Category: Womens Health

Alex Hanly, Yoga Kent

Death & Menstruation

Womens Health

Being a woman now: If you are a woman and have a menstrual cycle then trying to force yourself to fit into the manufactured schedule of constant productivity which is set out for us in the modern world proposes a huge obstacle to health.
Trying to fit to the one-size-fits-all schedules that we’re offered will inevitably create tensions that build into physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological wounds.
From my experience as a woman and from listening to many other women’s stories, I hear that menstrual “complaints” are often accepted as the norm and that women should “learn to suffer silently”. I am adamant that these menstrual “complaints” are in fact signals from our bodies to shift to a healthier way of living and signals from nature for our species to change in the way we cohabit this earth.
The modern mind holds the “life-death-life cycle” in two separate and opposing parts.
1st: Life – the good, the prosperous, the natural and productive.
2nd: Death – the evil, the grotesque, the wasteful and the unproductive.
Religion’s separation of heaven and hell has a lot to account for in this warped view that we now collectively uphold. This death-negative assumption is often unspoken, yet its clarity resides everywhere in modern life and governs most of the choices we make in how we live. It affects the health and wellbeing of ourselves as well as that of the whole planet and all of its beings.

Here’s a few examples of unexamined death-negative stories we uphold:
Super-Yang: society values masculine pleasure and strengths over feminine pleasure and feminine strengths.
The terms masculine and feminine here do not mean man/women, rather, I describe the essential polarities of life, yin and yang. It is a common habit to think and name masculine ‘yang’ qualities as strong, and feminine ‘yin’ qualities as weak, even though yin and yang are equal and opposite in power, like two sides of the same coin. For some reason, one is seen as higher as or better than the other.
I imagine this: our super-yang species walking with only one leg, up a very large mountain, carrying a huge amount of baggage, we have blisters on our foot, we’re dehydrated and exhausted but we keep going because somebody, somewhere along the path told us we should.
Why do we comply with this? Because of our unexamined story that death is negative. That to stop, to give in, is perceived as failure or defeat. I am not suggesting that life should be effortless and that we should simply relax, receive and do nothing. Everything takes effort. But the quality of effort we apply and the cycle or system of creation we use to produce things needs serious review and updating!
Scientific rationale devalues the wisdom of instinct, intuition and the senses, regarding them as unreliable sources for knowing. This assumption wipes out some of the most crucial and powerful faculties of being human. A human detached from instinct, impulse, feeling, intuition and sense becomes an unsure, scared and confused human.
Mainstream mind identifies emotion (particularly unpleasant emotions) as a waste of time, an unnecessary human weakness that we are better ridden of in the name of efficiency and production. This banishing and shunning of emotions strips us of our ability to progress through the uncomfortable and to learn from it. It prohibits real productivity and growth. Emotions are also more frequently associated with women, so this submerges women even deeper into the “weaker role”.
Capitalism and our consumption-based society aims to rid the world of winter, to eradicate any times where we stop. Stop growing food, stop working, stop doing, stop busy-ing and rest inside. As stopping is a waste of time! This pressure is inhuman. If the apple tree did not shed its leaves and then stop its external activity in winter, it would never again bear fruit. Yet, we expect constant sacrifice, above-and-beyond effort from ourselves and from each other, all year round.
Nature’s cycle:
How can we humans, after thousands of years of evolution in tune with the natural cycles of the world, split ourselves off from them in the view that we are separate and we know better? Yoga invites us to realise union – that all is one, that we are all, not above, not below, just together. Not in front, not behind, but side by side – in union.
I found these unexamined stories to be the major ones held by our culture and after addressing these in my own life, I have come into greater health. This journey into being a woman began for me some years ago now. I suffered severely from my menstrual pain. When I bled it would be so painful that I would drip sweat, vomit, have chronic diarrhoea and normally, in the first four to five hours of my bleed, I would black out from pain and wake up in a heap on my bathroom floor. I would have to cancel everything I was meant to be doing that day, as I would be unable to leave the bathroom. I tried to deal with it myself for some time. The pain persisted for about two years. Around the one year mark I went to the doctor’s and came out crying. When I told my story to a female doctor, who specialised in gynaecology, her advice was to either take painkillers or go on the pill. I made it clear I didn’t want to take any drugs, I wanted to get to the root of the issue. And she told me, almost angrily, to grin and bear it, and stop making such a fuss. She said “it’s normal for women to pass out from pain during menstruation, I know, I run a women’s group on Tuesday nights and many of my women have this complaint. It’s very normal”. I left the doctor’s surgery and burst into tears. I was desperate, somewhere inside me I couldn’t accept the doctor’s words to be true, and I was angry that I didn’t have the knowledge there and then to put her straight.
I lived in East London around a large population from the Islamic community and it got me thinking – why is it that that level of menstrual pain is considered ‘normal’ here? Many answers came up for me, to name a few:
• sexual suppression, sensual guilt, skin sin, sexism.
• repulsion and dirtiness associated with menstruation, the vagina, the labia and the clitoris by religion.
• sexual exploitation of the female form, pressure to be beautiful and perfect, pornography’s mark on what we think sexy is and what form sexual pleasure should take to be ‘good’ – hard, fast, deep, fucking.
• then there is the incessant pressure to be financially and materialistically powerful as a sign of success and status. We mark our value as human beings on this so-called success, and we work ourselves to death to achieve it, even if the journey brings us unhappiness and ill-health.
I took a wild shot that these unexamined stories and ways of living could be affecting me so deeply that I can’t stand up when I menstruate due to pain, and that many other women around me were suffering with a similar wound from our collective social insanity.
I set out on a quest to understand what the bleed was all about and what I might be doing that prohibits my body’s natural healthy tendency. And how I could make changes practically, physically, emotionally and psychologically to transform.
Below is a selection of what I learnt:
The bleed section in your cycle is your inner winter. Like the winter in nature, it is a time of external rest, when energy is drawn in to the core or deep underground for incubation. It’s the time after the harvest of the year’s labour, a time when traditionally we kicked back, put on the fire and rationed our way through the cold with our food stock. A time for conserving energy, dreaming, sharing, resting, and most importantly, a moment to STOP.
I began to put ‘stopping’ into action over the following months, and it made an enormous change to my life. I would take time in the day to just lie down and breathe for 20–40 minutes with no agenda. I transitioned. I started to sink into relaxation at any moment I had free. I learnt how to stop. To simply be. To come close to myself without analysis, criticism or judgement. Just to be with myself as if I was there. There. The place where I strive to be. A mantra I began to work with was “I Cease Doing”. I still use it when I get home after a long day of work.
Cycle tracking:
I never did this, my menstruation was always pretty regular. I didn’t care to know when it was going to be, in fact I wanted to think about it as little as possible until I had to deal with it. When I started tracking, it brought up two things:
First, it enabled me to schedule my life as best as I could around my own cycle. I would book big workshops, shows, talks, and social things around my ovulation where women are most active, external and confident. I would plan a day of rest the day before my bleed began – that’s the last day of my pre-menstrual. This was the most powerful shift for ridding the pain in the bleed. By these simple actions I told my womb “I respect you, I’m listening,” and she reciprocated wholly. During my day of rest I would only eat light, wholesome food, I would step back from my partner, turn off all phones, computers and the like. Roll out a yoga mat, prepare my bolster, essential oils, blocks and props and be really, really good to myself. If this isn’t reason enough to take that time for yourself, then a more peaceful and painless bleed should be.
Second, cycle tracking became the most insightful and knowledgeable process for ongoing self-development. Each month I learnt and continued to learn new things or I gained a clearer understanding of something already uncovered. Tracking enables me to make self-assured decisions for my life. It tells me very quickly what is and what is not beneficial to my life. It gives me clear views of my relations and helps me to identify and own what is mine and what isn’t mine or my responsibility. It edits how I live and helps me constantly reshape my form and direction to step in tune with my highest purpose. It shows me how to be vulnerable, and thus more creative and courageous to try new things. Also, it regularly reaffirms what my highest purpose is and steers my life to fulfilment!

