THE SEASONAL CHANGES OF MENSTRUATION
Last year I was in Santa Fe interviewing Native American women for a video project, and had the opportunity to sit down with Roxanne Swentzell, a Native American artist, mother, and grandmother. As she showed me the house she built with her own two hands, she passionately shared how the Western calendar does not support our bodies or our relationship to nature.
“A linear calendar further removes you from nature. Mother Nature is not linear, it’s cyclical,” she said.
She showed me the calendar she uses by drawing a circle on a piece of paper. She divided the circle into four parts to reflect the four seasons.
“We don’t use a linear calendar because there is no reflective period; a period to slow down. And our bodies need that,” she continued.
She raised her children without electricity, so in the fall she would teach her two children how to make candles. Come winter time, when the sun sets early, they would need them. Even when Roxanne had the money to afford electricity, she refused to have it installed.
“Winter is a time for rest and reflection. It’s important for children to learn that. It’s important children know about darkness, as much as they do light.”
Everything in this world is cyclical. The Earth rotates in circles. The moon waxes and wanes through a 28 day cycle. Each season goes through its repetition each year. Even crops are cyclical: you plant seeds, you water the soil, the seeds sprout, and eventually it’s time to harvest the crops.
Every human being is cyclical too, but having a menstrual cycle is a monthly reminder that our bodies are not meant to be run on a linear timeline. It is a reminder that we aren’t meant to be “on” all the time. Just like winter, we are meant to pause and reflect.
In Menstrual Cycle 101 with Dr. Pari, she explains the four parts of the menstrual cycle. For bleeders, learning about our biology and the inner workings of the menstrual cycle is a crucial part of unlearning what we’ve been taught by our families or society. Understanding these four parts is powerful knowledge. With this education about our bodily changes, we can inform our behavior. Much like the circular calendar Roxanne drew up, we can prepare for our menstrual cycle changes like the seasons.
In Why I Created A Period Candle, I share that there was a time in my life when I didn’t have a relationship with my menstrual cycle. For 17 years I focused on only one of those phases: the bleeding part. The common thread during each bleed was to ignore. But over the last couple of years, I have worked on removing any patriarchal notions about my menstrual cycle by being mindful on my period. Now, I have an intimate relationship with all four of the phases. I acknowledge each phase of my menstrual cycle by acknowledging what my body is going through, physically and hormonally, and how it affects my energy levels, spiritually and emotionally.
This is our moon dance — our initiation into the feminine dimensions of time. We receive and process information differently at different times in our cycles.
During my bleeding phase, I slow down and trust my intuition.
Much like Roxanne suggested about winter, my period is a time to rest and recover. My body is doing a lot of work; my uterus is contracting to shed my lining. My progesterone levels are at an ultimate low, which doula Erica Chidi Cohen describes as our bodies’ natural valium. Rest is important. I don’t cook or do laundry, and I keep my social calendar to a bare minimum. I slow down. And sometimes that means scrolling through Instagram on the couch, and sometimes that means journaling about my dreams and fears. I’m not too hard on myself about what it’s suppose to look like. I stretch or do yoga if I feel like it, but I don’t consider this a period to push through or force exercise.
I pay attention to the messages my body is giving me by analyzing the color of my menstrual blood, and locating pains in my body. Each symptom providing me with clues for what to work on next month. For example, if I have blemishes during my period I know I have too much estrogen in my liver. Or if I’m bloated, I will eat kimchi and sauerkraut for the next couple of weeks.
Alisa Vitti, founder of Flo Living and author of The Woman Code, describes this phase where “the communication between the right and left hemispheres of your brain is more powerful than at any other time. This enables you to judiciously evaluate how you’re doing in your life, and if necessary, begin identifying and make course corrections that will reposition you in the direction that you want to be heading. You are more likely to receive clear intuitive-gut messages during your menstrual phase.”
I no longer doubt any subtle (and not so subtle) messages I receive during this time. I no longer say things like “I’m on my period so I’m just having crazy thoughts.” I trust my intuition.
During my follicular phase, I brainstorm and say yes to physical activity.
