A reader’s question about menstruation:
“If a woman sublimes her period, what really happens there?”
The Latin origin of sublimation is sublimare, which means “to raise.” Sublime describes something that is “exalted, lofty or moving.
Sublimation in Yoga is about raising lower, inferior energies to exalted levels of vibration. Tantric Yoga says women can sublime menstruation, saving energy in a way that is analogous to a man retaining semen. To sublime menstruation means to stop having a period, transforming a physical manifestation into something more ethereal.
Is that possible? Can we shut off our menses with a strong enough mind, one finely tuned by a faithful Yoga sadhana?
The reproductive cycle is a bit complicated. Briefly, the hypothalamus of the brain is the master controller, and it secretes gonadotropin-releasing hormone, or GnRH. When released, GnRH travels to the pituitary gland to cause the secretion of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and leutinizing hormone (LH). These latter two hormones stimulate the ovaries by their combined intricate signals. When the ovaries are stimulated, they produce estrogen and progesterone. The latter two hormones work on the uterus in an elaborate play to create a period.
When women who have been having periods cease to have them, Western medicine describes it as secondary amenorrhea – and it’s considered a disorder. Marathon runners and women who exercise too strenuously often stop menstruating. The same with malnutrition and anorexia. Physical stress on the body turns off the hormonal cycle at the level of the brain to conserve energy and save reproduction for a later time when resources are more abundant.
Mental stress can also alter the natural hormonal cycle. Young women subjected to stressful life events, like the death of a parent or the first long distance move away from home, frequently have a temporary cessation of menstruation.
Diseases other than anorexia can stop menstruation, too. Sometimes women under 40 develop premature ovarian failure and cease to have periods for good. Ovarian failure is generally caused by the body’s formation of antibodies to its own tissue. The antibodies attack and destroy the ovaries. Other hormonal alterations, like malfunctions of the thyroid and adrenal glands, can also cause menstruation to stop.
The mind-body connection is most strongly linked through the immune and hormonal systems. Changes in these systems are responsible for all the disorders mentioned. The mind is amazing. Perhaps with serious long term sadhana, it can work through unconscious mechanisms to cause a cessation of menstruation through its effects on them. Maybe a yogini can completely stop her periods, presumably channeling the energy for other purposes. I just haven’t seen that happen (yet).
What I have seen many times (and have experienced myself) is that the Yoga lifestyle induces shorter periods, lightening them to one or two days of bleeding instead of five or six. It doesn’t happen for all women, and it occurs for a variety of reasons. A proper vegetarian diet leads to a healthy weight, and that helps since fat tissue secretes estrogen to make periods heavier. Yoginis also tend to be vegan or to choose limited amounts of organic dairy products which contain less estrogen (since pregnant cows are rarely milked, unlike with factory farming). Exercise, a regular schedule with good sleep, and meditation all work to keep hormones balanced. A dedicated Yoga practice reduces stress, helping to keep the reproductive cycle finely tuned. It’s at its healthiest then – a minimal amount of blood loss in a system that is functioning naturally.
At this point, not too many women, if any, can completely control the release of GnRH to fully stop their menstruation by conscious or unconscious will – although some claim to have succeeded. Regardless, a Yoga lifestyle balances the sex hormones and regulates menstruation, decreasing its heaviness of flow and the number of days of bleeding. Energy isn’t wasted unnecessarily. You may even say it’s been sublimed.