Sports and Menstruation: Exploring Indigenous Knowledge- II
“Female martial artists, as with all serious female athletes, have a distinct advantage over their male counterparts in one very crucial area: The menstrual cycle.”
This monthly occurrence provides a window into the functioning of the female body. The smooth functioning of the cycle and periods indicates smooth functioning in many internal dynamics of the body. Sharp cramps, excessive bleeding, and inconsistent or missed periods can be an indication that the body is not functioning at its peak performance.
The biggest concern is amenorrhea, or lack of a period. Many women athletes can train hard enough to create this situation. Some female athletes even use this as an indicator of whether or not they are tough enough or training enough. Amenorrhea is actually an indication that you are training too hard, and you are starting to do damage to your body. Men do not have this obvious signal, and are more prone to overtraining to the point of permanent damage.”
– David Bock, a teacher of Wadokai Aikido, and an Acupuncturist writes in his article Female Martial Artists & Amenorrhea
Modern women have been taught to view menstruation as a monthly inconvenience to be overlooked and set aside, as they climb the ladder of professional and personal success. As one sportswoman, I interviewed put it,
“According to me, this period thing is overrated.”
Unlike men, who only get to know once the damage has been done, women are given obvious signals early on via menstruation. The knowledge required to identify these early signs of ill health, will give sportswomen an undue advantage in preventing bodily damage and improving performance. Provided they learn how to decode their period.
Period: An indicator of overall health
Sushrutha Samhita, a treatise on Ayurveda, mentions that
“Menstrual blood, which is red like the blood of a hare or washing of shellac, and leaves no stain on cloths (which may be washed off by simply soaking them in water) should be considered as healthy.”
Women have the tendency to mentally zip by a period and rarely do we observe the blood flow. In Ayurveda, the colour, texture, odour and quantity of menstrual blood are all considered as indicators of overall health. A healthy woman’s menstrual cycle should not be associated with pain or burning sensation, should not be too slimy or have clots, should not have a fishy or bad odour, must neither be too scanty nor too heavy, and should not leave any stain (on cloth) when washed with cold water. Although these indications might seem relative, my personal experience says that a woman would be able to notice variations in her period, if she observed these aspects every month.
Menstrual flow also varies according to the Dosha that is aggravated, thus giving further clues about what needs to be balanced.
A Vata disturbed menstrual cycle usually has scanty flow, with dark or brownish discharge. The chances of menstrual cramps and pain are more among Vata women, who might also have irregular or missed periods. Emotionally, Vata aggravation causes women to feel restless and irritated.
A Pitta disturbed menstrual cycle usually has heavy blood flow, with bright red blood and possible clots. Pitta women are more prone to Heavy Menstrual Bleeding and Anaemia. The chances of bad odour are more with a Pitta aggravation, and so are acne and inflammation. Pitta women exhibit bouts of short temper and anger, especially just before their period.
A Kapha disturbed menstrual cycle has a moderate flow of light red blood. The blood is thick, slimy and there are more chances of having clots in Kapha women. Swelling, water retention and heaviness are common signs of a disturbed Kapha, with such women experiencing nausea and/or vomiting and a dull aching pain during their period. Kapha women tend to feel depressed, dull and the need for affection during their period.
Refer Part I of this series for more about Doshas and Menstrual Disorders.
Preventing Vata Disturbance: a result of over exercising
The most likely Dosha imbalance for sportswomen is a Vata aggravation, due to over exercising. This especially affects women, if they exercise during or just before menstruation.
Ayurveda and traditional martial arts like Kalaripayattu recommend that women refrain from exercising 3-4 days during their period. Given that most sporting events will not take a woman’s period into account, women will have to play during their period in case of a major tournament. But, in all other cases, it is best to avoid practicing or playing during one’s period. Exercising during menstruation can cause injuries more easily. So, if your period comes just before a big tournament, the smart thing to do is to stay away from training, lest your injuries keep you from performing during the event.
