In the West we tend to assign a feeling of real inconvenience to our periods – they’re something to be put up with, often in embarrassed silence , until normal life might resume once more. This disconnection was highlighted by a 2017 ActionAid survey showing that 1 in 4 women in the UK do not understand their menstrual cycles at all. I am not surprised – PSHE was the only class at school that I continually failed: those abstruse charts and diagrams seemed so far removed from my own biology that I struggled to put two and two together at all. It was not until many years later when I began reading books and papers on, and later studying, Ayurveda , that I began to see the significance and natural wonder of this process.
Both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine agree that a woman’s menstrual cycle provides a unique insight into the health of the woman – at every level. In Ayurveda, pain, cramping and bloating are seen as symptoms of imbalances within the body: so, if the doshas of your body are all in balance, your period should never feel unpleasant, painful or negatively impact your life. Given that 57% of women in the UK have said that at times their periods are so painful that they affect their ability to work , clearly, for so many women, this vision of menstrual harmony is very far removed from the daily reality.
But – the first step in changing this is in accepting how powerful an insight we get into the physical workings of our bodies each and every time we have a period. And, if periods are irregular, scarce or absent, that too shines a light onto a women’s reproductive health , offering us the empowering opportunity to learn more, and support our bodies ever more effectively.
Each of the doshas plays its part in your menstrual cycle, at different times. Crucially, the pre- post- and menstrual symptoms that may manifest in your body (from cramping and mood swings to increased appetite and sweating), will all directly relate to the balance (or imbalance) of the doshas in your body.
The severity of symptoms is also greatly affected by the amount of ama (or toxins) that are held in the tissues, so one of the most important ways to restore sattva [a Sanskrit word that means goodness and harmony] to your monthly cycle, is to gently work to lighten your body’s toxic load.
We can do this in all of the well-known ways – from eating less processed foods, to getting more fresh air and gentle exercise.
Menstruation and the moon
While there are many thousands of women who feel increasingly guided in their own menstrual cycles by the moon’s own shifting orbit – and I have found it to be extremely helpful in pre-empting mood and energy shifts, in particular – I’d like to encourage every single one of you reading this to do away with any and all comparisons or ‘ideal’ scenarios. I often shift from a red moon to a white moon cycle (red moon, meaning that I menstruate when the moon is full; white, when it is new). These shifts can occur when life has been particularly imbalanced, challenging or frenetic. I’ve also noticed that my cycle can swing between the full and new moons when there are big transitions in my life, and there is a feeling from within that my body is shifting stagnant energy and seeking to move past some weighty emotional blocks.
The three main stages of the menstrual cycle all possess their own unique characteristics, which relate to the shifts in hormones each time.
During rajahkala, we menstruate. At this time we are in the vata part of the menstrual cycle. This is because vata is the energy that governs movement and flow, and Ayurveda encourages us to support the downward flow of this energy, so that we support our selves in the clearing of our menstrual blood from our bodies. This is also why many yoga teachers and Ayurveda practitioners discourage us from practising inversions while menstruating. In all that you do and feel at this time, remind yourself that it is healthy to let it out, let it go, let it be – this is a time of release and clearing, and your body feels that, on every level.
After menstruation, kapha is dominant. This part of the cycle, called rutukala, lasts from the end of the bleeding phase to the point at which we prepare to ovulate. The kapha phase overlaps slightly with the vata phase, as one part of the cycle segues into the next part (much like the moon rising as the sun sets). During the kapha phase, all of those typically kapha energies come into play – the endometrium thickening (a sense of tending, nourishing and preparing the inner soil for what is to come), and we often feel fuller in our bodies at this time – softer, curvier, more supple – a beautiful realising of our feminine energy.
if the doshas of your body are all in balance, your period should never feel unpleasant, painful or negatively impact your life
At the point of ovulation, we enter the pitta phase of the cycle, or rutavateta kala. This is when the endometrium becomes fully engorged and filled with blood, ready to receive the ovum. We can feel warmer, more prone to sweating, and increasingly hot-tempered at this time. Many women also feel a greater drive to do, create, socialise and achieve at this time too – the ambitious, motivating energy of pitta supporting us at this time of the month.
