Working in the world of health and wellbeing, yoga, retreats and holistic cookery I always get asked ‘what got you into this? Have you always lived this way?’
The answer is No, I have absolutely not always lived this way. In fact in terms of my health, self care, nourishment and even knowing where my organs were and how my body functions I was almost 30 years old before I really knew any of the things I now passionately believe should be basic education.
When I really look back to try and pinpoint a moment when things began to change I realise that it was fundamentally menstruation, and my experience of the monthlies, that changed everything for me. After more than 10 years of month after month suffering that defined my life during that time, it was a chance encounter that became not only my saviour from menstrual hell but that also took my life in a completely new direction.
I try to recall when the bad times started. It seems to correlate with a time in my early twenties when I literally stopped moving! From a very young age I had danced daily and went on to professional training, I always played outdoors as a child every day, I lived an active life, swam a mile a day as a teenager and raved my socks off 3 times a week for a good few years – I was basically a very active person.
At some point and I can’t recall why, I stopped moving. My diet had never been great (more coming up on that one!) but I think that movement had really helped me. During this time I spent five years in the only desk/office job I have ever had in my life, and it is during these years in particular that I recall the worst experiences with my periods.
I can only remember hell.
Month after month, year after year, absolutely dreading that time of the month. Before the pain and the heavy blood flow even began there was the week of PMT, mood swings, food cravings and irrational emotional behaviour. I used to describe it like being on a drip or being injected with a foreign substance, I could literally feel this force taking over me and I couldn’t stop it.
The pain came before the flow started, everything cramping up and tightening, a feeling of panic setting in. I knew what was coming. I had the painkillers ready – packets of the strongest possible over the counter pills and prescription painkillers, I had the hot water bottles, I had the comfort food carby snacks and plenty of basically whatever other pain relief I could find. I was ready for knock out every month because it was the only way I could cope with it. I had NO idea at that time I was making things worse!
Every month I would need at least a day, sometimes two, off work, that was a given. I would spend nights alone curled up on the bathroom floor crying and moaning in pain or writhing around the bed because no position was comfortable for more than 30 seconds at a time. The pain pumped through my sacrum and uterus, down my thighs and that awful sensation (sometimes referred to as the ‘knitting needle’ pain) the sharp stabbing pain that comes through the anus and deep into the lower abdomen would bring tears and screams of despair, at times it was so intense I would throw up or even pass out. In fact my first real experience of meditation was on pain, the only way to deal with it was to go deeply into it, trying to get away from it was impossible. And I lost so much blood, it poured out my me for 5 days non stop!
It sounds dramatic as I write this now but something that was really quite a disturbing experience became normal for so many years. I know that so many women go through this month after month too and if my story can in any way be of help or inspiration to even one woman then writing and sharing this will have been worth it.
Writing this now brings tears to my eyes because I was in my late 30’s before I understood that my periods are a gift, that as women we have this precious connection to nature and its rhythms, to the moon and the ocean. That we have this beautiful opportunity every month to cleanse and detox. That our menstruation shows us so much about our bodies and where we are at. I saw it as a curse and found no support or solace from anything or anyone around me, even doctors and gynaecologists! I became so bored and angry hearing time and time again ‘oh it will get better once you have a baby’ or ‘go on the pill’. I didn’t know anything really about periods but I knew that that was not the answer or the solution. In fact I tried the pill, I was put on it not for contraception but to literally stop my periods. I did it for a year and it felt the most unnatural thing in the world to do. So, I did know something! I knew that experiencing the hell every month of my bleeding was better than artificially stopping it, screwing up my hormones completely and losing touch with whatever it was my body was trying to tell me.
Just as I was about to surrender to the fact that I probably needed operating on and building myself up to face my fear of hospitals I took myself off to try out a yoga class one day. I didn’t know then that this was the beginning of a complete life change but I did realise that movement was missing from my life. This is how I have to express myself in life and I had shut it down, switched it off and denied myself something fundamental to my health – and sanity!
Quickly after discovering yoga I went on my first ever retreat. I was 30 years old. Here I experienced for the first time a fresh wholefoods vegetarian diet and after a chance conversation with a woman who worked there I discovered that gluten, dairy, sugar, a diet heavy in commercial meats and refined/processed foods contributed to period pain….this was basically my diet! I was dumbfounded and angry, why had I never been told this before? I felt so ignorant and in the dark.
I actually had a period on that retreat, and after just one week of rest and rejuvenation, of REAL food, my body threw out so much gunk it was unbelieveable. If I was not so relieved to see some light at the end of the tunnel I would have freaked out completely with what came out of me during that week. I left that retreat returning home a changed woman and absolutely desperate to discover more.
I returned home and totally gave up the bread, pasta, cakes, biscuits, crisps, pizza, chips, sugar, sweet snacks, fizzy drinks, ready meals, take aways, meat etc and slowly started to learn how to cook! I witnessed a miracle in my body after just one month of this change and I had a practically pain free period. Not completely, but no where near what I was used to experiencing and I didn’t even need a painkiller. I knew there was no going back now and I was so gobsmacked that life literally took a 360!
It was my yoga teacher, funnily enough a man, that really made me see that I should not be going through this every month, that no woman should. We have come to accept period pains as normal, but they are not. I began to understand the movement of Qi (life force energy) and the importance of flow, space, pulsation and breathing.
I had stagnated on all levels and my diet was creating inflammation and an acidic environment. This I began to realise was restricting the blood flow. Flow! The magic word. Through my practice and focusing on releasing and undoing the pelvis, things began to gradually move again and the difference was miraculous! I remember the words from my teacher in one class ‘the pelvis acts like a pump….’ my world stopped for a moment and the light bulbs went on. ‘The pelvis is a pump’…of course it is! It must move with the breath. Mine had frozen solid, no wonder I was in pain and nothing was flowing!
In short yoga and nutrition turned my life around, first through this experience with my periods but then with a domino effect through every part of my life and being. I knew I had to be part of bringing this to light, to others and to mainstream education and my work (job) has since very naturally become an extension of the ‘work’ I have been doing on myself for myself.
It is my sincerest wish that all young girls, teenagers and women are equipped with the knowledge and education to understand their bodies and how to take care of them naturally and with love. The menstrual cycle is so profound and beautiful, I just wish sometimes I could hold and heal my younger self an impart some of this wisdom into her heart. But then I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now and sharing this work.
We must together take care of the coming generations and prepare them with the truth, of who they are and what this body we inhabit does and needs. Let’s teach them how to love and respect it, nurture and enjoy it. The body doesn’t want suffering. If we are suffering and experiencing pain, especially with something so natural as a monthly period, then something we are doing is not helping and contributing to our best health. Menstruation is normal and should not be a taboo subject, it is sacred and offers the opportunity for a woman to know and understand herself more deeply….I really wish I had known that as a young woman!
by Hayley North
* On our spring equinox retreat we are going to look at the many ways we can support the natural cycles of a woman’s life, including menstruation through food and nutrition, yoga, qi gong, naturopathic techniques and lifestyle choices.
* To read our blog on how Zinc is an important nutrient to help with period pains and hormonal problems click here