References: Women Who Run With The Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight.


Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

Yoga Uterus

Womens Health

I rarely hear yoga teachers name the uterus or womb and its neighbours (the vagina, ovaries and cervix) in classes. Yet women with these organs account for 90% or more of those people in most yoga classes. It seems that culturally, we just don’t rate the importance of these parts unless they are carrying out a reproductive function. This is something which I find odd as most women are really keen to know more about menstruation when an opportunity is presented. Culturally, we also believe this area is innately problematic and expect it to need medical intervention. The natural body function of labour has become increasingly medicalised and passive, as if the female body is not designed to labour without scientific aid and assistance. Yoga was traditionally male-focused and neglected women in its documentation. But it is now filling the uterine hole in its science, firmly supported by Ayurveda and the millions of female practitioners around the world exploring yoga from a feminine perspective. Here are a few things you may not have known about the uterus:

  • The uterus has many more remarkable functions than just reproduction!
  • It carries out essential immune functions and plays a role in endocrine functions.
  • Moola bandha and uddiyana bandha are too strong for most women to safely practice during both menstruation and ovulation.
  • It produces prostacyclin that prevents blood clotting and heart disease.
  • Uterine orgasm is described as a mind-blowing bliss or profound emotional and spiritual connection.
  • The uterus is acknowledged as a main player in our evolution as a species, when the creation of the placenta enabled a longer gestation period so that we could develop larger brains.
  • The uterus has some of the strongest muscles in the body.
  • The outer serosa (a membrane that attaches to the ligaments and fascia to keep the uterus in its position) supports the entire structural integrity of the pelvis and spine.
  • The womb has been found to produce anandamide, another pleasure-invoking chemical, likened to cannabis and dark chocolate. This name originates from the Sanskrit word ‘ananda’, meaning ‘bliss’.

