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Getting out from Under:
Asana for Relieving PMS

by Anna Rychner

Almost every woman experiences symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) at one time or another. Precisely why is still an open question, although both Ayurvedic and homeopathic physicians believe that lifestyle factors that disrupt the body's natural rhythm and create hormonal imbalances play a significant role. Stress, bad eating habits, traveling, overwork, difficulties in relationships, and lack of exercise all contribute to the pattern of emotional instability, anxiety, irritability, depression, and mood swings which is characteristic of PMS. These symptoms are often accompanied by headaches, food cravings, weight gain, bloating, breast tenderness, and a host of other unpleasant physical symptoms.

In 1980 Dr. Guy Abraham, an obstetrician and gynecologist at UCLA, developed a classification system which grouped PMS into four types: Type A (anxiety); Type C (craving); Type D (depression); and Type H (H2O retention). The anxiety that characterizes Type A is often accompanied by irritability and mood swings. In addition to experiencing cravings-notably for sugar-those who have Type C PMS often have fatigue and headaches. Confusion and even memory loss frequently accompany the depression that is the hallmark of Type D. The water retention characteristic of Type H PMS can also cause weight gain, bloating, and breast tenderness. This is not to say that a woman will experience only one type of PMS or that her symptoms will be the same each month. Any combination of these symptoms may occur; they will vary from month to month depending on which stress is present and which hormone predominates.

Dr. Susan Lark of the PMS Self-Help Center in Los Altos, California, has developed a complete treatment model based on the four main types of PMS outlined above. The self-help measures she recommends include moderate exercise, dietary changes and supplements, massage, and yoga postures. Because yoga postures provide both immediate relief for the discomfort of PMS and an opportunity for inner renewal, they will be our focus here. The postures suggested in this article are based on work done at the PMS Self-Help Center, the discoveries I've made holding weekly Yoga Focus Groups for women, and the recommendations of yoga teachers I've studied with through the years.

Type A Asanas

The corpse pose (shavasana), the crocodile (makarasana), and the child's pose (balasana) are particularly helpful in relieving anxiety and nervous irritability. All three are simple relaxation postures. The crocodile is helpful for women who experience severe cramping or are unable to relax lying on their backs. It allows the mind to focus inward with fewer distractions as the head faces downward, like a crocodile concealed underwater. The child's pose is a compact fetal-like posture that relaxes the body completely. It focuses the breath on the organ systems in the abdomen and pelvis, which helps massage and tone them. The gentle inversion of head, neck, and torso relaxes the back muscles, thus easing low back pain, a common premenstrual complaint.

Doing a systematic deep relaxation exercise in either the corpse or crocodile pose calms and soothes the nervous system. This relaxation exercise can be self-directed or done with an audiotape. When doing a relaxation exercise, remember to close the eyes and keep your focus inward. Let go of mental chatter and be aware of the breath. Make sure that you are breathing diaphragmatically and that the breath flows smoothly and evenly through the nostrils without noise, jerks, or s.

The Corpse Pose

Lie on your back, your arms at your sides, palms up, and your feet a comfortable distance apart. Be sure to adjust your head, neck, and shoulders to bring them into alignment with the rest of your body. Close your eyes and relax; allow the floor to support you and breathe deeply and diaphragmatically.

The Crocodile

Lie on your abdomen with your head tucked inward and down, your forehead resting on top of your folded forearms. The legs are a comfortable distance apart, feet and toes pointing outward. Breathe fully, feeling the abdomen expanding downward with each inhalation and your hips and buttocks rising slightly upward with the exhalation. Allow the gentle movement to soothe premenstrual cramping and massage the uterine muscles.

The Child's Pose

Kneel with your buttocks resting on your heels. Bend at the hips and let your torso relax on your thighs and your forehead rest on the floor. Relax your arms and hands on the floor beside you with the palms up and the fingers pointing toward your feet. Place a pillow either on your lap if you are having difficulty folding your body over your thighs, or between your calves and thighs if you cannot rest comfortably on your heels.

Type C Asanas

Many women experience food cravings before the onset of menstruation, especially cravings for sugar and chocolate. The body needs more glucose because it is more responsive to insulin at this time and may translate this need into a craving for sweets. Chocolate contains magnesium, a mineral that decreases menstrual cramping and helps normalize glucose metabolism. The problem with using sugar and chocolate to meet these nutritional needs is that consuming them often induces a let-down feeling, fatigue, and headaches-all of which are characteristic of Type C PMS.

