The reality and needs of the female body are different from the male.
Maybe as a result of the traditional preeminence of male teachers in the Ashtanga world, some aspects specifically concerning the ladies remain somehow obscure.
For the committed female Ashtanga yoga practitioner, the following must be observed.
One of the most important observances for women is what in Ashtanga circles is known as ladies holidays. During the first few days of the menstrual cycle, one should not take practice. Otherwise, episodes of amenorrhea or missing the period might happen.
The general rule prescribes to stay away from the mat for the first 3 days, even though this will very much depend on each woman's cycle. I personally take the first two days off and then resume my practice from the third day, avoiding inversions (those postures where the pelvis is placed over the head) until the end of the cycle.
There are at least two reasons behind ladies holidays. Firstly, the Ashtanga practice focuses on drawing up the pelvic floor area, aka moola bandha. The natural downward flow that aids our body in the process of elimination, Apana, is drawn up, so our energy is preserved. When we are in our cycle we need to encourage the natural downward flow, hence drawing up is best to be avoided.
Secondly, the practice creates much heat in the body, which adds up to the overheating that comes with menstruation. Think for example of what happens to your laptop or to your phone when is overheated. The system temporarily collapses. Equally, too much internal heat interferes with the natural processes in your body.
During your cycle, emotions might arise powerfully and the body feels a bit numb. Some movement could well ease things up. Go for a walk, for a swim or do any sort of physical movement that nourishes you without leaving you exhausted.
When you resume your practice after the second or third day, do a gentler version. I usually do First Series for the first one or two days after my ladies. In my own personal experience, I find Second Series put more pressure on the female organs. Using the therapeutic effects of the First Series to condition the body back into your regular practice might work pretty well.
The monthly cycle is a big thing for the Ashtanga female practitioner and enough attention is not always placed.
The practice makes you sweat. You sweat a lot as you are ditching toxins along with those stored pounds you don't need. If you drop too much weight too soon, you might miss your period.
This is something to be avoided and your body must be properly nourished. Eventually, you will need to add changes in your diet to support both your practice and your natural cycles.
For the female practitioner, a proper intake of healthy fats is important. Avocado, ghee, coconut oil, coconut milk, flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, almond butter or raw cacao are good sources of essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and plant-based proteins that will support and nourish your body.
You can get some great fatty acids, nutrients and an energy rush even in your morning coffee: BulletProof Coffee
Some of my fellow female practitioners also take Maca to boost energy and support a healthy cycle.
Steadiness First. Flexibility Second.
Contrary to the widespread belief, the Ashtanga practice is not about being flexible. Surely we aim at widening our range of motion, but this has to come from a place of steadiness, so the joints are not put under unnecessary strain.
It is not unusual for women to especially struggle with strength or lack thereof.
Steadiness refers pretty much to Core Strength. When the core gets stronger the limbs automatically wake up. The sides of the trunk, the solar plexus area, the psoas and the lower belly should be given the importance they deserve.
Chatvaris, Jump Backs and Jump Throughs, Navasanas and Uth Plutihs are great to develop strength and their constant repetition throughout the First Series suggest the importance of developing sufficient support before progressing any further. Perfection in the First Series cannot be stressed enough!
Cool it Off
The practice creates a lot of internal heat. The body becomes more liquid, hence easier to mould into shapes. Sweat ditches toxins and facilitates the detox process. The inner fire is kindled so digestion, both physical and emotional, is enhanced.
Heat is also created and stored in the body based on our food choices, our lifestyle, habits and the environment we live in. When there is too much internal heat the muscles and joints cannot function properly, our mind becomes clouded and our ability to think and discern properly hindered.
In the female body, excess heat may interfere with the monthly cycle and even with the ability to conceive.
The Oil Bath, aka Saturday practice, is a great way to remove the excess of heat. Coconut oil is cooling and a good way to start with. Castor Oil can also be applied, even though precautions should be taken as it is a strong oil which abuse could result in colds and episodes of fever resulting from a quick drop in body temperature or too much detox too soon.
We will further discuss the castor oil bath method and its benefits in upcoming entries.
Meanwhile, check our Ashtanga Mom Emila Arenas and her experiences around Practice and Motherhood.