minerals that are vital for physiological health. A few days before (during the infamous pms period) I do get a craving for certain foods. But on analyzing closely, I find it is not necessarily fried food (though carbohydrates are always tempting) but just some form of “comfort food”. Something that you associate with comfort and well being is what you want. Accordingly, you can plan to keep something appropriate (but not too unhealthy) for yourself during this time.

I avoid planning too many activities and dealing with lots of people at this time, as I am never sure of what my internal state will be. However, I have the luxury of flexibility in my schedule and can plan accordingly. For women who are working in tight and inflexible schedules, it is more difficult though one should realize (even if one’s boss doesn’t) that working longer a few days before and taking off a day during the periods may be more productive than continuing to push when your body (and mind) are asking for rest.

I find activity and productivity keep increasing from the beginning of a new cycle until well after ovulation. As days go by, closer to the periods, I am drawn inwards, more towards a contemplative state and away from the physical. If I am compelled to go against this due to circumstances or environment, it brings about irritability, moodiness and (I think) an increased susceptibility to migraines in me. Therefore I try and give myself enough time and space as possible during this phase so I am not rushing about or overtiring myself. If I have time to let myself relax, this phase is very enjoyable and constructive and it lasts until the duration of the periods. It is as if an inner spirit or some natural and calming aspect of yourself beckons you to listen. It seems to be a time of heightened creativity- when new ideas and thoughts spring forth naturally and easily. This is also a time when I instinctively withdraw from excessive interaction with people. Even in the midst of people, I find myself interacting in a relatively detached manner, as if I feel I am to focus my energy on myself at this time. Therefore, though this is an opportunity for me to observe other students in the class doing their asana practice, I find that even if I watch I do not have much desire to analyze the movements.

With withdrawal into oneself comes, not a cessation of desire, but a certain calm. It is as if everything is being cleansed and renewed. Although before the periods there may be emotional or mental turbulence, at the time of the periods, I feel mentally strong though I may feel physically uncomfortable.

Similar thoughts have been expressed at other times, by other people. I quote from a description attributed to the Lakota tribe (a Native American tribe (2)):

“Follow your Grandmother Moon. Her illuminating cycles will transform your spirit. Begin with the Grandmother Moon at her brightest and most open. This is a time of outward activity and high energy. Sleep where the moonlight touches you. Walk outside where there are no artificial lights. Feel joy and creativity. As the Grandmother begins to cover her face, begin to withdraw into a quieter, less social place. Move to that inward place that is more about "being" than "doing." In the dark of the moon, when bleeding, the veil between you and the Great Mystery is the thinnest. Be receptive to visions, insights, intuitions. Go to a quiet separate place such as a Moon Lodge. Later, come out of the dark, a woman with a cleansed body. As the moon returns, come back out into the world, carrying your vision.”

1) Not to be practiced by beginners. To be learnt only from an experienced Yoga teacher.

2) http://www.fwhc.org/health/moon.htm

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