If you’re anything like me — a big yoga lover — it’s hard to bring yourself to take a break from your regular practice, even if you’ve just started your menstrual cycle and feel a little bit rundown. The asanas have the potential to offer a tremendous amount of healing, and they can relieve specific pains, but sometimes it pays to back off a little bit — like when you’re on your period. When you're on your bleed, you may be more physically sensitive, and the movements that normally feel good might irritate you. That's why you may want to avoid certain yoga poses when you're on your period.
In traditional yogic culture, the energy coursing through your body during your period is called apana vayu, which is a natural downward force that assists in moving urine and the bowels. It’s what helps the stagnant blood safely exit our bodies. Ayurvedic teachers say your period is your time to rest and renew, because your body is working hard to eliminate that month's egg (or, if you're on the pill and do not ovulate, your uterine lining).
There’s actually a lot of debate on this topic; many say there is nothing you need to avoid during menstruation, while others insist you skip yoga altogether for that week of the month. I’ve found that the middle ground between the two works best for me. No yoga posture is going to give you lasting harm when you’re on your period, but there are certainly some that may feel worse when you’re already feeling bloated and crampy.
While we may see our periods as a nuisance to our practice, Ayurvedic Wellness Educator Julie Bernier recommends we see it as an opportunity to connect to our inner selves and truly listen to our bodies. We can give ourselves permission to take things easy, to even sit out on some postures while the rest of the class is attempting to balance upside down.
I recommend to my students who menstruate that they take it easy — and that they try to avoid the following five asanas when their period comes a-knocking.
1. Shoulder Stand
When you lie on your back and swing your feet over your head, you are paving the way for the energy to run from your mooladhar chakra (the cervix) to your manipur chakra (the belly button), which is exactly the opposite way your body is naturally flowing on your period. There is no medical reason to avoid this pose, but it is an asana that might build up excess heat around your pelvic region, leading to more discomfort in general. If you’re one of those people who don’t find it to be an unpleasant experience, go for it when you’re on your period, but don’t strain yourself too hard. If you’re searching for an alternative, simply lie on your back and hold your legs straight up in the air with your hips on the floor. You will still feel a release in the lower back and get some core work, without anything being too intense.
2. Handstand Or Headstand
These inversions take more effort and energy than, say, Warrior 1 and 2. They could potentially be too strenuous on the body when you’re already not feeling 100%; this, of course, also depends on how experienced you are with the practice. I always tell my students that, if they don’t feel fully confident in their headstands yet, they shouldn't attempt to do them for the first time on their period. You could end up tiring yourself much more than expected, and bam — you’ve got more intense cramps than before. Not fun.
Just like the plow and shoulder stand, these poses also invite the flow of the body to go the other way. This could result in unnecessary tension in your lower abdomen.
3. Breath Of Fire
If you’ve never done this breathing asana, don’t worry about adding it to your practice when you’re on your period. It’s an exercise that uses the navel as a pump to exhale out toxins and leftover gunk in the body. Generally done at the end of the Bikram Yoga series and throughout some vinyasa flow series, it is a powerful movement of the belly that might put too much pressure on your abdomen when it’s in such a sensitive state.
You can perform the exercise very lightly or, better yet, skip it altogether and practice deep, slow breathing. Not only is the movement itself tough on the tummy, it’s traditionally practiced in a very rapid rhythm; before you know it, you’ve swiftly contracted your lower abdomen over a hundred times and added more contraction to an already tight region. Imagine how that might make you want to crawl into bed and assume the fetal position.
4. Seated Spinal Twist
This particular twisting posture can be overstimulating for the abdominal area, especially if you take the full version of it. It puts pressure on your whole pelvic region and contracts it tightly. Personally, I find this to be pretty painful when I’m already carting around menstrual cramps, and I’ve heard the same from other teachers and my students as well. While this pose has so many benefits for the back and shoulder girdle, it could cause further aches in the abdomen.
If you feel like cracking your thoracic spine or at least releasing your body with a twist during your cycle, lay on your back, bring your knees into your chest, and slowly let them fall to one side while your head looks the opposite way. This is a much gentler version — and you’ll still feel like you’re getting into the nooks and crannies of your spine.
5. Full Wheel
Backbends can be great for relieving menstrual cramps and getting the blood flowing gently and safely, but many teachers, including myself, will encourage you to avoid this posture on your period. Full Wheel extends the pelvis high into the air, forcing you to fiercely stretch your whole core and frontal hip region — this could put your little ovaries in a sad state. It’s also the kind of backbend that takes a lot out of you, so much so that I often see practitioners completely forget to breathe while they’re in it.
But I also know it feels magnificent to open up the chest in a non-habitual way, so if you’re craving a backbend, go with Bridge or Floor Bow instead. They’re both heart-openers, and they let you create space between the spinal vertebrae in order to get the nutrients flowing into those otherwise tight areas. Floor Bow gently lengthens the abdominal muscles, which helps ease menstrual cramps instead of exacerbating them. Whatever you choose, though, here's the most important rule: make sure you listen to what your body is trying to tell you.
This post was originally published on August 11, 2015. It was updated on June 26, 2019.