Two postures that stimulate blood flow to the abdominal and pelvic areas and help regulate sugar metabolism are the bow (dhanurasana) and the modified bridge (setu bandha). The bow stretches and tones the ovaries, uterus, and abdominal organs. The upward momentum created by the sweeping movement of the head, eyes gazing toward the sky, and legs drawn up, increases energy and elevates the mood. Performing the modified bridge with controlled breathing rejuvenates and tones the reproductive organs as well as the abdominal organs, thereby helping to relieve carbohydrate cravings.

The Bow

Lying face down with your arms at your sides, bend your legs at the knees and bring your feet toward your buttocks. Clasp your ankles and raise your trunk off the floor. Squeeze your buttocks together and bring your knees in close to each other. Hold the pose 10 to 15 seconds and repeat up to 3 times.

The Modified Bridge

Lie on your back with your knees bent, your feet parallel to each other and close to your buttocks. Rest your arms at your sides with your palms down. On the exhalation, elongate your spine by pressing your lower back into the floor. Inhaling, lift your pelvis and then your mid-back and upper back. Your weight is now supported by your shoulders and feet. Hold the pose for 10 to 15 seconds. Roll down by slowly lowering the upper back to the floor, followed by the mid-back and pelvis. Repeat this gentle flexing of the spine, rolling up and down 5 or 6 times.

Type D Asanas

Because the bow has a mood-elevating and rejuvenating effect, it is also excellent for women suffering from Type D PMS as well for those with Type C symptoms. The upward-facing dog (urdhva mukha shvanasana), which is also a backward-bending pose, stimulates both the back and front of the body, especially the lumbar and pelvic regions. The upward gaze and sweeping movement skyward not only counteracts the downward pull of gravity, but also helps relieve depression.

The Upward-facing Dog

Begin in a prone position, forehead on the floor, arms bent at the elbows next to your chest, fingers pointing forward, elbows in. On an inhalation, begin rising up from the forehead, nose, and chin, continuing the stretch through your neck, upper torso, and lower torso until your entire pelvic basin is tilting upward. Feel the weight shift as you start supporting yourself on your arms. Gradually straighten the arms, broadening your shoulders down and away from the ears, stretching and curving your spine, and tightening your buttocks. Your weight is supported on the tops of your feet and your hands. Keep the backside firm and lifting up. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Type H Asanas

Gentle inversion postures have been found to be most helpful for problems of weight gain, bloating, and tender breasts. The modified wide-angle pose (upavishtha konasana) and the half or supported plow (halasana) are two gentle, effective postures for relieving the symptoms of Type H PMS.

The modified wide-angle pose relieves swelling by opening and energizing the entire pelvic region. By directly altering the pull of gravity, it reverses the effects of bloating and fluid retention in the legs and feet. The half or supported plow pose similarly reduces swelling and fluid retention by stimulating circulation in an inverted position. The modified version of the posture is recommended over the full plow here to avoid injury to the lower back-the muscles in the lumbar area are already stressed due to the pressure caused by fluid build-up in the pelvic basin.

The Wide-Angle Pose

Lie on your back with your pelvis against a wall, your legs extended up the wall, and your arms resting at your sides. Open your legs into a V on the wall. Breathe easily, holding this position for 1 minute. Then bring your legs together and hold them straight up for another minute. Repeat the cycle twice more.

The Half Plow
From a supine position, raise your legs over your head until they are parallel to the floor. Support your hips and back with your hands, arms bent, elbows tucked next to your rib cage. Hold the pose for up to 3 minutes, depending on how comfortable you are. Come out of the pose by bending your knees close to your forehead and rolling down, making contact with the floor one vertebra at a time.
You may wish to rest your feet on a prop such as a chair or a stack of pillows to relieve any strain in the lumbar region.

Many of us sail through our monthly cycles barely noticing changes in our physical and mental states. But those of us whose bodies send up red flags with each hormonal shift are given a special opportunity to renew ourselves each month. This is the perfect time to turn to yoga practice.

Resources

Premenstrual Syndrome Self-Help Book. By Dr. Susan Lark, Forman Publishing, 1984.
A Woman's Best Medicine. By Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D., V. Butler, M.D., and Melanie Brown, Ph.D. Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, 1993.

Anna Rychner is Director of Life Waves Health Counseling. During her 20 years of teaching, she has been developing yoga focus groups for women.

This article was provided by the Yoga International Article Archive. Published with permission.

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