Ladies of Ashtanga, I’d like to address a red-hot topic. It’s a little controversial as it’s not something that is really spoken of much in our community yet. I have wanted to speak about this for some time but honestly, I have felt cautious to do so. But with so much change afoot in our global community it feels like a pertinent to bring some femininity into the practice.

I’d like to begin by asking you a question or two…

Do you track your menstrual cycle? and do you have a good idea where you are currently at in your cycle (i.e. are you ovulating / premenstrual etc.)?

Do you take time off your yoga practice during your period and do you make adjustments throughout your cyclic month to allow for the changes that occur in your body?

If the answer to these questions was no, you may want to read some more.

I’d just like to start by saying. This conversation may not resonate with you. You may not suffer with your period. You may not feel inquisitive or have a strong pull to get to know yourself in this way. I can only speak from my own personal experience in my own practice and some of my students and friends who have really benefitted from this work, so if this is striking a chord with you please do read on!

So ‘traditionally’ we practice 6 days a week. We take moon days off, Saturdays off and our ladies holiday (if we are a cycling woman). But before we practiced Ashtanga we had our menstrual cycle. This means we do not just operate on the same level from day to day and week to week. There are hormonal changes that occur in our body that influence our energy levels, emotional state. Our physical strength. How resourced or depleted we are. It may be that, if we practice the same way from day to day that we do not honor these natural shifts in our body.

I love the Ashtanga Practice it is my main spiritual (as well as cycle awareness) and physical practice. But….if I do not listen my body each month and adapting I am not taking care of myself. So, over the last few years I have been experimenting with my own cycle and practice and here is what I have learnt.

If I practice the same way every day, even while observing moon days, days off and lady’s holidays I get depleted. If I bust out my full practice daily without adapting on the run up to my period (autumn into winter) and moving from my period into pre-ovulation (winter into spring) I get depleted. In other words, if I try to maintain a 6 day on 1 day off a practice all cycle long I get depleted.

A bit about my cycle journey……

My own journey was one of being unaware of my own cycle, even with a longstanding Yoga practice. That is until I attended a women’s yoga training in 2015 with Uma Dinsmore Tuli and had my mind blown! Menstrual Cycle Awareness (MCA) was a totally new concept to me. I took my ‘Ladies Holiday’ to rest (though it felt like enforced rest really). I’d take 1 day off and 2 at the most. Other than that, I had no idea of where I was at in my cycle or what that might mean to me, my body and my practice. I’d take my day or days off and then jump back on my mat and bust out my practice, business as usual day 2 or 3. Sometimes I would even just keep practicing through my period and if I didn’t I would feel guilty or lazy for doing so.

When I first learnt about the menstrual cycle on that course I was in a room with about 50 other women, mainly yoga teachers of various ages. And this information was news to many of us.  There were women like myself in their 30’s/40’s still who were still cycling and utterly amazed it had taken us so long to hear this info, to women in their 50’s/60’s some Post-Menopausal who had never been told.  I remember chatting to one lady in her late 50’s who was frankly, really pissed off!

And so, I immediately began to track my Menstrual Cycle daily. I’d note the changes in my body, my energy levels, my emotional state. I began to make proper time and space to rest during my period. And as I did this I noticed some amazing things. When I gave my body the rest it needed during my period I’d have much less pain, to the point I stopped taking pain killers altogether (it’s been 3 years since I have taken one for menstrual cramps). I began to notice re-occurring patterns that would show up every month. The strength and resilience mid-way through my cycle when Estrogen and Testosterone are at their highest.  Often questioning the meaning of my life just after ovulation when these hormones start to drop.  My need to retreat away from the world and super short fuse just before my period was due. I began to get to know myself in a totally new way.

Tracking Your Cycle

They say knowledge is power and getting to know your cycle is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. We have our very own inner compass and cycle awareness brings us back into relationship with it. It’s like having our own inner Guru. So how do we do it? If we use the archetypal 28 day cycle (many of us do not have a regular cycle though).

Day 1 is the first day of your period. From then on you can simply note the date, day you are in your cycle and any other points you feel worth noting. Emotional state, physicality, energy levels, mood, any good or not so good things that happened. Sleep quality. Dreams. And anything you wish to note really. You can write this in your phone or journal or in one of the many cycle tracking Apps available. Try and do it daily, but don’t worry if you do miss a day or two just pick it back up again. One amazing benefit of cycle tracking is that if you are fairly regular you can plan your diary around it. You’d know in advance not to book a workshop that lands on your day 1!


Our inner seasons

 

One really useful way of looking at our menstrual cycle is to split it into Seasons, just like the seasons of the year.

