When I was a teenager, old wives warned that there were certain things you shouldn’t do when you were on your period. The forbidden activities included swimming, horseback riding, bicycling and showering. As it turned out, none of these ended up being a problem. To be sure, there are things that are best avoided while on your period. But these days gynecologists actually recommend moving your body—and showering. Early on in my yoga practice, I ignored warnings about practicing inversions on your period, thinking that they were just more old wives’ tales. For a short while, this worked out okay—until it didn’t.
Often I don’t seem to grasp concepts until they become physical reality for me. In other words, I had to learn the hard way. About 10 years ago, I practiced Sirsasana (Headstand) on the third day of my period. It felt okay in the moment, but an hour or so later, I came down with a horrible case of cramps. What was especially notable is that it was the first time I’d ever experienced cramps. The other unusual thing that happened was that for several hours after my Headstand, my period completely stopped.
How Inversions Can Interrupt the Flow
Here’s what happened: Going upside down interrupted the natural flow. Because the fluids that should have continued to flow out backed up in my uterus, it started cramping to try to push things out. When my flow finally restarted, of course, all hell broke loose because my flow had been stopped for several hours.
So, this is the physical reason not to invert on your period: Inverting can interrupt the flow and cause cramping. There are other reasons too. According to the yoga system, apana is the downward-flowing energy that governs elimination. It is one of the five vayus, or energy flows recognized in yoga practice.
When you are on your period, apana is the predominant energy in your body. Going upside down contradicts the downward apana flow. This could have contributed to the symptoms I experienced after practicing Headstand. As my practice became more mature, I realized that inversions were only the most extreme example of poses that contradicted apana. I became so sensitive that even sitting on a meditation bench invited enough of an upward flow during my period that I had to switch to a meditation cushion. Sitting on a bench made me feel endlessly agitated. Once I sat on the cushion, everything settled down.
Inversions and Others That Don’t Follow the Flow
Here are some types of poses, including inversions, that are best to avoid when you’re on your period:
- Inversions: Sirsasana (Headstand), Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), Pinca Mayurasana (Peacock Pose), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose). Even Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) is an inversion.
- Backbends: Because the uterus swells somewhat during your period, it’s best not to do any sort of extreme backbending, even Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), which is also a slight inversion.
- Abdominal strengtheners: Any sort of crunches—think Navasana (Boat Pose)—could possibly provoke cramping.
- Extreme twists: If you want to twist while you’re on your period, don’t go to your edge. Stay about 10 percent inside your edge.
Poses That Flow with Your Cycle
- Gentle seated forward bends: Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Janu Sirsasana (Head of the Knee Pose), Upavista Konasana (Seated Angle Pose), Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
- Restorative Yoga: My favorites for relieving menstrual stress are Supta Baddhakonasana (Supine Bound Angle Pose) and Supta Virasana (Supine Hero’s Pose, especially when you practice it supported on yoga bolsters).
When I was in India studying with the Iyengars, we didn’t practice standing poses while on our periods. In general, if your energy is low, especially in the first few days of your period, this is probably sound advice.
As you move into the later stages of your period, you can experiment with what feels good in your body. Sometimes you can return to gentle backbends, twists and standing poses on the third, fourth or fifth day, depending on how heavy your periods are. As always, listen to your body.