Dr Ramya Bhat, an Ayurvedic Physician, has the following advice for women to prevent aggravation of Vata during exercising (this is especially important for women, who have a Vata type constitution).
Avoid food that further aggravates Vata. Food that is cold, raw or dry tends to increase Vata. Warm and well cooked food is advised.
During the week just before menstruation, more attention needs to be paid to what you eat as Vata and Pitta rise during this time. Having Vata suppressing food is recommended during this time.
Ayurveda suggests oil massage as a good remedy to prevent Vata aggravation and resulting injuries.
In traditional sports like Kushti and Kalaripayattu, the players oil and massage their body before practice. Oiling makes the body more supple and flexible, lubricates the joints reducing injury and keeps Vata from aggravating. In Kalari, the entire body is massaged with gingely oil or special medicated oils to treat specific sprains, and the head is covered with coconut oil to pacify excessive Pitta (heat). Note that oil massages are not recommended during menstruation as it might interfere with the normal increase of Vata during menstruation.
To determine the type of food and suitable oils for specific body types, it is best to consult an experienced Ayurvedic Physician.
Exercising: how much is too much?
Ayurveda prescribes that physical exercise should only be done to half of an individual’s capacity. When an individual starts breathing from his/her mouth, it is an indication that he/she needs to stop.
Interestingly, all sportswomen, I interviewed, flout this rule on a regular basis. Modern day sports training push athletes to exceed their limit, assuming that this is how endurance is built. The impact of this is best explained by Kutti Krishnan Gurukkal, a Kalaripayattu Master from Kerala, who has been training students for over 25 years in this ancient martial art.
“The exercises in Kalaripayattu should be done only for 50% of that person’s capacity. Whereas in modern sports, if he can run 1 km, we make him run till he gets exhausted. In Kalaripayattu, we first train the legs, then we move to the upper body and so on – then finally you bring the entire body to a stage where he/she can perform without getting exhausted. But, we do not begin by forcing the child to keep running till they exhaust themselves out. If the body has to be prepared to fight for 3-4 hours a day, it can’t be done in a short time by pushing people to exhaust themselves.
When a modern day sportsperson from Delhi had come to me to learn Kalari, he had agreed when I explained all this; that is how we exhaust sportspersons and then their body is good for nothing after a certain age. That’s why we don’t do well in sports in India. The Chinese excel in sports because they first train their sportspersons in the traditional martial arts. Only we here in India just blindly follow what the British told us to do.”
Food: Choosing broiler chicken or paal kanji
Modern sportspersons, some even vegetarians, switch to a meat based diet, given the belief that it provides the needed nutrition, especially proteins. But, is this really what an exhausted body needs? According to an article in telegraph, a recent paper by a group of Danish medics noted that there is growing data that eating a high-protein diet can cause “chronic kidney injury”. Indiscriminate consumption of nutrition without considering the state of the body can do more harm than good. This aspect is considered in our indigenous martial arts. In the words of Kutti Krishnan Gurukkal:
“In modern sports, when a sportsperson is exhausted and worn out, we bring him in a stretcher and immediately feed him with broiler chicken! What your body needs at that time is glucose. By feeding them meat, we give extra work to the body and digestive system. That’s why traditionally in Kalari, we give them paal kanji (milk & rice porridge); this supplies the needed glucose. But if we give them meat, it is hard for them to digest and they become easily prone to disease.”
In Kalaripayattu, the prescribed diet is vegetarian; fish is allowed, but meat is prohibited and everything is cooked is ghee (clarified butter).
For women especially, a plant based diet is all the more important a week before and during menstruation, since meat can really worsen the situation and put undue pressure on the digestive system. Besides, as Dr Ramya Bhat says “Women sportspersons need to ensure that they have enough Iron and Calcium intake. This is more important for them than protein, because menstruation could result in iron and calcium deficiency.”
Sports Medicine: How about equipping the sportsperson instead of relying on a whole troupe of specialists?
