Menstruation has, over the last centuries, morphed from being a powerful period into a dirty taboo. Nowadays, it is often perceived as a nuisance: something that troubles and holds us women back from moving and doing limitless and free. For some having a period means more than a simple bother. For them it is a debilitating or excruciatingly painful burden.
As said, this has not always been the case. Women in rural areas like India are astonished when we, Western urbanites, describe our periods as painful. Ayurveda views menstruation as an opportunity rather than a problem. According to this ancient science it is chance for a woman’s body to purify. When we respect that opportunity, when we facilitate it, we gain greater health, vitality and comfort.
Last week I had the chance to talk to anthropologist Iris of Cycle Seeds, a company specialized in women’s cycles. We discussed menstruation, living according to our cycle(s), and how we can transform our mindset regarding this period and turn it from problem, back to asset.
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Let’s start by talking about period problems such as pain. Is it normal?
It is not abnormal to have some pain some times but I wouldn’t say it is normal. You may feel your uterus contracting, because it’s working hard to get the blood out. But other than that, periods should be fairly painless. When things like bellyaches, back pain and headaches come up, it’s often a sign that somewhere something is off. There might be a hormonal imbalance due to too much or too little estrogen. Another reason why women experience physical pain nowadays is because they don’t allow themselves to process. Bleeding time is a time when we can physically and mentally let go of things. By keep going and going, we don’t allow our bodies and our minds to clear before we go into the next cycle. I have talked to women who were in a lot of pain and when they started focusing on letting go, on withdrawing during menstruation, their pain reduced tremendously.
Emotional and physical tension builds up which results in pain?
I can pair and compare the menstrual cycles to the four seasons. We, as women, go through the four phases, or seasons, each month. Menstruation is wintertime. This is when we need to withdraw and find warmth and comfort. We blossom again after, when it’s springtime. Our cycle reaches a peak at ovulation when it’s summertime. We are focused and aware. We then head into autumn. All is grey, gloomy and rainy. This is the season in which we might experience PMS like symptoms. We can be emotional, grumpy and stormy. The holding on to ‘the not going with the flow of letting go’ is what causes problems.
Can you elaborate on our fall season? Is it normal for women to be grumpy the week before menstruation?
A lot of processes come up, that’s normal. It doesn’t have to be grumpiness or anger always. I think a lot of our irritability stems from the fact that we have such busy schedules and we need to get so many things done. This makes it hard to, when you feel a bit ‘emotionally charged’, to step away from people and society. This proximity creates even more tension and frustration.
How about PMS?
People tend to think PMS is scientifically proven yet science can’t seem to agree on the exact cause of PMS. There are still many mysteries regarding the root cause of these symptoms. The only thing researchers and clinicians can agree on is the validity of the condition itself and that it can be debilitating for many women. Even though PMS is not a classified illness it is still treated as such. Women are prescribed the pill to medicate and tend to its symptoms. In my opinion, what we believe is PMS is just a result of our monthly seasons. When we do not allow ourselves to let go, when we do not embrace the fact we go through these season-like phases, when we do not honor our storms and agitation, then the trouble starts. Society, our family, our surroundings, and we do not accept these emotional changes. This creates tension. I am positive the root cause of physical symptoms of PMS is unresolved emotions.
What does ‘a storm’ look like to you?
I feel a lot of anger and sadness and I cannot say where it comes from. I have a short fuse. Every little thing that happens makes me outrageous. I feel agitated about basically everything. And that’s okay. I know I need not be around people then, and I withdraw. I sit and breathe and write or make music during a storm. It always fades.
How long does our storminess take?
It depends on the length of your cycle. Your cycle is divided into four seasons. When you have a 25 days cycle, the stormy period is shorter than when you have a 28 day cycle. It generally lasts about 5-7 days. I’m raging for 7.
You just mentioned the length of a cycle. Is that different in every woman?
Every woman is unique. We have our own cycles, we have our own duration of cycle. When girls first start bleeding they have a different, usually irregular, rhythm. Around our twenties it starts to become regular. Yet we go through changes. When we’re stressed or sad our cycle may be temporarily shorter. If that happens once it’s fine. If you stop bleeding for four months, repeatedly, then you know something is up. The idea of everyone having a 28 days cycle is an illusion. It’s merely an average.
A lot of women think they have a 28 day cycle so in order to get pregnant they should have sex on day 14. But if you ovulate on day 18 or on day 9 you’ll never get pregnant. That’s one reason why I think we should start charting our cycle. We should get to know it.
When our temperature has risen we know we have ovulated. If you’re going to have sex then I bet you’re going to get pregnant. There’s a lot of wisdom out there but we’ve forgotten.
Are there other signs of ovulation?
