When I got my first period, as a rather shocked 11-year-old, my mother congratulated me for starting the “curse.” And I did find it a curse! I was a gangly, nerdy, sporty, shy, brace-wearing kid who did not want to have to deal with the irritating physical aspect of managing periods. Urgh – I found the whole thing embarrassing, awkward and engendered a state of monthly panic. And, I did not want to be slowed down by the dysmenorrhea, which was in full force by the time I was 13.
I grew and found some peace with having periods, through the “sisterhood” at school and the use of homeopathic treatments, but never learned to celebrate them or to acknowledge them in any positive way.
But, then two things happened to me which shifted my view. The first was that I got pregnant. Not once, but three times, quickly and without stress, and furthermore I was incredibly lucky to give birth to three amazing kids. However, I had highly medicalized births and my maternity leave, here in the US was frighteningly short. As a post-doctoral research fellow, I was given 10 weeks of unpaid maternity leave with my first baby. Not enough time to really allow my body to heal completely, or for me to bond with my baby. I have always been a “get up and get on with it” type of person, so that’s what I did.
Knowing that I was going back to work, I worked hard to recover from the c-section. I worked hard to establish breast-feeding and the art of pumping and freezing breast milk. I developed a schedule to allow me to learn how to be away from my son, starting with a 15 minute session at the YMCA on the elliptical machine at week 6, and building it up over the next 4 weeks. I bought a blender and ice-trays and started researching recipes so I could make organic puree for his lunch at daycare, when he transitioned to food.
I went back to work, spending every lunch break for my first year of working-motherhood, at my sons’ daycare so I could be with him, play with him, feed him (and drop off the milk I had pumped at work that morning). I started the juggle of mothering, working & looking for balance, feeling proud of myself for managing to get on with all of it: family & career. Also, I was ecstatic at the side-effect of not having a period for about 20-23 months with each pregnancy – I was one of the lucky breast-feeding mothers who did not get my period for about a year after each delivery.
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that the “curse” was not, in fact, a curse, but was a gift – it showed me that my body was able to do something that only half the world can do – it can grow and nurture a human being! It’s part of the natural cycle of a healthy woman’s life.
One of the greatest things that pregnancy did for me was to cultivate a real and spectacular appreciation for the female form and for my body in general. I loved being pregnant – I felt like a goddess – not because I was treated particularly differently by those around me, but because I looked at my body differently. The irritations all of us have about the size of our thighs etc etc all dropped away as I reveled in the sheer majesty of what my body was doing: growing and nurturing another human being (and I thought I was totally cool to be growing a penis inside my womb!).
And then I breastfed – which I loved. I breastfed my three kids for a total of 5 years – my body producing this perfect, nourishing, lighter-in-summer, thicker-in-winter, anti-body-loaded golden nectar for sixty months. I sat in the rocker, I lay in bed, I walked down the aisles in the grocery store, I copped a squat in the playground, I sat on the airplane to visit my family in London and celebrated that wonderful and powerfully intimate experience of nursing my babies. Again *WOW* the total awesomeness of the female body!
The second thing, was that I started taking Iyengar yoga – about three years ago. The first and third (vinyasa) yoga teacher trainings I did made no real allowances for menstruating women. We were taught how to help pregnant women, how to work with injuries, how to use props intelligently, yet we were told: ignore that old masculine idea that women can’t do what men do. A few of my teachers said you can offer women the choice not to do inversions when they have their period, but the main message was that us women were strong and capable and can go upside down, do vinyasas, hold plank pose etc when we have our periods.
In the masterful, authentic and truly extraordinary practice that is Iyengar Yoga, women are given very different poses when they are menstruating (and when they are going through menopause). Our bodies are recognized to be in a completely different state during this part of the month.
Initially, I got annoyed – I would covertly sneak a peak at what the rest of the class was doing, irritated that I was not experiencing the masterful teaching that my co-students were receiving. But, then, after a while, I started to appreciate the slower, long holds, which encouraged me to cultivate stillness and softness. It felt good to nourish my body and slow it down. I noticed my periods were shorter when I refrained from inversions and excessive abdominal action during that time. I noticed that I could extend that slower appreciation to my whole life during my period – not going out so much, going to bed earlier. It engendered a more nurturing approach to my body and what it was experiencing.
I started to wonder – in our fight for women’s rights – for the right to continue to work after marriage, to go back to work after having kids, to be able to run marathons, to be allowed to go to the moon, to be treated as “equals” – did we give up some of our vital, nourishing behaviors? Did we lose these behaviors because they were somehow seen as oppressive, indicative of the “weaker sex”? Or did we start to lose these behaviors when Christianity moved us away from worshipping Mother earth and the female Goddess approaches to female health and the cycles of life. Perhaps, it the modern medical movement, which framed so many female health issues in such misogynist ways – “failure to progress,” “hysteria,” lying down to deliver babies (easier on the Drs), the marginalization of midwives, which engendered this reduced appreciation of female self-care.
Maybe it was a combination of all these.
As a kid, I always felt that I could do everything as good as, if not better than the boys in my life – whether it was climb a tree, skateboard, back-dive off the diving board or write an essay, master A-level mathematics and Chemistry. Yet, as I have learned to slow down and appreciate and really, deeply listen to my body, I consider that being as good as or better than the men in my life is not the right way to think about this. It’s about acknowledging that I have a wonderful, flawed, strong, amazing, dimpled, beautiful, stretch-marked female body and a spectacular strong and engaged female mind and I am enacting real strength and power in learning to listen to my body and how it interacts with my mind & vice versa.
Self-care involve much more than just equal rights. Self-care recognizes that there is power and strength in honoring what my body goes through every month, what it went through three times with pregnancy, and what it will inevitably go through during menopause. There is no oppression in recognizing & celebrating my feminine power.
“‘Nature meant woman to be her masterpiece,’ John Ruskin, notes Geeta Iyengar. Her beauty and grace, as well as her soft nature, bear witness to this. She not only possesses external beauty, but her soft and graceful form belies her firmness of character and power of endurance. Woman is soft, tender, and flexible, and this makes her move with ease and grace, contrasted with man whose body is rigid, rough and robust… Nature has, in addition, endowed her with the responsibility of perpetuating mankind. The wealth of the nation and the health of the future generation depend upon her physical and mental well-being.” p42, Yoga: A Gem for Women, by Geeta Iyengar.
Copyright 2015, Tamsin Astor. www. yogabrained.com/blog