Kayla’s period is, in a word, treacherous. "As soon as I ovulate, I get some serious digestive disruption. Constant heartburn, going back and forth from being super constipated to having diarrhea — things just feel bad," she says. "I get insomnia, some pretty dark depression, and an inability to trust my own emotional barometer." Things don't get any better as she gets closer to her period, either. "I get achy, horrible cramps and just have no fuel — like a deep, bone tired and constant headache."
She says one of the few things that has eased her symptoms is regularly practicing Iyengar yoga, which places emphasis on alignment, rehabilitation, and strength building. “Since I’ve started doing yoga, all of these symptoms still kind of happen, but they’re much more tempered. Some months I skip a lot of them all together."
Kayla isn't alone in finding period relief through yoga — there are yoga poses and types of yoga that can be beneficial to you throughout the phases of your monthly cycle. Here's what you need to know about what yoga could do for you and your cycle.
At the risk of getting all ‘ninth grade health class’ on you…
It’s first helpful to break down the phases of your cycle and what happens during them, especially as they relate to hormones and the physical symptoms you might have (keeping in mind, of course, that everyone's body is different).
The menstrual phase, which starts on the first day of your period, is when you might have cramps and other aches, bloating, low energy, moodiness, and exhaustion due to the drop in progesterone. Progesterone is the hormone that thickens the uterine lining so it's prepared to receive and nourish a fertilized egg, should conception occur after ovulation (more on this in a bit).
The follicular phase is up next. This is when your pituitary gland releases follicle stimulating hormone (FSH, which signals to your ovaries, “Yo! Time to start maturing and producing an egg.” This phase also begins on the first day of your period. During this time, testosterone and estrogen spike. "Estrogen will make you feel more sociable, while testosterone will increase your physical and mental stamina," adds Iris Lami, a yoga teacher and ayurvedic therapist at Ginger Hill Farm Retreat.
During the ovulatory phase (AKA ovulation), the ovaries release the egg after being triggered by that estrogen spike, with some assistance from luteinizing hormone (LH). Ovulation represents the midpoint of your cycle — about 14 days after the menstrual and follicular phases. The egg makes its way into your fallopian tube and into your uterus, where it chills out for 24 hours waiting for a sperm to fertilize it. Some signs you're ovulating include: a charge in cervical mucus (it gets stretchy and clear — kind of like egg whites), sore and tender breasts, abdominal pain, spotting, and an increased sex drive (after all, this is when you’re most fertile over the course of the month).
Last but not least: the luteal phase, which begins the day after ovulation and lasts until you start your period again. This phase is when you may experience symptoms of PMS like irritability, breast tenderness, headaches, mood swings, anxiety, depression, and bloating. It's called the “luteal” phase because this is the name of the structure inside your ovaries where the developing egg lives during the follicular phase — the corpus luteum. During the luteal phase, the corpus luteum collapses once the egg is released and generates progesterone. Progesterone causes your uterine lining to thicken so a fertilized egg (and future fetus) has a safe place to implant and grow. If fertilization doesn’t occur, progesterone stops getting produced. As a result of this drop, you shed this excess uterine lining and the egg in the form of your period — cue menstrual phase, all over again.
Yoga for each phase
So, what’s all this got to do with yoga? Turns out, certain yoga styles and poses are useful to try during the phases of your cycle, when your hormones are at particular levels and you’re experiencing associated symptoms.
During the menstrual phase, Lauren Manaker, a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in reproductive health recommends child's pose, which uses gravity to guide blood flow. "High levels of estrogen affect the brain's ability to deal with stress, and estrogen has been shown to increase the stress response in the brain,” she explains. “Performing restorative poses like child's pose during this phase in the cycle could be beneficial to ease stress."
Kayla actually tells her yoga instructor when she's on her period (hell, yeah!) because when practicing Iyengar yoga, it’s not ideal to invert your body during menstruation (although there's some debate on this). "I don't do inversions,” she says. “For any standing poses — like chair pose — I do them wide-legged to give my abdomen space,” she says.
During the follicular phase and ovulation — when your hormone levels are on the rise and you might be feeling more spry — Risman suggests getting more active by doing more standing poses and inversions (think warrior poses, bridge pose, and lots of planks). Kate Potvin, a yoga teacher and fertility coach, also advises stimulating the ovaries — thus encouraging egg maturation and development — with belly poses and deep twists.
And the luteal phase? According to Potvin, hip opening postures bring extra blood flow that strengthens the uterine lining during this part of your cycle. “Cobra pose is arguably the best post for women struggling with PMS," says Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics. "Cobra encourages healthy blood circulation which is crucial for fighting inflammation and fatigue. Similarly, by opening the heart and allowing for deep meditative breathing, the cobra position is great for managing anxiety associated with PMS."
So, should you start flowing?
(Pun intended.) While practicing yoga has made Kayla’s period more tolerable, it's a cure-all for everyone. Plus, as we mentioned earlier, every individual’s body — hence cycle — is unique. It’s also worth noting that keeping track of your cycle is an important first step so you can better identify the phases.
At the end of the day, yoga is all about tuning into your body. Who knew it this includes your ovaries, too? Give some of these poses a shot throughout your monthly cycle, whether it’s in the comfort of your own home, a studio, or private one-on-one sessions.