Saturday, June 12, 2010

Yoga and my girl parts: the great debate

I'll never forget that bitter-sweet day when my body decided it was time to step over the threshold into womanhood. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and I was at my grandmother's house with my 30-odd cousins and 18 aunts and uncles. I was thirteen. I'd had an awful, cramping stomachache most of the day. That evening, I was wrestling on the living room floor with my cousins and and realized that something down there didn't feel right. Later that night, I told my mom. She gave me a handful of plastic and said, "Welcome to the real world."

That was 1994. I was taught by my mother and the other women around me to treat my time of the month as an inconvenience to be recognized but hidden; it was not something to keep me out of my activities or hinder my involvement in sports. In fact, as I grew older and began participating in male-dominated sports, I came to think of my accomplishments while on my cycle as making me a super-woman. Hell, I thought, if I can keep up with these eight men post-holing up a mountain to ski down while on my period, what can't I do? My period was like my chance each month to do a little more, just to prove to myself that it wasn't anything that could hold me back.

So it's no surprise that when I read yoga text after text explaining the rules of yoga while menstruating -- rules that limit what postures are appropriate, especially invertions -- I regarded the information as outdated, anti-feminist and insulting. I never followed the guidelines. Many yoga teachers and western doctors would back me up on this -- why take women back centuries because of something they can't control? One of my yoga instructors has spoken to several physicians about this issue and came to the conclusion that there is no medical reason for women to stop doing inversions during their cycle if they feel good.

However, because of the hormones associated with menstruation, several researchers are noticing a pattern in the timing of injuries in women. Several European researchers have found that women may injure themselves more frequently at certain times during their menstrual cycle. During menstruation, the female body does change, largely due to increased hormones in the body. At the most basic level, these hormones can soften and weaken muscles and ligaments, especially around joints, a process which prepares the body for potential pregnancy. During this time, a woman's body may be more prone to injury. Most noticably, studies found more ACL tears (a ligiment surrounding the knee) during this time.

So what is right for your body and your practice? It's up for each woman to decide for herself. I am not the type of instructor to ask menstruating women not to turn upside down in class, because I prefer inverted poses during my cycle. However, I believe that the decision requires an honest assessment of how a woman is feeling. So often in our culture, women feel pressured to perform in sports at a rate equal to men. But during a woman's cycle, her body is physically different from a man's, with differences in hormones that could make her more prone to injury. Having a relationship with your body to assess your physical well-being, each day, is important.

Usually, I feel okay during my period. I still crave my handstands, but can't hold them for as long. My shoulders want to roll in instead of out, and my structure feels a bit wobbly. This month, I was completely wiped out on day one of my cycle. I was able to teach through my cramps, and took a gentle, Happy Back class that felt okay until I strapped up a yoga wall harness that pressed against my cramping belly. By three o'clock in the afternoon, I was spent. Instead of mowing the yard and cleaning the house as planned, I took an assessment of what my body needed and instead decided on a hot bath and nap. The water soothed my aching joints, low back and cramping belly, and when my head hit the pillow, I fell instantly to sleep.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Life at 75 Percent: Fighting the Ego

Ah, glorious inversions! I just came home from a fabulous weekend of practicing and practice-teaching inversions with my new, beautiful group of yoga teacher trainers. It's been less than a month since I started my 300 hour, professional teacher training through YogaWorks and Prana Yoga Center in La Jolla, and I am loving every minute of it. Well, almost. The group is wonderfully small, inquisitive, open and compassionate and I feel so fortunate to be working with these beautiful individuals. The YogaWorks instructors have been fantastic -- full of energy and information, and excited to help us learn how to be better teachers. The only problem I've been having is with myself -- finding my limits and practicing ahimsa, or non-violence, with my practice.

I am so grateful to be working with a physical therapist who intimately understands yoga (check out Additionally, she seems to understand exactly the type of person I am, including my tendency to push my body just over its limits -- time and time again. I asked her directly this week what my limits should be. I knew we'd be practicing inversions this weekend and I really wanted to get upside down, but safely. I She said, "Anna, first of all, don't do anything that hurts or feels uncomfortable. Second, do everything at 75% of what you would normally do. So if your brain tells you that you can do five handstands, do three. If you think you can hold for another five breaths, hold for three." Basically, override the ambitious part of the ego and have compassion with my healing body.

Ironically, the lead instructor and I were dealing with the same struggle. I'm trying to safely recover from injury, and she was pregnant. She wanted to demonstrate and do each inversion, and so did I, but both of us had to rein in the ego, look at the larger picture, and find compassion.

I did it. I mean, I practiced at 75%. Or I thought I did. I'm feeling a little compression and discomfort in my low back; not pain, just discomfort. But I did less, and that feels like a good start. Next time, I think I'll take it down to 60% of what I think I can do.

This weekend I learned a lot of really helpful and solid information about how to teach inversions safely. I learned how to tell if a student isn't ready for certain inversions and why, and how to work with that student to become ready. I learned new ways of spotting students upside down and a fantastic line of preparatory poses to build strength and courage before an inversion.

But the biggest thing I learned this weekend was something that our instructor said when we were in meditation: our yoga practice is meant to heal, invigorate, and relax us. It is not meant to harm us. When we are working past the edge, or moving incorrectly, or not listening to the body, we are not practicing yoga anymore. Yoga is a union of mind, body and spirit. If we are injuring ourselves, or no longer incorporating ahimsa in our practice, we are not doing ourselves any good. Yoga is meant to be a lifestyle; that is, something that we can practice our entire lives. If we can't figure out how to listen to the body now, how will we safely practice into old age?

When the body is healing, do less. What I've come to realize is that even if my ego is as strong as ever, my body is not as strong right now. That's okay. If I take it one day at a time, at 60 to 75% of normal, then slowly, my strength will build and I will find the healing aspect of yoga and be able to practice past my 60th and even 75th birthdays.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


It's been a long time since I've written. And not because I didn't have plenty to say, but I decided to follow the old saying, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." It wasn't that I had a mouthful of hateful words to spout, but more that I've been in such a personal transition that nothing made sense, even to myself. So, I guess more appropriately, I was following, "If you can't say anything that makes any sense, don't bother moving your tongue (or typing the keys)."

This transition has been difficult and sat at times, and inspiring and energizing at others. This "transition" I'm speaking about has several components; an injury (or re-injury); a shift in my teaching schedule; a desire to teach, practice, and understand yoga differently than I have been; and a bucket of new yoga information. And while I said this has been sometimes difficult, I also realize that the transition has been divinely inspired; each shift or piece of new information presented itself at the perfect time, whether I realized it at the time or not. All of it I created through manifestations, even the uncomfortable pieces, as a way to teach myself the lessons I want to learn and to grow into what I want to become.

For the next few days, I'll fill you in on what I've been learning the past month, starting with how injury has effected me. For the rest of the month, I'll keep you posted the new, incredible journey I'm taking. I hope you'll stick around.