  • Winter – Menstruation(days 25-5 Day 1 is the first day of your period)
  • Spring – Pre Ovulation(days 6-11)
  • Summer – Ovulation(days 12-18)
  • Autumn – Pre Menstruation (days 18-25)
  • These phases are based on a 28 day cycle which is not every woman’s norm so just a very loose guide for reference. As you get to know your cycle you will know when you are moving in and out specific seasons. 
  • Each season has its own quality, just as it does in nature. Some of these might be…..
  • Winter – slow, retreating, letting go of the old, dark, restful, purifying, inner work
  • Spring – new, hopeful, tender, sweet, innocence, sense of agency
  • Summer – dynamic, open, outer focus, productive, resourced, paced, strong
  • Autumn – inner focus, critical, discerning, insightful, sharp and truthful
Image courtesy of www.thesassyshe.com

So as you begin to track your cycle…with the overlay of the inner seasons you can really begin to get to know yourself as a cyclic being. Its fascinating and empowering.

So how can we be cycle aware while practicing Ashtanga Yoga?

So here are some of the changes I have made over the past few years that have transformed my life, my relationship with my body and menstrual cycle AND my yoga practice.

 

Take Rest – This is my number 1 thing to change/add. Rest is a radical concept, and not promoted or valued in modern society, I also feel it’s not particularly valued within the Ashtanga System. Many women do not take ‘Ladies Holiday’ and some even stop cycling altogether. I don’t believe this is a coincidence and so personally I give myself 3-4 days off my practice during my period. And longer if needed. When we move towards menstruation our body is literally calling us our own personal cave to rest! I have yet to meet a woman who feels on top form at this time (although some can feel a sense of relief from the intensity of pre-menstrual symptoms) …and if we could only listen to our bodies at one time it really needs to be here! Yes, we CAN practice, it’s totally possible, but at what cost? The ‘Anything you can do I can do bleeding’ is short sighted. We can…but we may miss golden moments of rest and renewal if we do.  I do as little as possible day 1 and 2, perhaps just some restorative practices and Yoga Nidra and some women like to do some gentle Womb Yoga.  But absolutely ZERO Ashtanga, any heating practices or those that require too much physical exertion. The more complete down time the better in my experience.

Winding Down/Building Up – On the run up to my period I will soften my practice. After Ovulation, our womb lining thickens and our Bandha connection can be harder to find. This can make practice feel much heavier. I have less ability to connect to Bandha and so things like jumping back and through are harder. Back bending feels more precarious. So, I soften and ask less of myself here. Similarly, if I bolt out of the starting block (basically get over excited!) when moving from my inner winter to inner spring, I can use up energy that I just don’t have. So, as I move out of Menstruation towards Pre-Ovulation my practice might look like this. Day 4 – Standing only. Day 5 Half Primary. Day 6 Full Primary. Day 7 Second Series.

I take my own moon days – This may raise some eyebrows. But I’ve started so I’ll finish. I do not always observe moon days but I take my own moon days off (i.e. my period). So, I may have a long break when I have my period. And I’ll wind up and wind down in and out of my menstruation. I might however have a 10-14 day stretch where I don’t have a break (spring/summer). This is when I feel more resourced and have the energy I need to practice.

I listen to my own inner Guru –  perhaps another radical statement, but sometimes my body just wants to move in different ways. That might mean my practice looks a little different. I may mix things up a bit. Sometimes I’ll miss out Vinyasa, other times I’ll add more backbends or practice a moon sequence. Sometimes meditation is my practice, sometimes dance. Sometimes I will begin with my Ashtanga practice and end with a restorative sequence and sometimes I do absolutely nothing! There are times in my practice when I allow myself to play and that feels right to me.

I try really hard not to hit myself with the yoga stick! – By this I mean I don’t give myself a hard time…or I try not to anyway. We have so many things to ‘do’, ‘perfect’, ‘nail’ in this life I do try not to let my practice become one of them. I think women can be particularly hard on ourselves, expecting an awful lot of ourselves. I try not to apologise for my practice but be thankful that I have it and have the willingness and time to spend on it whatever it looks like. I often say to my students ‘don’t let yoga become another stick to hit yourself with’.

Summary and finding out more

 

So, if this blog as sparked an interest in you to learn more about this process that is within us all (whether we like it or not). I encourage you to explore further, experiment, track your cycle. Ask questions like, is my practice resourcing or depleting me? And please do get in touch with your thoughts, experiences and suggestions. As I said this may not hit home to everyone but if your open to it, it could well be a game changer to exploring a more feminine side your yoga practice.

If you’d like to know more you can reach me on Instagram @yogawithsophie,  yogawithsoph@gmail.com, or check my website for upcoming workshops. For invaluable resources on the topic of MCA check out:

Wild Power by Alexandra Pope and Sjane Hugo Werlitzer 

Yoni Shakti – Uma Dinsmore Tuli 

Code Red – Lisa Lister 

www.redschool.net 

www.wombyoga.org

"Sophie teaches Mysore at Yoga West, which I also attend. I have practiced Mysore with a number of teachers in various countries but my experience of practicing with Sophie is perhaps the best. She is hugely friendly and energetic off the mat but serious and very attentive without being intrusive on the mat. My Mysore and indeed my yoga practice has benefited hugely from her teaching and I look forward to continuing to practice with her"

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