Flow Yoga and Aunt Flo
Riddle me this: what does yoga have in common with Orthodox Judaism, Fundamentalist Islam, and squeamish men the world over? That’s right: each tradition excludes women from participating in daily rituals during menstruation.
But guess what—most contemporary Jews and Muslims don’t shun menstruating women. They work with them, cook with them, play Apples to Apples with them, sometimes they even have sex with them.
Yoga teachers, however, are not always so forward-thinking. I've taught literature and writing for fifteen years, and I have yet to begin class by asking if anyone is menstruating, but that's a fairly standard opening line for yoga teachers. Why is is it relevant? Often the teacher's explanation has to do with "flow" and "blockage." Sure, doing a headstand on your period is a bad idea, all that stuff trying to get out is swished back in, sure. Seems plausible, at least if a student doesn't draw on her basic knowledge of physics and anatomy. But really, when was the last time a woman choked on her own menses after too many moontime headstands? I think it coincided with women losing their uteruses mid-marathon. If women couldn’t handle inversions while menstruating, then there would be a regular exodus of lady astronauts from the international space station. Look it up, it doesn’t happen. One of my favorites, Kino MacGregor, responded this way when asked about practicing during menstruation:
Guruji [Sri K. Pattabi Jois, founder of Ashtanga yoga] advised women to take the days of heaviest flow of the menstrual cycle (usually one to three days) totally off. The downward flow of energy during that period directly opposes the idea of yoga practice which seeks to bring energy up the spine. The ovaries are also in a state of flux during which it is not advised to squeeze on them with the deep work of the bandhas. I’ve noticed that women who practice too regularly during their menstrual cycles sometimes experience disruption of the cycle or even infertility. If a woman wants some activity during the cycle I recommend going for a walk, taking a bike ride or even doing some easy restorative yoga but not the intensive Ashtanga Yoga practice.
(full interview here)
MacGregor’s anecdotal evidence has pretty frightening implications: practice during menstruation may cause the reproductive organs to go on the fritz or even close shop altogether. I won’t quarrel with her point. It doesn’t surprise me that a course of vigorous exercise, undertaken by women who disproportionately tend to be vegetarians would lead to irregular periods. There’s even a name for this: amenorrhea.
What does surprise me is that is no one remembers Guruji expressing concern for the reproductive health of our brothers in asana, our yogis. As terrifying as it is for a woman like me to consider, yogis risk their dwi kosha* in every janu sirsasana B, every salabhasana, every dhanurasana. I haven’t polled my yogi buds (I will do this, I promise) but I wouldn’t be surprised if they worry about putting the squeeze on their balls during practice a whole lot more often than we yoginis feel the bandhas impinge on our ovaries.
My reproductive organs are my business. This might be a very Western attitude, but let’s face it: most yoga is pretty Western. If you are a woman teaching yoga, you are a beneficiary of this Westernization, as yoga in India was until very recently taught exclusively by and to high-caste men and boys. So please, worry less about being traditional (most Jews and Muslims are so over it!), and worry more about the message it sends when you decide that some people’s reproductive organs need special protection while others are left to flop around, vulnerable in their boxer briefs.
*Sanskrit for “two treasures.”