Updated: Jan 17
The short answer is…
yes! Always do what you feel will elevate your mind-body health.
But that is my rebel’s response :)
I was taught traditionally, and told by both male and female teachers:
A woman has lower energy while on her cycle and should rest instead of practice.
My personal experience, and personality, is that I have never liked being told what I am and am not capable of doing, or when.
I always want to practice, because yoga always makes me feel better, no matter what day of the month. When I was a younger student, it seemed unfair that men could make decisions about women’s bodies, and that women followed (and taught!) those rules.
Through my own lifetime of practice, I have learned how to make the subtle shifts to regularly intense/athletic practices that honor and empower me and my female clients.
I encourage you to be playful with your own practice!
The long answer is…
Different traditions of yoga will give you different answers.
Ashtanga yoga, which is the foundation for nearly all of today’s flow/vinyasa classes, has a very clear cut answer: no practice for women during their period… period. Three days of rest are recommended and given a cute name: Lady’s Holiday. Interestingly, this means that everyone you practice with knows when you are on your cycle.
The rationale is that the woman’s energy is flowing downwards at this time, while the purpose of yoga practice is to lift energy up along the spine, for vitality and enlightenment. Unspoken are the realities that Ashtanga Yoga is a patriarchal system (the head of the school in Mysore, India skipped a generation: Sharat’s mother is allowed to teach but as a woman, never held the authority that her father did or her son now does). The Jois family is also Bhramin Hindu, and for Hindu Indians, menstruating women are not welcome to enter temples because they are considered unclean. Yoga ashrams are also sacred places; yoga philosophy teaches Saucha, cleanliness, though the ancient/traditional texts do not mention specifically how to regard women’s cycles (women were rarely yogi ascetics).
It’s also interesting to note that in Ashtanga yoga, men and women always abstain from practice one day a week (usually Saturday) as well as on New and Full moons. If the new/full moon falls on a saturday, then an additional day of rest (Friday or Sunday) is taken. So of a month of “daily” practice, a women is skipping 6 days, like men, and an additional 3 days. It doesn’t end up feeling like a daily practice as much as a scheduled, intermittent practice.
Iyengar yoga, the traditional lineage that also began with Krishnamacharya’s teachings in the early 1900s, has a more liberal policy: women are allowed to practice, but are recommended not to do inversions. Practices are traditionally home alone practices, with students meeting in group classes with teachers, who will voice modifications for women who are on their cycles, mainly in the beginning of class (for headstand) and the end (shoulder stand).
The theory is that inversions reverse blood flow. Specifically, Iyengar yoga teaches long holds (ten+ minutes) of Shirshasana (headstand) and Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand). Instead of practicing these long inversions, women on their cycle are encouraged to do supported hip openers and more restorative postures. Philosophically, it’s a “light touch” approach to practice, a reflection of aparigraha, non attachment to specific postures, as well as bhramacharya, awareness of energy.
Philosophically, the concept resonates with me, but logic seems a bit unclear— long holds of downward facing dog, for example, also invert the pelvis, but are “allowed”, as are handstands and other arm balances. Moving past what is “allowed”: some postures (like kurmasana) are encouraged, to enhance blood flow. This, to me, seems like a more reasonable approach and reflects a more woman-empowered perspective. BKS Iyengar’s daughter Geeta was also a highly respected, and well written, yoga teacher. Traditions that keep women’s knowledge alive, generation to generation, is a gift to all female practitioners.
Today, most students of yoga are women, and most yoga is far from traditional. Easy access, on demand, vinyasa/ workout-style classes proliferate youtube and other online platforms. The high degree of standardization is a reflection of the “education” system in yoga: a largely consumer-based business model that over produces under-qualified instructors. It is becoming difficult for new students to learn old knowledge. There is little to no personalization of yoga knowledge, teachers do not know students well enough to teach how to modify for monthly cycles.
The western perspective on menstruation reflects our male-dominant culture, which has little connection with the moon/natural cycles, and instead places a high degree of importance on female productivity matching male productivity. Emotions and cyclic behavior are considered a weakness, something to be mitigated. Over time, every woman finds her own way of “managing” her “symptoms”.
In my experience, personally as well as teaching female private clients for over a decade: Menstruation is an inner cleansing process; all organs are actively detoxing at various times for every one of us. While bleeding, it is common to experience poorer digestion, difficulty with focus, and higher stress levels. Yoga is the best course of action for all of these “symptoms”.
I don’t find it necessary (or helpful!) to abstain from physical practices. During a woman’s cycle, it can be significantly more challenging to engage bandhas and maintain mental focus. This, to me, is more of an invitation to practice than a deterrent. Of course, be sensitive to your needs and energy levels— as always. But there is no need to be fearful or over-cautious. Menstruation is not such a delicate process. Inverting will not “confuse” the body: we intuitively know where gravity is pulling, and respond accordingly.
When it is accustomed to yoga, then the body desires to feel the engagement of bandhas, deep breathing, and meditative attention. These practices feel especially good when the practitioner has heightened awareness of the inner body: psoas, diaphragm, low back. These are the places that “cramp” and these are the places that are toned in intelligent yoga practice. Yogic practices enhance circulation, tone the organs, and strengthen the supporting structors of body as well as mind. When we feel healthy energy and supported within, empowered to care for ourselves through our own yoga, then our mood, work, and dedication to loved friends and family will be naturally joyous.
So I say yes.
Practice. Practice, always, with awareness, intelligence, and intuitive discernment. Observe your body. Learn from your teachers and yourself. Freely share your knowledge with other women. It is not what we do, but how we do it.