The way of modern medicine is to compartmentalize everything. As a result, there is a specialist for every part of the body, happy to draw strict boundaries of their individual expertise. Therefore, sports medicine today comprises the team of specialty physicians and surgeons, athletic trainers, physical therapists, coaches, other personnel and, of course, the athlete. Specialities within Sports Medicine could further include cardiology, pulmonology, orthopaedic surgery, psychiatry, exercise physiology, biomechanics, and traumatology.
With all this specialty and exclusive focus, let’s look at a recent incident of what happened to English middle-distance runner Jessica Judd, who failed to make it to the 800m semi-finals in the 2013 Moscow World Championships. This happened because the British Athletics medics prescribed Norethisterone to delay the onset of her period. In her own words:
“I can run so much quicker. I think I’m in 1.58 shape so to run over two minutes is just a disaster in my opinion…… It was a horrible situation which taught me a lot.”
Commenting on this, Paula Radcliff, who set the marathon world record in 2002 told BBC Sport:
“It wasn’t the first time they’d given it to an athlete and it hadn’t helped. I would argue it’s a lack of learning. Too often in sport, doctors are men and they don’t understand.
I knew from experience that this norethisterone drug made things a hundred times worse. Jo Pavey knew that, others knew that, but it seemed that nobody within British Athletics had written that down, in terms of ‘we won’t give that to other young athletes’. They were still trying it, that’s what frustrated me.
They tried it because that’s what medical science was saying you should do in that situation, but they knew that it hadn’t worked because athletes had told them ‘I feel worse’. Yet Jess was still given it.”
The article further reports that Radcliffe called for more studies to be done on the impact of the menstrual cycle on female performance – drawing on the experience of elite athletes, such as herself and Jo Pavey, who have “tried to do things to control their period” throughout their careers.
Period Postponing pills are commonly prescribed for sportswomen whose event might coincide with the period. These pills contain the hormone progesterone. Remember that for a period to occur, progesterone levels naturally drop. So by keeping up the levels of progesterone artificially, menstruation is delayed for as long as the pill is consumed. Since progesterone is associated with the effects of PMS, such as bloating and stomach cramps, these become the short-term side effects of consuming period postponing pills.
Refreshingly different is the way of Kalari Chikitsa. At the last leg of Kalaripayattu training, the student is trained in Kalari Chikitsa or Marma Chikitsa. Thus, students are taught about their body, treating cuts and injuries and specialized massages to recover from aches and sprains. A Kalaripayattu expert depends on none, but himself/herself to be at the best health and to heal from injuries.
Understanding the opponent’s body and mind as well as training your own mind is an essential part of Kalaripayattu. While modern sports promote aggression, Kalaripayattu and Kushti, even though more deadly in nature, train the student to be in control of the mind. Controlled aggression can indeed be more useful than a mindless and restless agitation.
Thus, every specialty possible is taught holistically in Kalaripayattu, equipping the student to deal with every situation, be it physical or mental. Imagine what would happen if we trained modern sportspersons the same way?
I end this write-up with this wonderful and inspiring video of Meenakshi Gurukkal, a 73 year old Kalaripayattu Master who teaches over 150 students and does 60 performances a year, even today. In this video, she takes on a male Kalari opponent half her age – just look at her agility and control at the age of 73, that too in a saree!
With all the advancement in western science and medicine, how many modern day sportswomen (or even men for that matter) can match this? Isn’t it time that India looked within for answers?
- Sushrutha Samhita Volume II
- Ashtanga Hrudaya
- BBC Sports. Paula Radcliffe: Sport has not learned about periods – http://www.bbc.com/sport/athletics/30927245
- Dr. C. Suresh Kumar. The scope of Ayurveda in Sports Medicine.
- Video of Meenakshi Gurukkal, courtesy Mango News
- David Bock. Female Martial Artists and Amenorrhea – http://www.fightingarts.com/reading/article.php?id=584
- Telegraph. Bee Wilson. Why high protein diets can do more harm than good – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/healthyeating/11583940/Shake-shock-why-high-protein-diets-could-do-more-harm-than-good.html
Image Courtesy: The Hindu