If the ovum is not fertilised, the cycle begins anew – with day one of menstruation, when the body once again clears and opens, and we move, once more, into the vata phase of our cycle.
Seen this way – the delicate flow from bleeding to receiving, from earthed and fleshy kapha abundance, to airy and cleansing vata lightness – our bodies begin to feel more like intuitive symphonies of synergy and subtlety… and perhaps, if we begin to take a little more time to honour the magic behind the mechanics, we will find ourselves far more accepting of its highs and lows, ebbs and flows, too.
If you are unsure of your ‘dosha’ – i.e. your body ‘type’ in Ayurveda – but would like to make best use of the dosha-specific advice below, you can take the Discover your Dosha test at This Conscious Life .
Ayurveda describes a healthy period as the passing of bright red blood without clots, that rinses easily away from cloth or clothing (if your bleed produces stubborn stains, this is a sign that the blood contains toxins, or ama). The smell too, should be natural and bodily, but never unpleasant or foul. Below, we explore each dosha and how it manifests during your menstrual cycle – and, hearteningly, what you can do to bring ever more natural balance and calm into your month.
Vata types are the most likely to experience scant, absent and painful periods. This is due to the effect of vata on the blood vessels – constricting, cooling, tightening. When we bleed, our bodies seek release, so we want vata’s opposite – to dilate, open up and let go; so when vata is heightened, we can see how the imbalance impedes our body’s natural urge.
Vata also naturally resides within the pelvic space, and if the imbalance is not addressed it is common for vata types to experience depletion of the tissues, which can present as outer emaciation. For vata types who lose weight very easily, particularly when anxious and frantic, periods can stop for a while too: the tissues of the body no longer nourished, moist and supple enough to support flow. Blood, when it does come, is often darker in colour – a sign that older blood from a previous cycle has mixed with fresher blood, and that, once again, the flow from the uterus is stymied in some way.
Restoring harmonious flow to Vata
To counterbalance the dry, cool, sparse qualities of vata, we want to nourish, oleate, lubricate, feed, ground, warm and soften, on every level. Return to those comfort foods of childhood – soft, mushy, soothing, warming, fragrant. Well-cooked soups, stews, curries (a yielding marigold-yellow tarka dal is a failsafe), made with plenty of butter, coconut, sesame oil or best of all, ghee , will feed those tissues up from within. Switch from coffee (vata needs rooting, not enervating) to soothing, warming teas – cardamom, cinnamon, and best of all, sweet, gently spiced milks – golden turmeric milk and chai are gifts to the vata body.
There are beautiful harmonising adaptogenic herbs and spices too, more widely available now in the west – and shatavari, bala and gokshura are wonderful vata-balancers. Traditionally, these herbs would be added to ghee to form a medicated butter, which you can then stir through milk (as with turmeric in golden milk) and drink. A beautiful, enriching and nourishing way to feed up those vata-weakened tissues, but also understanding of the fact that most herbs and spices, vitamins and minerals, are lipid-soluble – so we increase the amount of goodness that our bodies can absorb, when we choose to eat or drink such things with a little fat, too.
To ease pain, look to warm and loosen the muscles and tissues as much as you can. Japanese haramaki wraps are practical and comfortable – a soft band of material that keeps your core warm on coldest days. Ayurveda’s equivalent is a castor oil pack. Although it is not recommended that you use a pack while menstruating, they are ideal in the days that lead up to menstruation. The qualities of castor oil are heating and unctuous – a natural antidote to vata. Soak a long length of fabric that you have chosen for the purpose and won’t need to use for anything else (muslin, cotton, wool) in warm castor oil, wring out, then wrap around the pelvis. You can choose to place a hot water bottle on top to increase the heat pack sensation, or leave the warming castor oil to do that for itself. Castor oil washes out easily enough, but if lying down, it’s worth putting a towel underneath you, and also wearing old clothes on top while you take this time to rest.
