Periods are normal, but pain shouldn’t be. Unfortunately though, for many of us pain can feel like an unavoidable part of our cycle. Also called dysmenorrhea, menstrual cramps are primarily caused by the presence of excess prostaglandins in your uterus. These natural chemicals trigger the muscles in your uterus to contract and literally cramp.
Translation? Most people with periods spend their first few days feeling like crap. And the higher the level of prostaglandins in your uterus, the longer you can plan to pencil "curl up in fetal position" into your schedule.
There are a handful of things you can do to feel better during your period: eat a clean diet, use relaxation techniques, take supplements, exercise. And while curling up in a fetal position and bingeing Netflix sure is comforting, you're better off learning some basic yoga poses to relieve your period pain.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient practice of movement and meditation, designed to move you along a path of spiritual growth. In the West, we know yoga to be an excellent form of exercise. The poses, also known as asanas, help us build flexibility and strength.
They counteract the strain that our jobs have on our bodies. They help us manage chronic pain. And somehow they make us feel good.
But the physical aspect of yoga is only one of three. Breathing techniques and meditation practices are also an important part of the tradition. To enjoy the benefits, according to sacred yogic texts, all three should be used together.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word, translated as "union." What this union means depends on who you ask.
For some, it's the body/mind connection: an understanding that what's happening in the body affects the mind, and vice versa. For others, it's a testament to the benefits of yoga itself: an integration of the body and the mind.
And for some, it's a cosmic joke, a play on the idea that separation is just an illusion. For them, yoga is the practice of becoming disillusioned.
Your definition of yoga will evolve as your practice evolves. But it will always be a practice. Yoga isn't about being the most flexible or achieving goals.
Yoga is the practice of being where you are, of pushing the edge of what's challenging but not harmful. Of learning to sit with experiences that may be uncomfortable.
Remember that fetal position you had scheduled?
The Different Styles of Yoga
There are so many styles of yoga. They range from more traditional styles like Ashtanga yoga to modern interpretations like CorePower yoga. Some are intense, designed to build stamina and burn calories. Others are slow and gentle for relaxation and deep stretching.
You may find that different points in your menstrual cycle call for different styles. For example, you may have more energy at the beginning of your cycle. This is a good time for a rigorous class. But when cramps have zapped your energy, a slow flow class might be the ticket.
Below are the most popular styles of yoga.
- Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga pairs breathing techniques with static poses to prepare the body and the mind for formal meditation. Classes will often have a medium-paced flow, using breath work to make it possible to hold the poses longer.
- Vinyasa Yoga. Rather than breathing into static poses, a Vinyasa class will ask you to move with your breath. There are many different styles of Vinyasa Yoga, and the emphasis is always on flowing through the poses, rather than holding them.
- Iyengar Yoga. Iyengar Yoga is a detail-oriented style that focuses on alignment and concentration techniques. Classes are slower paced with poses being held longer than you'll find in Hatha or Vinyasa. Props like blankets, straps, and blocks are used to modify the poses and perfect alignment.
- Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga is vigorous and structured. You'll recognize poses from Vinyasa, but in Ashtanga classes, the order of the poses doesn't vary. There are 5 universal sequences, ranging from beginner to advanced.
- Yin Yoga. Where other styles are fast-paced and physically demanding, Yin Yoga is slow and meditative. In a Yin class, you'll hold poses for longer, sometimes using props. You'll be encouraged to use that time to practice being still, even as discomfort arises. This style is designed to target muscles, connective tissue, and joints.
- Bikram/Hot Yoga. Every Bikram class includes the same 26 poses paired with 2 breathing exercises. Classes are always held in a room with a temperature of 105-degrees. These classes are tough on beginners and water is a must-have. While heat is often used in yoga to encourage flexibility and detoxification, the benefits of hot yoga are controversial.
Can Yoga Help To Relieve Menstrual Cramps?
Though more research is needed, studies have shown that yoga can reduce the severity of menstrual cramps. One study tested the effects on three simple poses on period pain, and found that the severity of pain was significantly reduced after three menstrual cycles. This is promising for women who want to find natural remedies for period pain.
