Yoga’s ‘Red Tent’: Iyengar yoga and the menstrual practice

redtent I remember back in high school gym class when girls sometimes sat out of virgorous activity, and definitely out of swimming, because it was “that time of the month.”  I can already feel the feminist sense of affront rising as I think back on it. The very idea of relegating girls to the side lines because they were menstruating. Please.

Through my teens and twenties, taking a time-out because of my period made absolutely no sense to me.  Though I did suffer from body ache, tiredness, and unpredictable moods prior to my period each month (yes, I believe in PMS and you can’t convince me otherwise), the minute I started to menstruate I enjoyed a surge of energy (and optimism) that stayed with me through the duration of my period and on into the better part of the month!

So I experienced much resistance, annoyance, and feminist skepticism when, upon attending my first class of Iyengar yoga in January 2000, the instructor said that women should let her know if ever we were menstruating because there was a “special practice” we should follow.  The practice involves mostly restorative poses and completely avoids inversions (such as headstand, shoulder stand, elbow balance, or full- arm balance) and vigorous standing poses.  I’ve also been told that twists are to be avoided.

Geeta Iyengar, daughter BKS Iyengar (founder of the Iyengar method), writes: “During menstruation, if one does inversions the blood flow will be arrested.  Those who tried to do it out of enthusiasm or callousness will have noticed that the flow stops abruptly.  This is certainly not good for health since it may lead to fibroids, cysts, endemetriosis, and cancer, damaging the system.” 

Apparently, it’s not clear that these medical risks of “arresting the blood flow” are borne out by the research.  Dr. Timothy McCall, writing for The Yoga Journal, says that “One study, however, found that retrograde menstruation naturally occurs in 90 percent of women, most of whom never develop endemetriosis. So we do not know for sure if inversions increase retrograde flow or whether the backward flow increases the risk of endemetriosis.”

And of course, yoga comes out of a tradition that pre-dates the modern medical model.  It is not surprising, therefore, that some detractors of any special practices around menstruation believe they are more linked to beliefs about women’s impurity at that time of their cycle. Many religious traditions hold to the view that women ought to be segregated while menstruating–e.g. the red tent.  Assuming most feminists reject the view that menstruating women are impure, this reason for practicing alone instead of with the class won’t go over particularly well with them.

In addition to giving medical explanations, Geeta appeals to the ayurvedic medical model, maintaining that menstrual blood is like any bodily waste–urine, feces, phlegm, mucus–and that all wastes ought to be excreted. The process ought not be hindered because these forms of waste, if retained, “invite diseases.”

Iyengar yoga has special practices for all sorts of things from stress and depression to head aches, back pain, and respiratory issues. Circulation issues?  There are multiple sequences of asanas for that. Lower backache?  They’ve got it covered. Stress, depression, headaches, mental fatigue, insomnia? That is one of the things I really admire and respect about this form of yoga.  The teachers are well-trained enough to be able to modify poses to respond to the special needs of students.

Of course, the ayurvedic tradition is not the same as the Western medical model. The medical explanations for some of the recommendations might seem foreign to those of us raised in the Western medical tradition. But the sequences of asanas do offer some relief for acute issues and, practiced over time, can alleviate (if not cure) some more chronic conditions.

But back to the monthly.  For every one of us who breeze through it, there’s another who suffers with major cramps and heavy flow, headaches, back aches, what have you.

And it doesn’t always stay the same from that first shocking experience to menopause.  From my easy time of it for the first twenty-some years, things started to change for the worse in my mid-thirties.  I felt more tired. On occasion, I might experience cramps.  And just generally, life can get stressful. And that’s around the time I first began to practice yoga.

While I remain skeptical about the medical explanation for refraining from inversions, I have actually come to enjoy the sequence of poses contained in the menstrual practice.  The practice is inward and restful yet energizing at the same time. Some of the poses do wonders for the particular kind of lower back pain I get with my period. And I kind of like that at the studio we are comfortable enough with ourselves and our bodies to say when we need the special practice.

In our class, lots of us opt for this “red tent” when we have our period. I also know that on occasion some of the men, feeling especially tired or exhausted sometimes, have expressed the wish that they could do “the menstrual practice.”  I agree that they should have the option of doing it or something like it.

