Let’s be real. There really is nothing fun about that time of the month. Cramps commence, our moods sit precariously close to the edge, and the last thing we feel like doing is working out or eating healthily (hello, chips and chocolate!). While the effects of PMS vary from woman to woman, most of us feel them to some degree. Luckily for us, a few simple changes to our diet and lifestyle can go a long way in reducing the physical and emotional pains that come with having a period.
In part one of this story, we spoke to nutritionist and wellness coach, Jessica Sepel, about making the right food choices to minimise the pain and discomfort of PMS. This week, we chatted to yoga instructor, Courtney Rose, from leading yoga studio, Humming Puppy, about the benefits of yoga during your period and her top five poses to soothe cramps and manage mood swings:
Exercise is often the last thing we feel like doing when cramps are coming on, so why should we do it and what types of exercise should we be doing?
Traditionally, menstruation is seen as a yin phase of the body and corresponds with the new moon. It is a time for turning inwards, slowing down and self-care. As tempting as it is to curl up under the covers with Netflix and not move, exercise is one of the best things we can do for both mind and body. Endorphins, the feel-good hormones naturally produced by the body, are released when we exercise. In some cases, painful periods are actually caused by a lack of endorphin production. Further to this, endorphins effectively reduce the sensation of pain, which is great news for cramps.
From a yoga perspective, moving our bodies encourages the movement or flow of prana (think of it as life force, or energy) throughout the body, which leaves us feeling calm yet energised. Undertaking exercise that is mindful and restorative is perfect! Walking outdoors, restorative styles of yoga, swimming in the ocean and hiking are great. Choose activities that allow you to soften into your pelvic area rather than requiring you to tense up. This is a time to do things that nourish and care for your body, mind and spirit.
How does yoga help to manage mood swings and minimise period pain?
A regular yoga practice assists in balancing your endocrine system (the system that regulates your hormones). It is these hormones that are responsible for all the ups and downs of your period! Balancing your hormones is key to experiencing less symptoms in the lead up to and during your period. In addition to this, it brings you into a greater state of awareness with yourself and offers you a toolkit of self-care, so as you begin to go off kilter, you can choose to bring yourself back into balance, nipping any pesky mood swings in the bud!
What key yoga poses do you recommend to help ease bloating, cramps and common period-related aches i.e. back pain?
1. Cat/Cow (Bidalasana)
This is a great way to explore gentle movement. It stretches and gently massages the abdominals and the lower back while lubricating the spine. It also links movement and breath, quieting and calming the mind.
How to: Begin on all fours, hand underneath shoulders and knees underneath hips. Untuck your toes and relax your feet. As you inhale, let your belly drop down towards the floor as you gently direct your tailbone to the ceiling and look up. Think of your heart pressing through your shoulders. As you exhale, begin to tuck your tailbone, bring your chin to your chest and draw your belly button up into your spine, rounding your back. Continue to move gently, inhaling and exhaling until your body begins to feel softer.
2. Down Face Warrior / Wide-legged Child’s Pose (Adho Muhka Virasana)
This is a terrific pose for relieving cramps as well as stretching the lumbar spine to relieve back ache. Being a forward fold, it is also very calming and cooling for the body and mind (and is my personal favourite).
How to: Begin on all fours, bring your big toes to touch and then take your knees mat width apart (no yoga mat? Take the width of a beach towel or as wide as feels comfortable). Bring your hips down to meet your heels – if they don’t reach, use a bolster, pillow or rolled up towel to create a wedge between hips and heels that your hips can rest on. Walk your hands forward, allowing your body to come down towards the floor. Let your arms be straight but relaxed. Let your forehead rest on the floor – if it doesn’t quite get there, use a yoga block or cushion. Take a deep inhale and then a long slow exhale. Let your body relax completely, no need to ‘hold’ the pose, let yourself melt into it.
3. Reclined Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
Twists on your body are just like wringing out a sponge. They help to wring out anything old and stagnant. This gentle spinal twist helps to alleviate bloating, ease fraught nerves and soothe pain in the lower back and belly. While there are stronger variations on twists, remember that the aim of this one is softness and release, so try not to force or strain the body.
How to: Begin lying on your back. Take your arms out to a T or cactus shape at shoulder height. Bring the soles of your feet to the floor knees, pointing to the ceiling and legs together. Gently let your knees fall over to one side keeping them together. If they don’t quite make the floor again use a bolster or cushion between the floor and the knees. Let your face turn in the opposite direction of your knees.
An alternative and more gentle option is to allow the feet to stay on the floor as you let the knees fall to one side, the knees will naturally separate.
4. Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Buddha Konasana)
This gentle and deeply restorative pose assists circulation to and at the opening of the pelvic area. It helps to regulate menstrual flow and stimulate the ovaries. The pelvic area is the seat of the second chakra – svadhistana or the ‘sacral chakra’. This chakra is associated with the lower back and womb (amongst other things), and when balanced, allows us to go with the flow, accept and revel in pleasure and enjoy the sweetness of life.
How to: If you have a bolster handy, begin by laying your bolster length ways away from you. While seated, bring your lower back to connect with the end of the bolster and then lie down so that your spine runs along the length of your bolster. It should feel easy and comfortable and your head should be supported.
If you don’t have a bolster, begin by lying on your back. Bring the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall out to the side – you may like to support your knees with blocks or cushions if you feel any strain or discomfort. Take one hand to your heart and one hand to your belly OR rest your arms alongside your body with your palms facing up. Begin to breathe deeply down in to the bottom of your spine.
5. Feet up the Wall/Fountain of Youth (Viparita Karani)
This pose is sometimes called the ‘Jewel for Women in Yoga’ and I am well known for spending much time here! Aside from being incredibly relaxing, it increases blood flow to the pelvic region and is one of the few recommended inversions during menstruation. It assists in balancing hormones and cools the body. It’s also very useful for swollen, tired feet and legs.
How to: Begin by sitting on the floor with one hip next to a wall (choose a wall free from picture frames and other hazards!). You might also like to fold a blanket or towels into a square that you can easily sit cross legged. Begin to pivot your body, using your hand for support so that you end up lying down with your legs up the wall and your back on the floor. Let your legs relax, if your knees bend a little, that is perfect. Close your eyes and deepen your breath. Stay as long as is comfortable. If your legs start to tingle or go numb, that is a good sign to gently release.
Sometimes, amidst the pain, it can be really hard to figure out whether you should or shouldn’t do any exercise. How would you advise women on becoming more in-tune with knowing what their body needs?
It all starts with getting quiet. Our bodies communicate subtly, and with our minds crammed full and racing from one thing to the next, it can be hard for us to actually listen. Having a regular meditative or contemplative practice is key. Even if meditation is not your thing, find a practice that allows you to be mindful. It might be the ritual of making your coffee in the morning and allowing yourself to be totally absorbed by it, journaling, sitting on the beach watching the waves or, of course, your yoga practice. Once we get quiet and slow down we can begin to feel what we need rather than trying to analyse what our bodies need.
Lucky for us, we also live in a tech age, and there is no reason why the tech that connects us to the whole world can’t also assist you to get more connected with yourself. Cycle tracking apps are an excellent way to get to know your body and over time, you start to see patterns emerge and you can begin to head your symptoms off at the pass. Personally, I use Clue but there are plenty of great ones out there.
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