We all know that we need some form of exercise to stay healthy. A study led by Anne McTiernan principal investigator and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, found that exercise lowers levels of blood estrogen in postmenopausal women. In a similar study, Leslie Bernstein, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, found that women in the under-forty age group who exercised for at least four hours each week during their reproductive years were 50 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than women who didn’t exercise. Bernstein also discovered that estrogen depletion has a less happy outcome when it occurs in young girls going through puberty. Even moderate amounts of activity can increase the length of menstrual cycles and reduce the number of times a girl ovulates.

Menstrual irregularity is fairly common among young women who exercise to excess. Young women athletes often experience disturbance in their menstrual cycles, with skipped periods and sometimes no periods at all. If periods stop altogether (a condition knows as amenorrhea), women can lose so much calcium from their bones that they candevelop osteoporosis while they are still young.

It’s clear that hormone levels are both affected by exercise and influence the body’s reaction to it. An ongoing study conducted by Edward M. Wojtys, an orthopedic surgeon at theUniversity of Michigan at Ann Arbor, shows that during ovulation (when estrogen production is high) women have about three times the average number of knee injuries than during other times of the month, and are up to eight times more likely to sustain knee injuries than men. As yet, no firm conclusions have been drawn from this study, but it does point to link between hormone fluctuation sand injuries.

There is no denying that exercise is beneficial, and there is no denying that it has its drawbacks. For example, while aerobic exercise stimulates cardiovascular activity and reduces high estrogen levels, it wears out the joints. Running, for instance, places a tremendous stress on the lower extremities.

Many of the exercise choices that women make are done in the spirit of competition. We may feel that we have to keep our bodies thin, hard, and muscular, like men’s bodies. This is understandable, because women now compete with men (and each other) in the workplace. But many exercise regimes deplete women, or are inadequate for women, or both. For example, I have seen extensive damage done to the female reproductive system by weightlifting. By the time she gets to menopause, a women weightlifter’s body is hard and brittle. And the menopausal transition itself can be severely hampered by the hormone system having been ignored for so long.

Yoga is an ideal form of exercise for women because it combines cardiovascular training, muscle strengthening, and weight-bearing activity, but it does not compromise the organs, hormone system, or joints. In face, it keeps them healthy, provided that the balance between rigor and relaxation is met. A yoga practice that is dull and without vitality will not have a positive effect on the body’s systems. At the other extreme, an overzealous and aggressive yoga practice can strain the body just as much as working out on machines in the gym.

As women, we need to be aware of the cyclic nature of our physiology. We must listen carefully to our bodies and use asana and pranayama that will help at a particular time in our cycle. Practices that are suitable at the midcycle, for example, are inappropriate during menstruation. And although yoga is particularly suited to the female body, which is more supple and softer than a man’s, women should avoid overstretching. For instance, a women who understands how to align her pelvic bones and stretch up through her torso and chest during yoga practice will find that low back pain, which can be one of the first indications that a women’s exercise regime is straining her internal organs,becomes a thing of the past.

In summary, a regular, well-considered yoga practice, one that takes into account the cyclic nature of a women’s body, will provide major health benefits. It will support women through out all the phases – menstruation, pregnancy and delivery, and menopause, of her life. It will give her the tools to overcome physical limitations, establish emotional and mental stability, and stay ture to her feminine nature.  

[Refer to book “Yoga – A Gem for Women” by Geeta Iyengar and “The Woman’s Yoga Book” by Bobby Clennell. Chinese translation by Jade Qin

Happy International Women Day!