Jiu Jitsu During That Time of the Month

A Disclaimer That I Shouldn't Have to Write:

I am going to proceed, as usual, by writing without shame or apprehension, so if you're one of those guys who doesn't like to admit that if it weren't for the fact of menstruation, you wouldn't exist, you can feel free to stop reading at this point. If you're one of those guys who feels the need to protest at the mention of a biological process that is absolutely essential to life, and don't like to face reality, by all means,  go visit a different site (but might I add - Get over it!). 

For the rest of you, read on, my friends!

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I struggled with the title of this post, and yes, I realize it should just be named, "Training BJJ During Your Period", but I chickened out and wrote "That Time of the Month", instead. It's crazy how it's easier to write about crippling anxiety than it is to write about a natural biological process. There is so much shame and pressure around women's bodies.

There are two trees in our life that we can water. We can feed the roots of fear, or we can focus our energies on cultivating roots of love. Whichever tree we water will grow. I choose to write this post out of love for my sisters, especially the ones who have emailed me asking about whether or not it is okay to train jiu jitsu during menstruation, asking if it may cause additional, unnecessary discomfort, or if it's acceptable to not train during this time. The following does not constitute medical advice, professional diagnosis, treatment, or services in any way, shape or form. If you have questions or concerns about your menstrual cycle and ability to perform physical activity, talk to a health care professional.

By establishing a norm of period-shaming, [male-preferring] societies effectively prevent the ability to bond over an experience that 50 percent of us in the human population share monthly.
— Kiran Gandhi
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The first gi I ever bought was blue, and the second one was black. I just recently bought another gi, and finally decided to make it white. I didn't even want to get a white one, but that's what everyone else has, so I figured I might as well just bite the bullet.

Why am I so apprehensive to wear a white gi? Because it's only an option for me to wear three out of four weeks of any given month, thereby conferring less utility to me than a darker gi.

You don’t need to be the same, to be equal.

It really is amazing how much of a woman's jiu jitsu experience can be determined by menstruation. I absolutely refused to sign up at an academy where wearing a white gi is required. I was talking with a guy whose school makes it mandatory for them to all wear the same white gi. He said it was because that way it is reinforced that they are all the same.

Well, you know what? We're not all the same.

I think to say that "we are all the same" is a misunderstanding of equality. You don't need to be the same, to be equal. And we are not the same. A guy doesn't have a uterus that sheds its endometrial lining approximately every 28 days. He doesn't have an estrogen and progesterone drop every month that causes the atrophy of tissue and subsequent uterine contractions in order to rid his body of necrosed material. He just doesn't. 

I'll tell ya this much: if the school makes a white gi mandatory, I ain't signing up there. Megan, from the A Martial Artist blog, wrote a piece about how white gis are evil and how it's a surprisingly prominent factor as to why you don't have more women training at your school.

There are a couple blogs out there already that address how to train during your period. Check out Sally Arsenault's piece called How to Stay on the Mats During Your Menstrual Cycle, and this article on jiujiubjj.com that lists a Q&A

There can be a lot of pressure to "push through" and train during menstruation. Aside from how one might go about training during their period, I think a pertinent question is whether or not one should train during menstruation. I'm not interested in telling people whether they should or should not train during that time of the month, because I think it's an individual decision. I just think that in the larger BJJ culture where there can be a lot of pressure to train 24/7, it is a valuable question to ask oneself. Sometimes I go, sometimes I don't. A few months ago, I ended up in the Emergency Room with a recommendation by the M.D. to get started on morphine because my period pain was so bad. Obviously there are times when jiu jitsu is appropriate and times when it is not. 

I'll share with you my perspective, and you can do with it what you will.

I am a couple of years away from being licensed as a Naturopathic Doctor, and what I have learned from my studies in acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine has drastically changed how I experience not just my cycle, but my entire life. In many cultures, a duration of rest is emphasized for women during their menstruation. It can be a physically taxing process, and a time when it is natural to feel drained of energy and to want to curl up in bed and rest, to take care of oneself. I actually think women are really lucky to have this natural rhythm of our cycles, this natural wisdom, to help keep us balanced.

Week 1 (Days 0-7): Menstruation
Your estrogen, testosterone, progesterone are all at their lowest levels at the start of your cycle. You might feel fatigued, especially with loss of iron from your body due to loss of blood. Iron is the part of heme in hemoglobin that binds oxygen. Just as my body is physically releasing material, I also take this time of the month as an opportunity to consciously let go of and release things that are no longer serving me emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. It's a good time to take a pause from your life and to use your desire to hibernate as an opportunity to re-assess your life and get introspective.

