Listen to your body … when it whispers

Why does it all feel so HARD right now?  

I texted that to my business partner earlier this week, and from what I can see of the world around me right now, I’m not the only one feeling this way.

Last month I wrote about yin yoga, and how when I laid down in silence, I suddenly felt my body ache and tug at me. How had I not noticed that I was powering through my workouts and workdays so hard that I was actually physically hurting? At the end of that post, I wrote something about needing to slow down and listen to my body. A friend read the post and texted me “I think it’s unfinished — I think you are saying listen to your body when it whispers.”

She was right, and for the past month, I’ve been trying to really listen.  The yin class reminded me of how important it is to do the basic guided meditation thing of body scanning — what does your big toe feel like?  the front of your shin? — and even more, to scan what’s happening all over for me.

Physically, the scan turns up a lot of reasons for my bone weariness. I had a flu-cold thing, and am traveling for work a lot, and had a stretch of time where I didn’t have a day off from work for 22 days. And like Susan and Sam and pretty much everyone else in the known universe (except Tracy,!) I find the darkening days mean I just want to hole up in the blankies. In fact, I did just that last Sunday — tucked the kitten under my knees, made a bowl of popcorn and binged several episodes of Outlander without moving.

As I keep scanning, there’s another layer.  The work stuff that feels hard feels like one of those watershed moments — where I’ve reached a threshold of what I can do, and there are opportunities for deep learning. If I fight it, everything gets scratchy — and if I listen hard to what it’s teaching me, my work moves to the next level.

When I scan again, I also realize the obvious:  I’m having what is something like my 490th period of all time.  I started in October when I was 12. I’m 52 and have never had a baby.  At roughly 12+ periods a year for more than 40 years I have menstruated… well, probably more than 99.9% of the women in all of history.

I keep trying to act like this cycle of night sweats and frequent periods and surging PMS doesn’t phase me.  But it does.  I’m almost 53.  I’m tired.  It’s wearing.  And when I listen, I know that’s it’s part of why I feel so slow, so heavy, so constrained.  (And cranky.  Don’t forget cranky).

Right now, my body is just not supplying the boundless energy that makes my neighbour — a yoga teacher — shake her head and say “you work out more than anyone else I know.” I really don’t — but I’m usually pretty consistent. But in the past few weeks, I haven’t had a single vigour-ish workout that felt good — the few short runs I’ve managed to force myself into are plods, and I find myself slowing down in the middle of the weekly spin classes I’ve made it to. I renewed my membership at the Y in September and I’ve been exactly twice. Last week, I signed up — and paid for — two classes that I didn’t even go to. My body is telling me SOMETHING.

What am I hearing when I listen to the whispers? Slow down, move differently, listen to the invitation to learn something, make something new.

Slowly, I’ve started to accept that there is something about the current hormonal and cyclic flux of my body that craves vitamin B and sleep and rest and fresh air more than sweat and deep exertion. I heard a CBC podcast a couple of weeks ago about a Chinese tradition of “sitting the month” after giving birth — basically, giving yourself the space for your body to truly recover from birth, to transition to the next phase of your life.  I took that as another invitation to recognize that there is some kind of transition happening that I need to listen to.

Right now, I’m giving myself permission to do things that aren’t running and pushing myself hard, finding different ways to move, being open to things that feel like mystery. A few weeks ago, I spent 2 hours “ecstatic dancing,” moving my body in yoga clothes and my bare feet to an eclectic blend of music, ranging from bhangra to thrash to classical orchestral to tinkly sitar music. A week later, I went to a yin workshop for a friend’s birthday that included live music whose vibrations were intended to attune us to the vibrations in our bodies as we held deep connective poses.  Both of these things sound “flaky,” but they connected me to my body again.

Ten days ago, I embarked on a 21 day challenge with another friend, to each change one habit.  He’s limiting his sugar intake to one thing a day, and I am trying to shift my habit of mindlessly snacking after 8 pm.   Unless I’m eating out with people and we’re eating late, I ingest nothing but water or mint tea after 8 pm.  It seems simple, but the number of times I’ve almost put leftover dinner in my mouth when I’m cleaning up the kitchen, or felt the impulse to make popcorn or eat crackers and butter after 930 is… well, every day.  But I have adhered to it, and I feel better every morning.

Scanning and listening.

Last Saturday, I went to an all day meditation workshop with my cousin.  She lost her young son a year and a half ago and has been on her own transition journey of living with grief, creating her next self.  We spent a long time talking about what happens when you start to listen to what’s aching under the surface — in your soul and in your body. Most meditation practice teaches you how to be both present to and not pushed around by pain — sitting with it, it flows through you. When you don’t acknowledge pain — physical, fatigue, emotional — it persists until it breaks you.

I’m letting myself acknowledge fatigue, and the effects of darkness and hormones, and letting myself dwell in it.  Not to hide under the blankies, but to listen for what it’s offering, what the transitions are leading to.  And it feels right to nest in it.

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Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto.  Cate blogs here the second Friday of every month.  And other times when she has something to say. 

 

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.