Premenstrual syndrome—better known as PMS—includes at least 150 different symptoms that run the gamut from irritability and fatigue to backaches and bloating, from herpes outbreaks and crying jags to insomnia, sugar cravings, and migraines. In order to alleviate what ayurvedic physicians call a woman’s monthly dysfunction, it helps to understand what causes it in the first place. Back in 1998, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine posited that PMS doesn’t come from a hormonal imbalance per se; rather a woman’s abnormal response to normal hormonal levels is the culprit. Other studies highlight the emotional aspect of PMS, saying that the severity of symptoms may be directly related to how much stress and emotional upheaval a woman has in her life. Still other researchers believe a sluggish liver, vitamin B6 deficiency, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), or endorphin withdrawal may contribute to the symptoms.
Although you can’t really define PMS as a single set of symptoms, a daily yoga practice and a few lifestyle changes can help mitigate the effects. Pick your PMS nightmare—and its solution—from one (or more) of the following four categories.
- Irritability, mood swings, and free-floating anxiety—all of which may be brought on by your response to hormonal irregularities. Forward bends and inversions (turning upside down) can help quell agitation and rebalance the endocrine system, which is vital for good menstrual health. For some women, going up into a headstand is too unsettling. If that’s the case, try poses that get your pelvis up higher than your heart. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), above, or supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) are gentle, effective choices. Resting your head on a bolster during Downward-Facing Dog will cool the brain and ease any tension you feel. Forward bends like Head-on-Knee Pose (Janu Sirsasana) ease anxiety and irritability as well.
- Sugar cravings, fatigue, and headaches—all of which happen because your body is more sensitive to insulin in the week or so before your period. Women often crave chocolate, which contains magnesium, a mineral known to decrease cramps and normalize glucose metabolism. Supported backbends, like Bridge Pose, can stimulate blood flow to the abdominal and pelvic areas—without requiring too much effort on your part—which helps to tone the reproductive organs, relieve carbohydrate cravings, and lift your spirits. The gentle twisting action of Head-on-Knee Pose helps tone and activate the reproductive organs, calm tension headaches, and relieve stiffness in the hips and lower back.
- Depression, fuzzy thinking, and spaciness—all of which may occur because of too much progesterone. Again, any chest-opening poses and inversions will help. Downward Dog and Bridge Pose as well as any standing poses you have in your yoga repertoire will work wonders. If you suffer from fatigue as well, do your standing poses at the wall and use a bolster for your head in Downward Dog.
- Water retention, bloating, and breast tenderness—all of which could be caused by estrogen sensitivity. Inversions, which alter the pull of gravity and increase circulation, can relieve bloating. Doing Downward-Facing Dog with your legs wide apart or Reclining Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana) can also relieve pelvic discomfort.
Of course if you eat junk food, drink caffeine, get very little sleep, don’t exercise, and refuse to deal with your feelings (especially the negative ones), you can count on problems, no matter how much yoga you do. By simply regulating your daily routine and getting on your yoga mat, you can correct monthly imbalances and minimize PMS symptoms.
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Head-on-Knee Pose (Janu Sirsasana)
Sit on the floor with both legs stretched out in front of you. If you can’t sit straight without rounding your back, sit on the edge of a folded blanket or bolster. Bend your right knee and place your right foot up against the inside of your left leg. Take the strap in both hands and loop it around the ball of your left foot and then straighten your left leg. Turn your abdomen and chest toward your left foot so that your sternum (breastbone) is in line with the center of your left leg. As you exhale, bend forward slightly—from your hips, not your waist—and pull back on the strap, straightening both arms. Inhale as you straighten your spine and lift through the top of your head. Stay here for 15 to 20 seconds.
Head-on-Knee (Part 2)
As you exhale, begin to fold forward from your hips (not your waist), walking your hands down the strap, until your head and torso come to rest on your outstretched leg. Release the strap and rest your arms by your sides or fold them under your forehead. If your outstretched leg seems miles away, don’t push yourself to touch your head to your leg. Simply keep holding onto the strap—as far down as you comfortably can—or place several pillows or a bolster on your outstretched leg and rest your head and torso on that support. You should feel no strain on your neck, back, or hamstrings. Stay in the pose for 1 or 2 minutes, resting your skull, your eyes, and your mind. Slowly sit up and change sides.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Place one block vertically against a wall and have a second one within reach. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet parallel to each other. Rest your arms, palms down, by your sides. On an inhale, raise your hips and chest as high as possible, supporting your lower back with your hands. Keeping your head and shoulders on the floor, lift your spine even higher to increase the arch in your back. Place the second block vertically under the fleshy part of your buttocks (not on the bony part of your spine). Stay there for a couple of breaths. If the block is too high to be comfortable, change it to a horizontal, lower level. Stretching one leg out at a time, rest each heel on the block against the wall (which should be the same height as the one under your buttocks). Stretch your arms out by your sides and hold the pose for at least 30 seconds to a minute.
Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Begin on your hands and knees, with your knees under your hips and your hands slightly in front of your shoulders. Place a folded blanket or bolster vertically under you, in line with your breastbone. Spread your fingers wide, press your hands into the floor, and curl your toes under. On an exhale, raise your buttocks high in the air and press your thighs up and back. Press through your legs and bring your heels toward the floor. Keep your legs firm and your elbows straight. Rest your head on the blanket and breathe evenly for 15 to 30 seconds.
Reclining Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
Place a bolster about 6 inches from your right side so that the bottom edge is in line with your hip. Loop a strap around the ball of your right foot. Using the strap, raise your leg straight up to the ceiling. On your next exhale, gently guide your right leg out to the side and down onto the bolster. Pull gently on the strap to add a little resistance. Don’t allow your left leg to splay out to the side—press through the left foot as though you were standing on it. Rest comfortably, breathing evenly, for at least 2 minutes. To come out, bend your right knee, release the strap, and hug both knees into the chest. Repeat with the other leg.