Week 2 (Days 8-14): Estrogen Levels Rise ("Pre-ovulatory Phase" / Uterine "Proliferative Phase")
Your estrogen levels will be highest at the end of day 14. It's been found that, while there can be considerable variance in the length of individual women's cycles, the first two weeks of a woman's cycle remain consistent. If there is fluctuance in the length of a woman's cycle, it is with the final phase of her cycle, not the first two weeks (menstruation + proliferative). At the end of this second week is when ovulation occurs, which is the release of an egg from one of your ovaries. This phase is when women tend to find they have the highest energy. Estrogens play an important role in energy balance. Energetically, this is a time when I am usually raring to go on new projects and am happy to be a busy bee.
*Nerd moment: Interestingly, it is not yet known precisely how your body decides which egg will be chosen to be the one to mature during a particular cycle. This is an area of research in the realm of fertility.

Week 3 (Approx. Days 15-21): Estrogen Drops, Progesterone Rises ("Post-ovulatory Phase" / Uterine "Secretory Phase")
Progesterone is produced after ovulation, and signals a woman's body to prepare for possible implantation of a fertilized egg. This progesterone spike causes a slight increase in a woman's body temperature, and this is one way that some women monitor whether or not they have ovulated, by taking their temperature at the same time every morning. It's kind of a fun way to get to know your cycle. 
Energetically, during this phase I try to focus on not starting too many new things, but concentrating on what I already have on the go, preparing for the weeks that I know I have ahead where I will be closing out this month's cycle and will eventually be taking stock of my life. 

Week 4 (Approx. Days 22-28): Progesterone Drops (Still in the Post-ovulatory & Secretory Phases)
Your body is finishing building up the environment for a baby to grow, and will be preparing to release what is not needed in the following week, assuming there is no fertilization of an egg. Use this as an opportunity to prepare for the release of emotional things you may be carrying as well. What lessons have you learned during this past month's cycle? What do you think is valuable to carry over to the next month, and what can you leave behind? Prepare yourself to let go of what is no longer serving you.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we learn about the concept of Qi, which can loosely (and inaccurately) be described as energy. In TCM, pre-menstrual syndrome or pain during menstruation are not considered normal. Menstruation is a phase of your cycle where the emphasis needs to be on relaxation and the smooth flow of Qi in order for the process to occur appropriately and with minimal pain. Any disturbance of proper balance will result in pain, discomfort, mood swings, etc. It is taught that during a woman's period, she should rest and not engage in strenuous exercise. Arguably, you could say that if BJJ is a method you use to chill out, as it is for many, then training during your period would not necessarily be problematic and could actually be beneficial.

Staying adequately hydrated is also a tenet of the TCM approach to menstrual care. Obviously, anything that would cause you to sweat profusely could be a concern during menstruation, if you're not careful to adequately rehydrate post-exertion.

There is also a guideline in TCM for menstruating women to not wear bare feet, as you are to avoid cold. Now, unless you are just sitting there on the mats and not doing anything, this probably isn't an issue for you. I simply mention it here because it is something I keep in mind for times during my period when I'm not exercising and have bare feet. I have found this particular point really helpful in reduction of pain, as well as avoiding other cold stimuli, like cold water or raw food, so I wanted to share it with you. This is related to the issue of maintaining balance as is the focus of TCM. This tenet of maintaining balance goes the other way as well - super spicy foods are to be avoided, as well as stimulants like coffee. 

It is highly recommended in TCM to engage in a physical practice that focuses on the integration of breathing and movement combined with meditation, such as Qi Gong, Tai Chi, or yoga. Personally, I think jiu jitsu could be added to this list as long as you are practicing in a mindful way. I would urge the ladies who train during their period to set an intention before their jiu jitsu practice - just as we do in yoga - to focus on their breathing. The idea of focusing on your breathing is that, because it is an autonomic process, it harmonizes your mind (Yin) and body (Yang), and is said to "restore Qi along meridians".

Girl, trust your body, trust your self. You already know 90% of what you need to know, but sometimes the world doesn't want you to feel so powerful. My experience of my body has totally changed as I have stopped trying to deny and resist menstruation, and instead learn to listen to and value the inherent wisdom within my body. Whether you train or not during your period, do it mindfully. 

So, what do you think? Are there any other tips that you would share? Let us know in the comments below, and reach out on facebook!