We all have energy cycles. Not everyone is always up for a vigorous class of standing poses and 5-minutes each of headstand and shoulder stand. Sometimes a quieter, supported sequence is the right choice.

And it’s not the right choice for everyone. My younger self, with her increased energy and light flow, would have balked at the idea of taking a time-out for something as inconsequential as menstruation.  And regardless of what Geeta says, I do think she should be permitted to make that choice without risk of being called “callous.”

As an experienced student, I could stay home those days and do the practice there.  But I usually will attend class anyway for a few reasons. First, the energy of the rest of the class, even if I’m not doing what they are doing, feels good. Second, depending on what’s being taught, sometimes it’s possible to do what the rest of the class is doing, with minor modifications (such as substituting other postures for the inversions). Third, the studio has more equipment, making it easier because all the props are on hand. And finally, if I do have a question about one of the asanas in the sequence, my instructor can help me out. I have learned a lot from my teacher over years of doing the special practice in class from time to time.

In my case, I no longer feel offended at practicing off to the side when I am menstruating. It’s not the same as being side-lined from gym class and forced to do homework. We are given a full alternative practice to do instead. It feels good. It’s a good option and I take it. But it does need to be optional, not mandatory.

About Tracy I

Writer, feminist, yoga enthusiast, vegan, knitter, runner.

14 thoughts on “Yoga’s ‘Red Tent’: Iyengar yoga and the menstrual practice

  1. I agree with you 100% about the importance of making the menstrual flow optional and that it should be more about matching practice to energy levels and personal needs. In my case, though, I found the non-optional aspect helpful (but only because sometimes a perverse response to a perverse situation can be useful). I used to have intensely debilitating periods, which I combined with a harsh protestant work ethic to my detriment. When I started doing yoga, the prohibition against a strenuous practice during menstruation relieved me of my need to push myself past the point of reason.
    I’m reminded of a period-related incident from high school. I went to an extremely religious private school where sex ed wasn’t taught and periods were dirty secrets. We were on a field trip at the beach, and the boys were throwing the girls into the water. One girl, an unpopular girl, came up to us in a state of panic because she had her period and was wearing a pad. Despite her unpopularity, all the girls (even the mean ones) banded with her, instantly and without hesitation, descended on the boys in a fury and drove them off. Menstrual sisterhood outweighed all other allegiances.

  2. Sam B says:

    I’m sympathetic to the idea that some people might not be up to the regular workout for a variety of health related reasons but I can’t see who benefits from a special menstrual practice or referring to it in those terms. It wouldn’t be helpful for younger you who might not have needed it. And some men might need a more gentle practice for other reasons. And then there’s the harder issue of people whose bodies aren’t standard issue. I’m thinking of transmen who menstruate, for example. Seems it might be easier to ditch the labeling and keep the practice. This isn’t my world but I think the gender essentialism here would rub me the wrong way.

    The “Is PMS real?” debate, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/is-pms-a-myth-one-study-says-yes/article4621996/, isn’t about the physical symptoms. It’s about the association with mood swings which seems wildly cultural variable and maybe not as widespread as we assume, given how common the “she’s bitchy, she must be on the rag” talk is.

    Anyway, really really interesting.

  3. Lisa S. says:

    Hmm… I haven’t done much yoga, but I took a beginning class for a semester or so back in 2002. Until reading your post, I had forgotten about this “special practice,” which my instructor did mention–though I don’t recall any of the women in my class ever speaking up to let her know that they were menstruating. I know I never did! I was a bit offended by the suggestion that I should have to tell my teacher when I had my period. I’ve never had cramps or noticed any mood swings (though I realize everyone’s experience is different), and I don’t see any reason for why having my period would be associating with needing to do yoga differently. As I get older, my periods are becoming somewhat irregular (I don’t think it’s menapause yet, and I supsect it may be related to medication). Perhaps it’s the stigma of impurity associated with having a period–or the worries about aging or infertility associated with not getting it regularly–but I don’t think that knowledge of my cycles (or lack thereof) is anyone’s business.