As my energy begins to increase, I often feel a sense of freedom; like an old skin has been shed. Just like flowers start to blossom in spring, a new way of life feels possible to me during this phase. I find myself naturally spending a lot of time mapping and scheming how to make things happen in my life.
I spend my time brainstorming and honing in on my creative energy. As a writer, my writing feels like it is downloading out of my brain onto the page; it feels effortless. I start saying “yes” to social engagements and start introducing physical activity back into my routine. Instead of working out alone, I often feel the desire to work out with friends or try a new workout.
This feels like my time to act, and it includes being creative and slowly bringing my community, both socially and professionally, back into the mix.
You form new neuroconnections in the brain more easily, which means that stepping outside your comfort zone is a seamless thing to do; furthermore, new activities are more likely to stick when you start them now than at any other point in your cycle.
During my ovulatory phase, I feel the most confident and spend time with people.
Estrogen and progesterone (remember what Erica Chidi Cohen refers to as our bodies’ natural valium) are increasing during this phase as they help send signals to the brain to release an egg. I am fertile which greatly impacts my confidence levels. Much like summer, everything feels sunny, bright, and playful.
Because I feel the most confident around this time, I am the most social. When possible, I like to spend time away from my computer. I connect with friends and schedule important work calls. Meeting new people feels fun. Challenging conversations feel a lot easier; my ability to communicate my feelings and thoughts feel effortless. In a group setting, I feel like my jokes land and I’m having the most fun.
It feels like my time to shine.
Dr. Northrup, M.D., and author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdoms, describes the midcycle as a time where we are “naturally more receptive to others and new ideas — more ‘fertile’. Sexual desire also peaks at midcycle, and our bodies secrete into the air pheromones that increase our sexual attractiveness to others.”
During my luteal phase, I ask myself what’s working and what’s not.
As my energy begins to soften during this phase, I am reminded of what the change from summer to fall feels like; subtle and then all at once.
Though at the beginning of this lengthy phase, I am still riding high on the desire to socialize, I start paying attention to a new subtle yearning: the desire to nest and stay home. I often notice myself cleaning or getting rid of things during this phase. My husband will often come home from work to find garbage bags in the hallway. “I was tired of this shit laying around,” I usually respond to his confused expression.
Dr. Northrup describes the premenstrual phase as a time where we have greater access to our magic, which she says, “is our ability to recognize and transform the more difficult and painful areas of our lives.”
I’m always reminded of that when I start feeling frustrations bubble to the surface near the end of this phase. My shadow side is starting to awaken and it’s a great time to ask myself what’s working and what’s not.
When I feel frustrated about not being productive, I remind myself that my body is preparing to retreat, preparing for winter again.
Lunar information is reflective and intuitive. It comes to us in our dreams, our emotions, and our hungers. Women are most in tune with their inner knowing and with what isn’t working in their lives. Studies have shown that women’s dreams are more frequent and often more vivid during the premenstrual and menstrual phases of their cycles. Premenstrually, the veil between the worlds of the seen and unseen, the conscious and the unconscious is much thinner. The right hemisphere of the brain (part associated with intuitive knowing) becomes more active, left hemisphere less active.
Reading this you may feel it’s a lot of effort to put into your menstrual cycle. And it is. Or at least, at first. When I first started this journey, I would have to constantly check my period app to remind myself what phase I was in. But over time, it becomes just as easy as reminding yourself to drink water. Sometimes you forget, but the more you get in the habit of doing it, the more it feels like second nature.
After two years of practicing mindful menstruation, I intuitively know exactly what phase I’m in and exactly what I need during each phase. Dr. Northrup claims the menstrual cycle is a part of our inner guidance system. And that’s how I view it now too. My body give me clues every month, and mindfully menstruating enables me to pick them up a lot faster. I know when to schedule or when not to schedule things. I no longer have to check my period apps anymore. The reminder that my body is cyclical, something that felt forced in the beginning, now feels just as essential to my being as breathing and eating does.
Being more aware of what my body is going through every month has allowed me to feel more connected to my body. It has allowed me to deeply honor my body’s rhythms. Just like the moon, just like the seasons, it is always predictably changing. My body is cyclical and it — I — always will be.
illustration by Nick Pons