Womb yoga, asana practice and the female cycle
As women, we have a beautiful ability to connect deeply to our own inner wisdom; to our intuition, to the earthy and watery energies of the world, and the feminine qualities of creativity, fluidity and nurture.
To cultivate awareness around our wombs and the energies connected to this area is a most powerful tool women for women in our day-to-day lives. As I have been diving into softer and more feminine styles of yoga, completely changing the way in which I practiced and perceive asana, my interest for women’s health, our menstrual cycles, and the way our yoga asana practice may empower (and disempower!) the female practitioner was inherently sparked.
After months of reading and researching these topics, I discovered a big gap in my own knowledge on the topic of yoga practice and women’s health, a gap that also seems to be present within yoga as a global practice and community. I feel time has come for us to seek out the information needed to fill this gap; inviting and welcoming forms of yoga that truly encourages a connection between women and our own deep and intuitive wisdom: Learning to honour and respect our cycles, and in turn finding a new and deeper connection to the cycles of nature, and to all life on Earth.
In cultivating a practice that supports women’s health and wellbeing, in every stage of her cycle and at all ages, we need to practice yoga asana in ways that opens up for us to be more aware, adaptive and listening in our approach. To know that, within the safe structures and lines of yoga practice, we often know ourselves what is good for us and what isn’t, and it is this inner voice we need to give ourselves permission to listen to.
«No outer teacher can come close to the deep sense of right wisdom and understanding that flows through a woman who is absolutely, and profoundly connected with her own intuitive understanding. So wombs yoga, like many of the other approaches to yoga that have been developed by women over the past fifty years, is not about following the teachings of a particular tradition, text or lineage. It promotes direct access to the presence of the inner teacher.
«The experience of freedom through yoni sakti (vagina power) is rooted in the acknowledgement that those specifically female experiences that centre on or around the womb, such as menstruation, orgasm, childbirth, and menopause, can be encountered consciously as potential doorways to spiritual power an heightened intuitive awareness.»
-Uma Dinsmore Tuli, Yoni Shakti
Yoga asana while bleeding can be a beautiful, nourishing and rewarding practice. I believe there is so much to learn and experience if we can allow ourselves to practice a form of asana that truly honours our cycles. As yoga teachers we need to be aware that there are certain postures that are more suited, and those that are less suited for the days when a woman has her bleeding. Certain yoga postures may help ease potential physical discomfort in the body that sometimes comes along with menstruation.; we know that postures such as gentle seated twists, hip openers and forward folds are generally safe.
A woman’s period is, according to the yogic tradition, a natural downward force called ‘apana vaju’. We will from a general viewpoint only encourage practicing asanas that supports this downward flow. According to both yoga, and to it’s sister science Ayurveda, during menstruation it is a time to rest and renew, as this is when the body cleanses, detoxes and eliminates. It is a time of heightened sensitivity and awareness, so it is the time to tune in, to listen and to be still.
Likewise, there are asanas and practices the female practitioner is encouraged to avoid during the time of her period. An example being the practice of Uddiyana Bandha and agni sara kriya, as this may cause discomfort in the pelvis. Strong standing postures, inversions and heating pranayama exercises and the practice of Bandhas also fall under the category of postures and practices to save for when the bleeding days are over.
«The long-term effects of a continued and uninterrupted daily practice of vigorous yoga asana that disregards the cycles of women lives can result, judging from a plethora of anecdotal evidence, in subfertility, constipation, prolonged second-stage labour and cessation from menstruation all together.»
-Uma Dinsmore Tuli, Yoni Shakti
I don’t know if it is the ways in which yoga is being taught and delivered today, or if it is the trend of our society and environment all-together: but we are so deeply disconnected from our bodies and nature, and unfortunately many female practitioners completely ignore their cycles. Perhaps it is also the fact that we don’t know, because we have never learnt to acknowledge the presence of it, the power and effects our cycle has on our entire being. And so we continue to ignore the different stages we go through each month, living our lives and sticking to our practices the in the same way. Perhaps it is also our wish to not appear weak or fragile, but rather strong, fast-paced and dedicated?
I feel it is time we understand that disregarding the presence of our cycle is a form of self-harm. Like a pregnant woman will be offered an alternative practice during her second and third trimester (it is not encouraged to practice at all during the first trimester), so should a menstruating woman be given a practice that supports and nourishes her at that time of the month.
Strong asanas, standing postures, strong twists and backbends, as well as arm balances are generally discouraged during menstruation. These postures will more often than not cause stress to the abdomen and pelvic region. When bleeding, those areas may already feel sore and swollen, and so we do not want to put more strain on these body parts.
Inversions are another group of postures not suited for a menstruating woman. The explanation behind this is simple; as we practice inversions, the prana, or life-energy, that flows in a downward direction from manipura chakra (naval centre) to mooladhara chakra (cervix), known as apana, is reversed. Reversing this energy is known to increase prana in our bodies, and to support the awakening of the kundalini energy. However, during menstruation, this practice goes against the natural downward flow of our period, which may disturb the cycle. This disturbs our bleeding at the time, and may also lead to problems related to reproduction at a later time. Also, during a practice of inversion, the uterus is pulled towards the head, which may, during time of menstruation, cause the broad ligaments in that area to be over-stretched.
Bandhas, as well as the practice of strong and heating pranayama, should be discouraged for women during their period. Like inversions, these practices move apana upwards, during a time when the body’s flow is naturally flowing downwards. Soft, balancing and grounding pranayama exercises are encouraged instead, and a yoga practice that does not require the activation of bandhas, such as yin yoga and restorative postures. Physically bandhas may add pressure and contraction to the region around the womb, causing discomfort to an already swollen area.
It is time we women open ourselves up to softer styles of yoga; ways of practicing that feels nourishing to our entire being. Forms of asana that will nurture the female practitioner as she flows through the different stages of her cycle. Encouraging all female yogis to seek out and find an approach to yoga that welcomes and honours fluidity and femininity, and learning to practice with awareness of our wombs and cycles. It comes down to learning how to use our practice in a way that is empowering to our experience as women.
«There are poetic, philosophical and political reasons for choosing to call this approach womb yoga. At a poetic level, the word womb has potently symbolic resonance as a place of nurture, safety and creativity. It is the place within the body where new life is nourished and protected. The womb is also a place within our embodied (or imagined) understanding of menstrual cycles that connects a woman body to powerful cosmic rhythms and forces of elemental power. In the same way as the phases of the moon above exert gravitational forces strong enough to create tides in the great oceans, so too do the tides and flows of the body respond to the rhythmic cycles of the ‘moon within’. With this understanding of the womb as an interface between individual and cosmic patterns, like the phases of the moon, then any yoga that seeks to support a growing awareness of our place in the universe needs to attend to the rhythmic dances of the womb cycles. (..)
«So for all these reasons, and at all these levels, womb yoga intends to heighten awareness and respect for this experience of abundant creativity and fertility of Sakti.» -Uma Dinsmore Tuli, Yoni Shakti