Indeed, rest also plays a crucial role in harmonising the vata cycle. Naturally get-up-and-go, light sleepers and over-thinkers, magical vatas need to be given permission to slow, stop, curl up, hibernate, rest and sleep. Sleep, after all, elevates our rooted, earthy, heavy kapha dosha – which is, yet again, the natural anchor to vata’s feather-lightness, moved by every wind that blows.
With the heat and flow and force of pitta (characterised by the fire and water elements), pitta cycles are often heavy, and they can begin quickly, with heavy bleeding coming on all of a sudden. Along with the heat comes the obvious rise in temperature (many pittas feel extremely hot and bothered in the lead-up to and early days of their period), tenderness and swelling – particularly in the breasts. With the rush of flow and increased heat in the tissues, pittas are also more likely to have loose bowel movements and diarrhoea during their periods; many too, may feel nauseous.
Restoring harmonious flow to Pitta
One of the most important ways for pittas to balance their own inner fire during their heavy cycles, is to lighten up in all other ways. That means a removal from competitive, aggressive, overly challenging activities and behaviours – and any activity that really gets your blood up (you have more than enough blood already!). In the same vein, spicy, overly rich, oily and salty foods will all continue to stoke the inner fire, when it needs the opposite: quelling and cooling. Coconut oil and milk, mint, nettle, lavender, chamomile, coriander… all cooling additions, and you can use them freely, in whatever combinations you wish.
Because of the rush and force of bleeding with pittas, there can be a real feeling of sudden depletion. If the blood contains toxins (or ama) the flow can be painful and unpleasant, too. In Ayurveda, organic aloe vera juice is recommended as a natural blood cleanser and excellent cooling tonic – sip a small glass, twice a day, on an empty stomach. Other herbs that support harmony of the pitta cycle, include brahmi (also known as gotu kola) and shatavari, both of which quell pitta’s excessive fire, and bring stability and sattvic balance, back to the reproductive tissues.
With the elements of earth and water, kapha is the heaviest and most lethargic of the doshas. This slow flow and stagnating quality, can make it difficult for things to move through the body in a healthy way, and kaphas are most likely to retain fluid, bloat, swell and suffer distention of the bowel and abdomen. Periods can last longer for kaphas – and blood is often thicker, stickier and heavier. A desire to sleep more also pervades, but, sadly for kaphas, this will only exacerbate your lethargy.
Restoring harmonious flow to Kapha
Working once again with the natural law of opposites, we seek out lightness and fluidity. If the body is overly damp and cold inside – which brings about those sluggish feelings, and slow flow of fluid, too – it needs to be warmed up, excited, energised. Agni, the fire that transforms and enlivens us (and also drives metabolism), needs dedicated stoking now. Add more spice to your daily food – black pepper, cinnamon, ginger (fresh ginger tea is a wonderful tonic all month long for kapha), and avoid sweet, stodgy, heavy foods (processed, fried and overly oily foods in particular, which slow your bodily processes down, even more); meat, yoghurt and cheese are highly kapha-elevating too. Choose light broths, zingy soup, spiced pulse and bean curries and stews, and Ayurvedic teas of tulsi (also known as holy basil), cardamom, turmeric and cinnamon.
Bring heat into the body from the outside too, with warming castor oil wraps (as described earlier, for vatas, and as before – prior to, but not during menstruation), and hot baths with 4 to 5 drops of either ginger, cedar, cinnamon or clove essential oils, in particular.
Move more in the run-up to menstruation, too. Brisk strolls, hiking, running – the aim is to increase the rate of flow and shift stagnation, so the body needs to be woken up. Stimulate the natural excretory process with daily dry body brushing, or natural, exfoliating scrubs. Slightly more dynamic forms of yoga, too (such as kundalini which awakes the fire in the belly: wonderful for kapha – or vinyasa, which brings heat into the tissues) and deep cleansing breathing (pranayama), will support you well at this time, too.
Adapted from Sattva: The Ayurvedic Way to Live Well, by Eminé and Paul Rushton (£12.99, Hay House); out on June 4th.