Studies have also shown that a consistent yoga practice can improve your sense of well-being, lower irritability, increase blood flow, reduce lower back pain, and combat fatigue.
As with many complementary therapies, science is slow to show interest. And a 2016 study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance showed that 72% of yoga practitioners are female. Given that women's health issues are notoriously under-researched, we may have to wait out the gender gap to fully understand the relationship between yoga and menstrual cramps.
What we do know is that plenty of women use yoga as a form of self-care. Worst case scenario? You leave the mat a little more flexible than you were when you started.
How to Relieve Menstrual Cramps With Yoga
If you're interested in really diving into yoga, go ahead and sign up for some different classes and see which ones you like. But if you want to know how to relieve cramps with a few simple yoga poses, focus on these:
- Forward Fold
- Child’s Pose
- Legs Up The Wall
- Fish Pose
- Supine Twist
- Knees To Chest
These eight beginner-level poses are commonly used in the yoga community to alleviate cramps. And when you incorporate breathing and meditation techniques, you just may address other PMS symptoms. Let's break down how to do these poses and how they help to address period pain.
What You'll Need
Here's the good news: you probably already have everything you need to get started. You'll need comfortable clothes, a wall, and a blanket or a towel to cushion the floor.
Many classes will provide other props, and while helpful to some styles of yoga like Yin, they can get pricey.
If you can buy one thing, buy a yoga mat. They're great, but again, not necessary. When yoga first came to the West, people used towels. So don't sweat it. If it's good enough for the first yoga teachers, it's good enough for you.
Other helpful props you may want to get as your yoga practice progresses are:
- Yoga Blocks. These help you to modify poses that you're not quite flexible enough for yet.
- Bolster. Bolsters are used in deep stretch classes because they offer support that will allow you to hold a pose for a long time. They can be quite cozy, too.
- Yoga Strap. Yoga straps help with alignment and stretching.
The Best Yoga Poses For Cramps
Use this guide to learn how to do the poses that are most likely to relieve your menstrual cramps, and understand why they work.
Stand with your feet shoulder length apart. Reach your arms up and over your head and bring them down, bending at the hips. Let your head hang, gently shaking "yes" and "no" to relieve tension in the neck and spine. Grab your elbows with your hands and hold the pose for up to one minute.
Bend your knees to give your lower back a nice release.
Benefits: Stretches out any tightness in the hips and lower back, and soothes the abdominal and reproductive muscles.
Pro Tip: Breathe in fully as you raise your arms over your head, and exhale as you bend down. As you breathe in, lift up halfway so that your back is parallel to the ground and exhale as you bend down further into the pose.
Lie face down on the ground with the tops of your feet resting on the floor, a few inches apart. Slowly place your hands on the ground, right beneath your shoulders. Lift your chest as you inhale and let your shoulders fall back as you exhale. Lift as much as is comfortable; don't overdo it. Hold for about thirty seconds.
Benefits: Stimulates your reproductive and digestive organs. Massages the abdominal muscles and compresses the kidneys and the renal system.
Pro Tip: Don't let your arms splay out as you lift. Keep them pressed to your body.
Begin on all fours with your hands under your shoulders, and your knees under your hips. Inhale as you drop your belly towards the floor, raise your chin and tail bone to the sky. Exhale and lift your spine to the ceiling, tuck your chin and tail bone in towards your belly button. Flow through this four times.
Don't strain yourself; gently move between the poses in a way that feels good.
Benefits: Stretches the abdomen and hips while releasing the pelvic floor muscles and spine.
Pro Tip: This can be done in a chair. Reach your belly forward with your chin towards the sky, and then bring your spine back, caving your belly and tucking your chin.
Kneel on the floor with your toes touching and your knees apart, about as wide as your hips. Place your hands face down on the ground in front of you and slowly slide them forward, bending at the hips until you're face down. Inhale and exhale here, breathing into your lower back and abdomen. Hold for as long as you like.