You can’t know you are ovulating from reading your temperature, you can only tell that you’ve ovulated. Another sign is your cervical fluid. This changes during the month and goes from dry to sticky to slimy to watery. Watery and transparent means you’re very fertile. When you’re somewhere mid cycle and you all of a sudden feel like you’ve gotten you’re period, you haven’t. It’s your cervical fluid. This is what we call peak day.
Can you tell us a bit about the moon phases and a womans cycle?
When we didn’t yet have artificial light women would menstruate on a dark new moon and would ovulate during full moon. We can trace this back to ancient societies when the dark moon was also break time for the men. They would hunt only at full moon because of the amount of light. This meant they were at camp to protect the women that were bleeding from predators. At full moon men would go out hunt, women would ovulate and when the men came back with treasures they were all charged and proud. It was the perfect time to have sex with their fertile women. With the arrival of artificial light, things shifted. Some women ovulate on full moon, some at new. In this modern world we’re still connected to the moon, but it’s a bit disrupted by our modern ways of life.
Iris’ tips to connect to our cycle
1.Our cycle is something mysterious. We can’t see it. It just happens. That’s why I always advise women to start with the physical thing. Start by observing the blood. It’s something women find very strange at first. We’re not used to it. We find it gross. We buy menstrual products that we throw away, so we don’t have to look at it. But, as said, your blood says a lot. By observing what comes out of your body, you gain great knowledge. You’ll learn about you, your body and how it works.
2.Connect to the cycle as a whole: Start charting. Both Kindara (fertility awareness) and LadyComp are great apps. It makes your cycle more visual and more comprehensive. Chart for at least 3 months and see how you feel. Most women feel very empowered but they don’t really know why.
3.Connect to your period: Take some time off during moontime. See what happens to pain, mood swing and eating patterns. Take time to be with yourself, observe, contemplate and take care of yourself.
What are signs that your cycle is out of tune?
When you don’t bleed, when your period is irregular or when the colour of your blood is off. The colour should be cranberry bright without too many cloths. Brownish blood is old blood that has not been cleared during your last period. To me this is a sign that there is not enough ‘letting go’ and there’s unresolved emotional stuff.
Most women write down the first day of menstruation, but anything in between is not registered. This means you potentially miss a lot of information, like pain or spotting, or bleeding when making love. When you chart your cycle you get to know it, become more aware en realize when something is off.
What do you consider to be ‘no-go’s’ for a healthy rhythmic cycle?
Refined sugar, dairy, meat and soy influence your hormonal system so should be limited. If something is off with your cycle, simply quit these and start with seed cycling. Seed cycling is to eat specific seeds during specific times of your menstrual cycle. During the first part, up to ovulation, you may eat pumpkin and flaxseed. During the second part, up to menstruation, you may eat sesame and sunflower seeds. The nutrients in these combinations support the natural rhythm of your hormonal system.
Are there other lifestyle choices that influence our cycle?
Never exaggerate, but be gentle. We as women tend to be quite harsh nowadays. Society is fast and hard and skinny. We are fixed on hard bodies and hard work. We undergo waxing, we do excessive sports and push our bodies way beyond limits. This is not a good thing to do, for both our cycles as well as our (hormonal) health. Slowing down and softening up is something we barely do, but very beneficial to our cycle. Fast and hard tends to bring imbalance.
What’s best to do, and not do, during the first days of menstruation?
I personally do nothing. I always use #periodretreat on my social media so people know they cant reach me. I simply contemplate, sit, breathe, bleed and eat. I always advise women to find something they’re comfortable with, something that’s suits them individually. You may choose to simply slow down and do half of what you usually do. I furthermore recommend eating warm foods, like porridges, soups and stews, during your period. It’s comforting and soft on the belly. Our menstrual time is also our most creative time. You can sing better, craft better, paint better and write better during this period. Creative outlets are great emotional outlets. Being creative helps you to let go, which is the general theme of menstruation. Silence, contemplation and being in nature also help.
So we become these hugely creative beings during our periods. Are there other assets it brings us?
Other than physical, emotional and mental cleansing I would say we are more reflective than ever during our bleeding time. This can be manifested into creative projects. In North America they sometimes speak about the moonlodge. Tribal women retreated and went into a hut while bleeding. Women needed to be together in that lodge to receive wisdom. By retreating they came up with solutions to problems or threats. The bottom lime: our period is a powerful time when we get the chance to contemplate, gain clarity and, as a result, make wise decisions.
[Iris is an anthropologist, doula and cycle awareness educator. She teaches various workshops and is about to release Menstrual Revolution, a practical book dedicated to reclaiming your natural and healthy cycle.]
Photos and text (c) (copyright) kyra. at kyra’s kitchen.