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


I am passionate about practicing yoga, teaching yoga, baking, family, breastfeeding, art, sustainable living, dancing and community! I recently started new yoga classes in Elham Kent.
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