Benefits: Massages your reproductive organs and soothes your backaches. Allows for relaxation of the entire body and the mind.
Pro Tip: After a little time in this pose, see if you can relax your shoulders. This will release your neck, shoulders, and spine.
Legs Up The Wall
Lie on your back and scoot your butt up to the wall. Bring your legs up against the wall. Let your arms fall to the side. Allow your breath to move at its own pace. Hold for as long as you like.
Benefits: Improves blood circulation, supports the upper body and relieves bloating.
Pro Tip: Do this for a few minutes each day for several days leading up to your period for preventative measures.
Lie on your back with your legs extended in front of you. Place your hands under your butt, facing down. Pressing into your forearms, lift your chest as your back curves and your head falls back, your crown gently touching the floor.
Benefits: Stretches the abdominal muscles, opens the front body and hip flexors.
Pro Tip: If you have lower back issues, bend your knees and don't over-arc your back.
Lie on your back with your legs extended out, and your arms stretched out to either side. Bend your left knee as you inhale, and drop it over the right side of your body as you exhale. Allow your shoulders to rest evenly on the floor as your spine twists.
Bring your left knee back up and extend your leg out. Inhale, bending your right knee and exhale, dropping your right knee over the left side of your body.
Hold each side for one minute.
Benefits: Massages the abdominal muscles and encourages blood flow to the digestive organs.
Pro Tip: If you'd like a deeper twist, turn your head in the opposite direction that your knee is pointing. If the twist is too deep for you, use a pillow to catch your knees' fall as it drops over your body.
Knees To Chest
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Slowly pull your knees to your chest. Wrap your arms around your legs and hug your body. If it feels good, lift your head and tuck your chin to your chest. Hold for as long as you like.
Benefits: Relaxes and massages the lower back. Encourages circulation to the abdomen and internal organs.
Pro Tip: If your lower back is bugging you, gently rock from side to side for a gentle massage.
Get The Most Out Of Your Practice
Remember to breathe.
If you can breathe, you can do yoga. Deep breathing is a fundamental part of this. It will help you sink deeper into your poses, and has been proven to elicit the relaxation response. And relaxation will help you have a happier period.
Practice mindfulness while you hold the poses and while you move from one to another. Being mindful can sound complicated, but it's really easy. All you have to do is notice what's happening. You can ask yourself questions like:
- What does this feel like?
- What kind of thoughts am I having?
- Are there any sensations in my feet that I can notice? In my legs? Belly? Chest?
Feel into your experience. You can't do it wrong.
Use music to drive away boredom.
Sometimes you may not feel like practicing. Playing music can help you get lost in the moment and just be where you are, moving through the poses. It can also help quiet the mind.
How To Stick To Your Yoga Practice
Sometimes it's hard to do what's good for us. A practice of any kind requires a commitment and some self-discipline. There are a few ways to make it easier to stick to a practice so that you get results.
First, know your cycle. Know what phase you're in so you can know when to be more vigilant about doing yoga. The four phases of your menstrual cycle are:
- Menstruation. Your cycle begins on day 1 of your period. This is when prostaglandins and inflammation tend to be highest. Yoga can help soothe and lower the cramping. The menstruation phase, of course, ends when your period ends.
- Follicular phase. This phase begins at the start of menstruation and ends at ovulation. The average follicular phase lasts for about 16 days.
- Ovulation. This is when you're most fertile, and typically occurs midway through your cycle.
- Luteal phase. This is the phase where PMS rears its ugly head. This is the time to start leveling up your yoga practice.
The second way to stick with your practice is to take online classes. Practicing with a teacher will help you to stay motivated, and hold those poses longer.
Follow Instagram accounts like @inflexibleyogis or @theunderbellyyoga to stay inspired.
DoYogaWithMe offers online classes for all levels, and is offering 2 free months of membership for those quarantined right now.
Now you have everything you need to start a yoga practice that will help you relieve cramps and lower back pain naturally. Follow us on social media and tell us what poses are working for you!