For years, I experienced debilitating period cramps. I'd always assumed this pain was normal, and over the years, my family members and doctors would reinforce that idea. I was prescribed ibuprofen more times than I can count. No one told me then what I know now: Extreme period pain is not normal. In fact, excruciating cramps are sometimes a symptom of endometriosis, a condition where the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus.
After I was diagnosed with endometriosis, I spent more than a year trying to conceive before I underwent a surgical procedure to have the excess tissue removed. By the time I had the surgery, I had already suffered from endometriosis for at least a decade. Although I eventually got pregnant and had a child, 8 months later the unmistakable pain from my period cramps came back with a vengeance. That’s when a friend referred me to a yoga teacher who specializes in yoga therapy for women’s reproductive system disorders.
While there's no conclusive research to suggest that yoga is a cure for endometriosis, some women who struggle with the condition swear that it helps alleviate their symptoms. The breathing exercises associated with yoga, they claim, can help relieve pain, reduce discomfort, and promote feelings of relaxation. So I figured it was worth a shot.
I met with Gwendolyn Derk, a certified yoga teacher and yoga therapist and MD/PhD candidate in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, for our first session on a good, pain-free day. I felt relaxed and attentive as she guided me through the various poses. I left feeling rejuvenated, just as I did after a nice massage.
The next week, as I lay curled up in a ball on the second day of my period, I emailed Derk to schedule an emergency session. I walked into the studio grumpy AF, yet eager to get some relief from the endo pain.
Pose #1: Downward Dog
We started the session with a standard downward dog pose. Derk explained that these poses are good for relieving menstrual pain because they allow you to stretch the abdominal and pelvic regions. “We spend most of the day with the weight of the torso and abdominal organs pressing on our reproductive organs. These poses require you to lift the torso to release that tension or pressure in the pelvic region. The supported poses allow this area to relax and open passively,” she explained.
Downward facing dog is generally not a difficult pose, but I was fatigued and cramped, which made it much tougher. My body wanted to slide down and rest, but as I pushed through it and Derk reminded me to soften my abs and breathe, I slid into a more comfortable position that I was able to hold.
Pose #2: Supported Utthita Parsva Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose)
I'm a curvy girl, but I consider myself somewhat flexible, though slightly limited by the junk in my trunk. There’s a certain way us curvy girls tend to stand to accommodate the booty, and Derk helped me become more aware of these micromovements. She instructed me to rotate my inner thigh out and lengthen the butt. Once I did those things, my pelvis relaxed a little bit as it was no longer taking on all of the burden of my lower body weight.
Pose #3: Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose)
My body did not want to do this one. Derk patiently repeated to straighten my lifted leg, rotate my hip back, and open my chest to the sky, but my muscles weren’t used to coordinating so many small movements at once. With practice, I’m confident this pose will become more intuitive, but the stretch that I did get eased the pelvic pain that was radiating toward my back.
Pose #4: Supported Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide Legged Forward Bend)
Of the seated poses, this was the one that I melted into and wanted to live in. The wide-legged stance and the straightening and lengthening through the spine to the neck had me feeling like I was floating on a cloud. I didn't feel anything from the waist down, which was the ultimate form of pain relief.
Post #5: Supported Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
This pose opened my hips and chest and stretched my inner thighs. As I fell into it, I could feel my blood circulating better, giving a feeling of instant rejuvenation to counteract the period-induced fatigue. Derk reminded me to breathe and let the breath take up the width of my chest. She quietly told me to close my eyes, look inward toward the chest, and move my eyes away from my eyelids to clear my mind of passive thoughts. When I meditated, my mind was cleared of any of the discomfort I was experiencing from endo pain.
Thanks to this experiment, I now consider yoga a part of my treatment plan. No ibuprofen alone can give me the physiological as well as psychological benefit that yoga therapy did for my pain. Endometriosis and other reproductive organ disorders not only can hurt women physically, but it also can affect our quality of life, keeping us from going out with friends, playing with our children, or even going to work. Because surgery is the most recommended option for endometriosis treatment, women need more options. I believe yoga should definitely be one of those options.
Derk cautioned that yoga therapy shouldn’t be considered an alternative form of therapy — instead, she said, it should be considered along with other, more conventional forms of medical treatment. Derk hopes that one day, yoga therapy will be covered by insurance. But until then, I consider myself privileged to be able to regularly practice at a yoga studio.