    On another note, I hadn’t thought this over much, and I’m glad you posted it. I’m also curious to hear what other feminists who do yoga think about this…

  4. Tracy I says:

    One thing I didn’t say much about was the sense in which it is optional. It’s only optional now (in an Iyengar class, anyway), in the sense that you can always choose not to mention it. Which means that in your case, ageinappropriateliving, you could still push yourself by remaining silent. So to speak to your concern, Samantha, there are a range of special practices for people who request them. This doesn’t speak to the issue of the label, of course. In the Iyengar tradition, this set of postures will always be associated with menstruation. But it is very like a similar set associated with prostate issues (but includes inversions). I do think it would be difficult for a menstruating transman who is not public about his trans status to request this sequence and do it in class. But I’m not sure that’s the fault of the practice.

    There are so many special practices that it’s hard to know what to say about the gender essentialism. What I think the best solution would be is to allow anyone the option of doing a more supported practice if they feel the need. But that wouldn’t necessarily always be the particular sequence associated with menstruation.

    Also, there are quite different practices associated with both pre- and post-menstruation in women’s cycles.

    Re. PMS and mood swings. I never understood the idea of “she’s on the rag,” since my mood swings were definitely prior to, not during, my period. But I can pretty much tell when it’s coming by my mood and outlook — the world looks bleaker and I usually cry at least once for no apparent reason in the 4-5 days prior to getting my period. And this has continued even though my cycle has become totally unpredictable. I get that we don’t want to blame women’s emotional state on their hormones, but sometimes, my emotional state just is due to my hormones. I believe there is a mind-body connection there. I’m not sure what to make of the claim that it’s culturally variable.

    Definitely interesting.

  5. Sam B says:

    Emotions are a nice example, I think, of something that obviously has an element of social construction but is nonetheless real. We learn our feelings through the language we use to describe them.

    How other languages express emotions – and English lacks the words, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/how-other-languages-express-emotions-and-english-lacks-the-words/article7200625/

    21 Emotions For Which There Are No English Words [Infographic], http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-01/emotions-which-there-are-no-english-words-infographic

    • Tracy I says:

      I like this thing about the cultural basis of emotions. I heard a buddhist give a talk once about how that tradition lacked the idea of the self-abnegation associated with guilt and remorse. It just wasn’t a thing they hung onto or experienced.

  6. Tracy I says:

    I meant to add that I too am suspect of any practice that has its roots in sexist and/or patriarchal social practices and attitudes. And I’m not sure–just because it’s a totally unfamiliar paradigm for me–whether the ayurvedic medicine approach is steeped in a sexist tradition or not. Maybe I overlook a lot more than I should because, in general, I have spent quite a few years doing yoga and practicing eastern traditions of meditation, and in both you hear a lot of things that make you say, “say what?” Since I do these things for my own sense of well-being and not to change the world, I am less likely to challenge what I’m told even when I am skeptical of it. And in the menstrual practice case, I feel it works to my advantage. And as I age and suffer other symptoms, I will probably seek relief through other suggested yoga sequences, at least experimentally. I’m comfortable talking to my instructor about it because I’ve had the same teacher for over a decade, and in fact have practiced with very many of the same students for years.

    Lisa, I really appreciate your thoughts. I am ambivalent about whether it is “anybody’s business.” At the same time, my 26-year old male personal trainer used to get completely flustered when, for practical reasons (like: no point in doing a weigh-in today because I get a meaningless reading when on my period) I would tell him it was that time of the month. And that seems ridiculous too. Of course, now that I am not weighing in at all and have stopped going to personal training, that’s less of an issue.

    But sometimes I just want to say: please, we have bodies and they do this. Can we get over it already? And getting over it, to me, means that for some it will mean business as usual and for others, at least on occasion, it will mean making some adjustments.