These scientific understandings of the uterus validate its importance and the holistic nature of the human body, showing once again how everything is interconnected and interdependent. To look after the health of the uterus, we firstly need to give it some attention. To help this shift, teachers can name and bring awareness to the uterus in yoga classes and workshops. We can send our internal focus to our womb in our home practice and discuss its role and power amongst female and male friends or partners.

Here’s ten simple steps you can take to balance out your biochemical communication and improve your uterine health:

  1. Connect with the sensation of your uterus on a daily basis (look at a biology diagram – it’s really helpful to be clear about your own uterine placement in the beginning).
  2. Create positive life-affirming beliefs about your uterus and sexual organs.
  3. Reduce stress through making practical changes, try creating your schedule in a way that is mindful of your menstrual cycle, for example, rest at menstruation, plan gatherings and important meetings around ovulations, take time for reflecting and encourage compassion in the self-critical times around pre-menstruation, take slow simple steps without rushing back to the fast pace in pre-ovulation……
  4. Commit to a regular hatha, yin, female or womb yoga, meditation or conscious breathing practice.
  5. Join a red tent –
  6. Listen and respond to your body’s needs for food, sleep, touch, sex, rest, expression, silence, etc.
  7. Give and receive regular loving touch.
  8. Decrease your contact with toxins and synthetic hormones (buy organic, eco-friendly everything! It’s good for your body and the body of the earth).
  9. Fit a water filter or order reusable 15-litre spring water dispensers to your home
  10. Do less external stuff and learn to ‘let go’.

If you’re interested in researching uterine health beyond this article, my main resources are these five amazing books:

1) Women’s bodies Women’s wisdom by Christiane Northrup, 2)The Uterine Health Companion by Eve Agee, 3)Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World by Judy Grahn and Charlene Spretnak, 4)Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight, 5)The Woman’s Quest by Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo.

I would like to thank these authors for their profound contributions to modern science, philosophy, spirituality and women’s health.


Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

Perfect yoga body

Womens HealthYoga Practice

I’m regularly aware of the possibility that the yoga practice could become yet another fascist reinforcing method for perfection with disregard for the natural beauty of that which is.
Our practice could teach us to love and accept ourselves, but often we accidentally fall into a practice on and off the mat that beats and whips our fat, ugly, stiff, not-good-enough bodies into the model shape we need to be of value to ourselves and to society.
I did a yoga photo shoot last week and it brought up so much emotion, conflict and thought for me on this topic.

26-year-old, 8.4 stone, healthy, athletic, beautiful young woman. And the night before the shoot I nearly cancelled in fear that I was not thin, worthy, able, good, beautiful, or skilled enough to do it. Without the support of my partner Gabriel and my own compulsion to face anything that scares me, I would not have managed to keep it together and show up.
That night, my mind threw up a whole catalogue of fears:
What do I wear, I’m not fashionable enough, which posture should I do, I’m not strong enough, I’m not flexible enough, how should I do my hair, should I shave my wild underarms, should I eat breakfast, will I be perfect enough, will Yoga GPS like it, use it, why am I even a part of this, they’ve asked the wrong person, I’m an impostor?
All these fears boiled down to = my lack of self-value.

My own inner critic that is not yet fully integrated as an ally is still the destroyer in my life. This is a deep, old inner story “that I am not enough, that I am not welcome, that I am lacking”. This is a personal story and it is a wide cultural disease. We are sold this global story constantly so as to create the need for consumption. It is the most damaging limb of the modern mind. And it is a bugger to re-write. Our yoga practice should provide a nurturing space to help us re-write this, not reinforce it. But when we are surrounded by hot, sexy yoga and constant images of the perfect photo-shopped yoga posture, how can we not bully ourselves to be something better?

I long for a yoga idol that is as integrally-flawed as we all are. Someone who is bare and courageous enough to own their imperfections as a mark of wholeness and union. I hope if one appears, I can accept them as wonderful and not reject their authenticity as failure. I hope that I can be this for myself and for all my relations too. And I intend to create a practice for myself and for those students of yoga who come to me that is about whole acceptance and integration of the self.

My baby step towards this aim is that this week, in all my classes and my own self practices, I am going to bring awareness to the pleasure of being in a human body, and the bliss of movement and breath. The simple joy of exploring different physical shapes and a huge serving of gratitude for the beautiful gift of the body I have and that every human has.

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015