  7. Melanie Jollymore says:

    As a yoga practitioner for 20 years who did two years of teacher training in the Iyengar tradition, I look at the menstruation practice quite differently than many of the commenters. It has nothing to do with ‘gender’ per se, simply the physiology and what is most supportive of a person’s energy and wellbeing in a given state. We have special practices for headache, an overly busy mind, anxiety, insomnia, indigestion, you name it. The menstruation practice beautifully eliminates backache, pelvic cramps and tension, and leaves you feeling calm (side note, why would you want your blood flow reversing by doing inversions while menstruating?) It is wonderful for the first couple days of heavy flow. If you do a more active practice at this time, you end up feeling enervated, not calm — and the goal of yoga is not to get a killer workout every time, but to tune in to your body in an active way that takes your current state and energy levels into account so that you emerge with a calm and focused mind. In the classes and workshops I participated in, we simply headed for the bolsters for reclining cobbler pose, etc, when the rest of the class was starting headstand, no proclamations, no embarrassment and no stigma — no one thought twice about such a mundane thing. There is so much acceptance of our bodies and their functions in Iyengar yoga, at least, there’s just no sexist lens being applied. You can always choose to join the class in their inversions — no one is going to stop you! — but you might not feel as well as you would otherwise.

    • Tori says:

      The menstruation practice beautifully eliminates backache, pelvic cramps and tension, and leaves you feeling calm…

      While I appreciate that this is true for you and may be true for the vast majority of people who use the Iyengar menstruation sequence, it is not universally true. For example, I find that a number of these postures actually aggravate my back and pelvic pain, which definitely doesn’t help me to feel calm (and in fact probably hinders it). Certainly, I think it’s great to share your own experience of the practice; however, I don’t think it’s fair to generalize your experience of it onto everyone else.

  8. Tracy I says:

    Thanks, Melanie. It’s great to hear from an experienced teacher. You’ve explained it well. I know that those of us who opt for it really do find it restorative, no stigma, no embarrassment (sometimes even envy, especially from the men, who don’t have this option as readily available). As I mentioned in the post, one of the things I most admire about Iyengar yoga is the wealth of special practices and the way the teachers are trained to be able to work with students’ needs.

  9. As someone who has practiced yoga for 15 years and taught a fusion fitness class which was based largely on yoga for 3, I find the “menstrual practice” ridiculous in the extreme.

    One person’s experience of menses is wildly different from another’s. Yes, people’s energy levels vary, and the sum total of other baggage people have going on in their lives varies from day to day. Some days we can all benefit more from a restorative yoga practice than a highly energetic one. But the suggestion that all women are better off doing a restorative practice during their period has no grounding in reality whatsoever and is, frankly, ridiculous. (The inversions during menstruation cause “fibroids, cysts, endemetriosis, and cancer” line is also flat out untrue.)

    “Menstrual practice” is not the same thing as other “special” practices at all. Modifications to a practice to accommodate, for example, lower back pain, make sense. If you have lower back pain, you have lower back pain. It is a specific issue and there are postures and sequences which can help to alleviate it and others which are likely to make it worse. Menstruation, on the other hand, is not an issue at all. It’s accompanied by some issues for some people, but none of these are universal. None of them. So requiring all menstruating people to perform a special practice is unhelpful and, yes, offensive.

    I don’t experience backache, pelvic cramps or tension associated with my period. Neither do I experience any greater difficulty in reaching a feeling of calm during this time of the month. And inversions don’t cause the slightest bit of problem for my flow. I’ve had yoga instructors tell me I should modify my practice during my period, and I’ve simply looked them in the eyes and said, “No.”

  10. I definitely agree with the point that there is a surge of energy during menstruation. Usually it happens near the end/last day. I’ll have such tremendous bouts of energy, it feels like I’m on top of the world. Sometimes this happens midway or even at the start of a period. I wonder if there’s a biological reason for this.

    Personally I reckon yoga can be done at any time, any postures too. Even if the flow gets inverted, it’ll just go to normal as soon you get out. It’s nothing long lasting.

    What I have noticed is that doing yoga during my period as well as doing it constantly throughout the month has reduced my cramps, pains and just every symptom associated with periods, even the moods and the cravings. It’s amazing and I think all women should at least try yoga during their period.

  11. Nice post! very useful points you have posted.Thanks!
    Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre in Dharamsala, Goa, India runs Yoga Camp, meditation & workshops, Yoga Training Courses, Yoga holiday, best yoga therapy classes to suit the student’s requirement and time frame.

    Iyengar Yoga

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